Yuko Sakurai / 桜井 由子
“Oil paint is easier than cream and chocolate”
November, 2002 / May, 2003
PETER LODERMEYER: You are the daughter of a sculptor. So I guess you grew up in a domestic environment strongly characterized by art and discussions about artistic themes. Is this social background still important for your artistic work today?
YUKO SAKURAI: Yes, there is a big influence from my father living within me. Mainly, he makes sculptures of human faces and bodies. He expresses his emotions relating to the subjects of his art. His works are warm, calm, and have a human touch. He chooses models who show their own character in their faces. Since I was a child, I have always been interested in his sculptures, especially in the portraits. The models he chooses are not necessarily beautiful, he isn’t interested in that, it is the atmosphere which the person expresses. My way of expression is very different from my father’s but the thought and the atmosphere are not so far away. My work also does not want to be beautiful. I want to be honest to myself and to express my emotions within my works. I didn’t understand my father’s concept when I was young and lived close by him, but naturally I learned many things from him. Both my parents have an artistic education. I respect my father as an artist, and I understood very well my mother’s decision to earn money instead of being an artist. So, I went also in another direction and became a French Pastry-cook.
P.L.: Is there any compatibility between making French gateaux and painting?
Y.S.: Oil paint is easier than cream and chocolate. I was using brush and palette knife as a patissier as well, so I felt comfortable learning painting. Cakes and paintings both are created by hand, and they show my personality. They both have to go through many processes to reach the final result. Making pastry is not just beautiful work, it takes a lot of physical energy and perseverance, similar to my work today. The paint I use has a consistency like butter. Materials and their specific characteristics are an important value in my daily life. I use the material not only for the visual result, but the material is as it is, part of my work.
P.L.: Why is working with oil paint easier than with cream and chocolate?
Y.S.: Cream, for example, will get hard and dry very quickly. Also, if I work with it too slowly, it changes its color and quality of taste. When I use chocolate on a cake as an icing, it needs exactly the right temperature, and if I don’t melt it very carefully the material will
separate into oil and cocoa. So, I always felt they are very organic materials. If I don’t care enough about them, they don’t do what I want and I can’t change them anymore if I make a mistake. Oil paint, however, keeps its consistency and color over a long period.
P.L.: How important is art as a craft in your painting in relation to its intellectual or conceptual content?
Y.S.: For me, the technical and conceptual aspects of my work are both important. If my technique is not good, I can’t achieve what I want to express. If the intellectual part of my work has no good foundation, I don’t feel comfortable with my work, so I have to take care for both. And I would like to develop both aspects and let them grow together.
P.L.: Earlier, I referred to your works as “painting”, but I know that you prefer to call them objects. Why?
Y.S.: It’s because my intentions have nothing to do with exploring painting itself. The different textures want nothing more than to express my different emotions. They are by no means an analytical attempt or material research. It is true that the painted front surface is the main carrier of my emotions, but the technical way in which I apply the material is so much different from a traditional way of painting that I do not get the feeling that I am painting at all. It is really much more the feeling of creating an object. I want to take care of the object as a whole, not only of the painted surface. It is the whole object which expresses my relationship to the subject matter. The choice of wood, cutting, sanding, size, color, etc…
P.L.: I understand very well that your work is not painting in the traditional sense, but the definition and the practice of painting has expanded so much in the last decades that it is very hard to put it behind you – and it’s surely not only a question of technique and methods of paint application.
Y.S.: Primarily, painting has to do with the visual, but I like it when the viewer also touches my work, because I want to share with him my emotions, my feelings, and my thoughts. When I was young, my father taught me: “You can touch my work, so you will understand more things.” So, I like it when the viewer observes my work, standing very closely, looking at details, and touches it. When I myself like a piece of art, I always want to touch it. I want to have that tactile communication with the viewer. I create my works so that they give him the wish to touch them. When I walk on Carl Andre’s metal floor sculptures I try to feel what he wants to communicate and I enjoy his pieces with their sound and touch. In the future, I would like to make some free-standing objects of wood.
P.L.: Do you really mean touching your work with the fingers, or just in a metaphorical sense, with the eyes?
Y.S.: Yes, I do want to stimulate the feeling of real tactile communication between my work and the viewer, this means physical touching. If the viewers like my work and touch it, they will take good care of it. So, I am not afraid of that. And I know that I might like to find fingerprints from the viewer.
