Artist Ohtake Shinro made his debut in the 1980s and has become a leading figure in the modern art world. His work has passionate supporters among Japanese and international luminaries, museum creators and young people. In November 2022, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo opened a retrospective exhibition of a living artist for the first time ever. Ohtake himself permitted cameras to film his process for the first time. On this occasion, we follow the creation of a new work for the exhibition. How does Ohtake create his art? An array of materials and techniques are used to shape the eccentric atmosphere of his works. We learn the hidden secrets of his creative process through interviews with Ohtake himself. He also talks about his youth and the detours he has taken on his artistic journey. Notable artists share their admiration for his creations in this art documentary, which delves deep into Ohtake's work.
Artist, Ohtake Shinro.
This charismatic star of the art world continues to explore new modes of expression.
You only get one life.
I want to push my limits.
I don't care about leaving behind
some great masterpiece.
But I won't compromise on what I want.
Whatever others say,
I'll do this till I die.
His methods defy classification in the pursuit of boldness and freedom.
He's produced a truly diverse array of works during his 40-plus-year career.
In 2012, he was chosen to exhibit at Documenta, a German art show held every five years.
The following year he was invited to the Venice Biennale, the world's largest contemporary art exhibition.
We shared this, as well, this idea about just being curious about the world
and wanting to figure out how everything hooks together.
And that's reflected in the quality of the work and also the amount.
In the world of computers,
bugs mess things up.
His works aren't scribbles,
Bugs jumping out and
dancing on the canvas.
In November 2022, the National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo held a massive retrospective of Ohtake's work.
His latest piece drew a lot of attention.
But what inspired it?
For the first time, Ohtake has permitted cameras to record his process.
We watch his work take shape.
For the last 18 months, I've only
made works about a meter large.
So for a while, I've wanted to tackle
one that's two meters in size.
It was time.
I want to show it at
the exhibition next year.
Well, who knows?
I never plan these things.
The piece will be made on a specially ordered wooden panel.
It's two meters by one-and-a-half meters.
He thins wood glue with water, and applies it over the surface.
He then adds layers of old wrapping paper, one by one.
Covering the entire surface in paper is the first step in his creative process.
This is the very basic foundation.
Next is cardboard.
Or another material.
I need to take it apart.
Like fileting a fish.
The boxes have layers.
It's interesting when you
tear them apart.
They have varying patterns inside.
A single box provides
all kinds of materials.
So I rip it.
Take out the center.
It's random every time.
So I make a whole bunch of them.
Once I have enough, I start pasting.
There's no rhyme or reason to it.
Sometimes an edge sticks out, like this.
Most of it disappears.
99% of it gets covered up.
But that 1%, something remains.
That's what gives it density.
Nothing interesting will
come from planning.
Not for me.
He has no vision for the completed work.
The process is one of improvisation.
Thinking about it doesn't help.
I think I'll glue on more layers.
This kind of bit really
comes into effect later.
I get leftovers like this, right?
I'd want to add those back on.
It all counts.
If you're too efficient,
it falls apart.
The key for me is inefficiency.
Taking a roundabout way gives density.
The shortest path is boring.
- "What's that?"
Chips from crushed marble.
His lines aren't connected
to his brain.
His brain doesn't send
a signal to his hands.
There's a glitch in his synapses.
His hands move on their own.
Completely cut off from
thought or consciousness.
Just hands, moving alone.
Shaping faces or buildings.
It's all done by muscle.
They move, and he watches with interest.
There are two of him. One with creative hands
and one with a critical mind.
It's the root of his audacity.
Ohtake Shinro was born in Meguro Ward in Tokyo in 1955.
He was the second son of parents who ran a shop that sold bags.
He made this collage at age nine.
At the time, art and manga were a source of emotional support for Ohtake.
In senior high, he grew to admire pop art, including the work of Andy Warhol and David Hockney.
He applied to the oil painting course at the Tokyo University of the Arts, but wasn't admitted.
He instead entered a private art college.
But, dispirited, he took time off from school to pursue a life separate from art.
In 1974, he chose to live on a dairy farm as a way to "reset" his art education.
Cows are looking at us.
They make fun of the new guy.
I got kicked a fair bit.
Even peed on.
I didn't know why the cow was
lifting its tail.
I looked and got peed on.
