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Yoshitomo Nara discusses the importance of drawing and Zen serenity to his work

By Paul Laster
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Since 1984, Yoshitomo Nara has been one of Japan’s leading contemporary artists, with a devoted following and nearly 40 solo exhibitions worldwide under his belt. His images of wide-eyed children (mostly girls) displaying obstreperous attitudes use wit to undermine the kawaii, or “cute aesthetic,” of Japanese anime and manga, a subversive approach that paved the way for global superstars like Takashi Murakami. On the eve of his latest show at Pace Gallery in Chelsea, Nara shares some thoughts on his process and his shift to a more mature tone in his recent works.

Studio view
© Yoshitomo Nara Photograph by Yoshitomo Nara, courtesy Pace Gallery

David Byrne once wrote that your typical subject is “a cute kid who is in fact a bad seed,” like one of the children from Village of the Damned. Is that how you see them?
When I read that I thought, Oh, maybe so. But I don’t generally comment on the subjects of my work.

Studio view
© Yoshitomo Nara Photograph by Yoshitomo Nara, courtesy Pace Gallery

Yet your characters do often seem to project a rebellious spirit. Is that a reflection of your own  personality?
Perhaps. I was a late bloomer as an adult. Those kinds of expressions had a strong impact in my early work, leading to some superficial preconceptions about it. Since then I’d say that it’s become more mature.

Studio
© Yoshitomo Nara Photograph by Yoshitomo Nara, courtesy Pace Gallery

Why is that?
I guess because I’ve become more mature.

Studio view
© Yoshitomo Nara Photograph by Yoshitomo Nara, courtesy Pace Gallery

Your new drawings seem more serious, with references to death, bombs and fascism. Are you expressing your fears about the future?
I see it more as reexamining the past rather than worrying about the future.

Ceramic, 2017
© Yoshitomo Nara Photograph by Yoshitomo Nara, courtesy Pace Gallery

You depict girls more than boys. Is that a conscious choice?
I’ve never thought about it, but no matter what I draw, it often ends up being a girl.

Ceramic, 2017
© Yoshitomo Nara Photograph by Yoshitomo Nara, courtesy Pace Gallery

I’ve read that your motto is “Never forget the beginner’s spirit.” Does your work remain true to that philosophy?
Yes. I’ve never been interested in big ambitions or pursuing success. Instead I’ve focused on the pure desire to make art and get as close as possible to the Zen state of mushin, or “meditative nothingness.”

Studio view of selected drawings, 2017
© Yoshitomo Nara Photograph by Yoshitomo Nara, courtesy Pace Gallery

How important is drawing, specifically to your creative practice?
There are other things that appeal to my senses: films, literature and music. But yes, drawing is the foundation of everything I do, much like an athlete does drills to keep his or her body in shape.

You’ve said that you aren’t an artist. If that’s the case, what are you?
I put that down as my profession when I have to, but there are so many other versions of me: Traveler, farmer, writer, teacher, student, photographer and music critic. Rather than being an artist, I’m striving to be a full-fledged human being. The probability of having nonart resonances in my work is quite high, and isn’t that what being human is all about?

Yoshitomo Nara’s “Thinker” is at Pace Gallery Fri 31–Apr 29.

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