When the connections are as crucial as the art

by James Jack

Special To The Japan Times

Amid the hurry of daily life it is easy to forget what lies below our feet. To most of us, it may appear to be just cement or dirt, but to artist Kenji Yamada there are profound mysteries contained on the ground, in things as simple as our own footprints in the snow. His installation artworks are born out of memories, both personal and historical, and take shape in collaborations with architects, ethnographers and local community members. .

At 30, he is the “oldest” young person I have ever met. By this I mean he contemplates ancient knowledge on a daily basis, tapping into the wisdom of the past to ascertain how it relates to today. On the occasion of the release of his Beppu Subterranean Innards Museum iPad app for an exhibition opening at Chiyoda Arts 3331, Yamada sat down with The Japan Times to discuss his artistic process.

Why are you interested in snow?

The first time I went back to visit my hometown in Niigata (Prefecture), I tried to create a relationship with the place and the people. My family no longer has a home there, but I met strangers and found places to stay each night. In November there was so much snow everywhere. I offered to help people by shoveling their walkways, and they let me stay with them. While doing this I noticed my own footprints in the snow, they looked like holes for peering in on this town, which I could no longer recognize because it was blanketed in deep snow. That was the beginning of my artwork that eventually led to “Booking Void Inn Matsunoyama.”

When I experienced that work in Niigata, I felt that your desire to live with snow is part of your desire to exist harmoniously with other living beings.

While observing my own footprints I also noticed those of animals, and I became interested in their movements. Animals participate in the life of the town along with the people who live there. My work makes new pathways that connect all of these clues I found in the snow. My artwork is less about the history of a place and more about the flow of time from the past to the future. At the same time, I feel the past is always interactively affected by the present.

Why Beppu?

I stayed in Beppu for two or three months after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. I heard a lot about the World War II tunnels in the town, so I asked people about their history and I found out about Beppu Park, a former U.S. military camp.

Historically Beppu had a large prostitution industry and now there is nothing but a mostly empty park. The sky was vast. It was not the center of explosions during the war, but I felt the many things that happened there during the American occupation. Below it all there is a network of dark tunnels and I felt they were the innards of the town.

You felt you had found the life force of the town?

I felt the land was alive. It was not just me; I created a team of people who worked together on this project.

Why did you decide on making mural paintings on the walls of the tunnels?

It is related to ancient cave paintings, such as those created in Japan during the Kofun Period (c. 300-710) or those at Lascaux in France. Those paintings were not made by just one artist. They were made together with others. My intention is that viewers will be able to feel various time periods, which is connected to the action of reorganizing the space into a museum.

What made you choose these particular tunnels for your work?

It was hard to get permits from the town at first, but I was able to get permits to enter the tunnels through the park talking with the local people.

So it was less about the characteristics of the cave itself and more about your connections with other people?

Yes, I became connected with all sorts of people who think in similar ways to me.

How many people actually went inside?

They are not open to the public, so it was just my team who went down in the tunnels. Local people don’t necessarily want to go down there. There are onsen (hot springs) underground so it’s very hot, humid and steamy.

There is a huge gap between those who have been down there and those who experience them indirectly. While experiencing the tunnels firsthand, hallucinations may occur; another world may be under your feet. I hope this experience will permeate into the community somehow.

Some of your previous works in caves have been solitary. How does the experience change when you are in a group?

It is good to experience such work in groups because otherwise the spaces will not be taken care of. They are not paid enough attention by the community, and many people see the tunnels as a nuisance.

What changes do you hope will occur because of your work?

By going deep inside the tunnel pathways things dissolve and consciousness changes. I hope that by experiencing this together with other people, audiences will be able to sense the “digestive organs” of the place.

Is this why the current exhibition at the 3331 Gallery gives viewers a vicarious experience of the tunnels on an iPad?

Since this Subterranean Museum is inaccessible to the public, the iPad creates a new space for audience participation.

But on a deeper level, I wonder how a primitive person would react to the way we use cell phones. They might think everyone was using a strange form of telepathy to communicate. Communication is not something we can get away from, it is in our consciousness.

I feel the conversations of ancient people may not have been so different from those we have now.

Now viewers can experience this space in their mind and I hope someday they can see the actual tunnels in Beppu.

“The Beppu Subterranean Innards Museum (BSIM)” by Kenji Yamada at 3331 Gallery #19 runs till Feb. 24; open 12-7 p.m. Free admission. Closed Tue. www.3331.jp.