Dear Nara. Hope everything is good with you.
One Saturday in 1994, you and Kiyoshi Wako visited me in Eindhoven. There’s a photo of us together with my wife Irene and our two-year-old son Ilja. I’m leaning forwards to fit in to the picture, and we’re all looking into the camera lens waiting for the self-timer to go off. The window is open, and you can see the leaves of the elm tree, which has now been replaced by a gingko.
Photos taken with a self-timer are different to those taken by a person. While waiting for the click I am in an empty space in which nothing changes and life stands still. You get this indefinable feeling as you wait to become a part of the world again. I usually take a deep breath after a photo, like I’ve been swimming underwater. I wish I could always be in that empty state, neither alive nor dead, and I want everything to stay the same forever.
I think this is a childlike desire, because stillness creates a feeling of time and continuity that I remember so well from when I was a kid. I like it when I look at a work of art and know it will still be there tomorrow, and next week, and in a year’s time, unchanged. Whenever I look at your work, I feel it’s looking at me and challenging me, and we surrender to each other. It creates a reality of its own, and you realise you’re there alone.
In 1983 I made a 1.85-metre pink-painted concrete head with closed eyes, untitled. I didn’t know why I’d made it, but I was seeking confrontation with something exactly the same height as me.
I heard a robin sing this morning. It’s there all year round, and it sang a long, crystal-clear melody. The day began.
Dear Henk, thank you for the letter.
Yes, I remember well about my visit to your place in 1994. I remember
the Eindhoven station looked like Philips’ transistor radio, and the
swing for Ilja hanged in the big room in your home. The weather was
good, nice wind kept coming in from your big window. I think the
camera is, despite its inorganic industrial nature, a brilliant
communication tool which is very good at drawing everyone’s attention
by its self-timer function. But I feel slightly sorry for such a smart
device that we tend to value the “image” itself and the memory of the
“situation” at that time. Whilst reading your letter I suddenly felt a
gratitude toward that camera we used in your home.
Back then, 1994, it was around the time I rented my studio in Koeln
after graduating Dusseldorf academy where I attended for 6 years. I
rendezvoused with Kiyoshi Wako in Koeln and then we headed to your
place. I remember I and Wako-san talked about when I met your work for
the first time. It was when I was junior (third year) in an art
university in Japan and was traveling Europe. My first encounter with
your work, in a town in the Netherlands, I met your work which looks
like a bridge made with architectural materials (“Bridge” 1980). The
bridge painted white was covered with an enigmatic language. The
bridge firmly stood by itself without a doubt, but contrary, what I
received from it was a magical angst in a way. And I now think about
the picture card I bought there. It showed a wooden sculpture with
green head. Body leaning forward, both hands holding wood sticks as it
is skiing, the long stretched body is supported by 3 points: the 2
sticks and it’s toes. It had an intense image. Just like the bridge
work, or maybe more, this “z.t.” 1981 aroused an uncertain angst in
me, even though it had 3 very stable supporting points.
The pink big head work you created in 1983 made me feel, rather than
the kind of angst I received from former works, a feeling of its
function as a meditative device which the confronting viewers go into.
Knowing that it had exactly same height as yours, and knowing that you
confronted its height whilst creating it, I, who went through its
rigid masssiveness to perceive the inner world, feel very happy now.
And I noticed that there is a kind of perception obtainable only by
confronting something. It is as you said “It creates a reality of its
own, and you realize you’re there alone”. I now noticed about my
awareness of such kind of perception.
It is past 3 o’clock in the midnight now. In Japan we call it the time
when even the plants and trees sleep. It is an old saying. But I
think, plants and trees just don’t reveal themselves. I mean it is
just we humans sleep in this time. Plants and trees are actually there
even in the dead of the night, and maybe human confront its
consciousness : so called dream inside its head whilst sleeping. Well,
I guess it is time to go to bed now.
The camera is a wonderful tool for looking at the world. People are toolmakers. The children you draw and paint look as though they’ve taken selfies or used a self-timer. Sometimes I see children looking at their mother, close enough to touch them, and knowing that their mothers are looking.
I was on a train yesterday, and I noticed that station billboards show scenes in slow motion. We can’t look in slow motion, except in dangerous situations where our brains work so fast that we have time to take everything in, and everything seems to happen slowly. Slow motion gives us extra time to see all the pictures. We can step into the picture.
That’s where I’m at home.
I love that the bridge is the first work of mine that you saw. It’s important to me because it awoke the artist in me. In that sense, it’s also my first work. In those days I was living in a village, in an old house that had been empty for a long time, next to a churchyard. I had my own kitchen garden, worked in a piano restoration workshop for a few days a week, and was part of a street theatre group.
The house was known as Witch House. It had a name, as though it was a person. I never saw any witches there, and I wasn’t one either. But people threw stones at the windows and kicked the wooden front door like they were trying to pick a fight with it.
