This is an English translation of an interview with the artist Susumu Koshimizu, carried out by Lena Fritsch (Tate Modern) at Tate Modern on 22 November 2016. In the interview Koshimizu discussed his practice in general as well as the art scene in 1970s Japan. He also spoke about his involvement in the 1970s Tokyo Biennale, which he had discussed the day before the interview took place at the Contact Points seminar organised by Tate Research Centre: Asia.

Susumu Koshimizu, From Surface to Surface 1971
Susumu Koshimizu
From Surface to Surface 1971

Lena Fritsch: When did you begin with your art and how did you become interested in sculpture and object art?

Susumu Koshimizu: I think it was January or February of 1967, about six months after I started university. I was in the department of sculpture, and, in the department of painting, studying oil painting, was Katsuhiko Narita, who’s a Mono-ha artist known for burning charcoal and things…

Lena Fritsch: Of course! His work was exhibited at the Paris Biennale in 1969 and he has been represented by Kamakura Gallery.

Susumu Koshimizu: Quite possibly. One day he came to my atelier out of the blue, and said we should form a group or something. It was an opportunity for me to create art, so that’s what I did, and I started exhibiting afterwards. If Katsuhiko Narita hadn’t called on me, I may not have created anything for a while longer; I may not have exhibited.

Lena Fritsch: Really?

Susumu Koshimizu: I made friends quite quickly after starting university, so that gave me the opportunity to start creating and exhibiting work.

Lena Fritsch: Were you interested in art from the outset?

Susumu Koshimizu: I’d been thinking about having a go at art from the age of around 17. But to be honest I preferred music to art. If it had been possible I would have liked to have gone down the music route.

Lena Fritsch: What kind of music?

Susumu Koshimizu: At the time I wanted to be a vocalist. At the time. So I was really into music. But thinking about all the conditions that would need to be met for me to go down the music route, like my own talent and so on, I thought it would likely be difficult and decided to go for art. My father had always drawn, and I’d grown up liking drawing, so it was natural for me to go down the art route.

I have an elder brother, and he happened to be studying architecture, so I had plenty of opportunities to look at 3D, spatial, things in various books. So it was natural for me to go down the sculpture route, rather than painting.

Lena Fritsch: I see. When you started making art, were you influenced by other artists’ work, or other art?

Susumu Koshimizu: I don’t think I was particularly influenced. At least when I started exhibiting with Katsuhiko Narita and the others, I was completely independent. Along the way I learnt things, started going to private galleries and art museums. Of the people close to me, the people around me, as an artist I liked Jiro Takamatsu. I also liked Katsuhiro Yamaguchi.

Lena Fritsch: We have some of his work in the Tate collection now.

Susumu Koshimizu: Really?

Lena Fritsch: Yes. There are some photographs, and two years ago we acquired two hanging sculptures made of mesh and cloth …

Susumu Koshimizu: Like a kite?

Lena Fritsch: Yes, and a third object in acrylic plastic.

Susumu Koshimizu: I liked his work, but I don’t think I was particularly influenced by it.

Lena Fritsch: Were there any artists you looked up to in the West, or outside of Japan?

Susumu Koshimizu: As a student I liked Anthony Caro from the UK, and Robert Morris and Donald Judd from the US.  But back then I didn’t have a chance to see their work in person. The first time I saw the real thing was in 1971 when I went round the art museums of Europe when I was there to exhibit at the Paris Youth Biennale.

Lena Fritsch: Your piece that entered the Tate collection in 2008, From Surface to Surface, does it have a Japanese title?

Susumu Koshimizu: Hyōmen kara hyōmen he

Lena Fritsch: Would you mind telling me how your piece, Hyōmen kara hyōmen he, came about?

Susumu Koshimizu: I exhibited the piece in January 1971. Before then, in 1970, people had started grouping us together as Mono-ha. The definition of Mono-ha was exhibiting matter as art, doing as little to it as possible. That was how people defined Mono-ha. I didn’t agree with the idea of “doing as little to it as possible”. I wanted to get across that I hadn’t rejected the act of doing things to matter: shaving it, cutting it, and so on. I had come from a sculpture background, whereas all the other Mono-ha artists had studied painting and come from a painting background. But I was a sculptor, so for me carving and shaving wood was a completely natural form of expression. I wanted to go as far as I could with acting, as a human being, on this material, wood, investigating the relationship between the wood and myself. That was one thing.

