Brexit Sausages, 2022. Intervention with mixed media, from Stranraer, Scotland to Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo: Helmut Lemke (video still)

From the Outside: A Conversation with Shiro Masuyama

The practice of Shiro Masuyama, a Japanese artist currently living in Northern Ireland, is eclectic, ranging from installation, film, sculpture, and photography to performance. He uses these tools to create socially engaged art that often veers into the directly political. Typically site specific, many of his projects are predicated on the involvement of/interaction with viewers. Since he originally trained as an architect, it is not surprising that much of his work also deals with the relationship between architecture and the arts. Though the subject matter may be serious, there is frequently a humorous dimension to his projects, alongside a secure sense of showmanship.

Shinjuku Kabukicho Project, 2004. Urban intervention with electric sign board, video camera, and LCD monitor, Shinjuku Kabukicho Park, Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Masaya Yoshimura

Brian McAvera: You seem to be a very restless character. Wherever you are based, you are constantly going away on residencies. Why?
Shiro Masuyama:
It’s definitely a part of my ADHD. I’m easily bored if I remain in one place. If we travel, we can encounter something new that we’ve never seen before. That kind of experience brings me new inspirations and new ideas to make new projects. So, I keep attending residencies all around the world because it’s essential for me to be an active artist. I’ll keep getting new ideas as long as I get the chance to encounter something I’ve never seen before. 

BMcA: Your practice ranges from performance, installation, photography, and video to sculpture. What links all of these media?
I also get bored if I continue to work with the same subject, material, or medium. That’s why I work with different mediums. They are changeable, depending on the subject, concept, circumstance, site, community, or society that I am working with. I’m not really interested in sticking to certain materials or certain media. I don’t mind using any medium to visualize and realize my ideas. The medium is just the tool and/or interface for my socially engaged practice.

Tama River Project, 1996. Urban intervention with mixed media, bank of Tama River, Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Courtesy the artist

BMcA: You show regularly in Japan. How important is your Japanese identity to you, and do you think that you produce a different kind of work for Japanese audiences?
Since the earthquake in 2011, I’ve made a lot of work about the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster. Showing these works in Japan is important. One electric company, Tepco, controls the country’s power, using mainly nuclear energy. After the disaster, even though the majority of Japanese people didn’t want nuclear energy any more, most of the mass media didn’t criticize the nuclear energy program, because Tepco is a big sponsor and a funder of the Japanese government. Anyone who criticizes nuclear energy will disappear from the mainstream and lose their job, becoming an outsider. Artists become outsiders easily, like myself in Japan, because public art museums have been prevented from showing works about Fukushima. There are a few exceptions, however. Though most Japanese people, including artists, don’t speak up against nuclear energy, I feel I should raise the issue because the radiation in the land around Fukushima will never disappear. So, I kept making works about Fukushima. 

The Tokyo Olympics was a part of a propaganda campaign to show the world that “Japan is OK after Fukushima.” I didn’t agree, so I created the exhibition “Tokyo Landscape 2020,” which was shown at the Contemporary Art Factory in Kyoto and Art Centre Ongoing in Tokyo (2018). Again, most Japanese artists didn’t create works against the Tokyo Olympics. I was the only one to criticize the relation between Fukushima and the Tokyo Olympics, and that attracted attention. My exhibition got 14 reviews in newspapers all around the country.

It was important to show the work before Japan hosted the Olympics. It was a kinetic installation, a form of political cartoon, a depiction of the grotesque government-sanctioned policy that falsifies information, endangering the lives of its people. The government maintains that the area has made significant progress and is now safe. Unchallenged by the populace, the decision to, for example, remove radiation detectors, has placed the population in danger.

The works included in “Tokyo Landscape 2020” visually articulated the corruption surrounding these events, through sculptural, kinetic, and electrical elements. Five Olympic rings made from colored electric cables hung at eye level. The cables were connected to a lighting rail that carried electric current to the work. A series of miniatures occupied the surface of a table. Cables led to four collapsed cubes representing the reactor buildings of the Fukushima Daiichi Plant. Figures cast in plaster—their willful ignorance depicted through the pictorial “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” proverb—were damaged, broken, and falling from the work’s surface, representing the hardship and disease that the Japanese people incurred from the disaster. The environmental damage was represented through reminders of the chemical elements in our ecosystem. A pool contained a pump, which, through electrolysis, hydrogenated two carbon rods positioned under the water. Black fluid leaked from a kettle, polluting the pool, recalling the radioactive waste continuing to leak into the Pacific Ocean. A digital countdown indicated the number of days remaining until the opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020, and finally, the movement of a spotlight caused the Olympic rings to appear to rise, like the hoisting of a national flag.

