Interview: Kimura Toshiro Jinjin & Setsuko Takai
Though they lived in a share house in London together, they studied in separate buildings at RCA. In this interview, Jinjin and Setsuko (or Se-chan) reminisce of those days, and talk about their study abroad experiences and how they relate to what they both do now.
(Interview: Kosuke Hashizume)
What is art and architecture as it relates to RCM?
Jinjin: In those days I wasn’t really aware, but the graduate university RCA is founded on the major premise that art is a self-explanatory genre, and that an art world exists in Europe. It should be pretty obvious from its title, Royal College of Art (laughs). But I still got a shock being there. It was probably a mix of rebellion and envy, but looking back I felt a strong sense of discomfort deep within myself. I was studying sculpture there, but the impression that stuck with me was that, from the movement they entered RCA, students had a clear goal of making their debut in the art world at the Degree Show (their graduate exhibition) in two years time, and they focused on that the whole time. I’m not sure what it’s like now, but when I was enrolled at KCUA, I didn’t think that art was so self-evident. It was a blurry thing that may or may not have existed; we would spend three hours smoking in front of the cafeteria most days (laughs). Looking back, going to RCA was both relativizing in relation to KCUA, but also relativizing with the art world once you had seen art shows in London and at RCA as a student coming from KCUA. As a result, I started to feel that following in the footsteps of these RCA students—headlong into the degree show and the art world with all its hierarchy—just wasn’t for me. At that time I hadn’t sorted out all my feelings like I have now… I just felt out of place. It may have been a temperament forged from four years at KCUA, or maybe just my own way of looking at things; I don’t really know.
It definitely had an influence on my work afterwards though. After graduating I started an NGO related to sexuality and AIDS, I got involved in an independent art and community center, also got involved in starting a cafe supporting foreigners living in Japan; I continued working in areas that were never clearly definable as ‘art’; now I pull a cart around and stop by roadsides… there’s definitely some influence in the way I am now.
I don’t have a conclusion as to whether art should be self-evident or not; all I can say is it’s clear that KCUA and RCA are different. From the standpoint of a graduate student, maybe you should sort out any unclear feelings you might have about art as an undergraduate. Once you’ve worked that out, it may be more meaningful or more substantial for you to go on exchange from KCUA as a graduate student to RCA, maybe?
Hashizume: Did you have a hard time during your stay?
Jinjin: I was sulky when I was in London, but that doesn’t mean that the time I had over there was hard or anything.
Hashizume: Right. How about your work?
Jinjin: I rarely did any work at the RCA in the end. I made friends though, and we went drinking at the pub… I probably spent more time at the pub (laughs). I didn’t do much work, but all the time I spent over there with my moody thoughts are probably reflected in what I did afterwards; it’s hard to say how it influenced me as an exchange student, but it was an important experience. Se-chan (Setsuko Takai), you’re an architect who went to the Architectural course at RCA and the AA School (Architectural Association school of Architecture) from time to time; when you were over there did your view of things change or was there some kind of relativization in your feeling, like the way you see things or think about things as an architecture student in environmental design at KCUA?
Takai: Probably more in the AA than at RCA if that’s what you’re talking about. The AA is close to the British Museum so I visited there often; the conceptual architecture there is nothing like what was at KCUA. We never went that far in environmental design. Art and design are quite near each other at KCUA, and some works made there are conceptual, but I had never really thought about conceptual expression in architecture myself, so it was really stimulating. At RCA there was a measure drawing class where we had assignments that were both classic and fundamental, like measuring and drafting up plans of old churches; they took the classics seriously—which I totally agreed with because the university has ‘Royal’ in its title. RCA placed importance on the basics, which helped us find our footings. At KCUA I did try to find my own way of working without really thinking about the point of my assignments, by with architecture, whether in Japan or in Europe, there has always historically been beauty in form, and our lives are built around it. I learned from my assignments that they place great importance on this; when I feel like I’m starting to forget things, I try to remember this again.
Jinjin: My memory is getting dim, but I remember you being really excited about visiting AA. I know nothing about architecture, so I had no idea what you were talking about, but I remember you being excited.
Takai: It was so interesting. When I had a peek at the critiques, which was a critique of chairs at the time, they weren’t regular chairs: their structure were made up of tubes and one had water gushing out the middle. They were saying “this is architecture!” and I was like “what the heck…?” in the beginning, but then I started thinking “you know, it IS architecture!” On the contrary, I realized that I had always been drawing lines between art and design at KCUA, but I started realizing that it was better not to.
Jinjin: So, it was a completely different experience for you.
A big aspect I felt at RCA was how established the world of art was. In comparison, at KCUA it’s more of a murky, lingering thing that wafts about the place. Maybe it’s something to do with the location of KCUA, or maybe it’s got something to do with why I never studied ceramics. It’s an internal problem I have. Tatsusuke Kuriki sensei from the ceramics course was annoyed with me for not taking the ceramics course, and kept telling me to join the ceramics course right up till I left. Looking back, I really understand what he was talking about. In the same way Se-chan said before, the ceramics course at RCA taught context, history and ideology thoroughly, so Kuriki sensei asked me why I didn’t go to study ceramics, or take over what I’d made to show them, specifically because I was in the ceramics course at KCUA. I get it now, but it was an internal struggle I was dealing with.
Takai: You were a little sulky (laughs)
Jinjin: Call me sulky, but looking back, part of me simply wanted to just go overseas, and probably the other part just wanted to get away from everything. I know now that I was behaving like a spoilt child, but in the four years I spent in the undergraduate course, each student had their own conflicts to deal with; from what I saw everyone had things welling up inside them, and they were broad-minded about doing everything they could to make sure they just kept going… there were a lot of people like that.
Takai: You had a relaxed manner about it, Jinjin.
Jinjin: It’s a cheesy way to put it, but looking at all the talented people around me, I just wanted to leave them and take a bit of a break. That’s not something a graduate students should say.
Takai: I really felt that from you; that you had come over there to just chill out.
Jinjin: That aspect was a huge part of it. In truth, I don’t really mind if you put this waste-of-time chatter in the interview. For me, chilling out was about 80 or 90% of it. I think that’s why Kuriki sensei was like “what are you running away for, eh?” But as I said in the beginning, I went to study sculpture and drank beers in the pub; I was far away from the context, history and ideology of contemporary ceramics taught at RCA and KCUA—I wanted to be far away—so I brought a lot of different things back with me to Japan. I’m not sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but as a result it’s directly connected to who I am as a person now. I really feel that way.
When we went to say goodbye to Utsumi sensei in environmental design before we left, I remember him telling us to really think about whether going overseas at our age was a good thing or a bad thing. He didn’t have an answer for us though.
Takai: He was just posing the question to us.
Jinjin: I guess he just wanted to give us a few words. I still remember it to this day though.
Takai: Really? I had completely forgotten, but you remembered!
Sequence of events and state of mind before leaving
Hashizume: What was it like going overseas in those days? I imagine it’s a little different today, where you can just make a booking online yourself and go; were flights expensive?
Takai: Your flight was really expensive Jinjin. It was so expensive you just had to go, right? I took a cheap flight though.
Jinjin: There must have been a reason. I’m pretty sure I took British Airways.
Takai: Maybe because your results were good you were limited to taking British Airways because of your scholarship. I was in second place behind you so I just got a bit of money and was told to go.
Jinjin: It was so expensive it was funny. I got a million yen (approx. USD$9,000) for my scholarship, and it was about a third of the price.
Hashizume: That’s about the regular price.
Takai: I only paid about 200,000 yen (approx. USD$1,800).
Jinjin: What it’s like to be overseas? I don’t know how younger generations would feel these days, but there was a lot less information available than there is now, and a fewer ways to find it out.
Takai: We didn’t have the internet. Only information from books.
Jinjin: Like Chikyu no Arukikata (a popular Japanese travel guide)
Takai: Yeah, yeah, yeah! (laughs)
Jinjin: It was like a huge fantasy, wasn’t it? Like some huge Europe or London fantasy that we had.
Hashizume: As a message to today’s students, could you tell us about your experiences, even the bad ones, or the personal ones?
Takai: There wasn’t a lot of pressure on us. Before I went to my interview, I read a whole guidebook about London. When Jinjin saw me reading it, he said that I passed the interview because I was busting to go.
Jinjin: Did I? (laughs)
Hashizume: So, you knew where you wanted to go when you got to the UK.
Takai: I didn’t think I would pass, but after looking at places I wanted to go and things I wanted to see in the guidebook, I started to get in the mood for it. I wasn’t thoroughly prepared though.
Jinjin: I felt the same way, too. The reason I treated it so lightly was because the KCUA system wasn’t so prepared either, right? The teachers interviewing me didn’t know much either, so they probably didn’t have any standards to choose students by. Sorry if I’m wrong there (laughs). I don’t know any inside information, but in those days, no one had ever been from the ceramics course, which is probably why I was able to go.
Takai: I was the first from the design course, too!
Jinjin: Maybe it was just because students from sculpture and conceptual and media art went, so ceramics was next. Even if you asked the teachers in those days they probably wouldn’t have known, but I guess there wasn’t a total vision for the graduate school or international exchange. If I’m wrong, I apologize repeatedly. We thought we were just lucky to be chosen. When they came home, Yanobe san and Minami kun said that they had a great time. It was like they thought themselves lucky to be able to go as well.
Hashizume: So, hearing the stories of your seniors at university also had an influence on you.
Jinjin: In my case, yes.