I think the title From Surface to Surface is very hard to understand. When a person looks at a piece of wood, before it’s turned into art, what they’re looking at is the surface. They look at the surface and comprehend it visually. Then when I, as a human being, cut into it, the surface of the wood appears to have changed, but in fact the essence of the matter – the wood – hasn’t changed at all. That’s what I thought. It’s just gone from a surface that hasn’t had anything done to it to a surface that’s had something done to it. Those are the two surfaces.

Another thing is that when people look at a sculpture or an installation, often they aren’t looking at the visual aspect, but also at what is behind the work, the meaning. They look at a piece and wonder what on earth it means. I think everyone wonders what message it holds beyond what they can see. What I wanted to create with this piece was something where, when people come to see it in a gallery, what they grasp of the piece the moment they enter the gallery, and what stays with them when they leave the gallery after looking at it for five or ten minutes – the first and last impressions – are virtually the same. That’s what I wanted to try to create.

Lena Fritsch: Hence From Surface to Surface.

Susumu Koshimizu: Right.

For example, when you’re driving really fast down a motorway, there’s all sorts of information that you grasp instantly, whether it is the scenery, or road signs, or the cars coming in the other direction. Human beings grasp and understand things in an instant, and I wanted to create a piece that would be seen in the same way. That’s where From Surface to Surface came from.

There’s something else, too. Human beings do all sorts of things during their lifetime. They do all sorts of things that are necessary in life. As human beings carry out various actions throughout their lives, it is as though they are drawing pictures or writing on a big stack of paper. As the days go by they draw tens and hundreds and thousands of pictures. Sometimes it can seem like the fact that we are alive is deeply significant, but aren’t we just doing the same thing over and over, as though we were automatically drawing pictures on those sheets of paper? Nonetheless, I had the feeling that this very act of repetition was in fact what life was about, which is why I took those planks of wood and cut into each of them in a different way.

There was a lot going on in my head when I came up with this piece.

Lena Fritsch: Is this the first piece you made using wood, or had you used wood previously?

Susumu Koshimizu: The first piece I ever exhibited was made of wood: a piece from my student days. But if I go back even further, as a child at play I used to enjoy whittling twigs with a knife.

Lena Fritsch: So it is quite familiar to you?

Susumu Koshimizu: Yes. I was born surrounded by nature. Right behind the house where I lived there was a mountain, and if you went up it there were plenty of twigs, so I would pick them up and whittle away at them with a knife. That was a perfectly normal pastime for me. So maybe I made my first pieces using wood as a child.

Lena Fritsch: Do you still have them?

Susumu Koshimizu: No I don’t.

Lena Fritsch: That’s a shame. Originally, this piece was made in 1971, but what happened in 1986? Was it remade?

Susumu Koshimizu: I remade it. The one I made in 1971 no longer existed.

Lena Fritsch: Why is that? Because you didn’t have a studio?

Susumu Koshimizu: I didn’t think my work would ever sell, and I didn’t have anywhere to put it.

Lena Fritsch: It is quite big! (laughs)

Susumu Koshimizu: Yes. It just so happened that a certain person, a supporter of mine, asked me to make them a bookcase using the piece. So I made a bookcase out of it and gave it to them.

Lena Fritsch: So it might still exist somewhere as a bookcase?

Susumu Koshimizu: It’s probably somewhere.

Lena Fritsch: That’s interesting: the piece was ‘transformed’.

Susumu Koshimizu: Right. (laughs) Not just that piece, either. A piece I created in March 1971, which consisted of squares of timber on the floor, was turned into a wall at my friend’s restaurant. Back then I had no concept of my work as a product.

Lena Fritsch: That ties in really well with my next question. Here at Tate Modern, your piece is currently exhibited in the View from Tokyo: Between Man and Matter display about the Tokyo Biennale. Would you mind telling me a bit about your activities and experiences, and about the art world at the time of the 1970 Tokyo Biennale?

Susumu Koshimizu: The years 1968 and 1969 were a time when the Japanese art world underwent huge change, particularly in regards to what we were trying to do within it. 1970 was the year of the Osaka Expo. I think it was the first international exposition held in Japan, and at the time the Japanese economy was growing rapidly, so everyone, the whole of society, was full of energy. On the other hand, young people were protesting against universities’ style of teaching and so on. There was anger amongst young people about the way the environment was being destroyed in the name of economic growth. And on a global level, you had the Vietnam War. There were US bases in Japan, which brought the smell of war from Vietnam over to Japan. That is the kind of time it was. Even when creating art, people weren’t just thinking about art, but about the state of the world and the state of Japanese society. We thought about these things in our daily lives as we went about trying to decide what kind of work to create.

