Artist interview: Keiichi Tanaami

Was ‘pop art’ a term used by yourself or colleagues or was there different terminology that referred to a new figurative art movement in the 1960s and early 1970s?

I think the term pop art was a very common term and anybody interested in art knew about it. Around the same time, in Japan there was an art movement called ‘anti-art’ (hangeijutsu) and artists who deviated from traditional art criteria were creating turmoil in the world. In comparison, pop art was easy to understand and it was associated with a modern, urban image – it was popular.

Did you ever consider yourself (now or in the past) a pop artist?

I have never thought of myself as a pop artist. However, when I was young there was a time when I was influenced by the methodologies and techniques of pop artists, such as Warhol. Therefore I was perhaps categorised as a pop artist.

Did your work engage with current events in the 1960s and early 1970s?

The 1960s were a decade full of stimulus and adventure. All at once, many traditional values and meanings were denied and it was an era which revolutionised all fields drastically: it engulfed politics, society, culture etc. and marched towards endless opportunities. I was also influenced by the trends of this decade and its festive atmosphere surely changed me. At the time, I was particularly engaged in the creation of experimental films. My experimental films began from being inspired by Kenneth Anger and Jonas Mekas and then they shifted to animation. In 1966, I felt strongly against the principle of one original image and created a work, Portrait of Tanaami Keiichi, a work of ‘mail art’, which was directly sent to people who I wanted to show it to. It is an artist’s book, in which a number of art media were mass-produced

Keiichi Tanaami Crayon Angel 1975

Keiichi Tanaami 
Crayon Angel 1975 (film still)
Courtesy the artist and NANZUKA
© Keiichi Tanaami

How did you choose the subject matter for your work included in The World Goes Pop?

There was a famous Japanese confectionery company that used an angel as its brand icon. The public was invited to copy and depict this angel, and a number of angels that had been drawn by children with crayons were published in a newspaper. These dimly drawn angels that I saw in the midst of tough war times had a really shocking impact on my soul as a child. The memory of these times did not go away but stayed for a long time and inspired me to create animation works [such as Crayon Angel].

Where did you get your imagery from (what, if any, sources did you use)?

My uncle left a very big collection [of images] and as a child one of my favourite things to do was to steal into the warehouse where they were stored and play with them. Even now I remember very well the film magazines from before the war, maniac postcards or film posters of Jean Harlow in artificial colours. There was especially an overflow of things which were linked to war and these difficult times. I also often used this material in the collage works that I made in the 1960s.

Were you aware of pop art in other parts of the world?

In Tokyo close to the Ginza there was a bookshop, Iena, which specialised in Western books. It was a valuable source of information for me and I went there regularly. I have forgotten the name of the magazine but I remember that I was fascinated by a small photograph that I saw in an American art magazine. This was my first encounter with pop art. I think it was probably a work by Roy Lichtenstein. There was information about works from America and England but I didn’t really know anything about works from other countries.

Was commercial art an influence on your work or the way in which it was made?

The pop art that Andy Warhol represents rebelled against the boring exclusivity of contemporary art; instead, it used the popular appeal and secular character of commercial art, TV or other mass media as material. In this context, commercial art greatly stimulated me.

I created a large number of paintings and prints which used popular culture as their main material; but for me the most symbolic work is my short animated film Commercial War. It is a film in which I cut TV commercials freely and then reorganised them with sound. I used the sounds as well as the commercials the way they were and tested the multiplier effect with the screen. It is a popular animation which turns around the world of pop. It literally is a ‘war of commercials’.

Was there a feeling at the time that you doing something important and new, making a change…?

[no answer.]

Was there an audience for the work at the time – and if so what was their reaction to it?

Regarding animation works, there were only very few visitors and few places where we showed these films. At the time, animation films by Disney and such were well known but there were hardly any opportunities to see experimental animation films and there were not many people making them either.

Around 1964, an animation festival started in Tokyo and it became possible to see works from overseas. Around the same time the dramatist Terayama Shūji opened the Tenjō Sajiki theatre and approached me as I had been looking for a place to show my work. It would be in the middle of the night or early in the morning when there were no public theatre performances but nevertheless I was thankful for his offer. However, there were also days when it was really empty and only two or three people came. There was also a situation when some people came who expected a normal film and then said, ‘Give me my money back’ – that was a real shock. 

Looking back at these works, what do you think about them now?

Today, I still create works that deal with my experience of war as a child. This moment of fear that a whole city can disappear just within a moment is a memory that has been recorded deep in my mind; it does not go away. Bomb blasts that burn the skin; weirdly shining orange flares; enormous bright red columns of flames; machine gun fire from combat planes; the smell of scorching corpses lying on the streets. This extreme reality attacked the young me. The fact that it almost feels like yesterday, although it is far away in the past, shows that to me it really was a big incident. In Crayon Angel, real bombing moments from contemporary news films that I had seen in the cinemas as well as from newspapers and magazines telling of military war situations are overlapping, perhaps like in a collage. This film was the starting point for the works that I have been creating until today.

September 2015