Japanese-Italian artist Oyama Enrico Isamu Letter is a man of many talents. He is an inventor and artist, a writer, critic and businessperson. And so, it would seem, he is a bonafide contemporary Renaissance man.
Having developed a strong affinity with 1970s American graffiti culture at an early age, a sense of millenarianism and invention permeates Oyama’s work today. There is a coolness of design and style in his artworks and texts that seems so inherently Japanese, a characteristic that has long been fetishized in the west. Yet, it is clear by the rigor in which Oyama works that his pursuits are intended to transcend such stylistic cultural clichés, and arrive at an autonomy of creative style that is reflexive, spontaneous and inventive. I spoke to Oyama soon after he wrapped up an intensive 6-month artist residency in New York City about his unique relationship to graffiti, his studio in Japan and collaborating with COMME des GARÇONS.
Michaela Bruton: You’ve recently finished a six-month residency at PointB Worklodge in Williamsburg, New York, which was supported by the Asian Cultural Council (ACC). Can you tell me about this experience and how it impacted your work?
Oyama Enrico Isamu Letter: I always wanted to come to New York since my practice has an important relationship to graffiti culture, which was developed originally in New York through the 70s. Graffiti became so global that now it almost seems there is no central place but something more pluralistic. Still, I would say New York is a very important place to be if you want to know the history of the culture and to contextualize it in depth. I met some really historically important figures in the world of graffiti in New York, and this experience gave me a lot of inspiration and historical recognition for the culture. Another reason that I wanted to come to New York is for its strong tradition of painting. I am basically an abstract painter and this combination of two contexts, graffiti culture and abstract American painting, made me want to come and live in New York. The ACC fellowship obviously gave me an amazing opportunity to pursue my art deeply. PointB Worklodge studio was a perfect environment for me. I think this creative experience will lead me to the next stage of my practice.
MB: So now you’re now back in Japan and have just completed a project in Ofunato city. Can you tell me about this project and its significance to the 3.11 disaster?
OEIL: After 3.11, many people from all over Japan visited Tohoku as volunteers, which is a great thing. However, we thought that art should do something that only art can do for this historic catastrophe. Maybe it’s not something that's easily understandable, and might cause conflicts with the local community, but hopefully it will bring a multi-faceted way of thinking.
The project is called “Kesen Transplant” and consists of two sections: “Kesen Art-Power Plant” and “Kuttsuki-House”. “Kesen Art-Power Plant” is a self-built lodge made of rubble from the 3.11 tsunami disaster. It’s equipped with a solar powered generator on the roof and works as a self-generating power plant. The electricity that this lodge generated was provided to “Kuttsuki-House”, another self-built temporary house that stands next to the lodge, where local people and artists gathered and communicated.
I was mainly involved in “Kesen Art-Power Plant” and was asked to create a mural on the lodge. First, the concept of painting on the rubble from 3.11 made me hesitate. Most of these pieces of rubble were originally the wooden pillars of someone’s house and they are still very personal, memorable and sensitive objects for local people. I thought that painting on them might be more about the artist’s ego, and that local people might not want such thing. When I was working on it, a family came to me and asked if that wall was made of 3.11 rubbles. I said yes, and they said, “So maybe one from our house might be in it… ” I couldn’t say anything. There is always this kind of difficulty when we deal with someone who has experienced something heavy that we haven’t experienced. They were not angry, but they certainly had some feelings about it.
Although I had such a hesitation in the beginning, I decided to do the mural work. The principal idea of “Kesen Transplant” obviously has a critical message to the nuclear power plant system that is a big issue now in Japan. In addition to this, our concept was also to demonstrate the vision of creating both infrastructure and culture at once, interacting with each other. People usually think we first need a system for living and then we can develop culture on top of it. But even if our living environment is extremely devastated and if we lose everything like the people in Tohoku did, we cannot live on physical or material satisfaction as long as we are human beings. We always need culture, art and creativity. And in our project, the mural was the really important element in that sense. That’s how I decided to join this project.
