Shinro Ohtake: Life as a Scrapbook

, 2011/01/17

Shinro Ohtake (b. 1955) is a mixed-media artist known for his vast body of creative work and there is perhaps no other way to approach the artist and his artwork but to zoom right in for confrontation. Ohtake’s central theme, ‘working with what’s already there,’ makes the artist something of an improviser to time and place so Papersky decided to ask Ohtake about recent travels, memories and how time and place are ongoing influences.

Your large body of work leads me to believe you have a lot of creative impulses. You travel a lot as well, could you compare the impulses of creating something and wanting to go somewhere?

I think the impulse to go somewhere, I could say, relates to the creation of myself. In that way it’s connected. I think visiting somewhere strongly connects to meeting people and part of the impulse to go somewhere is wanting to see someone else. I think meeting and talking with new people is very important- encountering a different culture and the concepts we then discover within. That can be an influence that feeds into my impulses to create something.

So making an effort to talk to various people could be one of the main reasons you travel?

Actually, no, I don’t really talk to people when I travel [laughs]. When I visited London, in 1977, that was my first time abroad. I had very little money, couldn’t speak English and had no friends. At the same time, I really wanted to have encounters and experiences- I knew I needed the experience of being in a totally different country and culture. Around the time of that trip, I just wanted to get out of where I was. Even before that, when I was in Tokyo, I wanted to get out, I simply didn’t like it. It was so busy and Hokkaido seemed so vast and empty. So I moved to Hokkaido to spend a year. There, I had been milking cows and working on a farm but I was also taking photographs and making paintings and drawings. Then, I decided to go abroad- for the experience and encounters of something new.

These early travel experiences sound a bit rough. Working on a farm and not having any money in a city you visit isn’t most people’s idea of a vacation but I guess that was better than staying Tokyo?

Yeah, at that time! I think a lot of people in my generation were thinking that. I mean, as adolescents we’re no one. At that age, people wanted to seek a purpose, or get into the search by asking themselves, “Who am I?” At the same time, I was making paintings and sculptures- I knew then I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to experience life that way, not through a book.

What about when you can’t go somewhere, do you feel the impulse to create something take over?

Sure. I think the impulse of creation is already in myself- since I was young.

An artist like you uses a lot of mixed media and each place you visit has its own variety of local things. How do you categorize that things you see and what kind of things do you pick up?

Well, it’s intuitive, I don’t have categories. Sometimes I get stuff at a regular souvenir shop or something from the street, like posters, or sometimes I tear things out of magazines. Sometimes I use old souvenirs, like old postcards for a scrapbook. But I’m not a collector, I’m not interested in collecting stuff. The things I pick up which finally end up in my scrapbook- I’m not interested in keeping them so what I use is rather free form. Sometimes I use or put a vinyl record or a pair of shoes- anything. But, there is a line though, I do have some taste. It’s difficult to say what my taste is exactly- it’s ongoing.

So what things don’t you want to use?

I could say, someone else’s art work. If I can’t judge the goodness or badness of a particular work when I look at it, it’s OK. I don’t like this sense of insistence in someone’s work, when what they are trying to say is too obvious- I see this in many things and this could be one reason why I am selective. People look at my scrapbooks and think that what is inside is my taste, but it isn’t the case. For example, I have certain things around my desk and in regard to those- it depends on when I get those things and when I use them. In my newest books, I used a lot of nude books from the 60s ad 70s which I received a long time ago. So, what I include in the scrapbook doesn’t exactly mean what I like. Sometimes the things I glue in, I actually hate.

So what is laying around your desk right now?

I have a lot of film stills which have been sitting there for more than ten years [laughs]. About sixty volumes of Japanese erotica. This is before the video camera was widely used. They are all steel reels and they’re really beautiful things but I’ve been thinking for over those ten years about how to use them. Maybe people think I like 60s pornography but it’s not true! So that’s how it goes with my scrapbooks.

I didn’t know you tended to keep things so long before using them. Packing your desk seems like preparing for a trip- could you compare the two experiences of preparing to go somewhere and preparing to make something?

Sure, when I visit some country, well, the first thing I do is to get the local newspaper. And not necessarily the English one, I mean the local paper. And sometimes this turns into a problem. When I went to Bali, in around 1986, I told the front desk at the hotel that I’d like all of the local newspapers delivered to my room everyday. They ended up taking me into the station and interrogating me because they thought I was a spy! In Morocco, when I would sit in a cafe just looking- not reading, of course- the local newspaper, people asked me for directions as if I was a local [laughs].