I only realised later, when people pointed it out to me, that at the time those of us who were known as Mono-ha didn’t incorporate political messages into our work. There were people whose work had a very political message, but we wanted to see how we could change the art world by creating art. We didn’t try to get anything political into our work; we didn’t consciously think about whether to touch on political issues with our work or not. We were thinking purely about art and what forms of expression interested us, what was possible, what would make for rich art. I think this trend, represented by Mono-ha, was strong in 1970.

The Tokyo Biennale was very important, but at the same time only 13 Japanese artists were able to submit their work to the Tokyo Biennale.

Lena Fritsch: That’s not many, when you think about it.

Susumu Koshimizu: There were a lot more artists around us, though. Some of them featured in the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition August 1970: Aspects of New Japanese Art. Most of the artists now known as Mono-ha artists exhibited there.

Lena Fritsch: We refer to you as Mono-ha, but you weren’t trying to create something as a group, were you?

Susumu Koshimizu: No.

Lena Fritsch: What was your relationship with the other so-called Mono-ha artists? Did you exhibit together?

Susumu Koshimizu: We were mostly graduates of the university I went to, Tama Art University. There were only one or two, like Lee Ufan, who weren’t connected to Tama Art University. People like Koji Enokura and Noboru Takayama were students at around the same time, but they went to Tokyo University of the Arts, not Tama Art University, and they formed their own group. Of the members from Tama Art University, including Nobuo Sekine, Katsuhiko Narita, Katsuro Yoshida and Kishio Suga, everyone apart from me happened to be in Yoshishige Saito’s class. They were Yoshishige Saito’s students. I was in the department of sculpture, so I was a bit different, but those in Saito’s class were very proactive in creating work and having group exhibitions. I got to know Nobuo Sekine personally and started doing exhibitions and things with him and Katsuro Yoshida; we even got part-time jobs together. We ended up talking almost every day. We were always, always, talking about art, every day. I think we had the kind of relationship where we naturally came to influence each other.

Do you know how the name Mono-ha came about?

Lena Fritsch: From what I’ve heard, it was given to you by a critic in around 1973 – I don’t remember the name – and that is when it started being used.

Susumu Koshimizu: To this day I don’t know who it was that first used it. But in 1970 the people we’ve been talking about took part in a symposium. There was a magazine called Bijutsu Techo, and they published an article in the magazine about the symposium entitled was ‘Hatsugen suru shinjin tachi’ (‘The newcomers speak’). At the time, although they didn’t give it any particular name, the magazine picked up on the fact that there was a group of very energetic and active artists who had started making unusual artwork, and put together a special edition. We were all still young back then, in our early and mid twenties, so we weren’t very good with words. We weren’t good with words, so when we spoke, we talked about mono (things) and about using mono to express something; we used the word mono a lot. Some grown up critic, or maybe an artist, who read the article thought we talked about mono all the time, and named us Mono-ha. In a sense the name was derogatory. In the same way, for example, as impressionism was derogatory in France.

Lena Fritsch: I thought it was because mono, or materials, were important to you.

Susumu Koshimizu: Right.

Lena Fritsch: Maybe that is part of it as well?

Susumu Koshimizu: It is because materials, matter, mono, were important to us that we used the word mono so much! And so we came to be referred to as Mono-ha.

Lena Fritsch: I see. That’s interesting.

Susumu Koshimizu: Another thing happening in the Japanese art world at the time was that every year the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto would pick out young artists who weren’t yet widely known but who were doing interesting work, from amongst all the young artists in Japan, and hold an annual exhibition. It was called Trends in Contemporary Art (Gendai bijitsu doko ten), and it started around the mid-1960s. Over time, a few of the artists from each year’s exhibition would go on to create good work.

There was also the Mainichi Contemporary Exhibition (Mainichi gendai ten), organised by the Mainichi Shimbun. That was a competition. If you submitted your work and were selected, you got to make your art gallery debut. It was a trend.

