Communicating through the unsaid

by Angela Jeffs

Sculptor Gakushi Yamamoto arrives looking as if he tumbled out of bed — or rather rolled off his futon and into the nearest shirt and pair of jeans that came to hand. And that may be so, considering he has had to travel two hours to meet up in Moto-Azabu for 10 a.m.

We choose to sit on square upholstered hassocks rather than on the carpeted floor of Asian Collection Contemporary Art Gallery. Which is rather odd considering there are also 10 chairs available. The problem is, they are exceptionally hard to use, being a) made of iron and b) created in miniature.

Initially, there were 12 chairs on display. An Indian collector had offered to buy the entire set, but in the end was only allowed to take two. At this stage in Yamamoto’s career, the gallery would rather his work receive exposure and the word get around than have nothing on show.

“I agree,” says Yamamoto, shyly at first but quickly gaining confidence. “I want to make a living, but at the same time I know it is important not to peak too soon.”

Yamamoto is a graduate student sculptor at Tokyo Zokei University in Hachioji. Last year, his work — displayed on a circle of plinths — won top prize in the annual show of five art universities in Tokyo. It was at this exhibition that American gallery owner Robert Tobin saw the chairs, went home, discussed them with his partner, Hitoshi Ohashi, and offered representation.

Yamamoto is no stranger to the American way. Born in the U.S., he spent the first three years of his life in Los Angeles, and then another two flitting to and from Japan and the U.S. before returning for good.

“My mother’s family emigrated to California when she was junior high school age. My father’s family is all here,” he explains. “When my paternal grandfather died, my father had to return to Japan to take over his temple. Called Enjoji, it’s near Kyoto Station.”

Yamamoto has few specific memories of living in the States, simply remembering it as a happy time. The only downside was having to play the piano. He was not a good music student, he says.

Neither was he interested in studying to take over his father’s role at the temple, which did not go down well at home especially since he had been named Gakushi from the kanji characters gaku, meaning study, and shi, for priest.

“My father is not interested in my work. My mother’s more empathetic because she used to paint, and even today she pots as a hobby. Luckily, my younger sister is interested in keeping the temple going. She’s busy studying the Buddhist way while training in the hospitality business.”

While at school, Yamamoto mostly used to draw. He then became interested in interpreting his sketches three-dimensionally. By 2005, he was mostly interested in wood carving; in 2006, he created a group of identical organic shapes in a variety of different materials, including terracotta, bronze, resin and concrete.

“I was experimenting, trying to find my chosen medium. Right now I am settled on metal and stone. I really like iron and when I began making the chairs, my teacher said, ‘You have talent and a skill. Use it!’

“Why chairs?” he continues, thoughtfully running a hand through his hair. “Because a chair has a certain reality. But when it is reduced in size, there is no known reality; you have to make up your own story.”

One of the chairs is simple and rustic, as in corroded with rust. “My own story here is that the chair began life empty and that its emptiness is never ending. But you may see it differently.”

The other chairs have more obvious lives of their own, endowed with bits of the human figure — arms, legs, hands, feet — that suggest the posture of an occupant without offering any hint of the sex, age or identity of the individual.

“I’m not interested in the full human body. And I never portray faces. The back of a chair may suggest the shape of a head, but that is all.”

As if to confirm this, when asked to select the paintings on view in the gallery that he most actively likes and at the same time anything he fails to warm too, he chooses the work of American artist John Fraser, whose sensibilities match his own, and two portraits by a Japanese painter that Yamamoto personally finds disturbing.

“It’s not my way. A portrait is finished. There’s nothing more to say. I want to leave as much as possible open to the imagination. I believe an artist and the viewer communicate through the unsaid, not the obvious. This is what interests me.”

He sketches all the time, on the train or out on the street. He sees people sitting, their legs apart or crossed, holding a hand in this way or that, and so such details of poses become food for his art.

Asked his favorite of the remaining 10 pieces on view, he looks perplexed.

OK, if there was a fire, which one would he grab?

“No. 2,” he replies immediately: Two hands resting on the arms of a chair, with one hand holding a stick or cane.

This proves immensely moving to someone who lost her mother last year (for this is how I remember her at age 96: fingers still clutching fiercely at life, but no longer able to walk unaided).

Right now, he says, he is working on another idea, hopefully a piece to show competitively next year.

“Will I go on making chairs? I don’t want to stay with chairs; I am young and want to move on. For now, all I can say is I’ll make them if there are people who really want them. But in the future, who knows?”

He has no interest in postgraduate studies, either here or abroad. This may change of course but right now he’s emphatic: “I’ve had enough of school.”

He wants to travel, “see a lot of different places, meet different people. I’m especially interested in the U.K. and Germany. Many of the artists I most respect are German.”

His parents worry, wishing he would get a proper job. But he has no qualms about the future. He insists he has never expected support, nor will he ever ask. He supports himself by teaching drawing part-time in a prep school, and assisting his senpai mentor who is two years older and also a sculptor.

Yamamoto is aware that sculpting is not the cheapest creative profession. You need forges, welding equipment. And raw materials — metals in particular — are getting more expensive.

“I’ve already joined forces with two other sculptors in my year. We’re renting a 40 mat tatami space one hour beyond Tachikawa. It’s super-country out there; real inaka, with a village street with a few houses and shops that stops at a mountain.”

It’s the perfect studio, he enthuses, being once owned by a sculptor from Hiroshima, and then another artist.

“We’re buying equipment as and when we can. The money from the two chairs that sold went towards setting the place up. We may be joined by a fourth member, which will make the rent even cheaper.”

Yamamoto foresees no clashes in working with other artists, because they are all doing such very different work. Their only problem at the moment is in trying to decide on a name for the atelier.

“There’s lot of fighting,” he grins.

Asian Collection Contemporary Art Gallery, 3-10-9-202 Moto-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo. Open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, 1-7 p.m., or call Hitoshi Ohashi at (03) 3715-3635 or 080-3552-7782; Web site: