Aki Sasamoto, performance still from Skewed Lies, 2010; photo: Arturo Vidich, Courtesy of the artist.
We first met Aki Sasamoto at MoMa/PS1 while she was participating in Greater NY in 2010. Pipes and mosquito nets traversed the dusty, cavernous boiling room that she had chosen as the site for her installation and performances during the exhibition. It has been a few years since then and we have spent time together in NY, Miami and Mexico City, talking about underground culture, performance art, sexuality, boxing, basketball and of course mosquitoes. The summer was busy for Aki, who participated in the Gwangju Bienniale and also mounted a solo exhibition in Japan. Back in NY Aki is getting ready to present a new theater piece, Centripetal Run, at The Chocolate Factory in November.
Kathryn Garcia: Can you talk about Jean Genet and Mosquitoes, what is their relationship?
Aki Sasamoto: I hate a mosquito more than the horse whose tail once hit my face big time. I despise the petty scale of its sneaky attack; body size, noise level, amount of sucking up, persistent but nonfatal itchiness from its little poison, all seem petty but never grand. In A Thief's Journal, Genet talks about the difference between a noble criminal and a petty criminal. I was moved by the pursuit of elegance within the ever-questionable moral spectrum. I wanted to say to mosquitoes, "If you commit an attack, do it with pride." At the time I happened to pick up this book, I was cooking up an idea for an art work to explore ways to expunge people who act like mosquitoes in my life. Genet described some criminals with mosquito netting around their heads in the book's first pages. The context was somewhat random and not related to my desire to kill mosquitoes, but I took this appearance of the keyword, mosquito, as a serious and personal coincidence. I ended up featuring a room-dividing fence made of mosquito net in Skewed Lies (2010), advocating for putting up the nets in order to ignore petty criminals instead of pulling my hair out trying to kill them.
KG: Interesting, honorable deviance. You've mentioned to me before that while growing up in Japan you frequented underground nightclubs; how do you think your experience with clandestine subcultures in Japan informs your perspective or your work? Or does it?
AS: I liked watching businessmen in suits going into a tiny basement locker room off the busiest Tokyo street, only to come out in a most modest drag. I found it elegant that he had two lives and he was not loud about his sexual hopscotch. Being gay was not illegal like the time of Genet, but it felt stigmatized. As a teenager I liked talking to people in the basements who were hungry for a sense of social taboo and who had a big question mark about sexuality. I was especially curious how some frequently crossed this taboo quietly and in secrecy. It's possible this youthful research informed the way I like to have multiple possibilities now, both in sexuality (using both masculinity and femininity) and in artistic medium (moving, making objects, drawing...). Wait a minute, do I sound sneaky? I hate mosquitoes...So I should raise my voice here; I LOVE DOING ALL.
Sarvia Jasso: Two lives, multiple possibilities, masculine and feminine--can you talk about these ideas in relation to sexuality and how they influence your work?
AS: The body is involved and affected, but sexuality for me is largely mental. I went through different periods, a consecutive five to six years devoted to each, believing I was bisexual, asexual, lesbian. Lately I am thinking I may be a heterosexual middle-aged man in a woman's body (half-joking, half-serious). Although it is more convenient for me to say I am open, I would rather have a list of what I have been and can be, because I enjoy the problematic boundaries of those categories so much. Setting up imaginary types and exposing my curiosity to travel among them is what I like to do. I do not explicitly talk about sexuality in my work but the polarity often appears as key concept in many of my works. I imagine my comfortable confusion in sexuality is a role model when I work with other dichotomized categories, such as underground-aboveground, art-nonart, object-body, and of course masculine-feminine. Ultimately I do not believe in the rigidity of these categories, so I take the liberty and enjoy setting them up in my mind, only to focus on fighting, merging, confusing those things. [To Kathryn] How do you see your work in relation to your sexuality or sexual history? Is there a relationship?
