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Read Bjork's2001 interview with Juergen Teller from the index archives.

Kathleen Hanna discusses writing and making music in this interview from 2000 with Laurie Weeks.

Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.

Check out our interview with Crispin Glover by Richard Kern from 2000.
Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.

Yoshitomo Nara, 2001


Behind Yoshitomo Nara’s paintings of sweet-faced children with knives in their hands and doleful puppies with resigned smiles, there are ever-present reminders of the strangeness of childhood. As Nara himself says, his work is all about memories, both sad and fantastic. He perfectly captures the loose ends of being a kid — the unresolved guilts, the hazy visual recollections, even the pets that everyone had or wished they had.
Since his Tokyo debut in 1995, Nara’s paintings and sculptures have gathered a devoted audience. Apart from participation in numerous international group shows, Nara has had solo exhibitions at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and the Santa Monica Museum of Art, and he is preparing for a retrospective in 2002, which will travel throughout Japan. To top it off, The Museum of Modern Art just bought two large collections of Nara’s drawings. But even with all the fame that’s come his way in the past few years, Nara remains refreshingly open, enthusiastic, and friendly. We recently met up in Tokyo, where he talked candidly about his inspirations, his memories, and his recent work.

MIDORI: Your paintings of girls with big heads and mean eyes have almost become your trademark. Where did the little girls come from?
NARA: The kids are not exactly girls. They’re in-between figures, neither male nor female. They express the ambiguity of our having both masculine and feminine sensibilities. This might come from the fact that I had a sister who died a year before I was born, or that I have a name that could be a girl’s. The Japanese characters for my name, Yoshitomo, can also be pronounced  “Michi.” I was named after Empress Michiko, who was a big star in the late ’50s, when I was born. My parents had two boys in a row, lost a girl, and believed that I would be another girl. So my name is a token for my lost sister — whose sensibility I believe passed on to me.

MIDORI: People seem to read stories into your work, although the sources of your images remain somehow mysterious.
NARA: I once titled an exhibition Screen Memory. I realized I was depicting traumatic memories that I wanted to cover up with screens, but which nevertheless emerged.

MIDORI: What came out?
NARA: The memory of abandoning my dog when I was a child, for example.

MIDORI: Do you use guilt as an inspiration in your work?
NARA: My work contains a lot of guilty memories that remind me how bad I’ve been. I frequently get letters from people who tell me that my paintings show them their own inner darkness.

MIDORI: I’m sure most people identify — kids can be pretty evil.
NARA: Yeah. They’re pure evil.

MIDORI: What about you?
NARA: I was really, really happy. I knew so little about the outside world. I found a great deal of joy in my parents’ house — the grass, the flowers, the little animals, and everything else in my small world.

MIDORI: You were born in 1959 — that places you in the Japanese Pop generation with people like Takashi Murakami. People of your age were bombarded with new kinds of information growing up — from comics, to animation, to sci-fi movies and action figures ...
NARA: Until I was about seven years old, I lived in a house that stood in an open field. My room and the house were my domain. I read comics, but I perceived them as something outside of my little kingdom. It wasn’t until I was ten or eleven that comics and toys became real to me — that was around 1970, which was the peak of Japanese economic growth. At the same time, a lot of houses were being built in my neighborhood. There were no more clear spaces.

MIDORI: The expansion of your personal boundaries corresponded with the change in your community.
NARA: Yes. But as I think back to my primary feelings — being happy, sad, joyful, or lonely — I find that I’m still the child in the open field.

MIDORI: A real empty landscape?
NARA: Just the field, with some apple trees. I still remember everything from that time, the trees, the lumberyard, the railway station with the single platform. Memories of my childhood landscapes — like walking to the station with my mother in the snow, through a big white emptiness instead of through a town — never leave me.

MIDORI: You went to the Dusseldorf Academy of Art from 1989 to 1992.
NARA: I learned a lot, but not so much from the curriculum. The living environment was more important. When I moved there, I spoke very little German. It made me happy if someone simply spoke to me. I gradually realized that I had experienced a similar feeling at a certain point as a child in Japan — even more deeply. Living in a foreign land, I recovered the receptiveness I had forgotten.

MIDORI: Like a second infancy. The paintings from Germany have a very special atmosphere. Figures appeared in them ...
NARA: Ghostly figures?

