Splitting Bamboo: An Interview with Akatsuki Harada
by Mayumi Hirano
Mayumi Hirano (MH): How did you hear about the open invitation to the 1992 edition of the Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibition and Conference (VIVA ExCon) in Bacolod?
Akatsuki Harada (AH): I can no longer remember it clearly. Well, I have a feeling that I got the information about it through Lunami Gallery in Ginza, where I previously had a solo show, but I cannot be so sure. It might have come from my artist friend Teresa “Tei” Kobayashi. I had no idea about VIVA ExCon or even about Negros Island. I only knew a little bit about Manila.
Anyway, I was feeling tired of the Japanese artworld. Most of the time, we ended up exhibiting at a rental gallery space, which would easily cost us a weekly rental fee of 200,000 to 300,000 yen. It was quite costly. I wanted to gain different experiences, so I took every invitation to participate in exhibitions overseas. I traveled to different places, first New York, then South Korea, the Philippines. and so on.
MH: Did you have any information that prepared your visit to the Philippines?
AH: Not really. I remember reading the popular traveler's guide Chikyu no arukikata (Globetrotter Travel Guidebook). I didn't even know where Bacolod was located and I also didn't know how to get there. I enjoyed a little adventure like that.
I remember Nunelucio “Nune” Alvarado and Charlie Co waiting for our arrival at the airport in Bacolod. They drove us to their office, which had a nice atmosphere like a café. They asked about my artwork, so I pulled out my portfolio from my bag, and showed it to them. I still remember most vividly that Nune grinned and said, "shit!" Nune is a painter and I make installations. This is what I still vividly remember. At the time, I couldn't understand English, so I had to rely on Tei for detailed and complicated conversations, but what Nune told me then was easy enough for me to understand.
MH: Please tell me about the artwork that you made in Bacolod.
AH: I made a work in the front space of Norberto “Peewee” Roldan's family house.
MH: Did you exhibit the work there too?
AH: Not the exhibition, but I prepared and constructed the work in parts in their courtyard, and transported them to a public space in the city center of Bacolod, which was one of the venues of VIVA ExCon 1992. I did not bring any of my tools from Japan. I looked for materials that were cheaply available and could be bought in a large quantity. I wanted to use a material that is common to the people and the place.
Bamboo was the perfect material in Bacolod. They were sold in piles all across town. I bought some and started to split and tie them together. I was used to working with bamboo in Japan, but I didn't have the tool designed for splitting bamboo, so I used an ax that I bought in Bacolod. Neighbors were curious to see what I was doing, and a man approached me and asked if I was planning to split all of the bamboo. He looked like my age and he was a quiet person. He told me to see how he would do it. I was simply amazed. It was a culture shock for me. It was taking me ten to 15 minutes to split one long bamboo with the ax, but he was able to finish it in a few minutes. He was so fast. He showed me his technique and he even helped me split the rest. He took some cigarettes as gratitude, but that was it. I couldn't really communicate in English, so we were hardly able to talk to each other. But through actually doing something together, I felt that we understood each other.
MH: Communication is possible without a language.
AH: That's right. Doing something together can mediate the communication. I prepared the parts in Peewee's courtyard and transported them to the public park by truck, to be constructed as an artwork. There were benches, walking paths, and an area with grass. One day, I was setting up the work until late at night, and then I realized that there was a man looking at me from a bench. When I was packing up, he came up to me and asked what it was. I explained that it was my artwork for an exhibition, and he asked me about my plan with the work after the exhibition. I replied that I will perhaps leave it with the organizers, and then he asked me if he could have it.
MH: Did he mean that he wanted to keep the artwork for himself?
AH: No, he was talking about the bamboo. I told him he could have it. I asked him what he would do with the bamboo and he told me he would make a house. Later, I learnt that he was homeless and he would sleep on the bench every night, so he might have really made a house with the bamboo.
MH: Is there anything else you remember from VIVA ExCon 1992?
AH: Honestly, I can't recall much anymore. I remember attending a series of events held in different places during the VIVA ExCon, so once the exhibition opened, we constantly moved from one place to another. I remember one of the venues was a large gymnasium. I got to do many things that I could not have experienced in Japan.