I also always bring some art materials with me like pens, watercolors or glue and a book. For example, when I went to London, I just had one bag and a camera, some watercolors and paper pencils. Though, for about the last twenty years I’ve actually been using someone else’s book. I used to use a blank sketchbook but recently, I have been bringing another person’s book. I just buy it and take it with me. I don’t care about the content actually. Moreso, I check the binding and the paper and the weight- essentially its durability. The book ends up getting heavier and heavier as a scrap book. So now, when I visit a country I buy a sketchbook or another book there. I also think about not being able to bring oil paints because they are really hard to handle and take a lot of time to dry up. There were times when I would have to share a room which also made it hard to paint. In London, when I started making scrap books, I remember the owner of a building I lived in, this 50-something British guy had a lot of old issues of Time Out magazine from the 60s 70s, which he gave to me. Everyday I would cut out whatever it was I liked and put them in my bag because I knew I couldn’t bring all those issues back. That would be one way I prepare materials.

What about the idea of your passport as a kind of scrapbook of your identity?

Well because I’ve renewed my passport so many times, I care less about that kind of thing. I also don’t think about being particularly Japanese when I’m abroad. Sometimes I do coincidentally feel so, but it’s less conscious.

So what kind of places do you like to go to?

Well, I don’t want to go to modern cities but I also don’t like to go to places of absolutely, desolate nature. I particularly like Tangiers in Morocco- there’s a harmony made from a balance of likeness and difference. The good and the not-good exist on a parallel. So there, you see pretty stuff and dirty stuff but it’s somehow balanced. When I was there, I felt consumed by these parallels of the holy and the profane.

How does travel, as a concept, fit into your art work?

I like how in each culture or country, there is a different- or similar- way to express something. There’s a new approach it seems. Essentially, I’m talking about customs. For example, if someone puts a chair in the door, it’s a sign of “please do not disturb” in one culture. So this kind of experience- the feeling of finding a new approach or idea- refreshes, or helps feed into how I approach making my work. That situation is not directly connected to the making of a scrapbook but the idea of discovering new things shows me new possibilities. Normally, I treat my visuals in this way. After a new experience, I can work with my visuals in a number of different ways.

Your work is so detailed, what kind of observer are you when you go somewhere?

I’ll tell you that I like old walls, I think I rather unconsciously determine the beauty of a path I take by its walls. I often think about the walls of a place, or road- it has been a guide to my exploration. Doors are also good signs that I observe, they hint at the interiors of a place. There’s also graffiti- by which I mean, the old, simplistic style of graffiti. Bathroom stalls can also pretty funny- but aside from that, I did feel good when I found an interesting quote by Da Vinci about walls- he simply said that people should study walls more.

We’d like to think each city has it’s own character. How do you feel about the idea that cities are becoming the same? By which I mean, the distance between cities is increasing as air travel has gotten slower, but at the same time there is the progression of other technologies aiming bring us closer together.

Yeah, true, I feel that way about cellphones. If I know that I am able to use a cellphone somewhere, my feeling changes. Do we even remember what it was like before cellphones? We’re almost forgetting what that preexisting feeling is like and we’re forgetting about that interesting sense of distance between people. The cellphone has totally changed that distance. I think it’s always the convenient things that will take revenge on people. So in that sense, it’s hard to say how modern we really are- maybe we lose something with these changes. There’s an interesting balance between memory distance, people distance and the actual feeling of distance. And this is really important. It’s important to remember that we can’t lose this distance, it’s important.

I think people are aware of that balance- the age-old story tells of people who live in the city wanting to live in the countryside and vice versa. Where do you stand on that?

It’s impossible to really keep that kind of balance. I think it’s the same all over the world, regardless of where you were born but I still think there’s a truth in it. This is people wrestling with distance- yesterday, today and tomorrow. When people live in the countryside, they couldn’t live comfortably for some reason- maybe a lack of proper communication. At the same time, it’s typical of local people in rural areas to stare and judge at whatever comes in- like an outsider for example. And that kind of behavior can be found throughout cultures all over the world. If someone spends about forty years in the city, I think it would be impossible for them to live in the countryside for the rest of their life. Still, in my case, I feel really isolated. I’ve lived there for over twenty-five years and I have the feeling of fading away. If I don’t do something with myself in the day, I feel like I am gradually fading away from the world. I can’t say that’s a positive feeling, it’s for sure a complicated one but it leads to creation. The city has certain offerings- the cinema, record shops and the friends with whom I can talk about culture and books and films as well as go to bars with. It’s also where my exhibitions are usually held. The first fifteen years were hard but now I like going back, I’m over the moving back and forth. But when I have some boredom in the countryside- it leads to creation.

Ohtake Shinro spends most of his time in Ehime, Kagawa Prefecture and is represented in Tokyo by Take Ninagawa Gallery 2-12-4-1F, HigashiAzabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo 1060044 Japan.


Shinro Ohtake
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