Tokyo Landscape 2020, 2018. View of kinetic installation with mixed media, Contemporary Art Factory, Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Takaaki Soga

BMcA: You were born in Tokyo. How formative was it for you growing up there? What did you study?
I was born in Tokyo, but grew up in Kawasaki, Kanagawa, which is a satellite city. My background is in architecture, which I studied up to the master’s level at Meiji University. Just as architecture functions for people and communities, my art projects are fundamentally for people and communities. After two years studying for the master’s, I needed to design a diploma project. Normally, students propose a project for a favorite location, but I didn’t want to create something that wouldn’t be realized. Instead, I thought that I would like to make an actual architectural project, and after building it, I would conduct surveys of the people who used what I built.

Students don’t have budgets to build architectural projects on their own, of course, so my Tama River Project (1996) was small in scale. It created an interface between architecture and art, consisting of benches for heterosexual couples. In the 1990s, Japan was still conservative in terms to LGBT issues, and LGBT people were not comfortable expressing their identity in public. In Europe, people feel differently, and I made another version called Love Bench Project for the courtyard of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in Dublin.

I also made Shinjuku Kabukicho Project (1997) for my diploma. It was situated for two days in Shinjuku Kabuki-cho Park, a small park in the middle of the Kabuki-cho red light district. Shinjuku Kabukicho Project imitates the typical electric sign boxes for peeping rooms, which have flashy catch-phrases to draw the attention of passersby. When people expecting something erotic look through the peep-hole of this sign box, they find an embarrassing video image of themselves peeping. A monitor shows them photographed in real time by three hidden video cameras. The three different shots are projected one by one by an automatic selector, and viewers realize that their position has been reversed, from peeping to being viewed. I re-created the same work with better quality visuals in 2004.

All of this was too radical for my university, and one professor, a famous architect, threatened that I would never get a degree. To be honest, I didn’t care at that stage, because Tama River Project had changed my life and my way of thinking. After finding a used condom inside the work, I decided to become an artist instead of an architect. I wanted to continue creating urban interventions. If I couldn’t graduate, I thought that I would drop out; but I managed to receive my Master of Architecture degree in 1997. After graduating, I made many guerrilla-style projects in the street, occasionally involving people I encountered.

Legal Parking (2000) was the first work that I produced for an art gallery. It was my first solo show in Japan. The invitation card imitated a parking violation ticket, but it said “legal” parking instead of “illegal.” The gallery space was turned into a secretive base for an organization that protected parked cars from the police force. The members, after practice training, went out on the streets to complete their mission. That mission was necessary to keep the artwork (a video display showing policemen writing parking tickets and a figure looking at such a video display installed on top of a pick-up truck) on the street in front of the gallery. The pick-up truck was moved before the 60-minute street parking expired and returned to the same parking space after driving around the block a few times. This process was repeated again and again. The invitation card; the LED-bulletin-board counting the seconds to the next exercise; the uniforms and certificates of the members; the video display showing their activities were all details that made a thrilling joke look serious (even like a real business). It also dynamically linked the gallery to the real world outside. By the time the exhibition ended, it had become well known in the neighborhood (and to local police), and it had a certain success in reaching ordinary residents. Art people started knowing me after this show, and in 2002, I got a one-year sponsorship from the Pola Art Foundation, which gave me financial support for the artist residency at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in New York.

Legal Parking, 2000. Performance with mixed media, Gallery GEN & Street parking, Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Masaya Yoshimura
Legal Parking, 2000. Performance with mixed media, Gallery GEN & Street parking, Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Tohimitsu Kikuchi

BMcA: What attracted you to architecture?
Since I was a child, I believed that I would become an artist, but when I was a high school student, I needed to select a subject to enter university. I was afraid that I would not earn enough money to survive if I became an artist, so I thought, “Architecture is also a creative job, and it might be easier to earn money.” So, I decided to study architecture. But during my time at university, I was always interested in the boundary between architecture and art. And since I returned to art, most of my projects have been site-specific, like architecture.

BMcA: Between 1998 and 1999, you studied contemporary art. Were you producing work yourself during this period, or were you working as an architect?
After graduating from Meiji University, I worked as a street artist for a year. I started worrying that I had not been involving myself with any galleries or museums in Japan. The target for my projects had just been regular people encountered on the street, not people in the art world. I had been doing projects almost like a hobby, and I knew that it would be financially difficult for me to continue. I didn’t know how to survive as an artist, so I decided to go to the B-semi Schooling System in Yokohama, which was a legendary contemporary art college until the early 2000s. I wanted to meet professional contemporary artists, and I wanted to know how other artists survived.

A lot of internationally established artists such as Tadashi Kawamata, Cai Guo-Qiang, Noriyuki Haraguchi, Kenjiro Okazaki, and Yoshihiro Suda were teaching there. I already had confidence in what I was making, so my purpose for attending was a bit different compared to other students. I went to network, to understand other artists, and to find out how to survive in the art world. I asked almost every teacher the same question, “Could you tell me how to survive as an artist?” As I still know, this is a difficult question for all artists. For my 1998 graduation show at the Yokohama Civic Art Gallery, I did a project called IKEMOKU, which I remade in 2002.

