Bathing in timeless memories

by Julian Worrall

Artist Shinro Ohtake discusses with The Japan Times “inside-out” buildings, private memories, public meanings and other inspirations underlying the “I Love Yu” bathhouse at Naoshima.

The “I Love Yu” public bathhouse is a collaboration with architects’ collective graf and is a new building, but it looks old, even a bit like a ruin. What was behind this?

I think there was one basic model. About five years ago, I found a really strange building in front of Takamatsu station [Kagawa Prefecture]. This was in an area slated for redevelopment. There was a really old wooden house, sitting in an open field, built between two concrete walls and with many different tiles on the outside. I couldn’t understand it at first, but it turned out that the walls once belonged to the two neighboring buildings on either side. Between these two buildings, somebody had built a wooden Japanese house. And that guy didn’t leave. When the two other buildings were taken away, just the walls supporting the house in between were left behind. Those two walls revealed what once was inside those buildings, the tiles and the mirrors.

I was hugely inspired by this because the inside became the outside. And the house had become a world in itself. I realized that what looks like the outside can also be an inside.

For the bathhouse, I imagined people moving from one “inside” to another “inside.” If a wall has many tiles and mirrors, people will think it used to be inside. But now it works as an outside. I like that idea.

The facade at the entrance to the bathhouse suggests an inside. And on the inside there are also allusions to the outside world. It’s kind of an ambiguity, and also a kind of confusion. Public is private, and outside is inside.

You’re famous for your scrapbooks. You gather pieces, fragments from a life, and you put them together. But that strikes me always as very personal, as it’s about yourself and your own history. A work such as this — a public bath connected to revitalizing the island — is more about community. How much of it is personal, and how much of it is community?

Most of the components are private, from my own collection. I’d been keeping that material in my place in Uwajima [Ehime Prefecture], a shipyard. But I didn’t have a purpose for them when I originally asked to keep them in storage. I also collected some material from people on the island while working on the project and they sometimes brought some things. About 30 percent is from this island, 70 percent from my collection.

There are some things that are really fascinating. I guess the big question is the elephant. What is the meaning behind that?

It’s a long story. Fourteen years ago, a monthly literature magazine published by Benesse asked me do a cover and four inside pages for them. The theme was “Local Japan.” I wasn’t interested in that theme at all. I hated the idea of “local” — it was ugly, I thought. But I tried and since the theme was “local,” I decided I would look for a place that art people hated.

So I chose hihokan. A kind of sex museum — really cheap. When I was a kid, there were many hihokan around spa areas. I searched these out and it was at the entrance of a hihokan in Hokkaido that I met that elephant. I was really surprised — I thought “this really looks alive!” I asked the hihokan owners to let me know if it closed down so that I could get it, which is what I did. I feel some kind of strong connection here because I found the elephant through Benesse 14 years ago. And now, the elephant has come to this island.

So much of the imagery seems to be from the postwar Showa Era, from around the Showa 30s (1955-65). Is there any significance to this?

I was born in Tokyo. Before I was 10 years old, I went to the sento [bathhouse] after school quite often. This left me with really strong images and memories. I didn’t mean this to represent the Showa Era. I think it is just from the world of my memories. While I was constructing the building I felt like I was making a self-portrait. I felt like I was getting into myself. You could say that the building is a kind of gathering of somebody’s, my own, or everybody’s memories. The building is like a magnet, a big magnet. That building is getting everything from the world.

One final question: As an artwork, I think a critic could say the bathhouse is nostalgic. It is about memory, about the past, and a particular past. Maybe local, maybe a particular era in Japan. But the problem with nostalgia is that it doesn’t imagine a future. It’s always looking backward. I wonder what your thoughts are on that?

I think memory is like a collage. It’s really similar. Even if somebody is looking to the future, the inside of that person has the past. So I think that the building is not nostalgic. Because I was and am thinking about the future. I never tried to create nostalgia. it’s simply my memory, it’s my history. I think the real theme is time. That building is strongly connecting to time. Time and memory.