It’s also notable that New York-based street artist Swoon participated in our project to create a collaboration mural with me. She was visiting Tokyo for her solo show and I did a quick interview to write an essay about her. After that, I offered for her to come to Ofunato City to join us. Unfortunately she couldn’t come to the actual site because of a tight schedule, but she understood our concept and shared the passion, and transported two of her wheatpaste works and gave us permission to incorporate them into the mural despite her absence. She sent us wheatpastes of the sea deity. This collaboration was really amazing and inspiring.
[caption id="attachment_923" align="aligncenter" width="299" caption="Oyama Enrico Isamu Letter x Swoon “Kesen Transplant Mural”, 4m(h) x 6m(w). Aerosol, Lacquer Paint and Paper Collage on Wooden Wall Made of Rubbles from 3.11 Tsunami Disaster. Ofunato city, Iwate Prefecture, Japan. 2012. (Photo by Oyama Enrico Isamu Letter)"][/caption]
MB: I’m fascinated by your Quick Turn Structure, which is essentially a unique motif that you’ve invented. QTS repeats continually in your work, almost like a signature. You describe this technique as having a certain autonomy, which is manifested somatically. Can you explain the concept behind QTS?
OEIL: Quick Turn Structure is a name of the recurrent motif in my works. When I was 17 years old, I was influenced by a unique visual expression of graffiti, and I created a lot of graffiti-lettering drawings on paper for a couple of years, maybe around 2001 to 2003. Graffiti is a game of spreading one’s name all over the city, so most graffiti works are of decorative lettering uniquely shaped in alphabetical types. This relation of name as motif and city space as media is very essential to graffiti.
[caption id="attachment_924" align="aligncenter" width="574" caption="Oyama Enrico Isamu Letter “Graffiti Lettering Drawings”, Size Variable (Compiled in 334mm(h) x 484mm(w) Drawing Book). Acrylic, Technical Pen, Mechanical Pencil, Pencil and Colour Marker on Paper. 2001 – 2003 (Compiled in 2009)"][/caption]
However, I was not a graffiti writer and was working on paper at that time, so I didn’t have any reason to create a name. Actually, my interest in graffiti was more connected to its visual elements. I especially loved Quick Turn, which was the term to describe the most unique and stylish motion lines of Wild Style, one of the best-known lettering styles in graffiti culture. So I naturally started to take off any secondary visual components such as arrows, colours and alphabetical types and deductively extracted only the motion of Quick Turn. Then, by repeating Quick Turn motion persistently and spontaneously, I reconstructed it into pure abstraction out of being a name. That’s how Quick Turn Structure was born. As QTS is not a name anymore, it has lost the necessary relation to the city space as a specific mono-medium, and is always driving beyond borders of plural media. It just has a temporal relation to each media every time. This means that the specific principle of QTS is only in itself, in its mechanism of spontaneous expanding motion. When I use the term “autonomy”, I intend to point out this character of QTS.
In a practical level, live-painting performances have also contributed in developing QTS. I started doing live-paintings in Tokyo from around 2004. In the beginning, I was doing it in the same way as drawing on paper. But slowly I noticed that drawing on small paper in the studio and painting on bigger media in front of an audience is something totally different. We need to use our entire bodies in order to make a large-scale canvas. For instance, I use my shoulder as pivot and swing my arm to draw a long line like an arc. Through this process of acquiring the use of the body, QTS has developed its potential depth.
[caption id="attachment_926" align="aligncenter" width="574" caption="Oyama Enrico Isamu Letter, Scene of Live-Painting. At FANCLUB, Matsudo, Japan, 9th June 2012. (Photo by Ryohei Tomita)"][/caption]
The remarkable thing about QTS is how it interacts with medium. For instance, we can discuss the contextual condition of painting. QTS is principally concerned with persistent spontaneous expanding motion of Quick Turn that drives beyond borders. However, historically painting has a strong connection to its frame as something that determines painting itself. So, on the canvas, the border of the frame interacts with the motif so effectively that QTS will at times need to conflict with it and will consequently be transformed. It’s interesting and important because this conflict might eventually draw out an unexpected figure.
