Studio Visit with Keiichi Tanaami
You were nine years old during the Bombing of Tokyo and when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. What kind of impact did the war have on your childhood?
I was very young, and I didn’t fully comprehend the current situation. I did experience the Great Tokyo Air Raid, which happened before Hiroshima. Several hundred bomber planes clouded the sky above Tokyo en masse and bombed the city. The sky was completely covered by the planes. For as long as I live, I will never forget the dazzling memory of what I saw through the fish tank full of goldfish my grandfather kept as a hobby. At the time, my grandfather was cultivating telescope eye, ranchu, and other large goldfish. As I fled for the bomb shelter, that fish tank was above my head, and I remember the goldfish and the bombs being so bright. Incoming B-29s would drop flares that lit up the city, so the first thing I saw was that brilliant light. The diffused reflection of that light off the scales of the goldfish and the fish tank was very beautiful. It wasn’t so much a frightening experience as it was a beautiful one.
Those memories became powerful images, and appear as a variety of motifs in your work. Blasts of colors and flashing lights have been a consistent theme in your art since your films made in the 1970s.
Yes, this image is always in my mind. Because, when I was young, there was no type of rehabilitation for the trauma children endured in their experiences of the war. As a result, these images remain as extremely significant memories of my childhood. The film Crayon Angel (1975) in particular was made around the subject matter of those memories of World War II.
We're very interested in how you tell the tale of your life through images. Do you think you chose the path of graphic design and art because you were so sensitive to what you saw? Was there something that motivated you to go down that path?
My father was an acquaintance of the famous manga artist Kazushi Hara, of whom I was a huge fan. I also wanted to become a manga artist, and I often showed him my drawings. It became a sort of mentoring relationship. That was what drove my decision to go to art school and study graphic design.
Aside from studying graphic design, you also painted.
What sort of paintings did you make when you were young? Was there an artist you aspired to be like?
Modern European artists like Picasso and Matisse were famous at the time, but I wasn’t interested in that sort of fine art. I was completely obsessed with American comic books, like Superman and Wonder Woman. I was more greatly influenced by subculture than by fine art.
Wasn’t it rare for a young person in Japan at that time to be so devoted to American subculture? Was it not considered socially taboo to immerse yourself in the culture of Japan’s former war opponent, America?
I think it was pretty unusual. Many students were politically anti-American. I loved the American cities and architecture, landscapes, and the glamorous women I saw in movies and comic books. When I was little, I often went to the movie theater to watch the American B movies they played there. The actors and actresses in those films were huge stars to me, and the occasional erotic scenes were very shocking for the time. Also, there was one shop in Ginza that sold American comic books. It was in that setting that I became devoted to American subculture.
What did you do after you finished college? When was the first time you went to America?
I worked at a major advertising agency after I graduated, but two years later I became a freelance designer and illustrator. I went to New York for the first time in 1967. There, I came across experimental films by the efferve- scent artists of the time like Warhol, Jonas Mekas, and Kenneth Anger. I also learned about the comic artist Robert Crumb. I was intensely inspired by their experimental creative work. Also, Divine’s dodgy performance in the movie Pink Flamingo, which I saw at a late showing, had a particularly shocking impact on me.
What sort of influence did Andy Warhol have on you? You have also met Warhol in person, haven’t you?
Warhol had a very powerful influence over me at that time. I was attracted to his hybrid existence as both a designer and an artist, because I had a similar mindset. I met Warhol for the first time when he came to Japan for a large solo exhibition of his works that took place at the Daimaru Department Store in Tokyo. In addition to the exhibition, NHK was making a documentary program and, as Art Director, I had to photograph Warhol. I went to his room but he was exhausted and in a sour mood, so I wasn’t even able to get one photo, and instead made an animation.
Besides your commercial work in graphic design and illustration, you have also made many video artworks, animated pieces and experimental films. Why did you decide to make films? Was it for work?
When I was boy, I hung out at Meguro Palace, a movie theater that specialized in B movies, located in the Gonnosuke-zaka neighborhood of Meguro. I have never felt as happy as I did when I was there immersed in the movies, enveloped in the darkness. I would watch cowboy westerns and Western action movies, Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, Popeye and other cartoons, from morning till night, over and over. This was an era when there weren’t even any picture books, so I would stand under the emergency light and scribble drawings of the Mickey Mouse stories in a small notebook, then go home and carefully color them in. I once made a racy picture book of Deep Waters starring Jean Peters, an actress I loved. My interest in moving things escalated, and I came up with a cruel game using my uncle’s cherished projector. I locked a live sparrow inside the projector and became completely absorbed in this unholy game, projecting the moving image of the sparrow onto the wall as it tore about in agony from the extreme heat, and finally burned to death. Perhaps it’s connected to the strong fascination I felt for that secret movie game that took place behind closed doors. In my work today, in my paintings and dra- wings, whenever I’m drawing something, the thought of “what would happen if I put this in motion?” becomes the major premise. I am always conscious, albeit uncon- sciously, of movement.
Were there places in Japan where you could show your films at the time?
I showed my animation work for the first time at the Ani- mation Festival (Akasaka Sōgetsu Art Center) in the mid ’60s. This sort of venue, where you could present new forms of media, was very valuable, and it was a very important opportunity. The playwright Shūji Terayama built the Tenjo-Saijiki-kan in Shibuya, where he develo- ped theatrical activities. He heard that I was looking for a place to show, and he approached me to say, “You’re free to use the theater as you like after the plays end.” That was in 1972. This was a time when there weren’t even any young people that were interested in experimental movies and such, and there were many days when there wasn’t a single audience member, and many times when there was only one. People angrily demanded their money back, the receptionist quit, and finally I stopped playing movies there. After that, the Image Forum Fes- tival, hosted by Image Forum, became an annual event, and little by little the audience grew. Today I receive in- vites for screenings at international film festivals around the world almost every month, and I have juried film festivals in Norway and Germany. And then this thing happened that was unimaginable to me back then: private collectors and museums began to house my animations and original pictures from the ’60s in their collections.
