Body of the Gaze – Scatter, 2019. Wood, wood ash, and acrylic, dimensions variable. Photo: Shigeo Muto, © Shigeo Toya, Courtesy ShugoArts

Out of the Woods: A Conversation with Shigeo Toya

Japanese sculptor Shigeo Toya approaches nature as both a source of material and a site of hope. Very much a philosopher, he recognizes the intellectual character of the sculptural process while maintaining that the separation of art—and human life—from nature is mistaken. He consistently experiments with the innate properties of wood, demonstrating how form cannot be separated from material, but he also reminds us that art is a cultural endeavor. Sculpture cannot serve as a substitute for nature, but it can support nature and be supported by it. Toya knows this deeply. Though the making of art is not the same thing as contemplating his beloved forests, he allows nature to breathe through his work, fusing organic and manmade in a wonderful synthesis that in itself almost becomes a part of the natural order.

From Borders VI, 1998. Wood, tree ash, plaster, and acrylic, 143 x 396 x 72 cm. Photo: © Shigeo Toya, Courtesy ShugoArts

Jonathan Goodman: Could you talk about your early life? Were you surrounded by nature as a child?
Shigeo Toya: I was born in northwestern Nagano Prefecture, in a place where we could see the Northern Japanese Alps to the west. It was an area of mountains and valleys, and my house was on the side of a mountain. My parents were farmers, though not full-time, because my father was a civil servant. There were about 30 households in our village then, but today it’s deserted. There is nothing there but graves. At the time, there were a lot of children in the village, and we all had to help out in the fields, but we also had plenty of time to play. We built secret forts out of cedar bark in the woods on the mountain slopes, and picked and ate all kinds of berries. We had a great time in the forest during the day, but at night, it was frightening and we were forbidden to enter. It was a mysterious and fantastical realm, completely different from when the sun was out, and I think that implanted a sense of the duality of nature in my mind.

JG: How did your education affect your work? Do you think academic study in art is still a promising path for young sculptors?
I attended Aichi University of the Arts for six years. In 1969, student protests were raging all over the country, including at my university. Police in riot gear forced their way on campus. For us, the anti-establishment uprising was connected with opposition to the Vietnam War, and I strongly sympathized with the cause, although I did not participate directly. I kept my head down and worked away at my sculpture while hearing the uproar of protests in the background. The figurative sculpture that I was making came to embody a sense of futility and impotence, of being unable to change the world.

I still believe some amount of academic study is necessary in order to learn the basics. It trains you to look critically at history and gives you a sense of what you need to push back against. It also sharpens coordination between hand, eye, and brain. I have no regrets about making figurative sculpture during my four years as an undergraduate, while also keeping tabs on what was going on in the contemporary art scene.

JG: When you were a student, Mono-ha was in full strength. How did it influence your thinking? And why have you said that you were not fully served by the movement?
ST: I did not actually take part in the Mono-ha movement. Mono-ha is often translated as “School of Things,” but they did not think of themselves as a school. They considered themselves individuals, each engaged in their own practice. They did influence my thinking, however, particularly through the discussions with Jiro Takamatsu and Lee Ufan that appeared in art magazines. They critiqued modern-day anthropocentrism and egotism, discussing how these attitudes related to linguistic and artistic structures. They talked about tearing the veil of concept away from things, and how when you make this a conscious practice, the things around you—the visible world—truly reveal themselves as mere physical objects. This was a way of training yourself to see. But I had doubts about the straightforward presentation of things-as-they-are. To solidify and replicate the sensations experienced through this practice, wasn’t it necessary to make things with your own hands? I believe the Mono-ha people made a decision to “make” as little as possible and to focus instead on presenting relations among things. As for me, I felt that instead of rejecting the tradition of craft and labor accumulated over the history of art, I should adopt some critical distance from it, place it in quotes, and press the reset button on the process of sculpture.