This point could be expanded in a general way between the relationships of QTS and media. Since media has its own nature, context and condition as well and these factors can always interact with QTS. The nature of QTS is that it interacts with them as well. In this way, the motion of QTS fixates on media as traces of interaction and confliction, and every trace has a singularity of its own. We can also say that the mechanism of QTS extracted from graffiti lettering by deductive operation exists in an abstract level, and each individual trace fixed on each media is a singular materialization of that mechanism, and these traces eventually start to exist as actual artworks. So it’s kind of a two-layered methodology: the abstract level of invariable mechanism where QTS drives its persistent expanding motion, and the substantial level of each work that is materialized as a trace of interaction and conflict between QTS and media.
This interaction between QTS and media could be not only for conceptual or contextual conditions, such as that of painting, but also simply materialistic or practical conditions as well. When I create murals, there is always a singular relation between work and architecture, city space and natural environment such as weather. Surfaces of walls are not always necessarily flat and smooth like canvas. Sometimes someone else’s graffiti or mural is already there. There is also communication and negotiation with local government and people. These are all equal conditions and environments for QTS, and my creation emerges as a trace of QTS amidst such negotiations.
[caption id="attachment_928" align="aligncenter" width="574" caption="Oyama Enrico Isamu Letter “FFIGURATI #20, #21” 3370mm(h) x 2450mm(w) (each). Aerosol, Chinese Ink, Graphite, Marker Pen and Pencil on Canvas. 2012. (Photo by Yojiro Imasaka)"][/caption]
[caption id="attachment_930" align="aligncenter" width="449" caption="Oyama Enrico Isamu Letter “FFIGURATI #17”, 900mm(h) x 900mm(w). Aerosol, Lacquer Paint, Mechanical Pencil and Gesso on Canvas. 2011. (Photo by Takahiro Tsushima)"][/caption]
[caption id="attachment_931" align="aligncenter" width="360" caption="Oyama Enrico Isamu Letter “Choja-Machi Mural Project”(Aichi Triennale 2010), 13m(h) x 15m(w). Aerosol and Lacquer Paint on Concrete Wall. 2010. (Photo by Takahiro Tsushima)"][/caption]
In conclusion, QTS is a mirror image of graffiti. Graffiti is also a practice that spreads one’s name persistently and repeatedly wherever it goes and causes conflict and leaves a trace on each medium, as the origin of this term is an Italian word GRAFFIARE, which means SCRATCHING. However, once again, the difference between QTS and graffiti is that graffiti is essentially a game of names in a city space. In my perspective, this strong character gives graffiti both energy and limitation. It has to be a name in order to be written in a city space, and it has to be written in the city space in order to be a name. QTS takes distance from this mono-combination between motif and media. QTS enlarges the possibility of “spreading one’s self” by twisting graffiti’s unique visual language to get out of the name into the persistent expanding motion of Quick Turn, and escaping from the city space as mono-medium to interact. Let me add one more thing. FFIGURATI is a term I use for titles of almost every works of mine and it’s my invention as well as QTS. Here I twist the word GRAFFITI and also layered the nuance of an Italian word FIGURA TI that means FIGURE YOU. I think this is a perfect description of the practical operations in my works: to twist and extract from graffiti into a new figure and an autonomic principle of QTS.
MB: There is an interesting manipulation of scale in your works; from your incredibly intricate drawings to large-scale paintings. This I feel is strongly connected with a durational imperative. Can you describe your relationship to time and duration in regards to how you approach your art practice?
OEIL: Time and duration are also important factors in my practice, and as you correctly say it’s often related to scale of works. However, they are not necessarily in correlative relation. Sometimes it takes a week to create a mural and sometimes two months to create a middle size painting. It’s related more to the balance between an improvisational approach and detailed craftsmanship of labour than to scale specifically.
MB: You work in many different environments often making site-specific installations. Can you discuss the relationship you have with your studio? In what capacity do you work? And in what mutations does your studio practice take?