The Philippines was the first country in Southeast Asia that I visited. I had been to South Korea, but it's not part of Southeast Asia. It’s so close to Japan. After my visit to the Philippines, I went to Thailand and Indonesia. After I started to travel to the cities in Southeast Asia, I realized that I had viewed Japan separately from Asia. But my visit to the Philippines, and subsequently to Thailand and Indonesia, reminded me of my childhood and made me feel nostalgic and some sense of intimacy. It actually felt like I went back to my childhood. That experience triggered my imagination. During my time in Bacolod, I was able to get ideas that I would never have thought of if I were in Japan. This is why I started to travel around Southeast Asia.
MH: The place became the inspiration for your work.
AH: From the place, people, or environment. Right around when I participated in VIVA ExCon, producing works in my studio started to lose its meaning for me. Just like what I mentioned earlier, visiting places in Southeast Asia made me feel curious and allowed me to be unpretentious. Like a kid, I could talk and ask questions to the locals without any hesitation. In Bacolod, children were curious about my work and came to see me during the production, so I constantly interacted with them, sometimes by using simple English words or using body language. I even spoke in Japanese, but they nodded as if they knew what I was trying to say.
MH: Is communication always integrated in your work? The impossibility of communicating through language seems to be an essential inspiration for your art practice.
AH: Yes. Using a language causes misunderstandings. When we know that we cannot communicate with each other through a language, we will engineer our own way to understand each other. On the other hand, when we speak the same language and assume that we can communicate, a misunderstanding can turn into a serious issue. When we don't understand each other's language, we try to find our common interest and find ways to join our forces. "International exchange" was the term often used to promote cultural events at the time, but it always seemed like the exchange required language skills. I was not sure what it really meant. I also felt that the exchange should not be contained among those who spoke the same language. I was interested in finding a medium that would facilitate interactions. I was looking for a non-language communication tool that would make things happen. In Bacolod, I kind of started to realize what I wanted to explore through my art practice. Then I became sure about it during my trip to Baguio in the following year.
The reason why I chose common materials for my artworks was because I am interested in the relationship between recycling and site-specificity. In Bacolod, my work was exhibited in a public park, which triggered a homeless man to come up with his own idea. He asked me if he could have my work after the exhibition. He wanted to make a house using the bamboo materials. I was excited that my work triggered his creative imagination. I am interested in how my work can transform into something else through its materiality.
MH: Some Filipino artists you met at the VIVA ExCon 1992 participated in the Lake Naguri Outdoor Art Festival in the same year. Did they also have a chance to interact with the local people in Naguri?
AH: Roberto Villanueva from Baguio made a bridge over a river and presented a performance about crossing the bridge. It was astonishing. Many local residents helped him, and all of us worked together to find ways to make the bridge steady and safe. We were also amazed by the knot tying technique used in Baguio that Roberto taught us during the production. Under his direction, we shared tasks and finally managed to build the bridge. It was a thrilling experience. The title of the work is the Bridge of the Cultures.
The atmosphere at the time was really good. I don't know how to describe that kind of energy. I have been involved in many projects where they were just starting up and still finding ways to realize their ideas, but I always lose my interest when the initiatives become established and formally recognized as institutions.
This is an excerpt from two interviews conducted in 2018: at the Laboratory of Forest Art in Yokohama on 28 September and at the artist's house in Samukawa in Kanagawa on 18 October. This interview was translated from Japanese and edited for length and clarity.
1985年から発表活動開始。画廊にて個展（東京）、美術館などでのグループ展（日本各地）、1990年から世界各地（U.S.A / 韓国 / フィリピン / ドイツ / タイ / スエーデン / インドネシア / オランダ / オーストラリアなど ）で開催されたアートイベント、シンポジウム、会議などに参加。特に屋外で開催されたアートイベントに参加することが多く、現在は横浜の森で1997年から25年間行っているイベント「創造と森の声 - 森ラボ (森Lab)」の企画運営と作家としての参加活動も行なっている。
Akatsuki Harada has been actively exhibiting his works since 1985. He has held solo exhibitions at commercial galleries in Tokyo, and participated in group exhibitions in museums in Japan. Since 1990, he has participated in various international art events, symposiums, and conferences in the USA, South Korea, the Philippines, Germany, Thailand, Sweden, Indonesia, the Netherlands, and Australia. He has been participating in a lot of art events, especially those held outdoors. Since 1997, he has been a leading member of the planning and organizing team, as well as participating artist, of “Creation & Voice of the Woods - Laboratory of Forest Art.” https://morilab.amebaownd.com