Into the Ground, 2000–2019. Bronze, wood, wood ash, and acrylic, 101.5 x 37 x 37 cm. Photo: Shigeo Muto, © Shigeo Toya, Courtesy ShugoArts

JG: For Western viewers, your work speaks of internationalism. You have mentioned the Lascaux caves in France as having an effect on your work, and there also seems to be a Minimalist influence.
ST: I’m not quite sure what “internationalism” means. In political terms, I guess a prime example would be the principles of the United Nations, but it’s not clear to me how the concept applies to culture and the arts. To ancient Egyptians, Greece was part of the local region; to Greeks, Rome was local; what was Paris to the Romans? As the world evolves, we keep engaging with larger and larger areas. The wave of the global sweeps over the local like a tsunami and forces all kinds of changes. The Internet today is the perfect example. Japan has been washed by waves of cultural influence from both Chinese and Western civilization. Wave after wave has arrived throughout history, compelling us to dismantle and reconstruct our mentality each time. But while our superficial outlook changes, at a deep level, we retain the same mentality. In modern times, we have seen the emergence of a nationalistic concept of “Japanese art,” but this grew out of the same superficial mindset that we have repeatedly had to reconstruct throughout history. Personally, I believe the state of mind we share at deep, ancient levels of our awareness has the power to form the internationalism of the future, and I have endeavored to use it in my own practice.

In Japan, there has always been a tradition of tamping down and minimizing emotion and meaning in expression. This appears in the culture of chanoyu (the tea ceremony), as well as in the architecture and gardens associated with it. We see recurring alternations between a baroque mentality and a minimalist mentality, and sometimes the two coexist in parallel. The same is true of prioritizing the visual and prioritizing the conceptual. I am not fond of leaning too far to either extreme, and it has been my view that reciprocal criticism and balance are necessary. This applies to my own work as well, and so I have set forth the concept of the “minimal baroque.”

JG: Can we even assign national affiliations to art anymore?
Attaching a particular nationality to a work of art is something that only emerged with the modern nation-state. Everywhere in the world, the origins of nations are ambiguous and uncertain. What makes a country a country? What are the criteria? We could point to mythologized origin stories and to massive public works projects, but the roots of artistic activity have nothing to do with national affiliation—it is a basic and universal human drive. However, just as there is political and economic fluidity, there is fluidity in artistic styles, and artistic styles evolve differently in each region. It’s not that I think classifying styles according to distinctive qualities is meaningless, but we should recognize the fact that those in power often use these qualities as a tool to promote nationalism, and I am against imposing this function on art.

Mass of Folds Ⅲ, 2015. Wood, wood ash, and acrylic, 60 x 60 x 62 cm. Photo: Shigeo Muto, © Shigeo Toya, Courtesy ShugoArts

JG: You have spoken of the “mountains and valleys” cut into your tall, pale columns of wood. Is this an attempt to restore the landscape in a cultural fashion? Can art keep nature alive?
ST: If you look at satellite photos of Japan on Google Earth, it’s a land of many folds, which are its mountains and valleys. This shapes our consciousness accordingly, in a “mountain-and-valley” structure. When people’s gazes intersect in the mountains, valleys, and woods, it is at a diagonal, and you get the sensation of someone always watching you from somewhere. As all these gazes intertwine, it creates an ambiguous space; it is not like people gazing at each other head-on, one-on-one, on unobstructed, flat land like a desert. Here, there are no clear horizontals or verticals. That is why no absolute monotheistic religion emerged or was able to take root here. And in addition to being a land of folds, Japan is extremely prone to natural disasters. Every year, we’re buffeted by earthquakes, volcanoes, and typhoons, and every time, we temporarily build back from them. There’s no end to it, and it can be disheartening, but there’s no restraining the forces of nature. We have no choice but to coexist with them, but we have not yet figured out how to do that. There must be some value that emerges from this multicentric ambiguity, some kind of universally applicable value, and that is what I have been seeking.

