Interview: Tsuyoshi Hisakado
After finishing graduate school, Hisakado worked at a company before moving on to create remarkable works. In this interview he speaks of his various experiences in England.
(Interview: Teppei Kaneuji, Kosuke Hashizume)
Hashizume: Could you tell us about the first time you wanted to visit RCA?
Hisakado: I was not brought up in a cultural environment; I have no memories of my parents taking me to see art galleries in my childhood. I have no idea how I came to be doing the type of work I do, or why my upbringing led to me wanting to go overseas, on international exchange.
Hashizume: In those days did you have any other alternatives to RCA?
Hisakado: There was RCA and École des Beaux-Arts (ENSBA), I think? I was terrible at foreign languages, but I liked English.
Hashizume: So you decided on RCA. You went to the sculpture course, and how was it?
Hisakado: In 2005 it wasn’t as easy to get your hands on information as it is now; you just had to go and take things as they came, rather than having an image of what they were like before you went.
Hashizume: What kind of things caught your eye, and what kind of people did you meet?
Hisakado: If we’re talking about art, then I had some surprising experiences actually seeing art I had only ever read about in books, but it was nothing personally surprising. I went to the Venice Biennale while abroad. I was really looking forward to seeing works by the female Swiss artist, Pipilotti Rist.
Hashizume: Right. What kind of exhibition was it?
Hisakado: It was a projection on the ceiling of a monastery; her works use gender images and video, but when I went it was cancelled, which was probably a decision by the monastery. One enduring memory for me is the venue, where this exhibition was not able to be held for religious or gender related reasons. In Japan, a work in the Aichi Triennale was dubbed as taboo, or (though a while ago) maybe the events surrounding the Tokyo Mixer Project by Hi-Red Center; compared to Japan, in Europe what I noticed was that art had really embedded itself in society and people’s daily lives, and was being judged as either good or bad. It was a big experience seeing for me how widely it was involved.
Hashizume: Was that the biggest difference with Japan?
Hisakado: The same kind of scene may have played out in Japan as well. It just seemed more advanced; like art exists in society. I felt like it had a function. Also, I really like the work of Nobuko Tsuchiya, who is back in Japan now, and Tomoko Takahashi, who I think was nominated for the Turner prize? I really felt that the Japanese like them working in London at the time were making art in the London art scene with Western rules. The first time I saw them I felt Japanese; I felt my identity as a Japanese person, and I became really aware of creating artworks with Japanese ‘rules’.
Hashizume: I see. Anything else that left an impression on you?
Hisakado: Aside from art, what was big for me was that, even though at the time words like ‘interactive’ and ‘interaction’ were rarely used in creative terms, there were courses at RCA with these words in the title, with people enrolled who had taken a year off work to come and study, or people who had quit their careers at Panasonic or Seiko and come to learn. I met many of them, and when invited for a meal they talked constantly about things I’d never known. Things like company societies in Japan. It was there I realized that being an artist gives you access to more knowledge from the world of art, but there are a lot more spheres of knowledge I have yet to encounter.
Hashizume: I see.
Hisakado: Aside from KCUA, in those days I never had a gauge to measure things by; I considered myself no match for my seniors and teachers if I was going to live purely as an artist. I never thought I had any kind of special ability as an artist (laughs).
Hashizume: Is that what you really thought? (laughs)
Hisakado: Even now I don’t think of myself as having talent; I thought it would be hard to compete against my talented teachers without giving myself the chance to expand my own knowledge base at least once in this lifetime, so I thought it would be fun to simply get a job. Meeting these company people was a big thing.
Hashizume: Was it fascinating meeting people with careers?
Hisakado: It was fascinating. The way they talked was different. The only way I knew to talk about my work was from what I learned at KCUA; things like “what do you think?” or “why did you make it?” But people in design ask things like “why is this important?” and don’t start on projects until things are organized logically. That’s because with projects budgets are fixed, and everything is efficiency based and needs to progress in a timely fashion. In the world of art, you can improvise and create impulsively. Artists talk differently to designers, by nature. That was a big influence on me.
Hashizume: Even in this conversation I notice that you talk differently from those from the art world. Your explanations are easy to understand.