P.L.: You said that the textures of your painted surfaces are for you only the means to an end to carry forward your emotions. But I think they are much more. They are felicitous examples for using (oil)paint in an non-illusionistic way as a ductile material. How is it possible to achieve, for instance, the structures resembling clods of earth in the work Tsuyama?
Y.S.: All I do is try to use the possibilities within the material itself to express my emotions to the fullest. It is not my intention to research the material, but discoveries occur while using the oil paint. So, I found that using old dry parts of oil paint within the substance created exactly the surface I needed to express my emotional relationship with Tsuyama.
P.L.: Without a doubt, it’s the carefully elaborated, delicate structured “finish” of your surfaces that makes your pieces stand out. Is there a particular Asian or Japanese sensitivity at work? Does something like “Japanese sensitivity” exist at all?
Y.S.: I think we Japanese like purity, quietness, and also expressed effort and patience. We like showing sentiment in the work, and almost hide the efforts behind it. Many Japanese are not religious, but the worship of nature remains in their lives as a custom. So, we are living in a modern society, but we still care about many small details from nature. I think we care very much about the actual creative process and when this process is done well, the result will come by itself. The image I have of western art is a powerful and dynamic one. Japanese have a culture of moderate expression. For them it is more natural to keep one step inside than to show everything. Japan is an island, so we have many desires and dreams to see other cultures, but we also don’t want to forget the relationship with our environments, especially nature. I think, “Japanese sensitivity” comes from there.
P.L.: However, your paintings emerge in the context of western art. What are the most important influences you received in this context?
Y.S.: I don’t think about my works as western art. In the way I paint, I sometimes feel a similarity to calligraphy, but I use oil paint in an abstract manner. As a person I am a Japanese now mainly living in a Western environment and as such I express my personal atmosphere as it is at that moment. In recent years, I have been an assistant to artists like René Rietmeyer, Tomoji Ogawa, and Takashi Suzuki. I learned from them many techniques and I was also confronted with their thoughts. I was sometimes actively involved in the search for answers to their questions. The possibility to touch the works of these artists was very special and it gave me a lot of power and the wish to create my own art, I understood how I wanted to express myself. Without meeting him, Robert Ryman’s work also had an influence on me. I like his use of materials and his awareness of their materiality as well as the thoughtfulness with which he applies these materials. His work seems simple, but beautiful, delicate, and warm. When I saw his canvas works for the first time, I was impressed. It was a very honest way of presentation and I could feel his textures.
P.L.: Although you mostly live in Europe and in the United States, your recent works often refer to your Japanese home. What’s the reason for it? Tanbo refers to Japanese rice fields. Its bright golden-ochre color radiates an optimistic, friendly atmosphere, but Nihonkai has a rather austere or sad color. What’s the reason for that?
Y.S.: Nihonkai is the sea, which is located between Japan, China and Korea. Our coast there is less developed than on the Pacific Ocean side. The climate and landscape are more difficult to deal with. People’s lives there have not changed so much over time, so for them it is very hard to keep a balance between their traditional and modern life style. I see a lot of beautiful nature on the Nihonkai side, but they destroy nature to try to catch up with developed cities without thinking carefully about the future. It was very sad to see and I was hurt by that. Tsuyama is totally different. It lies in a valley, surrounded by a mountain range. It has four beautiful seasons, and I learned how to live with nature from my grandparents and others. It is the hometown of my parents and I always liked being there.
I grew up in Tokyo, but Tsuyama is my base, roots and earth for my growth as a human being.
P.L.: It is only the exception when you make your works in those places to which they refer. Normally, it’s a matter of memory. Memories have to do with one’s own past, with the lapse of time, self-experience, and self-conception. Do you try with your “painting-objects” to activate the viewer’s own memories also?
Y.S.: For me, memories are related to experiences in the past, but they are present in me now. They are an important part of the emotional state I am in at a given moment and are what create my feelings towards the subject. The emotions I make visible are my very own personal feelings. I hope that the viewer can experience this even when, in most cases, he will not have any memories of the subject himself. For me, observing my own works indeed makes me more aware about my own feelings. The viewer, however, will probably not learn much about himself, though he will be able to see deep inside of me.