The world is going to end, but we need to keep on moving. Probably good advice for a shell-shocked global community clawing its way back from the abyss. And while artist Noboru Tsubaki cautions that the past eighteen months have caused “an unprecedented loss of personal freedoms,” we shouldn’t lose sight of the converse, because hope is activating.
Speaking with Japanese artist Noboru Tsubaki is at once diverting and sobering. He oscillates between the bleak and the life-affirming, nearly within the same breath and often accompanied by laughter. It’s exhilarating. When I mention the idea of the Anthropocene, he tells me it has always been a theme in his work, and adds with a smile, “I think the sixth mass extinction will be of Homo sapiens.” Later, he tells me life is about savouring the small things and finding beauty in them. To punctate this thought, he lifts up his glass of tomato juice and says, “If you put it up towards the light you can see different shades inside it.” Beat. “I still think the world is going to end.”
He and I are talking via Zoom, with his agent and a translator also on the call. The language back-and-forth makes the interview more polite and long-winded, elongating a process that, already disjointed by Zoom, is inherently less nuanced. I do ask when the world might actually end, though, as I am curious. “After the resources have all been used up and wars have been fought for the remnants,” he says, adding, “unless a UFO or new tech development can save us.” This ability of his to sit with and countenance opposing ideas is a running thread, both in our conversations and for his work. “Art is like a black hole,” he says. “In front of this black hole there is no difference between light and dark, or good and evil. It’s something that is full of hope, but at the same time it is very dangerous if you don’t know how to go about relating to it.”
Noboru Tsubaki, MUSHROOM (2009)
Tsubaki began his career as a minimalist at the end of the Mono-ha movement, a group of Japanese painters in the late 60s and 70s who eschewed traditional notions of representation. Translated as “School of Things,” the group’s members explored the properties of raw and unworked natural and industrial materials, reducing objects to their primary, unaltered forms with very little manipulation. The artists were responding to what they saw as Japan’s unquestioning devotion to international modernism and its accompanying development and industrialisation.
Tsubaki eventually moved away from this Arte Povera, materials-led approach to embrace a format of exaggerated maximalism. The oversized objects and installations that he has created in recent decades continue to be an impassioned critique of industry, globalisation, environmental crises, and the dangers of (and the potentials for) new technologies. “I have always had an interest in science fiction and the near future,” he said. “Though these days it is starting to seem less like fiction and more like reality.”
Noboru Tsubaki, DAISY BELL (2014)
Tsubaki’s 1989 sculpture, Fresh Gasoline, galvanized his international career when it was shown as part of a travelling exhibition of emerging Japanese artists in San Francisco. The cadmium-yellow clay, iron, and resin piece—organ-like, replete with scales, boils, and antennae—is at once playful and threatening. Tsubaki titled the exhibition Against Nature as a response to the prevailing Western belief that Japanese art and life are concerned exclusively with living at one with the natural world. Since then, Tsubaki has made mine-clearing robotic vehicles, outsized insects that represent computer viruses, and monumental suspended grasshoppers that explore the conflict between nature and humans. When asked about his oversized format he replied, “It’s not in the realms of language, it’s like a message from God telling me to make something big!”
His installations often take a humorous approach to serious social and political issues, and more recently he has been working on a series of inflatable sculptures that appear to be part human/part creature. Made from sections of vinyl-coated polyester cloth, their physical presence is weighty and commanding. However, because they travel flat and are inflated on-site with nitrogen, their environmental footprints are much lower than traditional monumental sculpture. Tsubaki says he is interested in making more eco-friendly art now—that all artists should be—but notes that the pieces themselves have no precise meaning. “They represent something that is huge and disgusting and blobby. Something that you cannot control, like a black hole, a huge energy that you can’t control.”
Some of these energies are natural, while others have roots in technologies like AI (a technology he credits in part for the fast development of the Covid vaccine). He says we are now pitted in a war with the wealthy 1 percent of the population and, he explains, because they are the ones using all the resources, they see no problem with the relentless and uncontrolled ascent of big tech and corporations. The rest of us are doing all the work and living day by day. It’s a new form of slavery.
Noboru Tsubaki, COCHINEAL (2005)
The restrictions of the past eighteen months have caused an unprecedented loss of personal freedoms, he continues, with global governments trying to consolidate their power with censorship across physical and virtual platforms. But if we are looking for a saviour in the arts, he cautions, we might not find one there as it too is struggling with censorship issues and lack of funding. He mentions Aichi Triennale 2019, wherein the After ‘Freedom of Expression’? exhibition was closed after three days due to a furore over the inclusion of a sculpture by Korean artists Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung. Their piece, Statue of a Girl of Peace (2011), depicts a “comfort woman,” the euphemistic name given to Korean women who were sexually enslaved by the Imperial Japanese Army between 1932 and 1945.
“Here, those working in the arts sector, unless they are in entertainment, are living the life of a small mole,” he said. When asked for clarification he looked at me and said, in English,
“Like a cactus, no rain.” Artists are, metaphorically and literally, not being given the light and nourishment they need to flourish, and so culture is disappearing.
Though the past year has seen a terrifying rise in inequality for our planet’s occupants, Tsubaki is philosophical about the lockdowns themselves noting that when your productivity is stunted you have more time to read and to update your mind. “There is a Japanese saying: When the sun is out you can go to the farm and plant your seeds and when it rains go back inside your house and study.” He warns against going into despair and stopping altogether. “We need to carry on moving,” he says. “And we need to carry on talking to one another, taking an interest in other people and ideas. People need to step outside of their comfort zones. That is crucial to creating a better society.”
Noboru Tsubaki, Απαντήσεις στον ντετερμινισμό (2021)
Tsubaki also rallies against the silo mentality in his position as a lecturer at Kyoto University of the Arts, decrying the fact that Japanese art schools have been traditionally segregated from larger, multi-subject universities. “The art students don’t mix with other people,” he says. “They only know each other.” He believes that when students remain in that isolated bubble, their work remains exclusively about technique instead of the philosophical questions pertinent to our world. “Students these days often don’t see the bigger picture. To see it they need to learn about philosophy, history, poetry, and finances.” To this end, Tsubaki’s university recently changed the format of their degree show into an art fair.
Before we part, Tsubaki mentions his current work on a piece for a spring 2022 exhibition in Kyoto that will focus mainly on his paintings, a lesser-known aspect of his oeuvre. He then thanks me for “taking an interest in this weird artist from the Far East.” But I am the one who should be grateful. Experiencing his energy and the machinations of his curious mind has been liberating and inspiring.