Mind-blowing, thrilling, and powerful: These are a few words that come to mind when we look at the ceramic work of Kazuhito Kawai. Yet, for the Japanese artist, there was a period in his life when he wanted to distance himself from art. Following a time studying contemporary art in London, his feelings about art got to such a tense place that he experienced a fear of visiting museums or galleries. Now, several years later, he has reconnected with clay as an important medium to face his feelings.
Kinship + Craft reached out to Kazuhito Kawai about his creative practice and were able to conduct this interview over email. Due to the differences between the Japanese and English languages, the formatting of both interviews will be different.
Please find the Japanese interview here.
Clay as a means of translating emotions
K+C — Hello Kazuhito Kawai, thank you for sharing your work and story with us! We appreciate your time. To start, what would you like us to know about you and the work you do?
I know that people enjoy my work from many different perspectives. Some people enjoy the texture of my work, saying it looks like candy, while others see the possibility of expression through ceramics. Some enjoy the disparity between my work and stereotypical crafts. Others distinguish a boundary between contemporary art and existing crafts, deepening their interpretation from a historical perspective. I agree with most of these interpretations, and inherently accept people’s reactions. However, for me, I feel that these observations are some like a by-product of my work.
I’ve always had difficulty experiencing events and the reality that occurs before my eyes while experiencing emotions at the same time. My emotions always lag behind. Perhaps I have always been like a dashboard camera, automatically recording reality in front of me at a reduced resolution. I manage to get through it by reacting to things I’ve learned from experience or instinctively. Much later, my brain randomly automatically replays the rough images, and this evokes the emotions associated with them. I then suddenly realize that, at that time, I was sad.
For me, making art helps me sort out these memories and emotions. It functions as a way for me to perceive reality. In a sense, clay is a stimulus for this. By touching clay, it triggers memories and emotions and links them, which allows me to reconstruct them. The memories and emotions then transfer to the clay, which has feelings, and it consequently changes shape. These changes visually transform memories and emotions into objects.
In this way, I learn about the nature of my heart through the products that accumulate as records. The resulting vessels, created to hold something, instead trap the emotions or memories. Furthermore, the vessels originally intended for use in fact uses the emotions of the viewer.
K+C — That sounds like an emotionally powerful experience. May I ask, what is it like when you share your work with others and what impact do you think it has?
I feel secretly amused when I put these contradictory vessels on the display stand and release them into the stark white exhibition hall. When people think of ceramics, much less vessels, they let down their guard. The vessels free people from the stiffness associated with fine art. As people view these things as everyday objects, the wall in their minds slowly comes down. While in this mindset, people come closer to my work. What I have trapped in the vessel disperses and stimulates the viewer, like a small explosion.
K+C — That’s a cool way of explaining it. You studied Contemporary Art at Chelsea College of Art in London, finishing in 2007. How did your time in London affect you and your art?
I experienced a lot of frustration in London. Before I studied abroad, people in Japan thought I had good taste as long as I expressed something vaguely Western. While in Japan, and being a confident native Japanese speaker, I easily conveyed concepts to people and convinced them of my interpretation. It was also easy to find people to help with large installations, as well as good, cheap materials. But when I went to London, almost all of these assumptions were pulled out from under my feet. I didn’t know why I was doing art anymore.
I’m sure that at the time, I was looking for art to satisfy my hunger for approval and to be accepted as an artist — a hunger unique to teenagers. However, as a Japanese person, I could not superficially integrate the mood outside of contemporary art sought from me. This was something beyond myself. These setbacks prevented me from digging deeper into myself, confronting myself, and finding my own style. My original obsession issues with contemporary art resurfaced, and it took all I had just to graduate. It was a very difficult time for me.
After returning to Japan, I prioritized distancing myself from my obsession, took a break from art, and worked toward building myself back up. Since I had no social skills at all, I worked part-time and dedicated myself to a lifestyle convincing myself I did not need art. In this way, I lived as a member of society as if nothing had happened. However, even after my life had stabilized, a kind of “hopeless empty” feeling did not disappear. As I had avoided art, I was afraid to go to museums and galleries. Yet, on my days off, looking at vessels and old tea bowls soothed me.
