MONO thingsfrom RCA-KCUA exchange


Interview: Akane Saijo

Akane Saijo started in the ceramics course at KCUA and studied abroad at RCA in the Design Products course, where career designers from all over the world come to study.
(Interview: Teppei Kaneuji, Kosuke Hashizume)

Saijo: I initially wanted to go to RCA because I did ceramics at KCUA from the time I was a second-year undergrad till I became a first-year graduate student, but there was this feeling in the class of just working with materials and techniques in order to create artworks, which was getting tiresome for me. Of course, there were things to learn from the processes and such, but I wanted to get out of it. I wanted to study something other than ceramics. That’s why I chose the Design Products course at RCA. I thought that product design would be a bit like ceramics.

Hashizume: Did you consider other courses aside from product design?

Saijo: I did consider doing sculpture, but there were already a few students who had applied to study sculpture on exchange, so I chose design because nobody had applied.
When I went to the interview, I discovered that the Design Products course had way more assignments that I had expected, and I had very little freedom. There wasn’t that much work in the other courses. There were a lot of classes where I had to think about things like social problems and solutions for them. I wasn’t really interested in those kinds of things; I approached assignments casually. It was great fun to use lots of different materials though. Or rather, how to choose the right materials for the job.

Hashizume: Right, so you had a variety of materials to choose from aside from ceramics. What kind of environment did you work on your assignments in?

Saijo: There was a sort of communal workshop in RCA, and that’s where we used to play with materials and work on projects. There were students making things with potatoes, some with resin and others with iron; everyone used a wide range of things. I really liked that students from other courses all used the same workshop to play with materials. I heard a rumor that the new KCUA will be like that too?

Kaneuji: You mean the shared workshop. It’s going to be like the Dyson Building at RCA. The scale is completely different though. Its design is based on foreign universities, especially those in Europe.

Saijo: Is that so? Anyway, working there was really great and refreshing; I felt motivated. At KCUA there is a bit of involuntary inter-course mingling which is fun, but without a motive it’s not a simple thing to do. The shared studio made it very easy for me to do that.

Hashizume: Right. So, a shared workshop will bring about changes in KCUA.

Saijo: After that I came back to KCUA, but I continued with ceramics, not design. RCA was like a personal check to make sure that design was not in my future.

Hashizume: Could you give us some concrete examples of what you mean by ‘personal check?’

Saijo: In the end, I realized that I was not interested in coming up with solutions. The contemporary art exhibitions I saw over there were really motivating—I saw some exhibitions by RCA alumni as well—and that made me feel it was possible to earn a living from art. But more so, it was a reaffirmation that pottery really suits who I am. For example, when something around me is out of place or doesn’t sit well, I don’t force myself to do something about it; for the time being I just accept it. Pottery is the same; as a material you can’t control it 100% yourself, but when you accept that fact, there’s a new appeal to the act of creating. The ‘personal check’ was realizing that making work in this way suited me, and was directly connected with the decision to lead my own life after graduate school.

Design Products course at RCA

Kaneuji: The Design Products course at RCA is really elite in a way; everyone in the design industry wants to go, and it’s like the world’s pinnacle; I think it’s funny that you have the experience of just going there casually. What was the gap like between RCA and the ceramics you did at KCUA, or which part had the biggest difference, and how did that influence your work afterwards? I thought it would be interesting to hear you speak in a little more detail because it’s really interesting to me.

Saijo: You mean when I was designing?

Kaneuji: You know how some employees go to university to learn while they’re still on the payroll at their companies?

Saijo: Yeah?

Kaneuji: Previously we were talking about making a living, but at RCA, especially at the design department, there’s a strong connection with society; it’s like a basic assumption. How do you feel about this?

Saijo: You hit the nail on the head; career designers from Samsung or Lexus would come on a short-term study abroad. Their way of thinking and work was really professional, as you would expect. Even though it’s called the Design Products course, the distinction is less about designing things and probably more about designing processes for things. Product design gives the idea of designing shape or form, but to a great extent importance is placed on research and the abstract side of things.

Kaneuji: The people in the design department over there are basically innovators. They’re not interested in getting jobs or coming up with ideas within the framework of a company; they’re more suited to just starting their own companies independently. Or joining one if they can’t.

Saijo: I see what you mean. A lot of people would band together with fellow designers they got on with and start their own offices after graduating.

Kaneuji: That attitude is really different to KCUA.

Saijo: That’s right. They really decided to make a living from their work, and their connection to society was strong; their vision after graduation was really clear.

Kaneuji: Like them, were you influenced by the work you did afterwards? In Kyoto you can really work at your own speed; I think there’s nothing wrong with that.

Saijo: Let me see. You know, I did think that maybe partnering with two or three people and making an office was quite run-of-the-mill, or just a trendy thing to do. Things like speculative design or design thinking were prevalent in those days, but everything people made was kind of all the same, and I saw it as just fleeting idealism.

Kaneuji: In RCA you’re able to see things like social ebb and flow, and movements in design, art, and trends. I believe it’s quite different in Kyoto and with KCUA; you don’t really see modern society or feel or see trends here.

Saijo: Yeah, you’re right.