Takai: I never had any design seniors who had been on exchange, but there was a teacher called Ichiro Takai in the design department who was in charge of promoting exchanges, so I spoke to him about it. I didn’t really think about the kinds of things they did over there in the architecture department, or what I would get out of it (laughs).
Jinjin: I went without knowing anything either. And in the sculpture course too. Without any information.
Hashizume: Why did you choose sculpture?
Jinjin: As I said before, I just wanted to go somewhere that had nothing to do with ceramics. If I think about it objectively, that was the biggest thing. In those days I had lots of internal reasons why. I wonder how far-fetched they were? There were a few UK artists I liked in the sculpture course. Like Richard Deacon. I wasn’t a huge fan, but right around that time young sculpture artists were making a lot of clamor in London, like the Young British Artists. In my case, I created a lot of reasons to get into a course that had nothing to do with ceramics. I’m not being negative or anything. There was nothing humble or modest about it either, it’s just how I was.
Takai: You wanted to meet Lucie Rie, didn’t you?
Jinjin: You mean “why didn’t you join the ceramics course?” right? (laughs) Lucie Rie is one of my favourite ceramics artists, and when I was an undergraduate she was becoming known in Japan in a big way. Even now she’s kind of riding a third wave of popularity. She was a really sweet grandma and made these really wonderful pieces, and she’s based in London. Wanting to meet Lucie Rie was a motive I couldn’t avoid. I really wanted to see her work. I didn’t do any work in the sculpture course; I kept visiting Gallery Besson (they had lots of her works) because I wanted to meet her. I became a little friendly with the owner, who let me handle her works.
Takai: You didn’t get to meet her, right?
Jinjin: She was in poor health and passed away a few years later. There was a lady called Marina Margetts who taught craft history at RCA; I took her lessons. I was in the sculpture course so normally I wouldn’t have been able to take her ceramics lessons, but I managed to slip into her classes. Yeah, I should have taken ceramics, right? I asked Marina to introduce me to Lucie Rie, but she told me that if it was a few years before she would have gladly introduced us, but at the time she was in really bad health and even if I met her, she probably wouldn’t have been able to speak to me—so I gave up. That’s what happened. I still went to the sculpture course though.
Thoughts and daily life in the UK, differences in the way things are perceived in Japan and the UK
Hashizume: Listening to you doesn’t really sound like you were running away from anything
Jinjin: I’m still not so sure about it now, but back in those days I personally wasn’t able to make a direct connection between the works of artists I liked and my ability to actually roll up my sleeves and use my head and hands to create my own form of expression as a conceptual thinking art student. I was entirely all over the place. I had no idea what to do about it. My head was full of unnecessary things, and I was overly self-conscious… my first year of graduate school was probably about the naivest I’ve ever been.
Hashizume: In other interviews, I heard that others were also dealing with the same troubles in the period when their studies at RCA had finished and they had to start thinking about what to do next. How about yourself, Takai sensei?
Takai: I was a pretty straightforward student (laughs); the typical type that went overseas, took it all in with astonishment, and just came home. I don’t think I had any trouble, per say. I was obedient about learning, and when I came back to Japan I decided to keep studying about other things.
Jinjin: The most respectable type of exchange student. I really think so, too.
Takai: Still, I had a lot of assignments and my fair share of experience in the difficulties. I couldn’t make myself understood, my method was wrong, my idea’s starting point was wrong, the sensibility of my idea, differences in my design sense; I learned a lot from firsthand experience, lost my way, and made new discoveries.
Jinjin: That’s really interesting. When you say ‘differences in sensibility,’ what do you mean?
Takai: In architecture, I consider both the interior and exterior, but in England there are many people who start from a sculptured exterior, or and ‘external form’ if you will. This thought process leads to the finished works having such attractive exteriors. I was thinking about the interior spaces and then adding in walls and pillars, but that process was the exact opposite. The British look at architecture as sculpture? Or maybe 3D art? But I, on the other hand, consider it as something of a vessel, or something that wraps around spaces. That sensitivity was overpoweringly different.
Jinjin: I feel like with a closer examination that could turn into a really interesting conversation. In Britain, when they’re working at a spinning potter’s wheel, they use a trowel on the outside. In Japan we use it on the inside. They’re very skilled at using it from the outside and do some interesting things with it. If we dig deeper this could become a quite troublesome, yet interesting conversation.
Takai: I felt these little differences in sensitivity all over the place, and felt a little inferior at times. If the assignment was different, I thought maybe I would have been better at it as a Japanese person... perhaps?
Jinjin: I feel completely the same. I think that’s how exchange students should be feeling.
Takai: What was really great was that I was doing different things to Jinjin, who was doing art and ceramics. I learned a lot of stuff from him. I really remember the shock you got when telling me that you couldn’t meet Lucie Rie because she was sick.