JG: How important is the spatial arrangement of your work? Do you place much emphasis on the installation in a gallery or museum?
Systems like the gallery and the museum did not appear until modern times, the Meiji era (1868–1912) in the case of Japan. In addition to making art available to the public, these venues caused works of art to take on national identities. Yet the ideal of exhibiting work in a neutral space, and installing it in the way the work calls for, is still valid and vital. A work of art wants a space, and aside from the question of the space where the work is installed, the relationship between space and object is also crucial. This is, in part, a question of viewers’ sightlines. A traditional sculpture stands at the center of a concentric circle, with its physicality drawing gazes toward it like centrifugal force, but this mode of sculpture has increasingly been dismantled since the advent of Cubism. We can talk about this in terms of objects becoming more like spaces, or of spaces becoming more like objects. I started thinking about it in terms of the interconnection or interchangeability of the two, or of the relationship between the form and what forms it, the structures of surfaces, of skins, of the forest.

Woods X, 2016. Wood, wood ash, and acrylic, 30 pieces, 220 x 31 x 31 cm. each. Photo: Shigeo Muto, © Shigeo Toya, Courtesy ShugoArts

JG: Could you talk about some of the artists who have made a difference for you?
I’ve been influenced by a wide variety of sculpture from throughout history. I’m probably affected more by individual works than by particular sculptors. The sculptures I love are like old friends. If I were to name specific artists, there’s the Japanese sculptor Heihachi Hashimoto, and the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti—Hashimoto for hints about the interior and exterior of a sculpture and the surface that separates them, and Giacometti for the way a sculpture is present in space. They are of the same era, although there’s no connection between them.

JG: You often repeat similar forms—for example, the columns whose upper halves show rough surfaces marked by the chainsaw. How does repetition function in your work?
ST: I’ve produced many works in series, each one addressing a specific issue. In particular, I’ve worked on the “Woods” series extensively over many years—it’s kind of a lifelong pursuit. In a way, it’s been a process of reiterating minimal forms, and the overall result is a “woods” of 350 “trees.” With reiteration comes differences, just like we live life as a series of days, each one the same but different. I believe it is important to identify these differences and positively affirm them. But to identify differences, rather than just variations, is a very difficult matter.

Screenshot of interview with Shigeo Toya by ShugoArts.

JG: In your work, does nature serve as a bridge, a visual means of exploring relations between people and between people and the world? If so, do you think it can do so in the future?
ST: I am concerned that humans no longer share the recognition that we are part of nature. Even after the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster of 2011, the current government is trying to restart Japan’s nuclear power plants. It’s like trying to revive an obsolete Western Enlightenment way of thinking, thinking that we can somehow disregard or overcome the terrifying forces of nature. In the sense that I leave half my work up to nature, I hope that it will provoke some kind of debate, but I do not think about art in terms of function. Debating matters of taste, or logic, or politics in art may create opportunities for communication, but I don’t produce art for that purpose.

JG: Are there any political implications to your work? Would you see your work in alliance with ecological awareness? Or is it primarily aesthetic—an attempt to capture beauty?
ST: Everything can be seen as political in a sense. Throughout history, sculpture has had political implications, almost without exception, even when that sculpture is religious in nature. That means it’s drawn into currently raging political debates. I believe that my ideas are reflected in my work, but I have never tried to make them take on a partisan function. My practice is not specifically committed to environmental issues, but to my way of thinking, humans are part of the natural world—much of what we are is shared in common, and I believe my work expresses the importance of coexistence. My position is not that art stands above everything else, rather art, and sculpture in particular, is one manifestation of our gaze upon the human world we inhabit.

Translated from the Japanese by Christopher Stephens.

Shigeo Toya’s work is on view at the Ichihara Lakeside Museum through January 16, 2022 and at ShugoArts in Tokyo (January 8–February 12, 2022). Watch a recent video interview with the artist here.