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[Herald Interview] As a wanderer, Yoshitomo Nara does not confine himself to art

Sept. 25, 2023 - 21:03 By Park Yuna
Yoshitomo Nara (courtesy of the artist)

Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara has returned to Seoul, bringing with him ceramic works that are a departure from his iconic paintings of children most people here are familiar with.

The artist broke the long-held perception in Seoul about his works at the exhibition “Yoshitomo Nara: Ceramic Works” at Pace Gallery in Hannam-dong, central Seoul. One might be baffled upon encountering these monochromatic ceramic works rather than his paintings of wide-eyed children, which were last displayed in the city 18 years ago in a solo exhibition.

“I think those works demonstrate the current status of my age,” the artist said about the ceramic works during an interview with The Korea Herald on Sept. 1 at the gallery.

“Nowadays I am enjoying making ceramic works more than paintings. When it comes to ceramic works, I feel like the work is being created as soon as I touch the clay. But for paintings, it seems it takes more time to find out the outcome,” he said.

An installation view of “Yoshitomo Nara: Ceramic Works” at Pace Gallery in Hannam-dong, central Seoul (courtesy of the gallery)

Most of the 140 pieces of ceramics on display were created in the past three years during Nara's ongoing residency in Shigaraki, a Japanese town famous for pottery.

On the third floor of the gallery is a chalkboard with dozens of drawings taped to it, and ceramic sculptures on wooden desks that one would see in a school classroom. Nara said he wanted to create a feeling that resembles stumbling into a laboratory by mistake at an empty school during summer break.

“It is like arriving back in one’s childhood on a time machine. You will be puzzled at the laboratory, but at the same time, you will find the place interesting,” he said.

Nara said it is not difficult for him to “mentally” go back to his childhood or teenage years. Growing up, his family was poor, but his financial situation has improved over the years.

“After one gets rich, they rarely go back to the time when they were poor, and it is easy for their vision to narrow (after one becomes wealthy). I try to see things from the past when I was not well off. All these life stages have become my artistic inspiration,” Nara said.

An installation view of “Yoshitomo Nara: Ceramic Works” at Pace Gallery in Hannam-dong, central Seoul (courtesy of the gallery)

He did not expect he would become the famous artist that he is today. Rather, he enjoyed the diverse experiences he had when he was young and continues to try new things. In college, he would spend all his money on a three-month trip to Europe. When he moved to Germany in 1988 to attend Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, he worked many part-time jobs rather than spend time only on campus.

When asked if he has any other masterpiece that he wants to create during his lifetime, the artist said he wishes to continue what he has been doing and travel more.

From time to time he goes on a trip to experience Indigenous cultures, meet new people and interact with those who do not realize who he is. Nara showed photographs of his interactions with the Indigenous people of Taiwan during his recent trip to Taiwan, one of his favorite destinations.

"Numazu Shell Mound No.2 (Big Eyes)" by Yoshitomo Nara (Park Yuna/The Korea Herald)

“I would like to go on a very long trip. A trip with no purpose,” Nara said.

"If I were not an artist, if I had become a traveler -- who does not have a permanent place to stay."

Nara considers himself having taken the road less traveled in becoming an artist, and says his array of life experiences, including his many travels, are embedded in his works.

"Anyone who has taken a similar path to mine or those who are old enough would recognize it in my art," he said.

Although a world-renowned artist, Nara still pursues a simple and humble life, saying he can sleep anywhere as long as he has bedding. Although it took quite a bit of time to have his second exhibition in Seoul, he has visited the city quite often.

"I enjoy makgeolli and jeon (Korean rice wine and pancakes). I have been the same for the past 20 years," he said.

The exhibition at Pace Gallery in Seoul runs through Oct. 21.

An installation view of “Yoshitomo Nara: Ceramic Works” at Pace Gallery in Hannam-dong, central Seoul (courtesy of the gallery)