Working at companies
Hashizume: I read in a separate interview that you decided to find employment on the flight back to Japan.
Hisakado: It seems overly simplified to say “I decided on the flight home,” but in reality, it’s the truth. In those days YouTube (founded in 2005) was not that popular, but the RCA library was replete with DVDs and VHS tapes; I watched videos of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, Raf Simons, Alexander McQueen and Japan’s Rei Kawakubo; there was a lot in common with my sculpture studies.
Hashizume: Right. So that piqued your interest in the fashion industry where you found employment after actually returning to Japan?
Hisakado: That was the start, but in reality, I had entry forms to write and employment information to look up online. At KCUA, in my course almost nobody had experience with the applying for jobs, so nobody could help me out. I asked the Japanese people who had come to RCA about what to do with applications. Portfolio designs are different for the worlds of art and business, so I started getting information together for the best type of portfolio to make. I was already starting to get involved in two careers at the same time in those days.
Hashizume: So the Japanese you met over there were a big influence on you.
Hisakado: That’s right. University fees are really cheap if you’re within the EU, but in those days the rates for people from Asia were about 3,800,000 yen (approx. USD$35,000) a year. That’s why most young students from Japan were from rich families; the people I met however, and those I still speak with today, saved their own money to go or got grants by themselves; they were a little different.
Hashizume: They must’ve had a hunger for it.
Hisakado: That’s right. The most remarkable difference was their unshakeable attitudes and sense of responsibility towards learning.
Kaneuji: It’s interesting to note that you knew that there were different rules for different worlds, both in and outside art circles.
Hisakado: That’s right. Also, commercial galleries left an impression on me. There are galleries in Japan that do business, but in London the size of the monetary figures that move around are incredibly different.
Hisakado: It made me think about how to manage my own finances in life, whether that be through living off my own work or finding a job. Also, the degree show (or what we know of as graduate exhibitions in Japan) are like the final job interviews for students at RCA. Galleries reach out to students at the RCA’s degree show. If nobody does then...
Hashizume: That’s it?
Hisakado: It’s not really the end, but you have to be prepared to face tough times ahead. You’ll be scraping through. At KCUA when I was there, people from galleries started coming to our graduate exhibition, I think? That’s mainly because of graduates like Kaneuji sensei. People from galleries started coming because they knew they’d find something at KCUA. But RCA is still a world apart. Gallery owners come from all over Europe.
Hashizume: Compared with Japan, the money moving around the art world is completely different.
Kaneuji: It’s hard to flip people’s opinions, even if you get them to listening to others with experience studying abroad, and even though it’s possible to learn about the world or even make connections outside KCUA (even while you’re in Japan). Those who have been abroad to places like RCA used that chance to change, and I feel that’s a common thing that unites them.
Hashizume: Hisakado-san, you told us before that art has a place in society in Europe, but maybe in Japan art is just art, and has a special place in our awareness. Is it something uncommon?
Hisakado: The education over there is fundamentally different. So many little kids go to the Tate Modern. These little kindergarteners look at Gerhard Ritcher’s work and sketch whatever they want. I don’t think there’s many kindergarten teachers in Japan who would do that.
Hashizume: I don’t think that doing that is part of what is expected of kindergarten teachers in Japan.
Hisakado: Also, in Japan you’ll get lots of instruction on ‘how to’; how to make work, how to finish your work, and how to show your work. Private universities are currently at the stage where they will show you how to give a presentation. But Japan still trails behind in teaching ‘why’ we create.
Hisakado: Recently I’ve been working with artists from Thailand and the Philippines; they’re much more focused on the reason they’re making art at the present point in time and why it’s needed, as opposed to how they’re going to make it. I believe that was also a dominant point with the people I met from the UK as well.
Hashizume: Before arriving at the idea of why people create, had you decided you would return to the world of art even before you started working?
Hisakado: When I found a job, I started feeling a bit strange at the same time. I was crying because I was happy I got into the place I wanted to go but I was also sad to be parting ways with art. I knew within myself that I’d be parting ways as a player… it was a mixture of feelings.
Returning to the art world
Hashizume: You worked for many years, right?
