What is the connection between Kampala in Uganda, Fukushima in Japan and New Orleans in America? Tsuyoshi Ozawa links these seemingly disparate places in his ongoing series “Vegetable Weapons”. The shape of a gun is formed out of local vegetables and photographed, before it’s taken apart and the same vegetables become the ingredients for a dinner party.
Ozawa sensitively approaches historical subjects in the realities of the present. His recent projects include a story based on the life of a Japanese scientist who studied yellow fever in Ghana 100 years ago, and a mountain made from more than 100 futons for children in Fukushima to play on. His artworks each feel like a strikingly different color in a loosely connected rainbow. He has little pretense, a youthful spirit and is easy talk to.
You work with historical subjects using the language of social practice art. Is there something that you want to reinsert into the past?
“History” is in some sense an already complete past, but there is always something unfinished. While doing background research I discover enigmatic aspects. I am not telling lies, but I make changes to the story along the way.
Your work that is set in a social-studies classroom (currently exhibited as part of “The Group 1965” at the Setouchi Triennale art festival) deals with the contradictions of the recent past in the complications of the present.
It was important to retain that feeling of “school” while making that work. That’s why I kept many (of the classroom’s original) things such as the desks and maps.
I found prize-winning posters that children had drawn for the promotion of nuclear energy, a campaign that ended just three years ago. It was a scary kind of educational propaganda for children. I copied these posters by hand and then had them photographed in positions similar to the 1970s photographs of images taken by (the artist) Jiro Takamatsu.
What are you showing for the current exhibition in Hiroshima?
It’s a work by (the art group) Xijing Men (known as Saikyou in Japan), which is composed of myself and two other artists, Gimhongsok and Chen Shaoxiong. The theme is always a country called Xijing — which doesn’t exist (in the real world). It exists in relationship to various countries in areas each of us choose.
Is that how the Xijing immigration department work started?
Yes, we are showing the video artwork “Welcome to Xijing: Xijing Immigration Service” now. This all started with a casual collaboration between Chen and me. The relationship between China and Japan was very bad at the time and we felt art could be a way to do something that was impossible for politicians to do.
After two exhibitions we got bored so we invited our mutual friend Gimhongsok to join. He was very excited.
How do the three of you work together?
We correspond back and forth, but our English is incredibly poor. Things really happen when we are together in person. For example, while we are installing one show, we come up with the idea for our next one.
Everything we do is based on the premise that we know each other’s work very well and have mutual respect for each other.
What about the gaps, such as language, between you?
They are the richness that makes Xijing exist. I can’t say exactly what is understood and what is misunderstood by each of us all of the time, but the gaps between us can become very interesting. We have a curious way of communicating — our minds all spin so fast and we have a rule that we must make decisions quickly.
So when one person has an idea you just do it?
Yeah, after five minutes we just go for it. We have done it like that all along.
Xijing philosophy moves in a direction different from the ordinary aims of society.
I wonder where the control center is for all the common-sense rules people always make. We think about things that are totally ordinary, or what seems inevitable and appears like it will never change. All three of us think about these things because we feel they are fascinating.
Together you express a critical viewpoint on sensitive topics, such as border control, with a remarkably humorous attitude.
We are from Korea, China and Japan — countries that are right next to each other but have a difficult history. We aim to make humorous, light artworks, but occasionally we run up against problems, (such as the consequences) of modern history or other issues, such as racism or war.
When these topics come up naturally, we don’t pretend not to notice them, but we don’t turn them into hot issues. We just choose not to head directly toward them in our work.
Fiction may not be considered useful in national politics but it certainly has influence in other areas. What do you think are the uses of fiction today?
That’s a tough question. Fiction keeps our thinking from getting too one-sided. At its best, it can make things feel less serious and lighter. Fiction holds concealed metaphors, that can create another pathway for us to think.
Our role as artists may be to build possibilities for other ways of thinking.
Xijing Men’s work is included in the exhibition “SITE: Places of Memories, Spaces with Potential” at Hiroshima MOCA, which runs till Oct. 14. ¥800. Closed Mon. (except Sept.16, 23, Oct.14), Sept. 17, 24. www.hiroshima-moca.jp/main_e/site.html “The Group 1965 “is on the island of Ogijima as part of the Setouchi Triennale art festival, which runs till Nov. 4. setouchi-artfest.jp/en