The topic of illusion in art and in media history is not a novelty, however just few artists were able to touch this argument with the sensibility demonstrated by Ryota Kuwakubo. His recent works are developed with the use of shadows, which assumes specific philosophical connotation about the relation between fiction and media.
Kuwakubo is a Japanese artist who has been working between art and technology since the end of the ’90s. His cross-disciplinary approach brought him to produce various kinds of works, which ranged from electronic devices to interactive installations.
Kuwakubo successfully participated in remarkable exhibitions at Ars Electronica in Austria, at Galerie Lucy Mackintosh in Switzerland, at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, and the National Museum of Art in Osaka, among others.
Alessio Chierico: First of all, I would like to ask you about your background; what was your academic career? How did you enter the field of new media art and art in general?
Ryota Kuwakubo: I studied Plastic Art and Mixed Media at Tsukuba University’s art department. This course of study aimed to create a new area that included various disciplines related to classic art, modern design and new media. It was inspired by the methods used in the Bauhaus, so we dealt with many different media like steel, plastic, film, photography, and even holograms. But, there were also performance, sound and whatever… It was very tough work.
In the first and second years of this program, every student had to attend the same courses. In the third year we had to choose our own artistic direction or our own medium. In Tsukuba University’s art department there were three main directions: design, fine art, and I do not know how to call it… it was something that was following the ideas of Constructivism: no design, no art, it was very unique.
The fine art course was very traditional. For instance, the students could not make abstract paints. If they wanted to do this, they had to join our course. For this reason there where many crazy guys, and a very creative mood. After graduated I entered a software company in Yokohama, it was a small software house. I worked there for two years, and during this time I realized that I had no space and no time to continue my artistic works.
At the university there was a big studio where I could use big machines for making my projects. When I started to work I could not access to these facilities. However, one of my professors suggested me to work in projects which do not require big space.
For this reason I started to use electronics for my works, they requires small space. Since I was working in this company, I learned to read electronic schematics and create software in low level programming, with this skills I could develop my artistic works.
Alessio Chierico: What were the most important steps during your artistic development?
Ryota Kuwakubo: The first important step was in 1998, after I quit the company I had worked for one year; I was free and I started to collaborate with Maywa Denki. It was very condensed period, and in that time I could learn many skills by myself.
Another step is more recent. Until 2008 or 2009 I used to make electronic gadget, but when the iPhone appeared I thought that I should make something different. Actually, smartphones have already a lot of useful electronics and sensors, so they can already do many things. I had two options: one was to make iPhone applications; the other was to think about something else.
In this time I started to consider why I was making interactive objects. The answer was that I wanted to create an experience for the people. Moreover, in that period I was a bit frustrated by the historical problem of electronic arts, which are often considered inappropriate for art galleries or museums.
Mainly, for me the problems where connected to practical reasons like the maintenance of the pieces, but also their accessibility. In most of my projects, just one person or a few people could experience the work at the same time. These were the reasons that pushed me to make installations; I wanted to do something that the people could just see.
With this I do not mean that the installations must just be beautiful. What is important for me is that the people can experience something important. I believe that it is not necessary that the people experience the work by interacting physically with it, I want to give them the opportunity to interact inside by themselves. From these reflections the work The Tenth Sentiment came out.
Alessio Chierico: Can you describe your last projects? What do they have in common? I’m referring to Invisibility, The Tenth Sentiment, and Para-existence in particular.
Ryota Kuwakubo: The Tenth Sentiment is a big project for me. The first prototype was made in 2009 for an exhibition in a gallery in Osaka. In the beginning I just had a raw idea of this work. I just wanted to use a light point in a train model (from rail modelling scales).
At that time the train was not essential for me, I just wanted to move the light and create shadows with it. This work consists of several ordinary objects placed around the train rail model; the light on the train casts the shadows of these objects on the walls of the room.
When the objects are placed very close to the track, the shadows are big, when the objects are a bit far the shadows are small, in this way I can create some kind of landscapes, with different layers of depth, where it is possible to see strange structures and constructions. In order to create a special effect, I set a very slow speed: the train moves 3 cm per second.
When I was working to this project I realized that the visitors were involved in a relevant experience. First of all, the shadows create a kind of video: moving images that are totally continuous and analogical. Secondly, the shadows recall the sight of landscapes, the visitors cannot avoid being involved by this impression, and it reminds them of landscapes that they have already experienced.
The work Invisibility was a commission from Aisin: a car components, personal mobility, and sawing machine company. They asked me to create some installation for the last Fuori Salone in Milan. Since this industry is using robotic arm for their production, I decided to use one of those for my installation.
I wanted to recreate the experience of The Tenth Sentiment, using a different mechanism. Basically, like in The Tenth Sentiment, this project is composed by several object distributed in a space, and the robotic arm holds the light which, passing between the objects, creates the shadows, so the landscapes have a different motion than the one with the train model.
When I set up my installations I need to align the objects very carefully. I need to watch the shadows projected on the wall to do so, and move the objects with my hand for a very long time. Certainly, I also see the shadow of my hand, after a while, it is a very strange sensation, I feel like that the shadow is my real hand.
This reminds me Plato’s cave allegory. I thought that this is not just a metaphor, it works physically. So I imagined what should be to feel the shadow, when it does not appear as usual: I expect to feel something strange with the body. From these sensations I started to develop “Para-exsistence”: an installation placed in a room where one side is filled of fifty torches made by myself.