Hashizume: You both lived in the same apartment, right? Could you tell me about that? Was it a flat share?
Jinjin: Yeah, it was. Thinking about it now, we should have looked for apartments separately. Maybe we were a bit timid and uneasy living alone. How about you?
Takai: Not sure. At any rate, the cost of living was really high. If you wanted to live somewhere relatively nice the cost was high. It was about 140,000 yen (approx. USD$1,300) a month, right? Quite high.
Hashizume: Where did you live?
Jinjin: Wasn’t it on Clarendon road, on the North West side of Hyde Park? Either way it was downtown. Battersea was close by. It was more of an experience to live there than closer to Battersea.
Takai: We could go around to galleries and museums easily. I could walk to the Kensington building. I used to cut across Hyde Park. We were on the basement floor, right? It was an old-style semibasement house; what a great experience.
Hashizume: It must have been great having a park close by.
Takai: Speaking of the park, I chatted with an old guy once, wanting to practice my English, and carelessly gave him my phone number. He started following me around and calling all the time. Jinjin got angry at him. He said “never call again” and slammed down the phone.
Jinjin: I remember that.
Takai: You were my guardian angel.
Jinjin: I would have been hopeless living alone.
Hashizume: Did you spend a lot of time alone outdoors?
Jinjin: Of course. We had our own rooms and we each operated differently; I went to a different place, the Battersea building on the other side of the Thames river. We both spent a lot of time outdoors as oppose to being in the house all day.
Takai: I was always working on assignments at home; lots of late nights.
Jinjin: Talking about assignments, I remembered that there’s something I really need to apologize about; please forgive me. The kitchen was my room; I used to smoke like a chimney and mess around. Se-chan was in the back room and she was always doing her assignments. I’m really sorry about that.
Takai: There was a room in the back which was a bedroom, but the lighting was too dark, so I used to work next to the toilet under the stairs which was next to the kitchen. I used to feel bad because I had the light on when you wanted to sleep. I made a lot of noise, but I was insistent about drafting there because my room was dark.
Jinjin: I feel bad about it now.
Hashizume: You were considerate with each other.
Takai: In those days there were times when room sharing was a pain. We had a lot of friends over, didn’t we.
Jinjin: We had a birthday party too, right? My friends from the sculpture course said “let’s have a birthday party!” Everyone made a racket in the basement floor; the landlord upstairs was also having a birthday party at the same time and we got in big trouble. It was the landlord’s mother’s birthday. All the sculpture course students made a huge din. We got in big trouble and went to apologize afterwards. I really remember that.
Takai: We also had a sushi party one time, too.
Jinjin: That was the birthday party.
(looking through photos)
Takai: I wore a kimono I took with me that day.
Hashizume: They must’ve loved your kimono, right?
Takai: Not really. Most people were like, “what’s that?”
Jinjin: No way, they loved it right? That birthday party was fun, wasn’t it?
Takai: I remember mistakenly mixing mirin (a kind of sweet rice wine) into the rice instead of sushi vinegar, and it tasted terrible.
Jinjin: Is that what happened? I remember it was delicious.
(looking through photos)
Jinjin: A lot of friends came over. I never made anything though. At Battersea I’d be chatting with my friends from sculpture and they’d ask if I wanted to go to the pub. In my workspace there were a few sketches stuck to the wall; I’d never done bronze casting so they let me do it; I’d never done glass casting so I made a prototype; I used to drift around the Battersea building. Thinking back now, the teachers there must have thought of me as unmanageable. They were probably thinking, “he’s from Japan; his portfolio has a few huge ceramic pieces in it, so why doesn’t he just start on one? He just mopes around the place and has only done a few sketches. He’s not even here; he’s left already. He does chat a bit with the other students but that’s it…” If I was a teacher, I would have been worried about me. I would have thought, “Why the heck did he come here? What does he want?” One time in a sort of midterm interview, they suggested I try making something. I couldn’t really give a clever answer and just mumbled my way through it. The teachers were worried about me; I’d come all this way for the experience, so maybe I should set about putting my hands to good use and actually making something. I would have said the same thing. I would have said “try making something; move around a bit more.” I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it, though. They (my sculpture classmates) probably would have helped me out though.
Takai: You seemed to get on well with them.
Jinjin: When I was talking about students making their debut in the art world at the RCA’s degree show before, I was also talking about my experience visiting London again the following year. I went the following year (or was it two years later?) to see my friends’ degree show. Right after I had finished my studies at the graduate school. In those days Koyamada san (professor in the sculpture course at KCUA) and his friends had just started running the art center Art Scape, around the same time I started the AIDS NGO; about that time I first heard about a care support center for people infected with HIV, including terminal patients, in the London central called London Lighthouse, which also had an attached café run by HIV patients and their supporters. I went because I wanted to see London Lighthouse, and meet my friends and see the degree show. So, when I was talking about my impressions, I was including all of that as well. Where was I? Oh yeah, my friends had been working towards the degree show since their first year in the graduate school at RCA in order to make their debut in the art world… then I took all my worries at RCA back with me to KCUA, I had a lot of conversations with all kinds of people with nothing to do with the university like researchers and social activists, and I started up an art center and ran an NGO… when I met them again in London I started thinking again about everything; it was quite a long span of impressions to look back on; which brings us back to the beginning.