Kaneuji: That’s what makes it interesting. Being able to see movements, I mean.

Saijo: Ah, I see; yeah.

Recent Activities

Hashizume: While everyone at RCA was setting up design offices in teams of two or three, you had to come back to KCUA, then start thinking about leaving university and working as an artist; could you tell us about what you did after RCA including the work you do now?

Saijo: Sure. After completing my course, I worked as a part-time lecturer for two years. My experience in London was so motivating that I started thinking about going overseas because I couldn’t see a future working as an artist in Kyoto. I went on a residence in the Netherlands. I was working there for just under three months. I brought my work back to Japan afterwards and had an exhibition. At the time I was prepared to make a living based in Kyoto; because it’s the 21st century I’ve been all over the place, done a lot of research, and stuck mainly with ceramics to make works. That’s where I am now. With ceramics there are a lot of places in the world with a lot of techniques; many places have residences.

Hashizume: Right. Techniques are developed alongside the clay produced in different areas, so ceramic works have a strong sense of regionality about them.

Saijo: I mentioned the RCA thought process of visiting places, researching and considering problems and solutions previously, but one of the great things about going to the Design Products course at RCA was the act of visiting and researching; it gave me so much inspiration to create.

Kaneuji: One of the big reasons you adopted that stance was because you went to RCA?

Saijo: Yeah, it really opens doors to ideas. Up till then I had just been making things; you know, colour and shape. How do I explain them… commodities? Not really, but I didn’t really understand where the appeal lay in the act of creating.

Kaneuji: At RCA, and also going to a different course, you might have become aware of things like the bold actions of others or the outside world, in relation to everything you had done up till then. In Japan, there are lots of people of course, and you have to explain what you’re doing or nobody will understand; or you could just press ahead without explaining anything. Overseas there’s also language problems and different cultures, but you’re intensely aware of them. Even more so if you join a course from a different area. Did you experience anything personally this way? Did you show any of your ceramic works to the people over there?

Saijo: I did show different photos of my work and people usually responded by saying they were nice, but I never had any in-depth conversations about them. I didn’t know a lot of design terminology. I couldn’t really speak a lot of English either, so I never had any in-depth conversations; by the time I was just starting to get used to it, it was time to go back to Japan. When I went to the Netherlands however, I was able to converse a little easier, so I could exchange opinions about work in a composed manner.

Kaneuji: It’s important to create a space for yourself to leverage the experience you got from RCA. In reality, three months is plenty of time to relish your setbacks.

Saijo: You’re right (laughs)

Kaneuji: It’s a bit too short of a time to bring about results. You really need something to follow afterwards; I believe there’s no point if there’s nothing coming next. Did you feel anything like setbacks?

Saijo: I always felt setbacks. Firstly, people didn’t understand my English. At seminars and meetings everyone was supposed to explain the things they wanted to do, but I was told that I couldn’t explain myself, so someone would go and fetch another Japanese student and they would come and translate for me. But even then, I still couldn’t get myself across. So, they asked to draw a picture. At the next meeting I had a picture with me and tried to explain it, but my sketches were so terrible nobody could understand them either (laughs).
In Japan the general mood is that people try to catch your gist and understand you, but it wasn’t like that; in London the only thing I could do was work hard at it.

Kaneuji: And moreover, you weren’t able to show your own works made with your own hands. Because the course was different. That’s quite tough.

Saijo: Yes. I was out of my comfort zone in that environment; it was either do or die.

Kaneuji: I’m useless at languages too, so I really understand what it’s like to be treated like a child. I’ve experienced explaining things in a foreign language with a work in front of me and it’s easier to communicate; that’s quite important. It must have been hard to do it without showing any work.

Saijo: It was. As you said, having people think you don’t use your brain just because you can’t speak their language is a harsh thing; I couldn’t show my real ability because I didn’t have anything (or work) to show. But even with that experience, I wanted to go overseas again, even to a different place, and do it all over again.

Kaneuji: Is that so.

Hashizume: I heard that with your recent exhibitions you make ceramic works and include a performance yourself; what kind of mental state do you adopt for a performance mid-creation?

Saijo: I’ve been making work with the idea of ‘hollows’ which are found inside ceramics. You can only see the hollows when you’re making the works because they get closed up afterwards; I started wondering if there was a way I could show these hollows and have people better understand them. At first, I created an exhibition showing the hollows visually, but I thought it was a little tactless. After that I tried blowing air into them myself, and it made me feel like these hollows were like ears; after that I started my performances.
Also, pottery and humans are alike. Our bodies are hollow; pottery is hollow. It’s kind of like a carnal desire. I thought that I wanted to try something that would connect my own body with the pottery I was making.

Hashizume: I see. Maybe design thinking has had an influence on you.

Saijo: Maybe. I’m not sure I’m using the experience I gained from London here, but if I had never actually gone, I think I’d have a completely different style now.

(Translation: Duncan Brotherton)

Akane Saijo

Born in 1989, Currently based in Kyoto.

2014 Kyoto City University of Arts, ceramic art course(M.F.A)
2013 Royal College of Arts, exchange programme
2012 Kyoto City University of Arts, ceramic art course(B.A)