Once, I hid, grabbed a kid who was throwing stones and took him to the police station. Then one morning my car was tipped onto its side, and it was time to leave.
I looked for a studio in Eindhoven, the city where I was born thirty years ago. I saw bridges and electricity pylons on the way, and those were the first things I made in my new studio, which was in a decaying former brewery. The text on the bridge is about the deep sea, and ends with the words “the ever-present abyss”.
When I slept in my studio at night, I lay on the bridge and listened to the watchdog snarling as it roamed the brewery. I was scared of it. When I dreamed, the bridge connected me to the living world. I still blink when I look. The world is where I live, but art is where I feel at home.
Last night I dreamed that I was standing beside my older sister in the kitchen of a roadside restaurant somewhere in France, and she gestured to a boy to give me a sandwich. This was strange, because I was that boy in the kitchen: he had on the same shirt as I wore when I was twelve, yellow check with thin dark-blue lines. Apparently, we can be someone else.
When I look at your work, I am what I see. In the dream, I saw myself and I gave myself a sandwich. In fact, my sister looked nothing like my sister, and I was surprised that she knew me, but I was in no doubt that it was her.
Pictures placed in sequence tell a story. And we are the story, in which the works of art appear and acquire a place through force of circumstance. There are lots of stories, and they’re all important. To me, the body is a story: when I’m working on a figure, I start with the foot, in which I picture someone who’s asleep, and that’s how the form comes into being. While slowly continuing, I notice it wakes up with a start, or it might behave like a teenager that doesn’t want to get out of bed. But it breathes and grows, and when you get to the knee there’s disunity and indecision, a café full of people bickering, someone lost in a strange city. I struggle upwards, shunning sexuality, a big face living in the stomach with its eyes closed listening to music or to a voice that hums softly and says “listen”.
I keep working, and by the time I get to the head I’m usually in a house where someone has just died, the arms are backstage, whispering prompts and taking no part in the theatre of the body. When the work is finished, everything is past, forgotten. The applause is inaudible. The work is no longer mine, and everything I knew has evaporated.
In his 1919 story The cares of a family man, Kafka describes a being that lives and has a name, but the act of describing it makes its existence increasingly unlikely. Last year I made a piece called Kafka at Sunset Boulevard.
Your comment on the slow motion made me think about how organic time
flows when we see things through our visual perception. One frame to
another, the scenery switching so quickly and smoothly that we even do
not realize that it is actually changing. It is like how clouds move
when we look up in the sky in a calm windless day. The kind of
movement that reminds me of how the earth has changed since the dawn
of time… ground form shaped by rain and wind, movement of continents,
accumulation of an immeasurable time. Sometimes my mind wonders like
that looking at the floating clouds in a calm windless day.
We can say that the time creates memory. The trace of time makes us
possible to travel to the different times, even to the times we did
not experience. The sence of time we perceive by looking at the
cityscape is totally different from the perception of time we receive
when in the great nature. The nature actually has something (or at
least something that makes us believe so ) that reminds us of our
daily lives of old days, long before the cities were made, or even the
feeling of the daily lives in ancient days us human lived in the cave.
The distortion of time axis in the dream is so beautiful I feel, it is
as beautiful as if marbles thrown from its container, even though it
has an absurd story. Even a bad dream is sometimes beautiful to me,
put aside the psychological fear. It is just like how you were able to
connect with the world in your dream whilst being afraid of the
watchdog’s growl in your ex-brewery studio. Maybe the “ever-present
abyss” is not an entrance to the fear, but the mystery we must head
to, something which is able to expand our imagination by distorting
the flow of time.
My teleportation to “the ever-present abyss” usually happens whilst
working in the midnight. I live in a place where there is even no
street lamps. Outside of the window there is a field of grass. The
silence in the midnight hightens my sensitivity. Most of the time it
does not directly reflect on my creations but the hightened sense
itself, or the feeling as if I am possessed by someone else, is
enjoyable. I am not sleeping so it is not a dream, but everything such
as memory and time mixed together in a melting pot, the bygone time
melted and mixed with each other and it vividly shines. Very rarely,
unbelievably good works are created in such moments. When it happens I
can not believe it is created by my own hands, I feel as if someone
stirred my memory and used my hands to create such works. It can be
another me haunting myself from my birth as if it is my shadow, or
maybe a little sideshow act played by ancestrally cells engraved in
DNA. However, the paintings which I feel are made with such a
mysterious force, I mean most of such works are drawings…in the night
such works are realized, I become to think of an idea that I am a
cell, still alive since the ancient birth of life. But most of the
time I am constantly aware of my being in this modern world, and am in
fact creating artworks with a kind of feeling evoked by my own
I feel something mysterious from your creation: sculptures and
drawings. It is apart from theoretical art, and it makes me think that
it is as mysterious as if we can connect with each other and are able
to share our esthesis. Morphologically, I receive from your works a
kind of illogical distortion similar to the time axis in the dream,
rather than physical distortion. It is in deed a kind of feeling as if
I am being swallowed by the depth of the deep abyss, at the moment I
face it. But it feels so good to fall into the depth.
Yes, I love that you recognise the “ever-present abyss”. When I was reading, I fell silent and suddenly remembered who I was and how I was when I made the bridge. The abyss is the secret route to the studio. Sometimes you need to be nowhere, lost, fall into a precipice, to know that you exist and to be someone. Not so much as a person with a name that people can call you by, as a thing that exists. Falling means abandoning yourself to gravity and thus also accepting your body, the body that lets you pick up a stone, go for a walk, paint an eye or build a house. My body is like a loyal pet that never leaves my side.
The bridge was an object that reminded me of the extensive network of tracks that spans the world. But it was also a kind of machine to travel in, always somewhere in between, neither here nor there. It was an insect with special gifts that could transport me to my studio. A place where I’m an artist, where I can be someone who does something. The abyss is the secret route to the studio… Yes, it’s wonderful to fall, disappear into the depths, to float, and then suddenly to notice that I’m in my studio sitting at the table as though all this has never happened.
Yes, I’ve grown older, but that’s no big deal, no one can see me here. I’m alone. Earlier, I smoked a cigarette and did a drawing, and when I’d finished the cigarette I stopped drawing. It seems very strange to me now, all that smoke.
Time and space are a single entity, but in our imagination they work separately to bridge distances. When I’m in my studio, I imagine myself living underground, wandering through an uncharted maze of tunnels with my eyes closed, feeling my way along. Before I became an artist, I taught myself piano tuning. I discovered that when you’re tuning a particular note, the purer it is, the quieter it becomes, until it’s completely silent. Silence is about being present in time.
When I do a drawing, it’s because I want to be there in the drawing, and to meet someone. When I draw I know what I’m doing, but I don’t know exactly where I am. When the drawing awakens and something becomes visible in it, then I become thoughtful. Time is stored up in the drawing, a great deal of time in which I grow old.
One dark, windless night, I’d like to take the place of the missing streetlamps where you live. I’d be at one with the dark night. I’d be forever happy, and very big. While you look out at the starry night, I’m sitting on a plane and thinking of a heap of marbles falling out of a box, bouncing on the paving stones and rolling all over a busy square. I hear the clicking of the glass marbles blending with the voices of laughing people, and every child that picks up a marble looks at me briefly with wide eyes and is lost in my gaze. I stand there staring, and change into a tree. The world is a forest in which no one knows the way.
I looked at the clock and it’s exactly two in the morning. I switched off the stereo and now I’m immersed in the hush of the dead of night. I was just imagining throwing a stone out of the window into the darkness outside. Lit by the light, the surface of my workbench is reflected in the window, and the darkness beyond it, which seems so vast that you could fall into it, isn’t at all frightening – for some reason, it has a friendly warmth about it. Exchanging letters with you makes it possible to transcend time and space. It’s as if Holland, where you are, and Japan, where I am, are on opposite sides of the same table, and as we sit across from each other at this table, we are writing with the same pen on the same paper.
Incidentally, I don’t smoke anymore, but I feel nostalgic for the days when I would make one drawing for every cigarette I smoked. I stopped smoking all of a sudden. One day in March 11 years ago, my body no longer wanted cigarettes. It was as if my body rejected them and said, “If you keep on smoking, you’re going to destroy me!” Up until that point I had tried to quit a few times, but I always failed, so it was a wondrous thing.
When I was smoking, I churned out drawings in rhythm with my smoking. Rather than thinking about what I was drawing, it felt like my hand was moving involuntarily – like automatic writing. I’m thankful for the amount of work I produced during that period, but I have the feeling that it was more persuasive because of its quantity rather than its quality. Of course, there were some inspired masterpieces that seemed to drop out of the sky, but they were more a product of chance than any effort on my part. What’s clear, though, is that since I stopped smoking, I think as I draw. On second thought, maybe “think as” isn’t the right way to put it. It’s more like I’m drawing as I face my own reflection in the window late at night with the vast darkness beyond it. The self that perceives the self reflected in the window as myself is actually gazing at the self reflected there and the self in the room. In this way, it seems as if I am both sending and receiving inspiration. It’s like I’m passing through the vast darkness outside the window and traveling across time and space to meet myself – or that I am continually stretching out my hand to meet myself.
At the beginning of this letter, I talked about how it seems like we’re sitting at the same table writing to each other. Looking at your recent drawings, I have the sense that you are here showing each of them to me as you finish them. It’s not like drawing as you’re smoking or having a conversation with each other. I imagine both of us fumbling around and extracting things from the same deep darkness. Your first work I came into contact with was a bridge. You built the bridge to connect with me, and now I’m convinced that that image is reflected in my pupils as I fumble around in your abyss. This is very different from understanding your work – it’s about understanding you as a person. Dank U for giving me the chance to correspond with you like this.