OEIL: Working in a studio is an interesting subject to discuss for me. My studio in Japan is a renovated old Japanese folk house. Japanese houses are structurally different from western houses since all of its spatial arrangements are determined by the size of the tatami, which is Japanese classic mat made of rushes. For example, not only do we estimate the size of a room by calculating how many tatami can fit in there, but also the size and layout of doors, closets and corridors- these are all based on the size of the tatami. It has a simple and standardized format, and so it is easy to operate and renovate a space for each individual use since all spaces are always and already potentially divided by size of the tatami. I personally divide my studio into 3 areas associated to 3 steps in my creation process. So the chronological process of my creation is reflected in the spatial layout of the studio. On the other hand, it might be a limitation because this kind of systematization does not always support experimentation. My experience at PointB was really inspiring in this sense. It was a huge open space, and I could do more experimental and drastic work. Unfortunately, I have to leave my current studio in Matsudo city within a couple of months because I will almost certainly move to New York again this year. Anyway, how to organize and characterize your own studio is very interesting subject for me and I will pursue this point in the future as well.
MB: What are you interested in at the moment? Who are you looking at, listening to or reading?
OEIL: I’ve been interested in Rammellzee for a long time, one of the most important figures in the history of graffiti who died in 2010. He had very unique philosophy for his creation called Gothic Futurism, which describes the battle between letters and their symbolic warfare pinned against any standardizations enforced by the rules of the alphabet. I feel a strong relation between my concept of Quick Turn Structure and his Gothic Futurism in the way that there is a deconstruction of the alphabetical system and a release of fundamental energy between drawing and writing. I saw his solo exhibition at The Suzanne Geiss Company in SoHo in April 2012 and felt once more the necessity to investigate his theory more in depth and contextualize what he had done and what I am doing.
I am also very interested in the activity of BNE Water Foundation, a NPO recently founded by a conceptual graffiti artist BNE. BNE is very famous for his world-wide hard-core graffiti attitude, but he’s not just a general graffiti guy. He has a very strong philosophy to change the world from the current effects of capitalism and his NPO is dedicated to provide clean water to disadvantaged children in Indonesia. I think this is truly a revolutionary project. In addition, I am also interested in Adel Abdessemed, an Algerian artist who currently lives and works in Paris. I saw his works at the Venice Biennale in 2009, the Museum of François Pinault Foundation in Venice, 2011 and his solo exhibition at David Zwirner, New York in 2012. His works are always so simple and stylish but also have a critical and clear message in regards to politics and social issues.
MB: You have collaborated with some big brands — Dr. Pepper, Levi’s and COMME des GARÇONS to name a few. How did these collaborations come about? Was it something you actively sought?
OEIL: Most of them happened quite suddenly without any expectations. Levi Strauss Japan was the only client where I had a personal friend who made the collaboration possible. Apart from this experience, they have always contacted me via email.
MB: Your collaboration with COMME des GARÇONS for their Spring/Summer 2012 White Drama collection is really magical. What was it like to work with Rei Kawakubo and how did you find the transition from Art to Fashion?
OEIL: It was an exciting experience to work with Rei Kawakubo. She was a really unique, creative and powerful person. When we first met at the CDG office in Tokyo, I remember her saying, “I want to destroy clothing.” I said, “Okay, but I think it’s not just destroying; we should creatively destroy it.” This was how we started the communication. Firstly I began to work on sample clothes. She came to the working site several times to see the process and we had discussions repeatedly about how to layout Quick Turn Structure onto CDG clothes. After those trials, we decided on the final layout. Finally, I painted eight clothes for the Paris Collection 2012 and four of them were in the actual runway show. Besides those hand-painted clothes for the collection, we also produced several printed items such as T-shirts, knits and skirts to sell in stores globally.
Through this experience, I learned that art and fashion had a lot in common through their creativity. I had no technical and contextual knowledge of fashion, so in the very beginning it was not easy to capture Kawakubo’s intention of “destroying clothing”. But through the process of trial and discussion with her, I could slowly and sensuously catch that. It was something that could only be understood by sense, not by logic or explanation, and also because Rei Kawakubo and COMME des GARÇONS are very extremely aesthetically orientated.
MB: Tell me, what’s coming up in 2012?
OEIL: I am planning to move to New York to live again this year. Besides that, I have several projects coming up, such as: a two person show at Takuro Someya Contemporary Art in Tokyo in September, collaboration headphones with Beats by Dr.Dre, a symposium at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, several essays including one about Rammellzee show at The Suzanne Geiss, new artwork for New York-based web magazine The Margins and a graffiti project for Collection Gallizia in Paris.
Interview by Michaela Bruton.
For further reading Oyama’s critical essays and texts can be found here: