When Yuya Suzuki travelled from Japan to Berlin last March to start his artist residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, he found himself in a disconcerting situation, as Germany’s spring lockdown began a few days later, more or less confining him to his studio without being able to socialize with his fellow artists in residence. Plus his art materials didn´t arrive, meaning he wasn’t able to start working.
Speaking of vast voids and empty spaces, mentally and physically, seems to be a good start for this interview, especially as Yuya’s work is strongly connected to urban spaces and extracting form from what he encounters there, and also in the sense of his ambivalent desire for the two extremes of creating and erasing. When walking the empty streets of Berlin during the spring lockdown, his impression was that
“the graffiti on the walls seemed to occupy the city with the energy of plants” and “reality and fiction seemed to be reversed”.
What a trip and here we go again!
Quarantine in Berlin
Yuya, you came to Berlin a few days before the spring lockdown, so you just made it in time but your work materials didn’t arrive, and you had to improvise. How did this affect your work?
I was fortunate enough to arrive in Germany two days before lockdown, but shortly afterwards all shops, restaurants, and government offices closed their doors. I couldn’t do anything in the studio for a while or prepare a living infrastructure as the city had almost stopped functioning under the restrictions on leaving the house.
The art supply store was closed of course and us artists in residence at Künstlerhaus Bethanien weren’t allowed to see each other in person, so it was a strange and quiet month like never before.
During the lockdown period, all I had for working was a pencil and paper I managed to get at the stationery corner of a post office. Then I considered what I could do using just them. Eventually, I tried drawing. At times like this, I feel as if I am being tested by something.
I imagine Modernist painters may have had this kind of experience during the world’s war times.
What was it like walking around in Berlin during the spring lockdown? Do you have any distinct memories?
The last time I had walked around Berlin was five years previously, but honestly, compared to then I didn’t have the impression that anything had changed unexpectedly.
It seems the changes that did take place in European cities were not as drastic as in Japan.
But I felt there was a lot more graffiti on the walls compared to last time.
Looking back, I might have had this impression because there weren’t many people out on the streets.
As I walked through the city withholding my breath, the graffiti on the walls seemed to occupy the city with the energy of plants.
Those indecipherable symbols seemed like the inherent voices and words of the city of Berlin.
Yuya Suzuki, Berlin research photos, 2020
Sneaking through the streets
The experience of sneaking through the deserted city was also valuable. We foreigners were liable for a fine if we couldn’t produce a passport and proof of address when out of doors. It was a terrifyingly perverted situation, since walking around the city without any purpose was potentially punishable.
A different era seemed to sneak into the city. Besides, due to the sharp decrease in traffic, things like garbage and objects thrown out onto the streets became more conspicuous, and looked like relicts and ruins after the collapse of civilization and the disappearance of people.
Such a fantasy might just be my imagination, but in the routine of quarantined life, my perception of reality changed, and reality and fiction seemed to be reversed.
Your art is built on two elements that come naturally to you and that you describe as being part of your lifestyle: Walking around cities and drawing. But it took some time for you to become aware of how powerful this combination of elements is for your work. You once said that you try to extract or work with images from your inner landscape.
Yes, I used to have the method of drawing images from my inner landscape. Instead of having a plan in advance, I would just move my hand on the paper, draw a line, and gradually grasp the shape and image, which means accepting some sort of arbitrariness and contingency. Psychologically, there is the idea that human consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg, most of which is an unconscious region that even we are unaware of.
Looking back, I was trying to visualize this unconscious region in the visual language of images.
Drawing was an effective process for it. I guess at that time, I felt this unconscious language was more essential than the conventional language we used to use.
However, the changing environment around me made me more reluctant to work this way. Especially after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, I was no longer able to find value in work that I did only subjectively or arbitrarily. Reality was severe and when I tried to work against the background of this reality, I needed a different way.
I naturally started video making as it involves a connection with reality, thus somehow reducing the contradiction of creating. On the other hand, I spent several years without comprehending what kind of drawings I should do.
This was when I was in Germany but three years later I decided to return to Japan.
Turning a lifestyle into art
Immediately on returning, I discovered my present drawing method and decided on two main rules for it: one is to use the elements of reality as the starting point for drawing, and the other is to combine my walking around city streets and drawing, which reflects my lifestyle. Drawing is suitable for this because it can be done wherever you are as long as you have pencil, paper and a desk.
In this approach, the more I keep walking about, the more the images multiply — it is kind of world mapping using the drawing method.
However, to be more precise I also explore my inner landscape by using the elements of the real landscape as a trigger. Images that are inherent to my unconsciousness and memory and that accumulate there are drawn out or triggered by the elements of reality.
So, I think drawing is the practice of integrating reality with the internal.
Inside Yuya Suzukis work process
Can you tell us how you extract forms and structures from the urban landscape, and how you decide what to transform? I imagine certain images already have a structure to them, and that others develop in the process.
The first process is intuitive and physical rather than logical. I walk around the city and take photos of what intrigues me as soon as I encounter whatever it is. So I don’t have a specific motif in advance, but I guess that while walking and photographing in the city I unconsciously choose motifs that I can draw.