Both exhibitions reached their peak around 1968, 1969, 1970. I think everyone paid close attention to those two exhibitions.

Lena Fritsch: You mentioned the Osaka Expo earlier. How was that? Did artists go and see it? For example, you said you liked music. Stockhausen came with the German pavilion. There were a lot of new things happening in music around that time too. Were you influenced by them? Or was that something separate?

Susumu Koshimizu: I don’t think it had much of an effect on me.

Lena Fritsch: Were you interested? Did artists go and visit? Or not really?

Susumu Koshimizu: It was the era of The Beatles. I preferred classical music to The Beatles at the time, though, so I personally wasn’t particularly influenced. But it was the music of that era, so I do feel nostalgic when I hear it now. Strangely though, nowadays when I’m driving and I listen to music – I have all sorts of music that I’ve recorded onto CD and I listen to it in a random order – the music that suits me best, or that I find comforting, is modern jazz.

Of course I like classical music, like Bach, as well, but for some reason it is modern jazz that helps me relax.

Lena Fritsch: Going back to materials: your work often uses wood and stone, would you mind talking a bit about your materials? Yesterday at the Contact Points seminar you said something very interesting, which was that you let water be water, and wood be wood, and iron be iron. Could you talk a bit about that?

Susumu Koshimizu: When I create a piece of art, whatever material I use my idea is to show that material at its most beautiful. I like my food, so I liken it to having ingredients in front of me and trying to think of the most delicious dish possible using those ingredients. I don’t cook much, but I do always think about the tastiest way to use ingredients. So if I’m using paper, I try to find a way to make that paper look as vital and paper-like as possible; a way, moreover, for it to become more than just paper – to have power beyond mere paper. To do that, I act on each material as appropriate; I interact with it as a human being. That has always been my attitude. And I think those years – 1969, 1970 and1971 – were when I felt this most strongly.

I’ve done a lot of work in the past, but what I really want to try now is to get a humble blade of grass, or a pebble, and turn it into sculpture.  That’s what I’m thinking about now.

Lena Fritsch: So what you are doing now is a bit different from creating something with your own hands, as you mentioned earlier, you just take something as it is?

Susumu Koshimizu: I do still do something to it, that hasn’t changed. But I don’t seek out particularly big bits of wood, or particularly big stones: special ingredients. I’m thinking about how to take whatever I happen to pick up, a small stone, for example, and bring it to life as a piece of art.

Lena Fritsch: So really familiar, simple materials?

Susumu Koshimizu: Yes. Like a supposedly worthless piece of straw that’s fallen in the road. A rice stalk, or a pebble, or a twig. How to turn things that are considered mostly worthless into something beautiful. That’s want I want to try and do. That’s my desire, at any rate. It’s hard to know how to actually go about doing it.

Lena Fritsch: I’m looking forward to seeing that. But straw and stones and trees, they are all natural, aren’t they?

Susumu Koshimizu: Yes. There might be a piece of wire or something in there, too. Picking up twigs feels more natural to me though, rather than going out to deliberately look for a piece of wire.

Lena Fritsch: This is my last question. Why did you choose to express yourself through sculpture? Or, simply put, what is your favourite thing about sculpture?

Susumu Koshimizu: I think maybe what I find attractive about sculpture is that I can express myself in three dimensions: in the three dimensional world in which I live. With painting everything is restricted to the two dimensions of the canvas. Sculpture can be experienced in a much more physical way. I think that is what appeals to me. The space of this room, the space of the house which I live in day-to-day, the space that surrounds me, are all spaces I can touch and move around in. I think it appeals to me to be able to express myself in that space.

In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, I did a lot of work shaped like boats. When I think about it, the space of a boat is a space that I can physically enter. There is a link between my own physical body and the space. I think I’m very aware of that.

Lena Fritsch: The space between a human being and an artwork is important?

Susumu Koshimizu: I think so. You sometimes get a piece of art that is enormous, but unless there is a particular request, or a particular meaning, I don’t think there is any need to create something enormous. The world which I can sense with my own body suits me much better. I think it’s connected to trying to comprehend something in the real world. What’s interesting about sculpture is that even this sheet of paper can be used to express something.

Lena Fritsch: I understand. Thank you very much.

Susumu Koshimizu: Sorry that wasn’t very concise.

Lena Fritsch: Not at all; it was most enlightening. Thank you very much.

Susumu Koshimizu: Thank you very much.