K+C — I am sorry that you had such a difficult time. So you then pursued the study of ceramics in Ibaraki, Japan, finishing in 2018. When did you find your way back to ceramics?
I became tired of my office job in Tokyo and was about to return to my hometown (a town where pottery is very popular) to work in a pottery store. At that time, I happened to learn that there was a pottery school in Kasama. This school trained successors, and there were no tuition fees. I decided to enroll in the school and started making ceramics.
In the beginning, I thought of making tableware with a potter’s wheel and selling it. However, as I touched the clay, I began to make irregularly shaped objects. At first, I tried to use clay as a means to materialize my concept, but clay is malleable and does not become sharp. Also, the expression of the glaze did not come out the way I envisioned, and the pieces fell apart after firing. I was continually at the mercy of the materials and then found myself in my final year before graduation. My graduation work became the one piece that finally didn’t collapse.
However, when looking back, I realized that the shapes I created while manipulating the clay were somehow expressing myself. I feel that my encounter with clay as a material with feelings has allowed me to reconnect with art, which I once lost touch with. The same thing was written in the statement for an exhibition of Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich.
Pich got stuck while producing paintings he learned about in a Western country. When he returned to Cambodia, he came into contact with bamboo, a traditional and familiar material. While touching and playing with it, he was charmed by its natural features. I strongly resonate with his feelings.
Finding peace of mind
K+C — You continue to live and work in the Ibaraki Prefecture* in Japan. In what ways has this prefecture influenced the development of your creative practice? (Note about Ibaraki below.)
Ibaraki is close to Tokyo and has easy access to exhibitions held in Tokyo. And best of all, I am currently living at home where I grew up. There is peace of mind in knowing that even if I run out of money, I won’t have to worry about food. This plays a large role in being an artist. Also, when making ceramics, you need a large studio with space for a kiln. Moreover, you also need a car for transporting and procuring materials. It is difficult to maintain these necessities in Tokyo.
*K+C Note: Ibaraki Prefecture is a seaside prefecture in Japan that is well-known for its beaches, surfing, fields of flowers and plum tree orchards, Kasama ware pottery, and robotics, amongst other things.
…when looking back, I realized that the shapes I created while manipulating the clay were somehow expressing myself. I feel that my encounter with clay as a material with feelings has allowed me to reconnect with art, which I once lost touch with.
Connecting with artists that are part of Japan’s “lost generation”
K+C — That makes a lot of sense. It sounds like Ibaraki is a wonderful place for you to create art. I have read that some people connect your work with a social issue in Japan that describes individuals between the ages of mid-thirty and mid-forty as the “lost generation.” Could you tell us about this concept of the “lost generation” in Japan, and whether you consider your ceramics to be part of that conversation? If yes, in what ways?
At the very beginning, I thought I was just creating personal works with a personal theme. However, Japanese artists of my generation began to sympathize with me and invited me to participate in group exhibitions. While exploring commonalities with them to set up a group exhibition, I realized the strong influence the period I grew up in had behind my work. Even if my work reflects personal experiences, it is from within this period and indirectly symbolizes this time.
Since the beginning, people in Japan have used the term “lost generation” as a way to describe the social issue. Many in this generation that graduated from university and entered the workforce during the economic downturn after the collapse of the bubble economy in the early 90s were not able to assimilate into the stable lifetime employment system in Japan. Sociologists started to refer to this as the “lost generation.”
Sometimes people refer to the prolonged stagnation of the Japanese economy since the collapse of the bubble economy as the “lost thirty years.” People widely refer to the generation that joined adult society during this “lost” period as the “lost generation.” However, for me, what is important more than the instability of the economic connection with society is the shared internalized mentality of people of this generation.
K+C — Can you explain a little more in depth?
For example, I was born in the early 80s. During this period, Japan had a strong economy and great influence on the world. Since my childhood, strongly implanted in me, was a vision of a bright future which seemed to last forever. Of course, I believe that there was a lot of opposition and objections to the economically-centered values at that time. But behind those criticisms was a fulfilling sense of pride.
Around the time I reached adolescence, the bubble economy collapsed and the economy rapidly deteriorated. However, the economic downturn was only temporary, and at the time, I don’t think anyone thought it would last this long.
From the recession in the 90s, the economy gradually worsened. The “lost decade” became the “lost twenty to thirty years.” After the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers* during the 2008 financial crisis and the Great East Japan Earthquake*, we were unable to grab hold of an opportunity to emerge and were left behind by the rest of the world. We were a generation accustomed to being in a recession and slowly lost the confidence we once had. Because of this gap, our generation has a unique mentality that is different from the younger generation that has regarded this situation as normal.
I realized that the complex overlap of my artistic infatuation and the economic tension that occurred during the time I grew up formed me. Afterward, I became more conscious of the characteristics of that time period as the background for my work.
*K+C Note: These are references to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008, and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which is referred to in Japan as the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Kazuhito Kawai’s creative process and love of references
K+C — Thank you for sharing this history and providing us context for your work. It is moving to hear the chronology of all of these events and see how they have impacted you. If I may, I would like to ask more about your work. Could you tell us how the creative process starts for you and when it ends?
To be honest, I am not creating work only instigated by my own impulses. There are factors such as the exhibition schedule and the delivery date of the work. But there are probably two factors that drive me to make my next piece.
I am curious about the expression of ceramics. Also, as the story behind the work becomes clearer, my desire to create the work becomes stronger.
There is a physical point in the creation of ceramics where you are forced to stop; drying the work, battling with gravity, and the definite end in the firing.
K+C — And are there other forms of expression to which you feel drawn?
I would like to try again to work on paintings and videos from the viewpoint of ceramics. Also, I sometimes become frustrated by the long process of molding, drying, glazing, and firing, and I feel drawn to expressions that can directly commit to the final form.
I am curious about the expression of ceramics. Also, as the story behind the work becomes clearer, my desire to create the work becomes stronger.
K+C — Cool! I am curious to see how you will experiment with videos and paintings. By the way, the titles of your individual works contain multiple references to pop songs, movies, and books. When does the naming process take place in the creative process and how do you determine the title of your work?
The titles of my works are personal and the resulting shapes are abstract. As a way for people to step into understanding my work, I make an effort to create titles that are words people can share. When I was an office worker, I once attended a copywriting school. My experience there was also influential.
Generally speaking, references and citations for fine art often come from other kinds of fine art, and philosophy and sociology books. However, when it comes to my true self, the influence of subcultures is substantially significant, such as YouTube, music, movies, television dramas, fashion, the high streets, etc. So I combine references like a collage, without giving preference.
K+C — Layering seems like a fundamental characteristic of your work. Whether it is in the addition of pop-culture references, physical mass, or the colors and textures achieved through glazes. What parameters guide you in the process of adding various elements?
Obsession, haha. Most of the time, I compulsively employ layering techniques. I like the filmmaker Hiroyuki Oki. The story progresses while intertwining dialogue and ad-libbing, actors and directors, and current scenes and reflections using actual images. These feelings of reality evoked the same emotions within my own mind and shocked me.
K+C — Clay can often be an unpredictable material. Many ceramicists have noted that they never know what to expect when they open the kiln. How much does control play a role in your work?
I predict the results before molding and glazing after performing many experiments in different proportions. But even so, there are very few pieces that come out of the kiln exactly as expected. I look at the piece again after letting some time pass. Then I judge whether or not it is acceptable as a work of art. I think this element of not being able to completely control the work allows me to separate myself from it temporarily and makes it possible for me to face it again objectively.
