The Venice Biennale alum discusses photography, research, and his latest project on Japan’s “island of art.”
Motoyuki Shitamichi is an explorer first and artist second: a nomad whose quests have taken him on a road trip uncovering abandoned fortifications along the coast of Japan; to former colonies in Asia in search of left-behind torii shrine gates from Japan’s war-era occupations; and to the remotest scattering of tiny atolls in his homeland’s southern periphery, where he sought boulders cast up on the beach by ancient tsunamis. This last adventure brought him to the Venice Biennale, where his videos of the massive rocks he found featured prominently in a mythical, five-person installation in the Japanese Pavilion, and where he received his widest audience to date. But a few months later he was settling into the village of Honmura on Naoshima, a small island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, for an indefinite stay.
Shitamichi’s latest project, taking shape in Miyanoura Gallery 6 on Naoshima, is an archive of Seto Inland Sea (or Setouchi) books and ephemera, accumulated and exhibited in stages before settling into four industrial shelves that sit in the center of the space. Shitamichi titled the project Setouchi “ ” Museum, with the quotes being filled with whatever the current theme was. In the first act, the Setouchi “Yoichi Midorikawa” Museum, the noted Japanese landscape photographer’s island works and process material were displayed. In the most recent iteration, the Setouchi “100 Years’ Tourism” Museum, a rich miscellany of printed materials were pulled together in a timeline telling the story of a century of sightseeing in the region. (Shitamichi has since adjusted the English title to Setouchi “ “ Archive, which will apply to future iterations.)
What makes this project more than the sum of its parts is Shitamichi’s artist-curator role; he creates painstakingly detailed sketches, written records, plans and other material for each permutation, from the configuration of the shelves (which changes each time), to the arrangement of materials, to the significance of each fragment that is collected and archived. It’s a work occurring simultaneously on micro and macro scales: at times architecture, installation, montage, performance, and social engagement. Still, is it art? If so, how exactly? And on an island suffused with seemingly eternal Claude Monet paintings and Yayoi Kusama pumpkins, what function does this much more subdued and ephemeral art project serve?
Since he arrived on Naoshima in the spring, I’ve spoken at length with Shitamichi about his project and how he situates it within both the local fabric and broader themes of art, landscape, and the preservation of knowledge. Our conversations are typically a broken mix of English and Japanese, with plenty of laughter, beer, grilled meat, and frequent interruptions by his young daughter. But for this interview, we corresponded via email to allow Shitamichi to write out his thoughts in detail. Shitamichi’s answers were translated with reasonable confidence into English from Japanese and edited slightly for length and clarity.
Your project is essentially a multi-year residency in Miyanoura Gallery 6. How did this project begin? What was Fukutake Foundation’s role in shaping it?
Around the end of 2017, Fukutake Foundation contacted me with a request. Their message was, “Are you interested in a long-term or continuous project with the theme of the scenery of Setouchi?” Specifically, they proposed a laboratory-like work, not an object-like work, and a place where locals gather and get involved. For the past five years or so, I had been working remotely via the Traveling Research Laboratory, a mobile lab that also included sound artist Mamoru and designer Masataka Maruyama, and also as a member of a trio who live in different places called New Antique. Last year, at the Venice Biennale Japan Pavilion, I collaborated with an anthropologist, a composer, an architect, a designer and a curator to create an exhibition called “Cosmo-Eggs.” So [Fukutake Foundation’s] proposal felt like an extension of my existing collaborative practice, and I found it very interesting. Also, I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was young, and although I majored in art as a university student, I was addicted to folklore studies. From 2016 I was involved in research as a guest at the National Museum of Ethnology. I felt that Setouchi might be a place where my experience could be put to good use.
There were various candidates for the project location, and I was involved in the search and discussed it with the [Fukutake Foundation] staff. In other words, it didn’t necessarily have to be in Miyanoura Gallery 6 or even on Naoshima. Even now, I’m not making this project specifically for the gallery space, and I want to emphasize a temporary feeling of the project being movable.
Fukutake Foundation has been showing works of contemporary art collected on Naoshima and also developing site-specific works [since the 1980s]. But in choosing me they embraced the new challenge of long-term artwork. For each phase, we discuss with the curator and staff and proceed while considering the budget, scale and content. At present, I don’t know how long the project will ultimately last or how it will be completed.
Sometimes it is difficult to find a new challenge on your own. However, new ideas often begin to take shape through a request or suggestion. In this case, Fukutake Foundation took that important first step―in articulating their need reaching out to me.
Your particular method of using archival materials to make a public installation is fairly radical in Japan. What made you choose this approach?
I think there are countless artists that make works using materials from the past. However, most of these artists try to create their own works by using historical materials as an art medium and mixing them with fictional narratives. Most of the works and installations that use fiction are more design-like and use found material as [merely] a visual component. In my case, I am interested in and respect the archives of the past, so I don’t really think about creating new, fictional narratives with old materials. But I do show collected archives in a new way.
This project being an example, my work itself is a few steps away from being purely art and is often only halfway received in the “artistic industry” while, conversely, it tends to get over-associated with the “academic industry.” And ignored altogether by the photographic industry. (Laughs.)
Of course, when thinking about archival material, we might also consider the act of carefully preserving the artist’s own production process, archiving it, and visualizing it as part of the work. I am drawn to that aspect, of how to leave the process in the work. I think that various artists have taken on this challenge in the past. For example, the past work of Tadashi Kawamata on Naoshima.
I think there are various ways in which the audience is involved, rather than simply the artist installing the finished work and the audience looking at it, and it becomes very interesting when the boundary between the work and the audience becomes blurred. I believe in artworks that embody concrete thoughts, whether it’s art, music, or literature―I believe it should remain alive in people after it leaves the hands of the artist, and that’s what I strive to make.
Back when magazines were more common, I serialized photography and writing that I created while traveling in a magazine, and finally published the collected work together in a book as my debut. Each article in the series is made to be appreciated independently, and this process is repeated, before the material is released as a cohesive work. The Setouchi archive works in the same vein. One exhibition at this museum is akin to one serialized article, the exhibition is re-edited and put on the bookshelf, and the final assembled bookshelf-archive is the main body of the work.
What is your long-term goal for this project? You describe it as a library for the community. Do you envision it “living” on Naoshima in the future?
I am thinking that this museum will function as a local archive not only on Naoshima but also among the islands in the area. In addition, the archive needs to be prepared to take on a different meaning if it is separated from the island and brought to a museum somewhere.The goal is to become a library that can actually be used, and that it is also a work of art.
I was born and raised in a small village in Okayama on the bank opposite to Naoshima, along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea. The scenery here is soaked into me. In other words, I have an embodied connection to Setouchi. However, once I graduated from high school and moved to Tokyo, I had never returned, so I don’t actually know much about this area. Therefore, I want to know the area more deeply and meet new people while actually living here, getting involved, and interacting in this landscape that is so important to me. I think the project commission gave me that chance.
For example, in Japan, there used to be many local historians and folklore scholars who surveyed the local areas while teaching history and geography in elementary and junior high schools. I remember [the famed ethnologist] Tsuneichi Miyamoto was one of them at first. These researchers were assigned to an area as teachers, researched the area, and left their records and excavations in a library corner or a small museum. I want to be that kind of person in this project.
About “research” — you’re the first to admit you aren’t a scholar, but I know some Setouchi scholars who are very interested in your project. What is your view of the role of research for artists? Or, what does “research” mean to you?
In recent years, contact between anthropology or science and artists has increased not only in Europe and the United States but also in Japan. In Europe, universities have a field called artistic research. The product of academic “research” is the thesis, but the product of artistic “research” is a different goal or output. On top of that, I think that the research conducted by artists and their output are of great interest to scholars. Even if the theme is the same, I think the artist deals with the range that researchers cannot reach. I think the opposite is also true.
However, looking at recent collaborations between scholars and artists, it is easy to find examples of scholars being used as “academic support” for the works of artists. As a form of validation that’s separate from that of art critics. I hope that there will be two-way and exciting collaborations between scholars or people [in other disciplines] and artists, and I would like to work in this way myself.
Also, in recent years, many contemporary art festivals have been held in local areas in Japan, and it has become common for artists to research the area and create new works from it, and the English word “research” is commonly used. However, many people [in Japan] seem to use the English “research” to mean [simply] “investigate” (chōsa suru), which does connect to the root “search,” but “investigation” is a matter of course when making anything. Originally, academic “research” was translated as “investigate and study” (chōsa shi kenkyū suru). I think that misuse of the word is progressing in the Japanese art world today. However, I think that such mistranslation and misuse are also interesting developments in their own way.
Among so-called “research-based artists,” you can see how the materials generated from their investigations are arranged next to the work like decoration, which we could interpret as a form of design that presents the visual image of “research.” Often this decoration is not really integrated with the work itself. In my case, the research is central to the work I am making, so I’m going to be quite conscious of how to show or hide the research.
In your work on Naoshima, there is an effort to build stories that highlight and affirm local knowledge, experience, and values. You update the exhibits based on feedback from the elderly locals who visit you―and some of those elders have actually contributed material, like scrapbooks with old newspaper articles. What is an artist’s responsibility with regard to working with locals while creating place-based work? How does this activity affect the quality and the difficulty of the endeavor?
As I said before, in recent years it has become commonplace for many artists to make work through research in various locations. Art festivals like Setouchi Triennale support this manner of production. These artists develop relationships with the local people and local history. However, they often take this truth gleaned from research and combine it with fiction to jump to the final work. In this way, I feel that there are many cases where these artists do not fulfill their responsibility to the local people and history in a true sense. The logic is always that the final work is a product of artistic license and the local people and history are simply a starting point.
One could argue that a work that the artist takes pains to make comprehensible by the locals may suffer as “an artwork,” but I think it is necessary to give some consideration and respect to the local history and life. In my case, I don’t really deal with fiction. My method is closer to documentation, so as to remember to consider the local people and history. (Also, the act of creating a work of art is violent in a sense, and even the act of recording or preserving is an act of violence against time.)
The materials donated to the Setouchi Archive are being preserved and released more widely [than they otherwise would have been]. The scraps of old newspapers were put to good use in the recent “Tourism” installment, where many people viewed them. Right now, I’m storing these scraps in the Setouchi Archive, but if the local government were to claim, “These [historic materials] are local!” I’d consider giving them to the town office, though so far no one has made any claim to that effect.
However, are the items that do get sent to the town office well preserved and widely used? Which is better, to put the materials to sleep in a warehouse on the island, or to use them in new ways while storing them in a[n atmospherically] stable environment? I think it would be ideal if we could create a situation where the donated items can be stored and utilized in cooperation with one another, rather than being owned by either [Fukutake Foundation or the town office].
At the National Museum of Ethnology, I participated in efforts to reuse photographic materials that were sleeping in storage. Museums have a large number of archives and those archives are increasing in size, but the collections in the archives are overflowing without being actively utilized. It’s a big problem in major museums, and the same is true for small island government offices and local museums.
The Setouchi Archive project is based on the idea of “visible storage,” so while it is an exhibition space that can be viewed like a library or museum, my target is not the current viewer in front of me, but future viewers in the area. It’s also like making a time capsule for them. In that sense, while making sure to preserve old and valuable materials, at the same time it would be prudent to notice the things being born and disappearing right in front of us, and collect those for the future as well.
I suspect that being around my young daughter has inspired these feelings for me.
Out of the dozens and dozens of artists who were commissioned to make art on Naoshima and its neighboring islands, nearly all of them visited for only a few days or weeks — if that. You chose to move to Naoshima with your family for three years or perhaps longer. Tadashi Kawamata, whom you mentioned, lived on Mukaejima, and of course Yukinori Yanagi lived for a time on Inujima, but they were rare exceptions. Why move to Naoshima for this project?
I don’t think that the length of time one spends living in a place is directly proportional to the quality of the work one produces there, and I don’t think it’s particularly praiseworthy to live that way. However, while making this project, I was looking for the possibility of making a life with my family in this area, and I felt that possibility when I went to Naoshima, and I wanted to take on the challenge. I’m still not sure if this island is the “right place” for us, but since my two-year-old daughter moved here, she’s begun to kindly greet the neighbors, observe insects, and has grown in other ways.
There may be many people who separate their work from their private life, but in my case, the act of living itself is closely linked to and integrated with my work and the way I produce it. Everything is daily life, everything is travel, everything is creating.
Your artwork is very much about landscape. In particular, you have focused on islands, coasts, and borders. But calling someone a “landscape artist” seems somehow reductive or simplistic, like being a “portrait artist.” On the other hand, artists like Naoya Hatakeyama and Richard Misrach have shown how landscapes are loaded with meaning and tension in addition to their aesthetic qualities. How do you consider the potential and the challenge of landscape as a subject?
I’m interested in landscapes and the time they express. I think I have my own way of visualizing time in superficial landscape photography. I want to observe landscapes, collect them, compare them, and find value in a new balance. The viewer might feel the distant past as well as the future. In other words, there may be a feeling of completeness in a different sense than in the work of the photographers you mentioned. The medium and aesthetic quality of the work doesn’t really matter to me, and I dare to keep a distance [from those issues]. This is in contrast to artists who draw connections to artistic value and art history by the medium and aesthetics of the work.
These days, photography is used to visualize the image in the artist’s mind, and photographers often use photography because they simply like the medium. In this sense, artists who record with photography the objects they’re looking at according to their interest may be “old-fashioned” in a sense, but so be it: that’s what I am doing. That may be the reason why I get along with anthropologists, who have a strong interest in others and are motivated to create recordings with respect for others. When I first showed my video work to an anthropologist friend, it felt to me like a “boring” video, but I was surprised at the difference in his level of interest and the parts that he valued. Even boredom became an exciting experience.
We’ve been talking about photography. Much of your work has a strong photographic or video component. Of course, as you mentioned earlier, your work always brings an enormous amount of material together: maps, notes, all the process work is carried into the end product. But your photographs are usually large and central in the final presentation. The Setouchi archive seems to be your first major work where photographs taken by you are mostly absent: the final form is four bookshelves. Is this a new direction for your work, or more of an experiment?
I think this project is a new direction for me and an experimental work. That said, I have been experimenting recently with projects that do not mainly deal with photography. For example, in “Floating Monuments,” objects were crafted from glass bottles that had drifted ashore on the beach in Okinawa. But despite using techniques other than photography, I always have an internal photographic image in these projects. Then again, photographs are just paper, just reproductions, and so one always feels a sort of “weakness” in the medium.
The Setouchi archive collects things recorded by others in Setouchi―I don’t create the pictures myself. The method of production is the found photograph, and the manner of collecting and categorizing these records is up to me.
Making a living through creative work is a difficult road. However, I have been encouraged to continue by a very small number of passionate supporters saying “You are interesting, so keep going!” I think this Naoshima project is one of them―it’s a new challenge, and I’ll continue working on it.