World Sculpture News
Vol. 15 No. 2 Spring 2009
By Lucy Birmingham
"Gakushi Yamamoto: A Chair is a Chair is a Mystery"
A seat at Japan's table of important contemporary sculptors may seem like a pipe dream for most young Japanese artists. A gathering could include high-profile sculptors like Isamu Noguchi, Lee U-Fan, Enoki Chu, Isamu Wakabayashi, Shigeo Toya, Keizo Ushio, Katsura Funakoshi and Noe Aoki. Rising stars like Izumi Kato, Nawa Kohei, Yoshihiro Suda, Yasuyuki Nishio and Koji Tanada could also find a chair. And yet there is room at the table for a young, up and coming sculptor like Gakushi Yamamoto who is developing, with iron, a unique and impactful sculptural style. In fact, Yamamoto has been creating his very own chairs.
Why chairs? "I wanted to work with the concept of konseki , the idea of ephemeral traces," explains Yamamoto with a shy smile. "When someone rises from a chair they leave behind an impression in the cushion or the warmth of their body or some trace of their energy. So a chair seemed to be the perfect vehicle for this phenomenon." Yamamoto feels it's easy to visually connect with a chair. "Chairs are made for the human body and used in daily life so it's easy to generate a feeling or sensation in the mind when viewing a sculpture based on a chair form," he explains carefully. Backed by this familiarity, he feels that chairs can induce a story or a sense of mystery and anticipation. "After somebody has left a chair there's that feeling of something different, that something has changed," he says. "Who was sitting there? Will they come back? What would happen if I sat in the chair? People can create their own story." For Yamamoto, imagination is the key. "It's like the chair is one piece of a puzzle. The viewers can take this piece and create their own puzzle, their own story, from their own imagination," he explains. "With the right visual incentive, 100 people can have 100 different ways of looking at the same thing."
Yamamoto was born in Los Angeles and moved to Kyoto at the age of five where he was raised in his family's Buddhist temple. Now 27, he could be training to replace his father as head of the temple someday, but his dedicated art practice prevails. Getting his father's endorsement hasn't been easy.
In high school Yamamoto spent more time on the basketball court that studying. After graduating, he worked part-time while his friends crammed for university entrance exams. Although he enjoyed drawing, he felt directionless. "I kept asking myself, 'what do I like?' " he reveals. "This question eventually led me to the world of art." He decided to apply to Tokyo University of the Arts (GEIDAI), Japan's most prestigious art university, but ended up facing four rejections over four consecutive years of trying. "I really wanted to go to GEIDAI mainly because of its brand name," he admits. "But I learned it's not the brand name that is important. It's what I could personally accomplish. I started looking at all the successful artists who didn't go to GEIDAI." During those challenging years, Yamamoto studied graphic design and furniture design. This led him to discover sculpture, which grabbed him like a hook. But by the time he started at Tokyo Zokei University in April 2004 as a sculpture major, many of his friends had just graduated from their university. It didn't dampen his enthusiasm though. He'd finally gotten into university and was ready to dive into his studies.
In 2005 Yamamoto began experimenting with woodcarving. By 2006 he was working in terra cotta, bronze, resin and concrete. It was in 2007 that he began using iron. After garnering several awards, he finished the Zokei undergraduate program in March this year. Now he's going for his MA, also at Zokei, with plans to finish in 2010.
"Now my father doesn't mind if I'm not involved with the temple," says Yamamoto with a mixture of pride and relief. "He told me recently that since my art is my bukkyou – like my Buddhist path – it's something I should pursue. I was so glad to hear this that I asked him why he'd never said it before. He doesn't understand art, but he's cheering me on. He recognizes that I'm doing this seriously."
Iron is a serious material for any sculptor. "At first I thought it would be really difficult to use iron in my work," says Yamamoto. Unlike stone, iron pieces are formed into a standard weight and shape. "You can't carve it so I thought you couldn't easily change the shape. But actually, it's turned out to be quite easy because with high heat it can be softened and freely molded into interesting shapes."
Buying the pieces however is no small matter — literally. "I look like a building contractor when I'm at the mill picking up an order," he says with a laugh. The process requires Yamamoto to have 4 licenses — one for driving a fork lift, one for welding, a crane license and one for using a hook and carry. "The licenses are pretty easy to get, but kind of expensive," he adds. One of the biggest concerns about transporting the iron to his rural studio is the delivery truck size. "I usually order pieces between two to four tons and need to rent a huge truck. I'm really in trouble if it's too big and won't fit along the road to my studio."
Yamamoto's 12 iron chair installation titled "Real & Virtual–12 Segments" reflects a varied take on his "traces" theme. Each chair is about 40 to 50 centimeters high and 4 to 5 kilograms. Eleven are formed with traces of a man or woman, child or elderly person with elegant arms, legs, or a cane. The 12th chair titled, "the beginning and ending" remains empty and is the only one with rust. "It reflects the passage of time," explains Yamamoto. "Twelve represents a dozen, the time of day and the months of a year that are constantly changing no matter how they are scattered."
Yamamoto is now working with iron and stone. His sculpture titled, "An Emperor's Chair" combines a stone Romanesque chair and two gnarly arms and hands made of iron. It provokes mystery but also appears to reference death. "Opinions about the work are split around half and half," says Yamamoto. "Some say its scary, other say 'it's so cool.' I'm glad it's getting strong reactions, that it sparks people's imagination."
In his new work, Yamamoto is focusing on hands. "Hands are sexy," he says. "I'm not imagining a young woman's hands, but more like a mature woman over 30. Japanese have a very subtle sense of eroticism."
Yamamoto mentions Francis Bacon, Frank Stella and Leonardo Cremonini as artists he admires. "Of course I want to learn from other artists, but at the same time I'm worried their style will overtake mine. I want to continue developing my own style, in my own way," he explains with determined intensity. "For me, it's always important to ask 'why?' Why does something influence me? Why does it stir my imagination?"