Painting, photography, performance: for Japanese artist Yoko Toda, her work continues to incorporate all three elements. Yoko and I met in 2011 at “Future Pass – From Asia to the World”, a group show and collateral event of the 54th Venice Biennale and kept in touch ever since. In her Tribeca Studio, we entered a two-day long conversation about leaving Japan as a young woman, wanting to photograph the war in Vietnam in the 60ies, performing in Paris in the 70ies, and living and working in New York since the 80ies. Yoko shares her views on life as an artist informed by living and working in the West as a Japanese woman, and discusses her constant engagement with performance, photography and painting.
Tell me a bit about your journey that started when you were a very young woman.
Oh, where to begin…It was a long way going from Japan to Italy and Paris to coming to New York in the early 80ies…
What were your first impressions coming to New York?
I came to New York with my American boyfriend at the time, and we lived in a big loft. In the beginning, I honestly thought, “this is the American way”; everyone lives like this. Our friends all lived and worked in huge lofts, so I assumed it was like this everywhere in the U.S. It is still incomprehensible to me how cheap real estate was at the time – me and my artist friends all stayed in these places downtown because it was cheap and nobody wanted to live here except artists. It was deserted and dirty and beggars were sleeping on the street. Today Tribeca is one of the most expensive and fancy areas of the city. Many celebrities live nearby. But it is still convenient, although sometimes the hustle and noise do get to me and I think “Why do I keep living here?”
How did you settle?
I was able to buy this place early on with very little money, and for a while I kept myself busy renovating it. It turned into a long process that took a lot of effort, despite me not always having a lot money to spend on it. So I worked on the place when I had time and I could afford it. I was not in a hurry. I think for a while the renovation process was my artform. (laughs) I was pretty content, though, because I could design my own space. But after 9-11 things changed for me: I decided to get me another studio in Japan, because everything happened so close to me. Also, I felt, it was a good idea to have another option to go to and live when I am older. I am not sure I want to live here forever although I like it. But the area has changed so much – all my artists friends have left because the prices have gone up. All the artists now live in Brooklyn or in other boroughs. I miss that community intensely.
I would like to know more about your upbringing.
I was born in the Japanese countryside, near Kyoto, to a family of art collectors and literati. My paternal grandfather painted in his free time and he took it very seriously. He worked in the classical aesthetic of traditional Japanese ink painting. My maternal grandfather photographed with glass film. I grew up in a family naturally immersed in art. Painting always felt very close to me so I started to paint myself early on. But Japan at that time was so different from today; the Gutai movement had not started yet, and there was hardly any professional gallery system existing. The whole notion of working as a contemporary artist was not introduced yet as it has been known in the West. So in terms of establishing a career as a professional artists I felt I had to go to Europe. By chance I found a book on the work of sculptor Marino Marini and learned that he taught at Accademia die Belle Arti di Brera. So I decided to go to Milan on a whim.
How do you recall your first encounters with Europe?
We were few foreign students in Marini’s class – one American and three Japanese students. I soon figured that sculpture was not to become my main medium and I grew interested into drawing and painting. It was great to be around all these guys, like Fontana and to see what they were doing. But I have to say I did not find it exactly easy to live in Italy at the time – it was the late 60ies and Italian society was still very conservative. There were hardly any Asians around – I was just too exotic and too visible to move around freely. It was crazy; I must have seemed like a different creature for them. That was one of the reasons why I went to Paris.
That sounds almost too effortless…
Believe me, it was not! (laughs) I was an artist in residence at the Cité des Arts, where I experimented with minimalist silkscreens that I would encorporate into my performances. It seemed a good place to develop my work, but after a while I felt Paris was a little quiet regarding contemporary art. So I was glad to finally be able go to New York in the early 80ies.
New York turned out to be the place you’ve stayed the longest. What did intrigue you here?
I enjoyed being in the middle of everything; especially going to all the shows and meeting all kinds of people. I guess I was pretty naive in my beginnings as an artist in the West, and I only discovered all the lures and difficulties of the art world only through the years. However I’ve kept a lot of contacts in Europe and I am still in touch with artists there. I also travel a lot, so that keeps me on my toes.
The first work of yours I saw at “Future Pass” in Venice was “Unknown Ideal”, a video rendering of a performance you did in Paris in the 70ies. I would like to know more about that.
I did a performance in 1975 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. That year was declared “Women’s Year” by Unesco. I was originally chosen to participate as a painter in an all women’s show. But I felt that there was something missing in the exhibition consisting solely of women’s paintings. So, again on a whim, I decided to stage a performance at the opening night. Many of my past experiences went into that. I was always critical of the stereotype of Japanese women in the Western society at the time. I was sponsored by Sony, so someone could film what I was doing with a video camera. Unfortunately, I lost the tape, which is a shame because I was very early to be able to document a performance that way. Luckily, I still have some photographs.
What happened during the performance?
I started being covered in a kimono being seated in the middle of the people at the opening – representing the stereotypical image of a “Japanese Woman”.
