30 September 2021 Even before we had a chance to talk with Yoshinori Niwa, somewhere inside myself I was sure that he was an extremely large-scale artist. His scale is not so much about greatness or geography, but about the breadth of his working optics, his interest in details of the world. I first saw Niwa's work in 2012 at the Double Perspective exhibition, a project that I often mention in my materials, as time has shown that the exhibition has to some extent become a special catalyst, having accumulated a number of important Japanese artists. Almost 10 years ago, Yoshinori Niwa, at “Looking for Vladimir Lenin at Moscow Apartments”, wandered around Moscow in search of things related to Lenin. From this rich catch, which some Muscovites were happy to share, a room appeared, filled with all these jubilant implements of the past. Until now, you can watch the video documentation of this action, which shows the Russians with their love (or vice versa) for Lenin. Niwa is a sniper from a world of performative who not only knows where to go, but also how to heal the wounds soaked in memory and national culture. Many of these situations are at a very distant temporal distance from him, when the artist himself was not yet there. His feeling of the event, personal reconstruction or the creation of a model of historical reality – brings him closer to resolving situations. In his wanderings, he conquers one country after another, harboring human vulnerabilities in an attempt to look at everything from the other side, a stranger and a wanderer. In this he is accompanied by his disarming charisma and luck, which I hope will be useful to him more than once in his future projects.
I would dare to tell you about each project, but then I am afraid that the people's anger and impatience will not bring your eyes to the interview, and that would be quite disappointing. But it is very important for me to tell you about one of his major projects in recent years called “Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space”. Perhaps some kind of echo from it reached Russia in 2018, since the project was first presented at the festival, curated then by Ekaterina Dyogot, but I'm not sure that traces of this remained in anyone's memory. The essence of the project was that Niwa, together with the city administration of Graz, placed a container on one of the central squares where any resident could bring any things related to Hitler. Things were subsequently collected and burned, according to the wish of the author, and the project itself was focused on talking about memory through things - the desire to give them away (deliverance) or vice versa, since the subject became part of the family history. A very subtle and important conversation related to denazification and at the same time with a simple attachment of people to material things, even to things that could cause pain and loss. The project has grown over the years and has visited many cities, continuing to live today. Authors such as Yoshinori Niwa have an armored splendor, an effort to conquer everything. I am scared, but in a very good way, to imagine a new project of Niwa in Moscow, because it is definitely high time for us to deal with our containers and their contents.
What else did Yoshinori Niwa do:
He stung the paws of cats in Norway, transported garbage from Japan to the United States, transferred water from a puddle of East Berlin to West Berlin, handed out money in Manila, explained newspaper headlines to chickens, took meaningless photos with strangers, invited thieves to rob a bank in Helsinki, walked to the zoo as a bear, tossed socialists in the air in Romania, bought his own things, changed the Turkish lira to the euro and so on to zero, applauded the bears in Bern, tried to protect the policeman with hugs, celebrated Karl Marx's birthday, made them read the unrecognizable, asked Taiwanese to sing the national anthem of the PRC , invited the young to teach elders, represented a non-existent society, made the guardians of public order out of emigrants, increased the height of the mountain, marched against demonstrations and about a dozen more works in the past and the same amount in the future.
Interview with Yoshinori Niwa
First, I would like to ask about your period of study at Tama Art University. How did your studying go and did it contribute to your formation as an artist? Who taught you and who were among your fellow classmates?
I studied at the Department of Moving Image and Performing Arts of Tama Art University, where people study all time-based art such as performing arts, films, and photography. The most interesting things were that i studied under the guidance of the professor of the department (poet and experimental documentary filmmaker Shiroyasu Suzuki) and filmmaker Sakumi Hagiwara.
I remember that Shiroyasu Suzuki’s class was a very experimental way of teaching the system of language, or how languages work in our life etc. I think that I learned much basic knowledge about how “expression” works to other people and how “artwork” is realised in many different ways.
When I was a student, I started creating art as a performance artist who is in general doing actions in the public space. When I was a student at Tama Art University, sometimes I helped NIPAF (Nippon International Performance Art Festival) which is running by the performance artist Seiji Shimoda, once I travelled with him to participate in a couple of performance art festivals in Europe. To be honest, I didn’t take any video documentation at the earlier time. I didn’t care about the quality of the video as much as I do now. More like a performer travelling from small festival to festival around the world until 2010.
Although it was not a clear decision, and I don’t remember clearly when it started, I started to name the tile starting with “...ing” and slogan-style. I think I got a big influence from those classes about languages on how I treat the title of my artwork and document all the processes whatever happens from the begging to the end with a video camera.
Some classmates established a theatre group and are still active, some became film directors.
In addition to exploring other environments and contexts, did your work outside Japan suggest that there is something you don't like about the Japanese institutional system? What are some of the most common challenges you face due to the methods of your work in Japan? Did it get easier as your work was recognized in Japan?
From the beginning, I was looking for opportunities to present my work all over the world. Especially in the early days, I was always on the lookout for international open calls and would apply whenever I could, and even open calls were always must be sent by post in those days, I still remember submitting many of them. I think it was an extension of my experience of organising a noise band and released some music from small European independent labels when I was a high school student.
Speaking about Japan, there was not so much support by the public fund or governmental support for young artists. Even if you want to create something that costs a lot of money, that’s always the problem. Especially, it’s pretty hard to keep creating something at the beginning and having a studio. You have to pay the fee for the university that’s super expensive. You have to pay the rent, food, transportation and additionally production cost which was almost impossible (imagine if you are a painter, how much do you have to pay?!) so I thought the performance artist would be a really great idea, very minimalistic, just using your body, so zero payment of the production cost and perhaps you don’t need a studio — sounds bit optimistic, but this was the initial strategy in order to keep creating something for a long time.
The turning point was in 2010. All of a sudden and luckily, I got an offer from a curator of the National Museum of Modern Art (Tokyo) to organise my solo show at another gallery space, that I was not thinking of as a space for me. After this experience, I started to think of showing my artwork slowly in the gallery space as well but creating artwork in the public space. Let’s say the condition is getting better and better year by year after this because I received more commissioned projects whose production cost is fully covered. But I still have a problem with how I can earn enough money for my life and production costs. It’s still hard to make money from my art.
If we turn to the history of interventions in public spaces by Japanese authors, do you have any favorites? As far as I understand, you are from the same province that the Zero Jigen members were from.
As you already know, Zero-Jigen and I are from the same Aichi Prefecture. Actually, I had some communication with Yoshihiro Kato, a member of Zero-Jigen for a little, I worked closely with him when I was living in Tokyo. Once we participated in the same performance event hiring a train on Toden Arakawa Line in Tokyo, which is a small local transporting system, and performers made actions on the train. It was a pretty interesting time when he was active. He was always talking about a story that he had been abroad for a long time and he had learned a technic of decoding and reading the meaning of dreams and Tantra in India.
Now let's talk about your projects. In light of the recent events surrounding the end of the Olympics and the resignation of Yoshihide Suga, how will your project “The Communities We Must Have Imagined” (2020) develop further? What do you personally think about the actions of the Japanese authorities and their consequences for society?
The concept of this work was to start working on it in 2017 by mixing old TV news footage from all over the world and footage I filmed, and complete it at the same time as the closing of the Tokyo Olympics. It was a response to the sentiment of the times, reflecting the complex emotions and desires of the Japanese people towards the Tokyo Olympics and the political situation surrounding it, in the story that all Japanese athletes did boycott—that’s almost impossible to imagine in Japan that would happen. So, the original idea was to create a fiction documentary that actually nobody would imagine it will happen to activate the imagination…I think that Japanese society is going to become more restrictive and more stressful, and I think that imagination will become a more important essence in this society, and in this sense there will be more interesting works from Japan.
"Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space" has been running since 2018 and is currently continuing in other cities. What discoveries have you managed to make for yourself during the existence of this project?
I had great experience and reaction from people in all cities where the container traveled. Starting as a commissioned work by the art festival steirischerherbst’18 in Graz (Austria) in 2018. I installed the cloth collecting container at Hauptplatz, Graz where is located in front of the city hall, and where once was Adolf-Hitler-Platz. The project drew really international attention — actually I got really a lot of media interviews more than I expected including the New York Times and got several offers to realise this project or showing the series of documentary video in Graz, from other countries such as Germany or Switzerland. Offers mostly came from Germany where people think “officially” take responsibility for Hitler. Then, I thought it would be great to travel to “Adolf-Hitler-Platz” in other cities because most Austrian/German cities used to have “one” to activate the imagination of local people and engage with people thinking over the cross-point of “public history” and “personal or family history” which create a question: To whom does history belong? I had different experience in each city. Because of COVID-19, I could not visit the apartment of anyone in Germany, however, people left messages on the container, they’re mostly shamed or angry of what I am doing. I think that’s great I engaged them and they reacted.
In fact, the container has travelled to Vienna, Düsseldorf, Köln and Dortmund. It was put in a public space along with a newspaper advertisement in each local media… Now the container is in Ljubljana, Slovenia for the upcoming solo show of mine at the Match Gallery. I hope the container could travel more to other cities in the future.