Parky Party, 2006. Performance with mixed media, MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, Vienna, Austria. Photo: Wolfgang Thaler

BMcA: From 2004 to 2010, you were based in Berlin. Why did you go there, and what kind of work were you producing?
I was selected for the Künstlerhaus Bethanien Berlin residency, supported by a one-year artist grant from the Japanese government. The Künstlerhaus Bethanien started with artists squatting in empty government buildings. I liked that punk history, which they’ve kept. I was the first Japanese artist in seven years. I had many visitors to my studio and received opportunities to work with the Mikiko Sato Gallery in Hamburg and ADN Gallery in Barcelona. I was sure that if I remained in Berlin, I would get more opportunities. Parky Party (2005) was the most successful work that I made during my residency. It was a remake of Supposed Opening, which I created during my ISCP residency in New York.

When I lived in Berlin, I thought it must be the best city for artists in the world. The rent was really cheap, and the cost of living was much lower than in any other European capital. And the art was of a really high standard. If you are an active artist in Berlin, you get respect—I never had that in Japan—and it made me feel comfortable. I always recommend Berlin to young artists in Japan. But the fact is if you feel too comfortable, you get lazy. During my time there, I didn’t create a single new project especially for Berlin.

BMcA: Following residencies at IMMA (2006) and Flax Art Studios in Belfast (2009), you relocated to Belfast, where you now live. Why Belfast? How stimulating, or challenging, did you find this new environment?
I moved simply because I met Sinéad O’Donnell, who later became my wife; she was based in Belfast. We were both artists, and I thought it would be easier if I moved because I had always worked nomadically. It was a hard place for me to live as an artist. In my previous residency experiences around the world, I tried to be active and meet with local art people, and it wasn’t very difficult for me to find opportunities. But in Belfast, I didn’t find anything for two years, apart from opportunities through my previous networks outside of Northern Ireland. I also thought that the people and communities were not really open to an outsider. Finally, Peter Richards invited me to have my first solo show in the Project Space of the Golden Thread Gallery. I didn’t have my studio at Flax until 2013.

It took four years for me to feel that I had a base in Belfast as an artist. Uncomfortable experiences, like kids throwing stones at our house for several months, made me think a lot about my identity. This has brought various ideas for my work, in a positive way. I’ve been really active since I moved to Belfast, and my works also became more political. The Heart Rocker, Borderline Project, and Brexit Sausages refer to the divisions in Northern Ireland from the viewpoint of an artist/outsider based in Belfast.

When I lived in Berlin, many artists were still creating works about the Berlin Wall, though it had disappeared in the ’80s. I didn’t feel that necessity, but in Belfast, conflicts still happen. It feels more real and significant to create works for the wall in Belfast. I also believe that, as the only Japanese artist living in Northern Ireland, I have a different perspective on the political situation here—I don’t believe in any religion, and I don’t belong to either side, whether Irish or British. I believe that I have a role to play, and I’m quite happy with my unique position.

Knitting a woollen jumper for the sheep I sheared, 2012. A jumper for the sheep, 3 photographs of a sheep, and documentary video, Sligo, Ireland. Photo: Courtesy the artist

BMcA: You have taken part in a large number of exhibitions in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Do you think that your work has evolved a more Irish slant?
SM: Knitting a woollen jumper for the sheep I sheared (Sligo, Ireland, 2012) was perhaps an Irish project. Traveling through the countryside, you see sheep everywhere, but the wool industry is no longer active. For this project, a sheep was sheared on a farm in Sligo, the wool spun with the help of experts, knitted into a sweater, and finally put back on the sheep that provided the wool. All the steps in the process involved traditional skills and methods. It must be my most popular project. I‘ve exhibited it in 23 venues worldwide, including at the Aichi Triennial 2013 in Japan. It’s now part of Arts Council of Northern Ireland collection. People cannot make money selling wool any more; most Irish people have sheep only for eating. In a small way, the project revived the traditional wool culture, which has been disappearing under the impact of globalization. 

For Borderline Project, commissioned by Derry / Londonderry City of Culture 2013, I tried to revive other disappearing aspects of Irish culture. I converted the interior of a used caravan into two parts—one half related to Irish culture and the other half to British culture. Many of the items have counterparts in both cultures and are displayed symmetrically, each on their corresponding side. I’m not always sure about the distinctions between Irish and British culture within the complex society of Northern Ireland. This project helped me to learn and understand the nuances through discussions with people entering the caravan. I continue to add objects and adapt the display. Over time, the caravan has developed into a small museum, though I have struggled to keep an equal balance between the Irish and British sides. Sometimes it has been difficult to collect Irish objects because of a decline in Irish craft, so I’ve imported objects from the U.S., where many Irish immigrants have businesses related to their roots.

As a local foreign artist, I have been able to conduct the project from an outsider’s point of view and to bring a degree of neutrality to my approach. It’s not always easy to entice people inside the caravan, because it is usually thought of as private space. But, when people do enter, they are always fascinated and start talking about Irish and/or Northern Irish culture, society, and their own histories.

Borderline Project, 2013–ongoing. Caravan and mixed media. Photo: Courtesy the artist

BMcA: You exhibited in the final exhibition in the Golden Thread Gallery’s series “Collective Histories of Northern Ireland,” which indicated the importance of non-Irish artists in relation to contemporary Irish art. How do you see yourself in relation to contemporary Irish, or indeed European or American art?
It was a great honor to be involved in that show. Because Northern Ireland, with its history of the Troubles, is not a normal place, I always consider and introduce myself as a Japanese artist based in Northern Ireland, never as someone who lives in Ireland or the U.K. I’ve struggled a lot in this difficult society to make my base, to become a local artist. I’m really proud of what I’ve finally achieved. When I lived in Berlin, young Japanese artists admired that and thought it was cool. But I’ve graduated from that kind of superficial status. I’m quite happy here. As a Flax Studios board director, I’ve developed an exchange residency between Japan and Northern Ireland, and I’ve introduced Japanese arts and films, like a cultural ambassador. I know the troubles of Northern Ireland won’t disappear during my lifetime, but I have a role to play in this small art society.

The Heart Rocker, 2011. Installation with model of North Belfast, mural banner, and 2 video projections, Gallery αM, Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Courtesy the artist

BMcA: Your exhibition “The Heart Rocker” (2014) was shown at the Engine Room Gallery in Belfast, then traveled to the Republic of Ireland. What was it about?
SM: Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, has been the site of sectarian conflict between Catholic and Protestant communities for many years. My current location is situated close to a political border, or what is known in Belfast as a “Peace Line” dividing Catholic and Protestant areas. At one point, I was annoyed to find dog shit in my front garden. This occurred repeatedly, and I started throwing the offending shit into the street. I felt invaded. After calming down, I realized that my actions corresponded to the aggression perpetuated by both sides of the conflict within the city.

The enigma of the eternally present dog shit made me consider whether I could develop a simple action to prevent its recurrence. There are mural paintings everywhere in Northern Ireland that present strong political messages from both Catholic and Protestant points of view. I decided to create a mural banner against the relentless dog shit attacks, and I hung it on the wall of my house as my political message to the public. I came to view dog turds as metaphorical landmines—people step on them unexpectedly—and Northern Ireland is a land scarred with bombs that sporadically induce fear. This led me to make a video, which shows me disposing of the dog shit while wearing a forensic suit.

The Hurt Locker, which won Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay in the 2009 Academy Awards, is about the U.S. military working for bomb disposal in Iraq. When I Googled the film title in Japanese, I found that most Japanese people misunderstand the title as “The Heart Rocker” because the difference between “l” and “r” is hard for them to pronounce or hear. My project pays homage to the movie while reflecting on my identity as someone whose status and position within an English-speaking community is deeply affected by my mispronunciation and how I look. I feel that these factors have determined me as an outsider. 

Brexit Sausages, 2022. Intervention with mixed media, from Stranraer, Scotland to Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo: Helmut Lemke (video still)

BMcA: Your recent exhibition “Brexit Sausages” took on the politics of the Irish sausage in relation to Brexit. What was the point of your intervention, which was documented on video? Did you regard this as a performance or as an attempt to encourage political response and engage with people?
SM: Although I consider myself a socially engaged artist, I don’t expect people to engage with all of my works. I made this work to raise the issue, to get people to think about discussing Brexit. The show in Culturlann in West Belfast got a lot of reviews. We also got a lot of attention with our action of carrying the sausage sculptures in public spaces. The video footage helps to understand the entire project. I carried real sausages so that we could have a BBQ on the boat, bringing another layer into the work. 

BMcA: When we live somewhere else, we see our own country from a fresh perspective. We also come to the new country with the baggage of our home culture. What have you learned from your years living abroad?
SM: In Japan, people expect other people to be perfect, like they are. That kind of expectation is stressful. Though I’m proud of the quality of Japanese products, their perfection exists because of people’s sacrifices for the companies. They even sacrifice their family time, because Japanese companies and society demand that. A lot of people aren’t happy with their lives for this reason. If they aren’t happy, I don’t understand what they are living for. I feel like I would no longer be able to live in Japan. I have become more like a Japanese migrant, after 19 years living in Europe. I’m not a typical Japanese anymore.