Hashizume: Have you been back to London since then?
Jinjin: Nope, that was the last time. I’ve never been since.
Takai: Neither have I.
Jinjin: You haven’t?
Takai: I’ve been close. It feels like I could go any time; sometimes I get a strong urge to go. I feel like if I ever go again it would have to be to a really special place, so I couldn’t just casually drop in. It’s a bit of a mysterious feeling.
Jinjin: You struggled with your assignments; but it’s amazing that you bothered with them at all.
(everyone looks through Takai sensei’s assignments, then at a single project)
Jinjin: Look at this “classical language of”; we often used “language of” didn’t we. In ceramics you could say “the language of the vessel”; in Japan, if you made something it would described as an objet (the French word for object, meaning ‘art piece’), at RCA it would be described as being made utilizing the “language of the vessel”.
Takai: I wonder if that’s a unique English form of expression?
Hashizume: We use the word ‘language’ in music often as well. It’s probably used in fields where creation is based on theory.
Jinjin: When I was at RCA, I went to interview a ceramics teacher called Martin Smith (why didn’t I go to the ceramics course? I know [laughs]), he explained to me that art pieces are created using the “language of vessels”, though his works were not really made for practical use. When I came back to Japan, I told Kuriki sensei, and he said to me, “that’s why I asked you why the heck you never went to the ceramics course. Not only that, but those words have had absolutely no effect on you”. When I got back to Japan, I was doing all kinds of things outside of KCUA like the art center and holding club parties, and making magazines about it all; Kuriki sensei must have been really annoyed with me. He must have thought “why did you go to London? All these things you’ve brought back with you and you’ve got nothing to show for it!” But as I said before, they probably did have an effect on me actually.
Takai: But surely your work changed?
Jinjin: To tell the truth, after coming back from RCA I didn’t make any ceramic works. I did make a few, but they were just excuses. I did my best of course; I’m doing a disservice to myself in those days by saying ‘excuses’, but they felt like excuses somehow. I started really enjoying ceramics again when I started nodate (an open-air style of tea ceremony). I saw anew how beautiful ceramics could be. The work I made for the graduate exhibition were sort of careless test pieces, but even still, during the graduate exhibition review, the last thing Kuriki sensei said to me was “Kimura kun! Never quit making ceramics!” I must have come close to giving up. The teachers must have seen straight through me. They probably thought I’d never handle clay ever again. That’s probably why I never made ceramic works after I got back from RCA. I had a solo exhibition at Gallery Suzuki straight after I got back though. I thought I had to do something after looking at others around me.
Takai: It was a wonderful exhibition though.
Jinjin: I didn’t hate it; I worked hard during those days. I guess it just wasn’t related to the soberest part of me.
Takai: You were worried about it.
Jinjin: That’s why I think you’re amazing; you suffered through your assignments.
Takai: I wasn’t so good at English; that was the hardest hurdle to clear. I had no idea what the teachers were telling me at the critiques, and I was always on the verge of tears.
Jinjin: But you worked through those hardships.
Takai: But I still felt a gap in my own abilities. Many students at RCA were relatively proficient; most had been to an internship at least once.
Jinjin: It’s a postgraduate university. Lots of students had worked professionally before coming to study at RCA for the two-year master’s programme.
Takai: I thought that a girl who had come on exchange from Austria in about the 4th year and myself were equal (in terms of ability). But there was the language problem, and my own limited design ability. I remember thinking constantly that everything was hopeless.
Jinjin: You did quite a lot in such a short time. (Looking at Takai sensei’s work) So this is measure drawing. You measure, then draw.
Takai: I took a lot of optional classes like the Thames Water Competition and a hologram class. I realized that they sketch even in the graduate school. And… this is, let’s see; a kind of collection of everything I did. (everyone looks at the collection of projects).
Hashizume: All these works; it’s great that none of them were made on the computer.
Takai: That’s right; when I got back, I printed them (the cover) with silk screen. That was the only type of printing method we had.
Jinjin: It was either CAD drawings or silks screen, right?
Takai: In those days CAD was still quite rare. I started using a Mac only after I had graduated. We only had word processors. Macs were available on the market, but it wasn’t until I started working that we were able to print from computers.
Hashizume: Computers became widely used with the introduction of Windows 95, I believe.
Jinjin: Ah, right; we went (to RCA) in ’92/93.
Travel, friends and food
(Looking at other photos from their RCA days, talking about photos of their trip to Cambridge)
Hashizume: Did you travel?
Jinjin: We went to Documenta.
Takai: Yeah, I had never thought about going on a trip to see an art festival, but I decided to join Jinjin on this trip.
Jinjin: It was good fun. Documenta was fascinating. I caught a terrible cold, and not only that but we couldn’t find a place to stay. In spite of my cold I underestimated everything and just assumed we could find somewhere to stay, but people come from all over the world to see Documenta, and we couldn’t find anywhere. On the side of the central plaza in the venue there was a bench next to a stall selling German simmered potatoes; after eating a few I was really worn out. Normally I’m a pretty energetic person but at that time I was not feeling well at all, and Se-chan was really worried about me. Then, the couple running the food stall said “you can stay at our place.” Not only that; they gave us their key. They said they would stay at another place so we could have the house to ourselves.
Takai: Right? Japanese people they’d never seen before. It made me realize that this kind of thing does happen out there in the world.
Jinjin: Right? After a good night’s sleep, I was feeling better; we saw Documenta the next day before going home. I don’t think I’d be able to give the key to my house to two young people I just met and let them stay.
Takai: You looked terrible and I looked like a child; they probably thought that we were going to freeze to death (laughs)
Jinjin: They must have been worried about us. Like, “what’ll happen to these guys if we just leave them?” I guess we didn’t look like we’d make trouble. I guess we didn’t look like thieves.
Takai: Documenta was great, wasn’t it? It was interesting listening to Jinjin’s impressions. We chatted in English with the people who had come to see the exhibition from all over the world; even though I didn’t understand what they meant, I clearly remember listening to them and nodding along.
Jinjin: I probably said a few things to make myself look cool. I’d hate to hear them again now. If I heard them again, I’d probably wanna slap myself in the face (laughs)
Hashizume: So you were never really interested in going to art festivals normally, Takai sensei?
Takai: I was from the design sphere; I never would have gone myself. I learned a lot and had a great experience because Jinjin asked me to go and I went with him. My outlook on life got bigger. I learned about the things art people did and talked about.
Jinjin: Anish Kapoor was great, hey?
Takai: Really great. I became a Kapoor fan after that.
Jinjin: I’m happy I saw that with my own eyes. Anish Kapoor is a famous sculptor, and it was great to see a work of that size with my own eyes. It was so big. If only I had understood more English. Joseph Beuys was also being featured as well. Jan Hoet was the curator that year, and he had a whole building just for Joseph Beuys; if I had known a bit more English, I might have learned more. It was still interesting though.
Hashizume: Did you go to any other places?
Takai: Didn’t we go to the lake district together?
Jinjin: We got a rental car (with some other Japanese friends) and went! It was great fun (laughs), and the scenery in the North is really impressive.
Takai: It was quite desolate with all these rugged rocks everywhere.
Jinjin: Those are the Wuthering Heights. What a great time.
Takai: It was a good time, wasn’t it.
Hashizume: I can hear how much fun it was just listening to you both. That reminds me, I never asked you about food in the UK; how was it?
Takai: It was terrible (laughs).
Jinjin: It was terrible (laughs). In the beginning that trip to Cambridge we took had a lasting impression; we went to an old family restaurant, probably a place that the locals take families; it was just cooked meat with a few vegetables on the side. I asked my friends what they had for dinner and they weren’t joking when they said that yesterday they’d just microwaved a potato and eaten it with salt and butter.
Takai: That’s so frugal.
Jinjin: Stories about delicious restaurants just never happen on a daily basis. In Japan people talk about delicious places regardless of how much of an ignorant boy or girl they may be, but over there it’s rare for friends to talk about whether any food is delicious or terrible.
Takai: I never did.
Jinjin: It’s just how it was at the time. The only thing that was delicious however, was warm custard.
Takai: Ah, that!
Jinjin: Battersea never had a cafeteria, but on occasion when I visited the main campus (in Kensington), there was a bit of cake on the cafeteria menu which came with a serving of warm custard on top; when a cake has custard on it, it doesn’t matter how dried out it is.
Takai: Within limits of course!
Jinjin: It’s moist and gives of a gentle aroma of vanilla essence. Also, there was a café next to the Battersea campus, and the breakfast there was kind of like McDonalds: bacon and eggs with toast and these gooey baked beans on top. I got used to it. It’s strange how I got into the habit of eating these salty-sweet eggs, bacon, fat, and bread. Surprisingly, I got quite addicted to it.
Takai: Really? No way. I don’t remember anything like that. The only thing I got addicted to was milk tea. It was delicious.
Jinjin: Any kind of tea was delicious. In those days the coffee was terrible anywhere you went.
Takai: Yeah, yeah. But there was nothing delicious to eat. I remember going to a newly built ramen restaurant though. It was the first in London. It was called Wagamama.
Jinjin: I remember that! And it was real Japanese ramen (not like the Chinese noodles we saw that were similar but not the same).
Hashizume: Wagamama has become quite a bit chain restaurant now. At the moment their Katsu Curry is popular in London. (Opened in 1992, as of 2020 they have over 150 stores worldwide).
Takai: I ate a lot of Indian curry. I was told I’d always enjoy a curry meal.
Jinjin: My friends took me to Indian and Greek restaurants. Also, to Chinatown. Even still, we never talked about the food.
Hashizume: That is really interesting. Normally when you’re talking about culture people talk about food, too.
Takai: I knew a guy from Ghana? Called David, who went on international exchange about the same time I did; I went to his place a few times and he cooked African food for me. I remember that the banana in his food tasted like potato.
Hashizume: You had that kind of cultural exchange? Was there a lot of foreigners in London in those days?
Takai: It was surprising to see a lot of people from Africa. Also, there were about four Japanese people in my class. Right about the time of the bubble economy. Two of them were regular students and one had come on an internship from his company.
Jinjin: There weren’t any Japanese in the sculpture course. I don’t remember where people were from. Most people were from the UK though.
Hashizume: I see. Was everyone friendly? I guess they must have thought you were quite unusual having come from far away.
Takai: I was bullied a bit. We had four Japanese in class, and Japanese students were thought of as kind of trying to stand out because they wore nice clothes like brand names, even though I was in scruffy attire. One of the English girls who was friendly at first seemed to get sick of having so many Japanese around her, because when the teacher asked if there were any Japanese in the class she said “lots.” Hearing that, the other Japanese students told me that was a pretty mean thing to say. Also, when I was giving a presentation and asked a question by the teacher and couldn’t understand what they were saying, the English students poked fun at me using a little Japanese. I was also made fun of in English, but I never understood the subtleties of the language… my Japanese friends were worried about me and asked if I was OK, but I didn’t understand English that well, so I told them I was fine.
Jinjin: Everyone treated me so nice. I came not knowing what I wanted to do, and was always in a gloomy mood at Battersea by myself so I guess they took that into consideration.
Takai: The people there (in the sculpture course) were all really nice and grown-up; and because they were so nice to you, Jinjin, they were also nice to me in turn.
Jinjin: When I went to the degree show two years later, I stayed with Sophie Tilson, who I didn’t know at the time but was the daughter of the well-known English artist, Joe Tilson. The other students were also friendly and would always say hello when I was alone.
Takai: We also had a lot of friends from Japan come and stay and so I remember the landlord asked us to pay an extra fee.
Jinjin: It wasn’t a hotel. It was only natural we got in trouble. If you rent out a room to Japanese exchange students, people start coming in turns.
Hashizume: They seem like great memories overall.
Takai: I’m really happy that I went.
Jinjin: I have absolutely no misgivings about that.
Then and now, looking back
Hashizume: Could you tell me how your experiences at RCA relate to your work now?
Jinjin: I might be contradicting what I said in the beginning when I talked about art not being self-evident at KCUA, but I thought of art as being something automatically guaranteed if I was in KCUA, and from the point I entered graduate school till I finished was a period of relativizing, which was probably the initial motivation for me wanting to go abroad to RCA. From there, I went to RCA, came back and did my second year at graduate school, worked for an NGO, was told not to give up ceramics, started an art center and a café and now I have a cart for nodate. My experience in KCUA was being given a walking stick to grope around unconsciously for art, then leaving and thinking for myself, or finding my own walking stick; that’s my experience.
Right now, I have a foot (not sure if it’s one or two [laughs]) firmly planted in the realm of art. At the same time, I’m also very critical of the art world. It all has repercussions, though. This forum that we call art is very conceptual, and I often feel it’s quite boring. Rather, it’s not just related to art, but everything accumulated in the forum we know of as modernism. It’s somehow so feeble. Even now I brood over and make a scene about the fact that it doesn’t stand up in a disorderly, vigorous, broad-minded situation, and it can’t stand on its own two feet when you bring it back somewhere that is not so self-evident… RCA played an important part getting me to where I am.
Hashizume: I also wanted to ask you, Takai sensei; when you came back to KCUA to teach, did you use any of the experiences you learnt at RCA?
Takai: There was a lot of things; among those was the relationship between faculty and students. I had always thought that teachers were smart, but RCA gave me a very different experience. When I went to RCA, the students were collecting signatures in regards to the education taught in the architecture department at RCA; basically, they were trying to get one of the professors fired. At first, I had no idea what it was all about; I thought it was amazing this kind of thing would happen. When I heard more about it, I learned that the things he (the professor) had done made the students sick to their stomachs, and the students had some serious allegations in regards to what they were being taught. At the time I thought that if I was going to be involved in education, I needed to place importance on getting to the root of problems. I’m not here to bestow teachings from on high; I should be constantly thinking about student desires and comprehension, and be aware of equality. I’m sure these thoughts were born inside me at RCA. My current thoughts as an educator started there: the need to look each student in the eyes as an equal, whether they are designers or creators.
Hashizume: When I left my university in Europe and came back to Japan, the most uncomfortable feeling I remember was the same thing. The relationship between the teachers and students, especially in the master’s course; we call each other by our first names with the teachers. We were both dealing with each other as artists, but the general attitude felt like we were taking the advice of seniors. It was like in Japan teachers talk and students listen; they give advice.
Jinjin: But even in a graduate school, teachers are teachers and students are students.
Takai: That was particularly prevalent in the design course.
Jinjin: Not just the design course. In that way, at RCA there was more of a self-reliant relationship.
Takai: Which is why they treat each other as adults and feel they have to be more reliable when teaching. Even now, I expect that of my students as well, and in myself equally.
Hashizume: I think that’s wonderful. Student attitudes are also important. The cultural differences in regards to education are quite different.
Jinjin: We’re getting in to a huge conversation there. What is education? Or more so, that’s not just about universities. We’re talking about what to do with individuals; or about culture that deals with individuals as individuals.
Hashizume: I don’t mean to say that the system over there is perfect; it has its advantages and disadvantages.
Jinjin: I was a little critical of the art world I experienced in London, but I really felt a kind of unconscious accumulation of a colossal amount of language, things and time all compounded together make art self-evident. I feel I never experienced that at KCUA. In Japan, traditions, language and ideas are used in a comparatively simple way; it’s surprisingly different. I think the relationships between individual teachers and students are deeply influenced by this. Conditions for art at RCA have continued to be there since Immanuel Kant and the dawn of modernism. I haven’t read The Critique of Judgement though (laughs). This continuity I felt at KCUA… I’m not sure I ever felt it when I was enrolled at KCUA… if I was going to call it either rebellion or envy, I’d probably have to say envy. At KCUA, the outline of the genre of art was never distinct, but the environment was distinct. Well, whatever people perceive is only in the eye of the beholder anyway. Modernism has adapted to the great rush in Japan; the concept of art was forcibly transplanted here and hasn’t taken root properly. It’s a fixed formula that has been doomed to repetition since the Meiji era. Having said so, what I got out of KCUA was the fragility but also preciousness of the things I thought about and experienced during my time there, even though I felt no continuity in this blurry, indistinct place. RCA students are more like adults in many ways. No, I shouldn’t call them that arbitrarily; it’s rude. It’s just how I see it. At the least, I was immature and childish (laughs).
Takai: I think it would be great if the students on exchange from KCUA and RCA got together to share cultural differences and maybe have an influence on each other.
Jinjin: A student who came from RCA the following year said that KCUA was really great. He said he was choking at RCA; it was hard. He said the time spent being lazy on the lawn in front of the cafeteria was great (laughs). Maybe that’s similar to the time I spent at RCA. For him KCUA was perfect for being liberated from everything, and having some time to think. That was the general feeling. It’s a bit hard to connect that simply with life now. The economic conditions of the bubble were still around then; I never had any huge benefits, but the effect of those days was unmistakable. There was plenty of paying part-time jobs, and even in graduate school there was no sense of urgency. Now, second- and third-year students are under pressure and full of themselves; the things we were burdened with are quite different. I can’t really say much in comparison or about the times either.
Takai: It’s almost 30 years; the times have changed, haven’t they.
Jinjin: Yanobe san became a contemporary artist doing some great work; you could probably have a really great interview with him about not only his feelings about international exchange but about placement of modernism and art in Japan and Europe and touch on some really fundamental themes, if you can get him to keep a straight face. Not all individuals really experienced much on short-term exchange programs, but just like Se-chan spoke about the differences between architecture in Japan and the UK, you’ll get some hints about modernism and how we should reflect on the society we base ourselves in. Definitely, if your interviews are serious and persistent on digging deep. I’m not saying that you should do everything, I’m just saying that I think creating an archive that gets to that point is a kind of research, in a way.
Hashizume: This conversation has been a really precious one for this archive. Thank you both very much for your time!
Kimura Toshiro Jinjin
Born in Niigata prefecture in 1967. Studied ceramics in the Graduate School of Arts at Kyoto City University of Arts. Started the travelling open air tea ceremony, nodate, in 1995. Receives great reviews both in Japan and internationally.
Born in Gifu prefecture in 1969. Studied environmental design in the Graduate School of Arts at Kyoto City University of Arts. Designs Japanese tea houses and interiors, and has taught at Kyoto City University of Arts since 2004.