There's no instruction manual
No one can tell you how to
become an artist.
Each day on the farm, he got up at 4 AM, and did hard labor until late at night.
Whenever he had a spare moment, he would sketch.
Scraps of paper in his pocket took the place of a formal canvas.
The person I was then
had more drive than I do now.
The 18-year-old I was back then.
Just pure enthusiasm.
That's the heart of all creativity.
In 1977, he took another leap into an unknown world.
This time, to the UK.
A new culture was forming from youth concern about the government and national politics.
The Royal College of Art is an acclaimed art school.
By chance, Ohtake once visited a graduation exhibition here.
At the exhibition, he discovered the work of student Russell Mills.
Ohtake was blown away by the deep expression Mills created with a variety of materials.
First time I saw Russell's work
it was pouring rain.
I felt miserable.
I thought I'd give up on art.
It wasn't for me.
For the first time I thought,
I can't do this.
This is impossible.
Filled with both despair and awe, Ohtake got in touch with the artist.
It led to a mutual friendship.
Russell Mills is an internationally famed artist.
His thought-provoking mixed-media work has won acclaim from writers and musicians around the world.
He still vividly remembers his first meeting with Ohtake.
And he saw my work and liked it very much, and he tried to indicate that
without being able to speak English and I obviously couldn't speak Japanese.
So we somehow communicated by pointing at things and smiling, or grimacing if we didn't like it.
Just to establish a kind of set of values, I guess.
And I got on with him very well, and he was living up in North London somewhere, in a bed-sitter.
And I was living in Kentish Town in a one-bedroom flat at the time.
So he used to come over quite a lot to Kentish Town, and I'd take him to the pub.
And so we built up a kind of vocabulary that we understood,
and talked about collage, and literature, and Kurt Schwitters, and William Burroughs, and Marcel Duchamp.
And I was just feeding him everything I could really.
And he was like a sponge just taking it all in.
When I met Russell,
I felt this wave of remorse.
I was 21. If I wanted to be an artist,
I needed to take it seriously.
Or at least try to.
I went back to Japan.
And studied copper engraving
and silk screening.
I decided to make six engravings a day.
And scrapbooks. So many scrapbooks.
I painted in oils and made drawings.
If I couldn't make art non-stop,
it wasn't for me, I thought.
After returning to Japan, Ohtake threw himself into constant creation, a changed man.
This piece is from his first solo exhibition, held in 1982.
The motif is an American ad, painted with enamel.
The work was a revelation to the art world.
Ohtake was suddenly in the spotlight.
Japan in the 80s saw a lot of
violence in schools.
Ohtake's buggy style of art
was a good fit for that era.
In a different way from the 60s,
the 80s had a sense of individual
rebellion against the system.
There was a sense of unrest.
A lot of personal uprisings
and revolts in the 80s.
The spotlight on Ohtake Shinro
was part of that trend.
Ohtake continues to add new elements to the work.
Today, he spends a long time looking at the surface.
What's going to happen?
The smooth progress has ground to a halt.
Ohtake turns his work upside down and leans it against the wall.
Yeah, I prefer this.
I wasn't expecting this.
Because it's upside down.
This is much more interesting.
I'd never do that in the upper left.
I'll go from here.
Using a bit of charcoal adds depth.
A sense of perspective.
It emphasizes the bumps.
I don't know what comes next.
I honestly don't know what I'm doing.
If you ask what I'm trying to express,
the only answer is, I don't know.
It's just, like...
Thinking about it, in our society...
Art is the only place where things
don't need to be understood.
It's okay to not understand.
He'll suddenly come up with a really left field idea, like he did in 1989, '90,
when he was making the Retina series of works using Polaroid film and scratching into the emulsion,
and it was another kind of drawing or painting that didn't have a name,
that he just invented from playing with the materials.
So there's such a wide variety of ways of making drawings, of making a mark in his work.
And he's talked about, if he were left without any art materials,
and he just had chopsticks and soy sauce or something, he could still draw.
He doesn't stop to worry about, "What am I making now, is this a drawing, a painting, a sculpture, a photograph,"
you know, it's just making art.
I think it will take a very long time for real understanding of his work.
Also since the second world war, had become commodified, become Americanized, commercial,
and there was this kind of clash of cultures going on.
So in terms of collage, Shinro was just reflecting all of that, this massive stuff going on in Japan was in his work.
He'd collect things and put them together, sometimes unconsciously I suspect,
not trying to make meaning out of it, just saying this is what goes on all the time in Japan,
just this massive stuff, every day, non-stop.
And yet behind it is this kind of calm down kind of culture that needs to go on, which still goes on,
and yet we've got all this rush of modernity clashing with these values.
And I think Shinro was trying to absorb all that through collage.
Ohtake begins tearing the pasted cardboard.
He picks up the torn scraps and begins sticking them back on in a random fashion.
I've always done this.
I stick the torn pieces
back somewhere new.
The total volume doesn't change.
It stays the same.
He turns his work upside down again, returning it to its original orientation.
When I turned it upside down,
I cut some parts. Around here.
It changed the balance.
I prefer this now.
Yesterday I found paint
I don't remember getting.
Paint for stained glass or
painting on glass. It's translucent.
Oil-based, so it could be
interesting against resin.
He's been working on his latest creation for nearly two months.
Around this point is where
people ask when it's done.
That's not something I think about.
It tells me when it's done.
There's a critical point.
If you go past that, it's ruined.
Layers don't matter. At times, I reach
that point at the foundation stage.
All too easily.
And I start to think to myself,
surely it's not done yet.
So I add something and it fails.
Once I reach that critical point,
I leave it alone.
And in a few months, I get a better view.
Freshly finished, it's hard to say.
Ohtake sets his work aside to rest.
Six months after stopping work on the piece, he returns for another look.
The colors have settled well.
Anything else would spoil it.
It was already finished.
This happens a lot.
It's not a specific goal.
It's just reached the right density.
It's not that I couldn't
add another millimeter.
But it's, like... Adding
anything else would be a waste.
It wouldn't help anything.
It's about feeling when
I've hit that point.
The completion of Ohtake's latest work is connected to news that shocked the world.
It's the invasion of Ukraine.
It felt so sudden.
I finished this piece in late January.
Then a month later,
the world order had changed.
I hadn't thought of a title.
But the invasion showed me
why I made this.
It looked like an aerial photo
of a city.
One that's been bombed.
Photographed from above.
His latest work is titled "Mnemoscape Zero."
Before starting 'Mnemoscape Zero,' Ohtake spent over a year of the pandemic holed up in Uwajima.
The Mnemoscape series was born out of that siege mentality.
The series contains around thirty works.
The process evoked images of ruins and destroyed buildings.
The early Mnemoscape works were
like bird's-eye images of a city.
As if taken from drones.
They're ruins, but they felt
like peaceful ruins. Quiet.
But this felt different.
They weren't natural ruins.
This is something that was destroyed.
Suddenly it all made sense.
Rather than natural decay via the passage of time, Ohtake's latest work revealed deliberate destruction.
So he added "Zero" to the title "Mnemoscape."
Work on Ohtake's exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art is proceeding rapidly.
The team is setting up a place for his newest work, "Mnemoscape Zero."
The news shows so much being
destroyed every day in Ukraine.
So much beauty.
And people dying, of course.
Obviously that's far worse.
But all the little everyday things.
The beauty that inspires me.
I'm sure there's so much of it there.
And people who see no value in it
are destroying it.
In my life, I've not really been faced with
destruction on this scale.
The pandemic, the 2011
Fukushima nuclear disaster.
They bring home just
how powerless I am.
But I make things.
All I can do is just keep creating.
Who cares about what art means.
Just keep going.
Don't give in to pressure. Keep creating,
whether there's meaning to it or not.
That's how I feel.
It's like pouring sand onto a
mountain of sand. Over and over.
One perfect moment of satisfaction,
that slides off immediately.
That's what creating art is to me.
So, I don't get the idea of enjoyment.
This talk about enjoying the
creative process. Makes no sense.
It's not fun for me.
Making art isn't fun.
Living like that must be tough.
It's divisive. Causes conflict.
Regular folks think he's strange
and write him off.
But he's kept going.
Over the decades since we met.
That's real fortitude.
He's still living as a bug.
Maybe right to the end.
We share that.
I sometimes, people ask me sometimes, like, "you're an artist, why are you an artist?"
And I say, well it's a condition I have, as if it's a kind of illness.
I can't do anything else, you know.
I wouldn't want to do anything else.
And I think Shinro's exactly the same.