In that sense, drawing already starts with this process. On returning to the studio, I extract the shapes and structures through the drawing process, but don’t use many of the photos I have taken.
In reality, everything has some kind of structure, but that is hard to notice at first because objects exist in relation to other objects.
In my case, I manage to detect them through the drawing process.
I try to determine which medium is appropriate for transforming the image into once the drawing process is over. Which medium, size, material, or what kind of approach is possible?
Each of these images already has a kind of word or gesture or form that seems to want to be, and I try to identify that form.
The appropriate form is usually obvious, but depending on the image concerned it can take a long time to notice it. Sometimes an image is transformed when expressed in another medium, so it is a long relationship with the image once it is created.
Although you have been to Berlin before, this was the first time you had the chance to apply your new approach here, to extract its essence and personality, to apply your way of working. All the other cities you have travelled through since starting this way of working have been Asian. Is there something about Berlin that immediately strikes you as different from Asian cities?
As compared with residential areas, Asian cities have a vague boundary between private and public areas. For example, public premises such as alleys are also used as private land. The garden of the house is protruding and eroding the streets.
Unclassified items such as plants, daily necessities, and even dried vegetables are tentatively arranged according to their inhabitants as like anonymous installation works.
Especially, as walking in the back alleys such as Taiwan, the boundary between the alley and the territory of the house is ambiguous, so the backside of the private life of the inhabitants can be easily seen through.
The boundaries between neighbors are also ambiguous, and the streets are a mixture of private and public, forming a unique ecosystem spontaneously.
Public and private territory
A general characteristic of European cities, including Berlin, is that in comparison to Asian cities they are clearly divided between private and public territories. The interesting point in Berlin is that the appearance of the city changes depending on the ethnicity of the inhabitants.
Areas where different cultures, such as German and Middle Eastern ethnicities, are mixed make me especially curious. Sometimes when I walk in districts such as Neukölln, I feel as if I were in an unknown country.
At the same time, I feel nostalgia for the Asian atmosphere.
It seems that the travel feeling is sustainable in life in Berlin.
The streets of Berlin also have their ecosystem. It feels a bit violent. For example, the walls are full of graffiti, posters hang in tattered layers and oversize discarded objects litter the pavements.
Such things appear unintentionally, but in the case of Berlin I feel they express the intention and message inherent to the city.
Every city has its own personality and character, like a human being. So when you think of Berlin, what are the first three words that come to mind?
Neutral, Idyllic, Astute.
The desire to erase elements about oneself
You don´t want your work to be loaded with emotions; rather, you want to create a cycle between it and the viewer and thus also an experience. Does it go so far that it becomes interactive or haptic, or do you just want it to be a mental experience? I always feel a strong urge to touch your work, to move it around.
I certainly don’t prefer making emotion-led work. If anything, I have a desire to erase elements about myself, and in my work I try to avoid it directly reflecting my own emotion or personal story. Therefore, I create my art in the ambivalent desire of these two extremes of creating and erasing.
However, no matter how much I erase it, my originality may remain, and it is impossible to erase the emotional element. I believe in this essence that remains no matter how much it is erased.
But I also think emotion is basically the core motive for doing art.
In my case, something like discomfort, miscommunication, or trauma that I naturally feel in contemporary social life – the absurdity of the world, or a sense of helplessness towards authority – drives me into art-making.
I think that is also a kind of emotion.
And, I can’t imagine what kind of emotions arise in the viewer through seeing my works, and I have no assumptions about it.
I would like to provide an experience in the form of my artwork.
For me, the artwork is just another reality, one that is very similar to this world, and it is made up of values that are completely different from usual reality.
Showing another perspective on the world through my art is my way of resisting the authoritative system of this world, namely with a modest but humorous approach as art.
Yuya Suzuki, Phantoms Agora, 2019
In that sense, it is one of my ideal situations that the viewer is able to touch the artwork. I have no intention of making so-called sculpture but wish to create a “place” that closely resembles reality as a simulation.
Therefore, it is ideal that the viewer and the artwork can keep an even relationship. The artwork is not as immortal as us, but it is on the same timeline as it decays according to the providence of nature.
Which cities are on your travel wish list and how do you choose where to go next?
Teheran (Iran). I went to Tehran in 2011. It was the first time I went to the Islamic world, and I was astonished that the components of the landscape were absolutely different to Japan.
It was just like fiction to me.
At the video workshop I held there at the time, on the other hand, I felt that Iranian people have a similar aesthetic sense of making like the Japanese. It was a strange feeling of connection. I wish to visit there again.
I would also like to travel to Tbilisi (Georgia) and to Buenos Aires (Argentina).
What are you working on at the moment? Will you be showing it here at Bethanien?
I’m currently experimenting with new materials and media.
The solo exhibition will be based on the images I draw in response to the cityscape of Berlin, but at the same time I will incorporate readymade images such as the shapes of conventional characters, found footage, and symbols encountered in contemporary society.
I would also like to show a new realm of language in terms of what can be an alternative language as expressed in the installation work.
Yuya Suzuki is currently living and working at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin where he will have an exhibition in spring 2021.