Japanese artist Shiho Kagabu employs industrial and organic materials, often installing her work in rough, run-down environments. In many ways, she shares the contemporary predisposition for the fragment rather than the whole, but her positioning of these parts in space is unique. That placement might seem random, as opposed to deliberate, but the experience of her work is one of a totality that emerges through the relations of discrete objects that alone would not make much sense. Kagabu’s is an art of suggestion rather than direct statement, an aesthetic of seemingly minimal meaning but extraordinarily evocative assertion fully in keeping with these times of disconnectedness. In her rich, nonobjective language, cohesion of form is obtained indirectly. Kagabu’s reliance on the improvised, the partial, and the rough makes her work demanding, and yet familiar. We can speculate endlessly about her motives, but what counts is the brilliant way in which she addresses the tacit order to be found in randomness, transforming bits and pieces of things—meaningless by themselves—into extraordinarily complete and alive sculptural systems.
Jonathan Goodman: What made you become a sculptor? How has studying and then working in Tokyo affected your work?
Shiho Kagabu: Initially, I studied sculpture and design at two Tokyo universities—Bunka Gakuen University, where I received my BA, and Tama Art University, where I received my BFA and MFA. In the beginning, I was very interested in commercial things such as displays, and I volunteered to work as part of a team designing environments for fashion shows, hair shows, and events at clubs. But I felt a sense of emptiness when confronted with the consumption associated with this kind of life, and so I went on to fine art.
Tokyo occupies a larger land area than is generally recognized outside of Japan. While the central district is expensive and confined, the suburbs are spacious and have plenty of art schools and studios, as well as DIY spaces where you can easily make art. Still, it was difficult to make sculpture after graduation, because it was not easy to set up a working environment. So, my work is a product of Tokyo, an inconvenient place for sculptural production. I asked myself if it would be possible to create a large work within the expanse of four and a half tatami mats, which is the traditional size of a Japanese Noh performance movement. Then, I came up with a way to carry the works out from spaces with narrow doors and low ceilings and to create them from the overflowing waste materials in the city.
JG: Your work is very international in its outlook. Is this a good or a bad trend in art generally?
SK: It may not be a bad thing that my work does not look like a Japanese artwork at first glance. Considering urban lifestyles around the world, there are many things shared internationally in terms of realistic expression. If I deliberately used something Japanese-ish as an expression, it would probably stray from reality. In my work, I do not first seek to bring a message or story into the art experience I intend for viewers.
My work is based on hiragana, a type of Japanese character used in waka, a form of poetry written during and since the Heian period (794–1185); thus, my work is opposed to heavier, more dominant forms of sculpture. I call it “hiragana sculpture,” and I hope to create flexible and generous works of art. My works include many parts that may feel like traces of collaboration with nature, as well as ideas taken from the ancient Japanese belief in the Yaoyorozu no Kami (“eight million deities”), the countless gods controlling natural phenomena and connected to human life. It is Japanese work in the sense that it is about the invisible, and I think those parts of my work may be something that people feel and understand without consciously noting them.
JG: A lot of your sculpture is installational. Why are you attracted to this way of working?
SK: In my early works, I stretched a unit of sculpture across the length of an entire space to create a spatial continuity that seemed to connect to the outside of the room. I then used linear elements, such as steel pipes, to break up space so that when viewers stood in the street, they could expand their outlook by imagining the continuation. I have always been very conscious of each object I make because I secretly process them with a lot of care. I used to resist my work being called “installation,” but I do not have that resistance anymore. Now, I would like to be faithful to presentness and not be judgmental.
JG: Many of your works are deliberately inelegant—rough and raw. Why do you favor so unfinished a way of working?
SK: The final completion of the work is meant to encourage active participation from the viewer, including myself as the artist.
JG: There is considerable randomness in your aesthetic. Within each work, parts clash with each other, and their placement within the overall composition can seem arbitrary. Can you comment on the dissociation in your work?
SK: I look for common denominators and find rules that differ from the connotations suggested by the original image or function of the object. At the start, different things are linked together by the same shape, the same texture, or the same reflection. By connecting similar objects in such a way, their meanings become fragmented. There are many parts of my work that are established by one thing standing in relation to another.
JG: You often choose industrial or run-down sites as settings for your work. Does this indicate
a formal preference? Why do you choose such marginal places?
SK: When I was born, Tokyo was in the middle of an economic bubble. I grew up with the economic boom, but after my teen years, I could feel the Japanese economy quickly collapsing and fading away. In that situation, I started to have mixed thoughts about creating massive new works and objects. Tired of making choices in a consumer society, I have been thinking more about the responsibility of discarding rather than about how to create. Such is my refusal to create as I make an artwork. The industrial environment is a sad, graveyard-like figure that corresponds to my work, and I think I have chosen such settings as part of my aesthetic. Also, there is a sense of Land Art.