As a perfectionist and control freak, a big reason I am able to complete my work and release it to the world is because the final firing process is beyond my control. Also, it acts as an emotional divider for me. In the media where “ceramicists can control everything,” I am not confident that I could present what I would call a finished work to the world. The frustration of wanting to make something more the way I want it the next time and the accidental discovery from failure often stimulate my curiosity. I think that is why I am able to continue creating without getting bored.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to see a piece that I worked on for months completely collapse the moment I open the lid to the kiln. This occurs regularly, even now. Since the kiln firing is usually before the deadline, I often think this part is merciless. I want to flee from the reality in front of me, hide in my futon [bed], and not come out.
However, as a ceramicist, failure makes me keenly aware of something. Time cannot be rewound, the piece cannot be returned to its original state, and the fragility of the work itself. It’s almost like some sort of training.
K+C — Well, you’re certainly not alone in those reactions when something does not turn out as planned! As you said, it is a form of training, but many people share those feelings. If I could ask you one final question, I would like to know how you would describe your work. As you said at the beginning, some say they are candy or ice cream-like. While others have said that they are expressions of the grotesque and chaotic. What are your thoughts on this?
I believe how people perceive “grotesque” depends on the cultural norms of each country. I think that Japanese traditional culture, such as goldfish and bonsai trees, is a culture that enjoys deformity. Japan creates these through the process of crossbreeding species with mutated genes and unnaturally bending branches to change their shape.
I can easily understand why COMME des GARÇONS’ kobu dress was designed in Japan. The Western media all reported on its novelty, but I honestly didn’t notice its peculiarity until the Western media pointed it out.
Japanese character culture, such as Hello Kitty or anime, also has a unique aesthetic sense and does not originally aim for realism.
Looking back, the Japan of my adolescence also was distorted. Grown adults walked around Harajuku wearing clothes that looked like children’s clothes and high school girls wore black makeup and formed a community in Shibuya. And now, children add effects to their photos on Instagram to make their faces look different and send them out into the world. Perhaps the distortion itself hasn’t changed much from the past to the present.
If you hold in one part, another part will pop out and it will be difficult to create a perfect circle. In this way, I believe that this complexity (or simplicity) is implicit in human beings.
K+C — What function does art play in society from your perspective?
It is not far off to say that art is an existence that contains a social function. Art challenges contemporary society on issues such as refugees, minorities, gender, sustainability, and diversity. It shows the direction that society should head toward.
Even without the artist’s intention, when the work is placed in a curated exhibition from a social perspective, it often takes on a social message.
I also understand that the recent trend is to demand political correctness from the works themselves. Of course, I think this movement is a wonderful thing. In that sense, I think we are living in an exceedingly more comfortable time than when I was a child where diversity is recognized and individuals are respected. I feel deep emotions when I think that if I had been born today, I would not have had to go through many of the painful times I experienced back then.
At the same time, however, even in these good times, I also believe that art is absolutely necessary as an existence for the conflicting things that escape from it. The unsuppressed desires of human beings as animals, pleasures that contradict social norms, and deviant perspectives. (Of course, this is under the premise of not only affirming but acknowledging such radicalness. It is also necessary for the continued growth and realization of a better society.)
K+C — I understand. Could you explain what your take is on the role darker parts of society play?
During my troubled teens, I saw an art book by Paul McCarthy and I remember feeling as if somehow I had been saved. When I wished the world would just pause for a moment, I was able to come to terms with my feelings thanks to the fact that there was art to accompany this distorted frustration.
I felt extreme pessimism when I saw the true state of the world after the COVID-19 pandemic. The social preconceptions of the past were stripped away and the world was surrounded by exposed and true feelings. At that time, I saw a movie called The Painted Bird, which portrayed the cruel side of human beings in a simple way. I thought, “Ah, human beings are meant to be this way.” I experienced a sense of liberation by accepting this one aspect of human nature.
From this experience, I strongly feel that it is necessary to live with the savageness and cruelty of animal instincts and not ignore them.
In this sense, I believe that “grotesque” has a new meaning. It is not only the tendency of bad taste to love grotesque things but also a level of tolerance to accept various things. I want to confront this, believing that it will directly lead to the expansion of possibilities as shapes as well as challenge the concept of beauty.