What sort of programs took place during back then?
My first film exhibition was Keiichi Tanaami: Cinema Demonstration, held in 1971 at the Sōgetsu Art Center. It included mainly animations and seven or eight short programs I had made for the late night TV show 11PM. I only had one week to prepare, and worked a very tough schedule, drawing the 500 or so original pictures by myself, and I take pride in the interesting way it tur- ned out. Good-By Elvis and USA, Good-by MARILYN, COMMERCIAL WAR, and FLICKER LOVE NO. 1 were among the pieces. In 1975, Far From Cinema-Film Ex- hibition/Keiichi Tanaami + Toshio Matsumoto opened at the Seibu Theater. Matsumoto was a director known for his film Funeral Parade of Roses, and was one of the forerunners of experimental film in Japan. It turned into an overwhelmingly busy year, as I made 4∙EYES, SHOOT THE MOON, SPECTACLE, Artificial Paradise, Human Events, and WHY all in one fell swoop.
You command a variety of techniques, like using flashing, subliminal, and repeated images. The trend toward those types of visual effects is often associated with the psychedelic experience.
The term “psychedelic” is frequently used in writings on my work. I think the album jacket I designed for Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s in 1967 is where that started, but I have never actually used any term like that myself. The monstrosity of the war I experienced as a child thoroughly wrecked my young mind and spirit, and I think I entered adulthood without ever regaining a normal perspective. I think that perhaps the incoming flares in the dark, the ominous light of the firebombs, the searchlights that illuminated the bomber planes, the heat and pressure given off from the explosions — that almost hallucinatory drama that took place in the darkness was perhaps a sort of “psychedelic” for me. If there are peo- ple who get a hallucinatory or psychedelic sense from my paintings, perhaps that is based on the unimaginable experience of war. The light from the searchlights cutting through the bright red night sky left deep scars in my young eyes and heart.
What do the differences between the mediums of animation, experimental film, painting, and sculpture mean to you? How are they different, and what significance do those differences have in your creative work?
I have a film piece called Artificial Paradise (1975). It is the story of a disappearing paradise: there is a beau- tiful, natural landscape, reminiscent of the ubiquitous scene of the sun setting over some southern sea that could be anywhere, and it changes each moment, broken down with flashing, dots, and color, gradually replaced by the landscape of an “artificial paradise”. What I was experimenting with in this film was the process of taking photographs that had been decomposed into dots through the use of color designation and printmaking screens that we use in graphic design printing, and making these the major motif of the filmmaking process. In other words, I incorporated the printing process of graphic design into filmmaking. I have several other film works in which I incorporated design techniques, and I tried various dif- ferent experiments with each. They are unlike the still image of a painting; with the addition of music and time, the range of expression widens, and you can attempt to challenge a variety of methods.
Were you a part of the art scene of the time? How was the feedback from museum curators and the art scene regarding your work back then?
The way people think about my overall mode of ex- pression hasn’t changed a bit between then and now. When I was in art school, I was always being told by my teachers to “study some design, don’t just spend all your time painting.” This was because, while I was enrolled in the design course, I had many acquaintances among a group that had adopted the concept of anti-art, and I was immersed in creating a gigantic painting coa- ted with pitch-black coal tar. When I got caught up in making animations, I was scolded by a magazine editor, who told me, “Please be serious about getting some work done for this job and give your hobbies a rest.” Whenever I’m focused on one thing for a while, other genres start to look appealing. Maybe I have a short attention span, as I’m unable to stay focused for very long. I lived a life without any certain direction, swaying this way and that, in an era that approved of delving into one job in-depth, driving forward in a straight line, without so much as a glance in any other direction. As for the feedback from the art scene, I didn’t even think about that back then, so all I can say now is that it is unclear.
Lastly, what does the period of the ’60s and ’70s mean to you?
It was for me, at any rate, a supremely stimulating and erotic period of time. Tatsumi Hijikata’s Ankoku-Butoh, Shūji Terayama’s experimental plays, movies, paintings; all realms of art were immature, brimming with a green, untamed air. It wasn’t the best environment, but it stimu- lated my imagination, and was connected to me taking on the challenge of new media. Recently, a large number of my paintings, collages, and animation negatives from the ’60s were discovered in my home’s warehouse. This group of works had lay sleeping, unnoticed by anyone for almost fifty years, yet had a power to them, like they were new pieces, and I was very much moved by them despite the fact that I was the one who had made them.
Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen are directors of gta exthibitions, ETH Zurich. They curated the travelling exhibition Keiichi Tanaami, No More War, Schinkel Pavilion Berlin, 2. Februar – 3. March 2013, STUDIOLO Zurich, 30. September 2012 – 30. November 2012 and the exhibition Keiichi Tanaami / Oliver Payner, Perfect Cherry Blossom, STUDIOLO Zurich, 17. November 2011 – 28. January 2012.
Photos: Niels Olsen
Catalogue: Keiichi Tanaami. No More War, Berlin: Schinkel Pavilion 2.2.–3.32013, Zurich: STUDIOLO, 30.9.–30.11.2012, Edition Patrick Frey, 2013.