These torches create spotlights which points to the opposite wall, but oriented with different angles. Each torch make a square projection, when you see this wall, you see a grid of lights. Standing in front of these torches your shadow appears decomposed in different position of this grid, like an unsolved puzzle.
Alessio Chierico: These works deal with the topic of illusion. How do you relates this with technology?
Ryota Kuwakubo: When I started to make installations I used embed technology in my works. In other terms I was hiding the technology in the shell. I was curious about the function, and I wanted to show it, but since I made installation I was interested in process of perception and experience.
I tried to put the mechanism out of the box, but it was still creating illusions… it is not that simple… you could still see the all process, you know the process, but it is still creating some illusions. These illusions happen inside you, your imagination, your perception. Technology creates some illusions, this is very common, very evident.
Alessio Chierico: In your latest projects the shadows are the primary elements. What do shadows mean for you? Did you get any inspiration from them?
Ryota Kuwakubo: Shadows are related to the presence. They show something that is supposed to exist, even if we do not watch it directly, they manifest a presence that is far from the essence of the object. Shadows make me be more careful to look something. For example, when you eat, you enjoy tasting, but sometime when you just look some food, you imagine the taste.
My son is three years old, when I cycle with him, he rides in front of me, and he calls everything he sees. It reminds me of R2D2 and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. It is like augmented reality… I see usual streets, but he explain everything, so it refresh me to see ordinary things. This makes me wonder that people enjoy seeing, eating, tasting… but, how can I let the people experience what I want?
I found that moving shadows creates a new reality, or let the people reconsider the reality itself. Connected to what I was just saying, an important inspiration comes from the book: In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki. This book talks about how Japanese culture care about darkness and shadow, more then light. For instance, when you eat dinner, there is very dark light, so that you cannot see the dish very well. This permits you to increase other perceptions like taste, smell and temperature, instead then visual.
For the same reason also the bowls lacquer is dark: it decrease the importance of the vision over the other senses. Another inspiration comes from the Plato’s cave allegory. I was saying before that when I came out with the idea for Para-existence I felt the shadow of my hand was very real. This is one of the possibilities of the optical phenomena: it can be easily converted or diffused. Then I though that the Plato’s cave is not just an allegory, it works physically.
Alessio Chierico: Shadows were also used in magic lantern, one of the first technology of illusion. Do you think that the technological development have both historical and strong relation with illusion and magic? What do you think about?
Ryota Kuwakubo: When some new technology comes, it affects reality, and someone wants to create illusion with it, so there is a natural connection between technology and illusion. The magic hides the mechanism: the appearance of technology tends to be magical.
Alessio Chierico: I found very fascinating that in your works the illusion and the mechanism behind it are exposed and visible at the same time. Do you suggest that technology should show some signs of its mechanism?
Ryota Kuwakubo: Yes, but I do not think that we can catch up with everything, because the technology is going to be every time more complex. We should also say that: when the mechanisms are invisible the devices are easier to use. People do not care about the mechanism they just care about the function. However we should know why the devices work in a certain way.
It is very interesting that my son could use the iPhone since he was a baby. Recently I bought a very small computer, an on-board computer, it can be used with a TV and a keyboard. I am not sure that my son liked it or not, but it is very simple, just characters and basic language. Anyway I am sure that this system is very attractive for him, because highly advanced graphics is not important for a child, it is the sense of wonder that is important.
Alessio Chierico: Are you working on any new project? Do you know already what you would like to continue your research in? Can you give us just a hint about it?
Ryota Kuwakubo: I made too many installations during these years, and I feel a bit tired, but it is important for my artistic development so, I will continue in this direction. However I have many draft ideas, I want to make many prototypes and realize many small pieces of these ideas. Then is important to see what come out of this, and focus on some specific project. These ideas are not connected between them. They will be not related to the use of shadow, they will be something totally different.
Alessio Chierico: Besides your artistic activities, you also hold a position as associate professor at IAMAS (Institute of Advanced Media Art and Science), as well as at Tama Art University in Tokyo. Would you like to describe briefly your teaching method and how your courses are structured?
Ryota Kuwakubo: At IAMAS I help the students make their works. Sometime the students do not have enough skills to make their projects, and one of my roles is helping them. In comparison with IAMAS, the students of Tama Art University have different characters, they are younger, it is an undergraduate course. Sometime they have no ideas about which projects they want to do, but they have very good technical and practical skills… it is like a sport… they are trained.
Here I use some methods that aims to motivate their artistic development, I want that they are exited about what they make. In their fist year, the IAMAS students must choose a group, or as we call it: “project”, which focus to a specific research area. In this format we have not seminars, in each group there is a team composed by several teachers, and the students can join for develop some collaborative projects.
I belong to the group Re-inventing the Wheel. Here the students can develop their own works, and during the meeting we discuss about them, and we search references to media history. The topic of Re-inventing the Wheel can be related to the development of projects that present updated versions of old technologies.
Moreover it can take inspiration from the possible ways in which some technologies could be developed in the past, but that they were not chosen or they disappeared soon, in the competition with other technologies which survived. This is happening also today, if we consider iPhone, Android, Apple Watch etc… we will see in five years which technologies will remain, and which one will fail. So we study the past media for a better understanding our present situation.