Interview with Tomoko Nagao
Tomoko Nagao is a Japanese artist presently living in Italy. Much of her work is centered around her view and interpretation of contemporary Japanese society. Born in Nagoya, Japan in the mid-70′s she is heavily influenced by consumer icons and mass produced characters such as Hello Kitty. She is a graduate of the Chelsea College Art & Design in London.
Tomoko, it is a pleasure to meet you. I am a big fan of your work and it is an honor to be able to have to opportunity to learn more about you and your work. Can you tell us about growing up in Nagoya and when you first became interested in art?
I started in art quite early, when I was only 15 and I did my first exhibition in 1997 in Tokyo. It was an exhibition of artwork and performance. Then I won the Canon prize in 1999. I went to London to study English and went to Chelsea College of Art and graduated with a masters degree in 2003. I then started to become conscious of my reputation as an international artist.
You use many characters and icons in your work taken from comics, animation, videogames and consumer goods. Are you making a negative statement about consumerism in Japan? Has the idea of “kawaii” in advertising been taken too far? How does the public react to your work?
I use the symbols in contemporary society- capitalism, mass production, consuming society, fast society (fast foods, fast fashion, fast transfer, fast entertainment…); Trademarks such as Coca cola, McDonalds, Kikkoman-soy sauce in Japan, Barilla-pasta, Nutella-chocolate cream, Zara-fashion, Easy Jet- Plane, Google-Internet explorer, Apple Computer, plastic bags of Esselunga-supermarket in Italia, Hello Kitty- in Japan…etc. They surround us in the daily life. Since I was born in Japan in 1976, I have never seen anyplace in the world without Coca cola, McDonalds, Kitty, plastic bags of super market. They are reality of life for me. I feel a kind of poetry with them.
So, I am not using the image of consumer goods as negative, but it is not positive, too. Everyone knows them and everyone can have them. So it is useful global language for me.
They are a type of international, global language all over the world now because if you say “McDonalds” everyone can understand what it is, everywhere in the world.
The public reacts very well to me and my work. Vogue in Italy spoke about ecology in reference to my work “Hokusai- Great Wave of Kanagawa with Mc, Cupnoodle, Kikkoman, Cocacola and Kitty”, and REPUBBLICA and Corriere della Sera (large italian newspapers) spoke of consumer society in regard to my art, Christian Gancitano- art critic and CURATOR- speaks about Japanese pop culture and organized many shows titled “MICROPOP”. Nipposuggestioni.blogspot.it
I am happy to see so many people speaking about my art in different ways.
You have said you use a style called “JapaPop”. How does this differ from the “Kawaii” or cute style?
“JapaPop” I wanted to make a distinction between “American pop art” and “Japanese pop art”. I consider parts of my art to be similar to Pop art, like Andy Warhol, as it speaks about consumerism or pop culture. But now the consumer society is more complicated than before. It is much bigger, globalized and includes the issues of ecology.
“Kawaii” is the one kind of beauty or style, I use technically “kawaii” style to emphasize the concept. it is used, primarily, in Japanese society now.
A frequent character in your art is Hello Kitty. Little known, perhaps just outside of Japan, is the story of Yuko Shimizu the creator of Hello Kitty who was a designer at Sanrio in the 1970′s. The year before Hello Kitty was created Sanrio’s profits were $1.05 million. Now well more than half of Sanrio’s more than $1 billion in profits come from the more than 20 thousand Kitty products sold today. Yuko Shimizu made no money from her creation and remains virtually unknown. Did you know her story and is it one of the reasons you use her character so much in your work?
Yes, off course, I know her story. I am interested in it in the same as I am with the stories of McDonald’s or Cocacola or Kikkoman….etc.
I use Hello Kitty as an icon or symbol of consumer society because, kitty is a Japanese Princess in this consumer society. In my art work “tree princess” I put 17 century of Spanish princess “Margarita Teresa”, painted by Velázquez, “Coca-cola” princess of fast and mass foods in America and Japanese princess “hello kitty”. They are princesswho come from 3 different strong countries in different periods of time.
I like to use Kitty very much because she makes artwork much more contemporary and global.
You also re-interpret famous art icons and incorporate contemporary items in it like your work, Hokusai-The Great Wave of Kanagawa with cup o noodle, kewpie, kikkoman and kitty. Can you tell us the story behind this piece?
This artwork is special meaning for me. I put many messages in it. In the beginning I was scared of someone Japanese would be offended because the idea comes from the earthquake in Japan “Tohokuchihou taiheiyouoki” in 2011.
I saw many videos in Youtube, I was so shocked and sad. This artwork speaks about this sadness. I would not want to make artwork with individual emotions and opinions about the tragedy because I do not like use the tragedy of someone else for the subject of my art but I wanted to do something in this time.
Another of your works is “Botticelli-The Birth of Venus with Baci, Esselunga, Barilla, PSP and Easyjet. ” How did you get the concept for this piece and what does it mean to you to blend art and brands?
I was interested in blending the paintings before capitalism was started and the symbols of contemporary, consumer and global society.
I use Jesus, Venus, Bacchus, Princess Margarita, David, Goliath, from the classic paintings in Europe, such as, Caravaggio, Tiziano Vecellio, Diego Velázquez…etc. They are art from the age before capitalistic society was started.
I believe that everything is flattening in our society now. It is difficult to see the differences in everything.
Everyone can drink the same Coca-cola, eat Mc-donalds, Barilla, Nutella, explore with google, make friends on Facebook, wear Zara, fly with easy-jet… etc it is opening the door for everyone.
And also, if you want to see historical paintings, you can see in the Internet and download and print it out and take for yourself. Art is open for everyone, too. Everyone can enjoy art. It is not like the period of Caravaggio, Tiziano Vecellio, and Diego Velázquez where only people who had power and money could enjoy or buy.
The piece “Botticelli-The Birth of Venus with Baci, Esselunga, Barilla, PSP and Easyjet.” , it is one of the most important artwork in Italia. She is goddess of love. So I put things in contemporary Italian society.
Aside from how the female form is presented in the iconic characters of today what is your personal idea of female beauty?
Female beauty is able to transform everything, it has no fixed form. Often, female beauty changes depending on how society sees it at the time. The iconic characters of today are far from reality, no details. They symbolize what society is like today.
You also have worked with animation. One of your works, Kaguyahime, is quite different than your others. Did you animate it to the music or was it scored afterwards and what software do you use for your animations?
It is based on the tale of Taketori Monogatari, an ancient Japanese tale. I collaborated with Gabriele Murray. He inserts music into the animation I made and I took the prize at the “Cronosfera festival”.
Every artist has a personal favorite piece that may be much different than what the public may like. Do you have a favorite and what is it?
“Pieta of Kitty” oil painting on canvas is my favorite.
What other artists do you admire and who inspires you?
Yoshitomo Nara, Yumiko Oshima.
What materials and mediums do you prefer to work in and what is the creative process you go through to create your work?
I use computer for taking notes, thinking, preparing and deciding. Then I do drawings with pen and pencil, paintings with oil, water color and ink. I like all.
You have appeared in group and solo exhibitions in many places. What have been some of your most memorable showings?
One memorable show was an installation Fuwari in Palazzo reale Milano- royal palace of Milan 2009. It was a 3 m tall balloon sculpture exhibited inside a major exhibition of samurai helmets.
What would you like to be doing with your career in the future?
I would like to work with many different kind of people.
You also have a new exhibit coming up soon. Can you tell us about it?
Where can we go to find out more about you and your work?
Tomoko’s portrait of Miss Salopette, her friend and fellow artist who is also featured here.