In recent years, my thinking has changed, and I have become interested in a more psychological outlook,
as well as a more philosophical approach, considering large ideas such as time and space, and my physicality—something that I have always been conscious of. In essence, I feel that the scientific molecular world, the universe, and existent phenomena share the same place as spirituality and mysticism. I also find validity in images and stories, considering how folk tales and oral traditions have been inherited, and I would like to start engaging actively and participating in those creative acts. In this sense, I feel that I can use the Internet, books, and other media to express myself without being restricted and limited to a physical location.
JG: Do you see your work as part of a movement directed against a totalizing art and deliberate beauty? Is beauty a valid concept anymore?
SK: I understand that beauty is no longer a valid concept in art, and I do not seek beauty in my work. However, beauty is essential for people to live healthy lives. The concept of finding beauty in daily life
is a familiar tradition in Japan. In my opinion, beauty in living—activities such as ikebana or arranging
food on plates—is a way of cherishing life. For me, beauty exists as a prayer-like act done in everyday life. In some aspects, I use it in the images and words of my work. But I do not work with a human-centric approach; instead, I see my approach to beauty as part of an international art movement that also addresses the validity of the local environment.
JG: It seems that you prefer inorganic materials. Do you also use organic elements?
SK: I often choose inorganic materials as realistic materials for me to employ since they embody urban life. But I also use organic materials, including water, plants, and animals.
JG: Do you feel that your work challenges traditional sculpture-making, whether in Asia or in the West?
SK: Yes, I do. The spirit of Dada and punk has always flowed in me, and I make my work in such a way that I can always expand it by completing and destroying it at the same time. Academic sculpture education in Japan often uses Western classics, so it felt like I was back home when I was living in Italy. I am interested in the similarities between Italian Arte Povera and Japanese Mono-ha, and I am in tune with the fact that these works are not human centered, existing instead in collaboration with nature. At university, I studied Asian philosophy and Chinese art. I also make video works of various places that I have visited around the world. I am sympathetic to many ways of making things.
I am from the MTV generation, so to start with, I don’t think of Asia and the West as being separate. From the time I was a small child, I have been exposed to many different cultures, and Japan has been strongly influenced by American culture. I like to think of the world’s affairs as my own, not someone else’s. I have been thinking about connecting different places in the world that share similar climates and topographies or connecting completely distant sites at the same altitude. I have been doing this because environmental coincidence can lead to cultural similarities and similar mythologies.
For example, I think about the bridge over the river in my hometown, which I used to travel across, back and forth, every day, and the Chain Bridge in Budapest. And I think about the mountains of Japan and Hawaii at the same time, because both are earthquake-prone, with active volcanoes. This is how I create and think about the cultures, histories, issues, and problems of the world—as if they were my friends’ or family members’ problems. I hope that the people who see my work will think about it in the same way. It is crucial to have the imagination to think about things on earth as internal realities, instead of thinking of them as external, and in my work, I am creating a common language through materials.
JG: One way of describing your aesthetic would be to call it partial or fragmented. Sometimes your work feels deliberately incomplete. Is this a conscious choice?
SK: With the contradiction of visual judgments and fragmented meanings, each segment is a part of
the whole, yet each has its own claim. Large structures and power often lead to one-sided domination, and I want to create a form where fragments and the whole can live together. I also want to value the moment of creative inspiration, so I don’t plan everything beforehand, and I always leave space for things that can be decided by the mood of the moment and the environment you find yourself in. No matter how many things are going on in front of you, you cannot find them until you, or the viewer, consciously notice them. I call myself a “sunrise surfer,” which means someone who rides the waves of light. I am always waiting quietly for the right moment, so that when the big wave of light comes, I can jump on it.
JG: Are there any particular sculptors whose work has meant a lot to you?
SK: Walter de Maria, Buckminster Fuller, and Gordon Matta-Clark.
JG: Do you think that your work reflects a female point of view? Is there such a thing in contemporary art?
SK: People older than me, like my parents, taught me to be very aware of the dualistic idea of male and female, but there was a part of me that was repulsed by the strong patriarchal system when I was young. And I am still conscious of the fact that in the history of contemporary art, there have been values and ways of perceiving women as a minority group. But such gendered thinking is a form of domination that is now being tested, and for me, being nonbinary and free from gender is one of the joys of art. Therefore, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of having a female/feminist perspective on contemporary art.
As an artist, I am gender fluid, and I believe that all humans fluctuate in different ways depending on the time and the complex personal periods associated with private life. So, I’m not talking about the old
story of speaking from the characteristics of a minority described conventionally as I=She. In contemporary art, and in life, the thoroughly natural perspective of I=They should be discussed more openly in both artworks and ideas.
“Woman Was the Sun,” a group exhibition featuring a single-channel video work by Shiho Kagabu, curated by Chus Martínez, is on view at Art Week Tokyo VIDEO, November 2–5, 2023.