KG: I think my earlier work was in a way about the dissolution of binaries relating to gender, and now it's becoming more about the fusion of opposites or becoming an androgynous whole. To reach a state where binaries are no longer in contention with each other, but complement one another. History plays into it but more reflexively, like an instinct propels me towards reaching this state, and looking back validates the drive. Like, oh yeah Weimar era Berlin was polysexual or Diaghelev's ballet was about androgyny, and then I read a quote from Jean Cocteau's journals where he writes: "Joan of Arc is my favorite writer. No one expresses himself more clearly than she does, in both form and content," and I feel validated, inspired.
AS: A nice sentence indeed. Kathy's transition sounds like a healthy sportsmanship. Combatting gets resolved in merging; I'm thinking of the picture of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield partying together, embracing their friendship. Now that I'm recalling how you mix up binaries recently, I want to rephrase "comfortable confusion" to "playful confusion" of sexuality. After the phase of being sensitive to the icons (I am guessing your drawing hands specialize in recognizing those?), I felt a need to decide whether to pick a certain perspective or to laugh them all off. Hence I go for comedy. It's the sense of fun that I am attracted to.
KG: I feel on a certain level as I draw I am looking at a mirror of my interior world.
SJ: My own ideas of gender and sexuality definitely influence my curatorial work. I am interested in artists who are unconventional in some way or another, particularly how they challenge binaries and other cultural norms. I do believe that we are oftentimes “performing” our sexuality and gender, so why not have fun with it and explore. The Swiss artist Manon comes to mind–-she was taking photos of herself in different guises in the 1970s—and she received a lot of antagonism from other feminist artists because she was a beautiful woman and they thought she was only objectifying herself. So even though they were fighting for the same thing using a different visual language, institutionalized feminism was telling women what they could and could not do, how they should and should not look. Of course the movement fizzled out because of these clashes, among other internal conflicts, and the way I see it individuality prevailed. As young artists, do you feel that you are part of a community or many communities?
AS: I agree that we are often "performing" our sexuality and the important thing about my queer exploration has been its “-ing” ness. (This doesn't mean I am a slut, by the way, in fact I rarely move, but the mental discussion is alert.) Once static, a performance freezes up under institutionalized feminism and starts to grow a hump at its back, called not-performed reality. As a performance artist, I sometimes get lost as a "performed" self feels closer to reality, or I am "performing" my daily life. I love this confusion. This only falls onto me when I perform a lot. It's about constantly moving. So I like to make friends with many people with different perspectives but would rather not stay in a community.
KG: I don’t know if I feel a part of a community per se, I think I have certain groups of friends or collaborators who I feel very close to because of shared interests or visions that overlap, and a resulting kinship.
Kathryn Garcia, Carla's getting married, 2011; Courtesy of the artist.
AS: What do you think about the serious/hilarious spectrum? How do you use each? I am asking because I feel like I can laugh about myself all I want, but not others. Especially so in sexuality.
KG: I think the ability to laugh at oneself is important and healthy for the ego. In a way it relates to what you said about Tyson and Holyfield, it’s like no matter who your opponent is in reality it is only yourself—you compete against your best and worst. Maybe that’s why they could hang out together, I want to hang out happily with my shadow, that’s my goal. I do use humor in my work—Carla for instance, her character is ridiculous, a blob in heels who’s getting married. I drew her when gay marriage was legalized in NY, to parody the idea of “normal.” When I think of serious/hilarious I think of John Waters or Pedro Almodovar and how they both make challenging, transgressive films that are also completely over the top. To me they embody that balance.
SJ: Great examples. I think you both also manage to walk that fine line in your work, fusing high and low, serious and hilarious. And while the end-result is very different it seems like you both are invested in challenging the (art) establishment, as well as prescribed notions of sexuality and gender. And for me, and many others like you too, these are the kinds of friends that I’d like to conspire with.
Aki Sasamoto - Centripetal Run at The Chocolate Factory in LIC from Nov. 28 - Dec. 1, 2012.
—Kathryn Garcia, Sarvia Jasso, Aki Sasamoto
(Image on top: Aki Sasamoto, Skewed Lies, 2010; Courtesy of the artist)