When I looked through the stories of your interlocutors from the project “Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space”, I thought about the fact that in countries that fought against Germany during World War II, there were many people who brought and kept such things not for reasons memory and nostalgia, but out of trophy motives. What do you think of this aspect of this phenomenon, when opponents also retain the memory of it through these objects?
It’s interesting that fact that people, even in enemy countries against Germany, take some objects as trophies. I guess it’s because of our human desire of remembering something very strongly through some objects, but then a question arises; Is it possible that we can only keep our memories and feelings through something material?
I made this Hitler project because I was also very interested in the way that these memorabilia are transformed into new personal meanings within their families and cannot be thrown away. It may be that beyond the state and political system as a community, all memorabilia are attributed to the individual at the very end.
Did you find any common pattern in people's attitudes towards memorabilia in the projects “Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space” and “Looking for Vladimir Lenin at Moscow Apartments”? What is common and what distinguishes the nature of storage of things from different ideological sides?
Some in both projects think old memorabilia from the past would become expensive in the future, so they would be able to make money out of it — that’s the reason why they keep memorabilia. I think this is a common pattern under our capitalist society — everything can be a “product” that has a certain value and is exchangeable with money in the market.
As for “Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space”, In Graz, many people asked me what’s inside of the container of “Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space”, people are very curious about it. Some say Yoshinori Niwa wanted to make big money from what he is collecting. Some think this is a great idea to do a denazification of our society. As the project was designed to shred all memorabilia in the container, some think we should not destroy all of them, but donate it to the museum to store the historical object as social memory to hand over to next generations. This became a focus of criticism.
As for “Looking for Vladimir Lenin at Moscow Apartments”, because the project was not designed to destroy their objects, but borrow them for the period of the exhibition, so people are happier to show and talk about their feeling towards Lenin, some has a personal feeling to him that defined their personality and life.
How difficult it can be for you to cope with people's reactions to your projects? Has there ever been a threat to your safety, and how does the fact that you are in the position of an “outsider” save or hinder this?
Most of the time, they got angry because I am a foreigner in the country. In other words, people who have negative feelings about my work are angrier because they think I have nothing to do with their land or its history. In fact, I got a lot of angry emails from FB, messengers etc. One guy said he would shit inside of the container, but he didn’t do it. Some said they were proud to be German and that they would attack Japan’s culture if I keep doing the kind of work I did in Graz.
Many of your projects have mediators (people, organizations) who participate in your projects and act as connecting bridges to topics or people. How do they affect your implementation process, are they part of your job or just a tool?
I carefully think of the power and social position of all the people and organizations involved in my project and I give them a specific role to realize the work. So, most of my projects are time-specific and land-specific to work with their social position. For example, in the project “Paying a Courtesy Call on the Incumbent Mayor by all His Predecessors in History” (2016) in Naoshima, it was a commissioned by the Fukutake Foundation which is one of organizers of the Setouchi International Triennale, I used their social position of having connections with local politicians which was a great collaboration.
You have often said that you are trying to build a relationship with those events that you have not witnessed. How far can one go in this restoration of eventfulness?
I think it is possible to try to get closer and closer to what we don't experience, what we don't know, what we think we don't relate to, and to make up for that lack with our imagination that art provides. This might be a very long journey, however, I think that art is an excellent way of supplementing what is lacking with imagination, even if it is not the same as a real experience. In other words, art could be a “different” type of real experience that can restore our human experience.
It seems to me that in a number of cases your work is ahead of time and mentality, providing answers / solutions to problems that can ultimately be resolved. How do you manage to strike a balance between humorous and serious?
Humour has the effect of opening people's minds and I believe that it is very helpful to bring humour into the early stages of a topic/discussion that is difficult to talk about. It's a strategy that can help pave the way for a more serious conversation in the end.
I really like that you are very careful with the documentation of your projects, making them available to everyone on your website. Why is it so important for you to make information about your projects open?
As I said before, I am filming all the processes from the beginning to the end of the project including negotiation, talking to the cameraman, failure to get permission so on. So, for me, documenting and making all available on the internet is a part of this process.
Your Moscow project about Lenin will soon be ten years old. Can you tell us something about your plans for a future trip to Moscow? What are your plans for the future?
I’m going to visit Moscow for research in October. It’s for the museum exhibition next year in Moscow, the details are still not fixed yet, but I would realize a large-scale project in collaborating with local citizens that deal with Russian and world history. I am also thinking of a couple of ideas in Asian countries which I haven’t done yet, but in these couple of years I would create some projects.
 Zero Jigen is one of the central radical art groups in Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Known for performing "rituals" on the streets of Tokyo, as well as collaborating with a number of experimental filmmakers of the time.