Hisakado: I graduated in 2007 and came back to Kyoto in April 2014, so about seven years. The whole time I rarely made any personal work.
Hashizume: What made you decide to quit?
Hisakado: With design work, I started thinking about how the projects I participated in were mass produced in huge volumes, bought by consumers, and then thrown away. It was completely different to the meaningful or humorous forms of expression in the mass-produced works of artists like Andy Warhol; art pieces are fundamentally unique. With sculpture I had always learned that singular items were beautiful; their strength lies in their singularity. I started wondering if what I was doing in society was correct.
Hashizume: It’s hard to find a clear solution easily.
Hisakado: But this anti-attitude I have from this experience towards mass production is a good thing, I believe. I was beginning to take on more responsibility and all the troubles that came with it in the workplace; I was in the middle of an in-house presentation when the Tohoku earthquake hit and shook the building. There are lots of printing and paper companies in the Tohoku area, and a lot of people in the partner companies I worked for suffered a lot of damage. I started to have doubts about whether what I was doing was correct or not, and why so many people live in cities. I submitted my resignation letter three times at that company (laughs).
Hashizume: Three times?
Hisakado: They didn’t let me quit the first or second time. I was involved in moving money around, and they wouldn’t let me quit because they would’ve been in a fix.
Hisakado: I applied for a residence in Aomori, printed out the acceptance letter and took it to the company president. I told him that I had been chosen, asked him to let me quit and handed in my resignation letter, and he accepted it there and then.
Hashizume: Was the president thinking of it as a next place of employment?
Hisakado: I think it was a parental feeling; he knew I had doubts about the situation, and was probably wondering how I would live if I quit the company. Once he knew I had plans, he accepted my letter with peace of mind. He’s still supportive of my work.
Hashizume: That’s a great relationship. Since then you’ve always been working on art?
Hisakado: I quit in October of 2013 and was in Aomori within a week; I was there for about three months. Afterwards I went back to Tokyo before coming to Kyoto in April of 2014, and for a while I had part-time work at universities and vocational schools four or five times a week. I started getting chances to show work gradually in 2015, and slowly started reducing my part-time work at universities.
Hashizume: I see. I guess you must have been working on things before then, but was there any influence from your RCA days once you resumed your personal work, even after such a long time?
Hisakado: There was. The earthquake happened on March 11th, right? I went to London soon after that.
Hashizume: Is that so!
Hisakado: It was a way to test myself; see if I still felt anything from that time. There’s a lot I know from experience, but what really moved me in that direction was Tate Modern. Visiting it once again I found the works of Koshimizu sensei, who taught me at KCUA, and Joseph Beuys, just as they were before. I realized that art is the only thing that shows us where we are going. It was a great place to reset myself, and I felt really happy that there was a place in England that was not where we are now (KCUA).
Kaneuji: It’s great to learn about the connection between your experience studying abroad and your work. We haven’t spoken to many people, but the reason we started this archive project was that although many people have been to RCA over the past 30 years it’s a shame that the university had never thought about collecting all these experiences and looking at the implications and connections as a whole. Do you see anything in the initiative we’ve started, like a lineage or an accumulation from an archival perspective, or even connections?
Kaneuji: In your case, I think you’ve got people both above and below you generationally, and you’ve got the experience to see both equally.
Hisakado: We picked up on who among our seniors had previously been to RCA. Like Yoshimasa Ishibashi or Kenji Yanobe. There are others like Kohei Nawa or Kaneuji san. But as Kaneuji san says, if nothing is archived, then there’s no information about who to see in RCA, or where to go, and people will have a hard time. Which is why I made a guidebook for the urushi artist Genta Ishizuka and the oil painter Saeko Yamaguchi, who went the year after me. Just the other day Genta Ishizuka sent me a message telling me he’s still got the guidebook I made!
Hashizume: That was considerate! It’s a little different nowadays with all the information on the net. What we need now is to gather all this information and convey it to others.
Recent activities and experience in the UK
Hashizume: Could you tell us a bit about your recent activities and experiences in the UK?
Hisakado: I’m backtracking a bit here, but I’ve always thought I was really Japanese and my father was really strict. I inherited his DNA; my cup here, see the way the label is facing*? I didn’t intentionally place it that way, it’s just how I am.