MIDORI: Yes. Both your paintings and drawings from that period are filled with half-human, half-animal creatures; dogs whose torsos are welded into a kennel, kids who play instruments in the clouds, winged figures. Where did they come from?
NARA: Wings appeared at a time when I was struggling unsuccessfully to integrate my childhood emotions and my present self within a single visual image. They disappeared when I became more independent of my past and took up the challenge of living in the present. At that point, the image of the box became more important. The box, as well as the shell, signify the protective environment and the rules that shelter kids from external pressures. But the shell also restricts them — kids have to break it in order to grow up.

MIDORI: What about the kids who are inside the cups, boxes, and shells?
NARA: My strongest emotion in relation to the external world is rebelliousness. It’s awakened by feelings of oppression: rebelliousness is the flip side of the desire to improve oneself to meet the standards of the external world. The image of a shell may seem negative, but to me it signifies the willingness to accept loneliness and helplessness as a springboard for asserting oneself to the world.

MIDORI: Does a puddle signify something different?
NARA: Very different. In my paintings, a puddle is a passage that connects the presentto the collective realm — a sort of netherworld.

MIDORI: Did your experience in Germany have much influence on your idea of this other world?
NARA: I actually felt its existence most when I traveled to Ireland. The hills undulating below the overcast sky reminded me of home. That experience really moved me. And Irish people often sing outdoors, so that their voices echo up to the sky. I’m from Aomori Prefecture, the northernmost province in Japan, and in my home town, older folks also sing outdoors in order to send their songs up to heaven. The way people live in Ireland, with their myths and fairy tales intact, felt surprisingly familiar. I remembered many little warnings my grandparents gave me, like, “If you go to the mountain in pairs, you must take a little doll with you.”

MIDORI: Apart from your childhood landscape, what else has influenced you?
NARA:  Children’s picture books and graffiti. Among contemporary painters, I like Donald Baechler. His work really integrates the freedom of drawing with painting. It made sense when I found out that he used to transcribe someone else’s graffiti onto the canvas — that’s how he would get that automatic quality. I also love the work of the cartoonist Taiyo Matsumoto. His drawings are wonderful. I feel that we share spiritual roots.

MIDORI: I can see that. Both of you place your characters within landscapes that are based on real places from your past. Matsumoto is also known for drawing superfluous little characters in the blank areas of his comics.
NARA: Telling a story in a comic strip is like painting on a canvas — both processes use a specific frame. But Matsumoto breaks up the format of the cartoon by inserting these creatures that aren’t related to the plot in any way. So the white space of the comic strip becomes a kind of graffiti wall.

MIDORI: You also tend to draw on used paper, or on paper that already has writing on it. Don’t you ever like to draw on fresh paper?
NARA: I hate it! When I have to use a blank sheet of paper, I just draw and draw until the space is filled. But when I cross out the writing on some old piece of paper, I can immediately see what needs to be drawn. Used paper already contains a density, a space. When I perceive that space, I can draw immediately.

MIDORI: That’s interesting.
NARA: I’ve learned a lot from Renaissance fresco painting; I especially love the translucent colors of Giotto and Piero della Francesca. The surface texture of fresco painting contains a space that I can enter easily. It’s interesting to consider, as walls have so much more resistance than paper. I also love Giotto’s painting because it makes me feel the strength of a believer. I see a similar spirituality in Cy Twombly.

MIDORI: Your recent paintings present more self-contained, iconic images than your earlier work.
NARA: They are getting more object-oriented as I become a more conscious painter. I’m restricting myself now, trying to be as deliberate as possible. I’m repressing my desire to explode — almost to a sadistic degree. It’s not that I hate to paint consciously and thoroughly, but I’m trying to put a shell over myself in order to let something new come out.

MIDORI: What sort of environment do you work in?
NARA: I listen to loud music while I paint. It creates a certain amount of chaos, which I try to capture in the space of my painting. I want people to feel the commotion beneath the surface of my pictures.

MIDORI: What music do you listen to?
NARA: I love punk. It literally keeps me going. But nowadays I’m listening to a lot of Eminem. His lyrics are so intense and shocking — I get a lot of images from them.

MIDORI: Can you choose the three most important places in your life, from your present point of view?
NARA: Dusseldorf in 1988. My house and the field around it in 1965. And Kodaira City in 1978 — that was my first year in Tokyo.

MIDORI: They all signify beginnings in your life.
NARA: That may be right. Places I didn’t think about much at first have become more important over time; the longer I live somewhere, the more I think of the period when I first arrived.

© index magazinegelatin1
Yoshimoto Nara in Shibuya, Tokyo by Leeta Harding, 2001
© index magazinetobias
Yoshimoto Nara by Leeta Harding, 2001

© index magazinegelatin0
Yoshimoto Nara by Leeta Harding, 2001
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