I would slowly start to move in the spotlight that was shed by the Video crew accompanying me, and people followed me to the center of exhibition hall. Here I would slowly unfold my kimono in front of the audience and start to smoke a cigarette and drink Coca-Cola. For me that was not only a symbol of West versus East but mainly a memory of a time when the Americans fought the Japanese in the war. Then I would slowly start to take off my clothes, not necessarily for the provoking sensation of nakedness but to reveal another part of myself. But it was a one-time thing and I never felt the urge to go back. It stirred up quite a lot of interest and people kept asking me when would I do the next performance. But it was just a spontaneous decision – you see tend to make decisions on a whim.
And what came after that?
Well, I worked on a few things much later. For example, two or three years ago I did a performance in Beijing. I asked a friend of mine, a professional dancer, to dance on my behalf. I projected some photography from my earlier performances and would just silently occupy the stage watching her from the side and turning to the audience in the end. I also grew interested in political performance related to my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in the early 60ies and my photography. I wanted to find images relating to the political situation and find a voice reacting to the Cambodian massacres in the 70ies. I projected my photographs alongside performers in military clothes. But in the end, I always felt that I was a painter first and foremost, so that dominated my work. I also preferred to work by myself and painting is ideal for that.
You’re referring to a trip you took as a very young woman. I would like to learn more about that.
When I must have been 18 or 19, I read a story in the newspaper that during the Vietnam war a Buddhist monk burned himself to death to protest against what the military did to his country. I had been given a camera, so I decided I wanted to be a war journalist and that I have to go there immediately and document everything. I was obviously naive, but I did not lack willpower – so I worked a summer job in a department store to be able to pay for my trip and then I went. If I think about it today, it is just crazy that my parents even let me do it. But I have always been very independent.
What did you happen to find when you arrived in Saigon?
When I arrived there, of course there were no battle fields in the city. The city was pretty quiet during the day, so I could walk around by myself seemingly undisturbed, going to the market and watching people bicycling. There was nothing to photograph for me and I quickly learned that I could not enter an actual war zone by any means. That sort of upset my war reporting plans! (laughs) It dawned on me that I better change my plans – and I kept hearing good things about Cambodia and the beauty of Angkor Wat so I decided to go there. Being in Cambodia, I did rent a bike and would bike to the temple and back to the city every day.
Angkor Wat is one of the most intensely visited temple sites worldwide. Did you ever go back? What was your experience coming back?
Honestly, it was a bit of a shock: everything was filled with tourists and bars and restaurants. And I realized another thing: what an incredibly long trip I took on my bicycle to go to the temple and back to the city every single day! (laughs)
What made you do this?
I was absolutely fascinated by the place. Nobody was there, you would hear the sound of the water buffalos in the distance and all the inhabitants passing by silently on bare feet. I imagined it to be my palace and took as many photographs as I could before my Visa expired.
Did you ever exhibit these images?
No, not until now. You know, I think the photographs always fell in the gap in between “art” and “documentary” photography. But recently there has been some interest from the Cambodian government and the local National Museum who hardly have any photographic evidence of the changing face of the temple apart from some images the French took in the 30ies. Let’s see what happens.
Let’s talk about your painting. Everything I see in the studio seems to be very ephemeral at first, yet the colors build up a thorough intensity. The work seems entirely abstract yet there is figuration luring in many of the paintings. How did you develop your style and how do you execute it?
Everything is done by hand on canvas. I never liked the idea of cleaning brushes constantly, mixing and thinning colors, using a palette and all that. I was always too messy to work like that and too lazy to clean my brushes. So one day I thought, “just forget about it”. I had already worked in charcoal, pastel and crayon, so the transition to the oil-sticks I use now felt natural; it is like gouache, you can layer it and you don’t have to premix colors on a palette and use these; you mix it directly on the canvas. It is more immediate. Formally, I try to achieve as much a balance between free form and a coherent formal structure. I think both are equally important and especially so when painting by hand.
Because during the painting process, I see all kinds of great shapes and forms and I would just like to stop immediately without finishing my composition. But I try to challenge myself and create something as ambiguous as I can and achieve a result as beautiful and complex as I can possibly achieve it. I try to create something that is not fully comprehendable intellectually or visually. You know, I like the idea of an image functioning as a movie – it seems still, but actually, it is constantly moving subject to light or depending on your point of view.
How do you decide when to finally stop a painting?
I think as a painter you need two things: first, self-discipline, so you’re not carried away with what you’re currently doing. Second: you need a good eye to judge what you’re doing. You have to be free and controlled at the same time. Also, the process depends on coherence. You can’t go back and add something after the surface dried as it will look different. You have to do it in the one session.
How do you perceive abstraction? Over the years, your series of works, such as “Fluo” seemed to become more and more abstract.
Abstraction was always my main focal point. I think figures always felt too limiting to me. If you draw a figure, you know what you can do. I feel that in abstraction, I can do anything.
How would you describe the role of the body in your work? It seems that working on these large canvases requires a lot of physical power and constant movement. And that aspect, I feel, links your painterly work back to your performances…
There definitely is a performative aspect in effect in what I do. The movement you detect in the stillness of the painting is a direct translation of my body movement. Also, you get a sense of immediate touch, because the stroking, tapping and streaking of the hand is different than what I could do with a brush. You need discipline, concentration and power to work this way. Sometimes, painting feels like a dance whose choreography I make up as I go along.