*The cup and its logo were directly in front of Hisakado san and his phone was positioned perpendicularly on the table close by.
Hashizume: Ah, right.
Hisakado: This is my personal DNA, but when I came back to the airport in Japan, I got a shock in seeing the taxis in deathly precise order; the carts were the same; even people line up properly.
Hashizume: It’s true that in other countries people tend to be a little more relaxed.
Hisakado: That’s why, rather than following European ‘rules’, I decided to re-teach myself things Europeans cannot do. In Kyoto, there have been many foreign designers impressed with the Katsura Imperial Village; I even learned that Steve Jobs was influenced spiritually by Japan. When I came back from Europe, I realized this was my strength.
Hisakado: For example, at Genko-an Temple you could call the round and rectangular windows and the view beyond, with its constant changes throughout the year, an eternal time based installation; same goes for Ginkakuji and Kiyomizu-dera Temple. I’d love to study them in detail; a single deep dive into their history and culture so I can gain from them and add to them what I will, regardless of whether they appear in a work of mine or not. This has become my own style of working.
Hashizume: Seeing Japan from an outside perspective sounds like a big part of it.
Hisakado: Everyone is influenced by Japan to the point it’s funny. There’s a really loud bar in RCA called Art Bar. I used to go almost every day, and I was surprised to hear Japanese music being played.
Hashizume: That’s where all the fine arts people get together, right? Designers too?
Hisakado: It was a jumble of people. Students DJ there; if you DJ there then you can drink beer for free all day.
Hisakado: The student union told me about the place, and because I was making music on the computer at the time I DJ’d there about three times. I really didn’t have any money.
Hashizume: It’s expensive over there. What was the reaction to your DJing?
Hisakado: When we were playing stuff like Denki Groove and YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra), people would come up to me and say “hey, I know this!”
Hashizume: Japanese techno is quite famous throughout the world. Do you still keep in touch with your friends from that time?
Hisakado: I had a friend at RCA called Nao Matsunaga who was a ceramic artist, and our families are still good friends. When he comes to Japan we always meet; he lets me stay when I visit London. He’s coming to Kyoto next week.
Hashizume: It’s great that you keep that connection alive. Studying abroad is a great way to meet people. I hope we can tell the students about benefits like these.
Hisakado: It has to resonate with students. The reason is, there is so much information out there to satisfy them already. When I was studying, there was maybe one student from each school year who was able to go to RCA. It was like a dream. It was really competitive.
Hashizume: In the past, we used to get about 20 applications for three positions. This year COVID-19 had quite an influence; there were only two applicants. If you include the other partner universities, there are more than 10 study-abroad destinations available, but I don’t think we’ve ever filled all of them.
Hisakado: Students need that firsthand experience. If a student was here right now, it would sound completely different to them; people actually look at you and talk with their eyes. I’m not sure about students these days, but their sense of flicking through information is developed, so I guess they rarely stop and read things? Information is losing its value. We need to come up with new ways of providing information. It would be great if we could find a suitable way for today’s students.
Hashizume: I’m going to make a website for international exchanges this year; it needs an outlook that is designed for younger generations to understand easily. It’s quite hard if you just believe that people will get it (laughs).
Hisakado: I know, it’s sad. In our days we just kept quiet. We have to acknowledge new generations, but work on our slack attitudes or Japan will fall to ruin (laughs).
Hashizume: As you say, it’s important to acknowledge each other, but we can’t just leave everything to each other.
Hisakado: In the end, people will do what they want; there’s always someone like that somewhere in the world, so it’s up to students to either notice that or ignore it. I think it would be great if the teachers and staff could tell students, in a positive way without flattering them, about the possibilities of being proactive and jumping into unknown territories to expand their horizons.
Hashizume: I agree completely.
(Translation: Duncan Brotherton)
1981 Born in Kyoto, Japan. Currently lives and works in Kyoto.
2005 Kyoto City University of Art, B.A. Fine Art Sculpture
2005 Royal College of Art, Sculpture department, Exchange program
2007 Kyoto City University of Art, M.A. Fine Art Sculpture
(Photography: Yuichiro Tamura)