We are all crew on Spaceship Earth

Hiroshi Fujiwara x Tom Sachs Artist Talk Vol. 2

Hiroshi Fujiwara has always been a driving force in the Japanese cultural scene, not only in the field of music and fashion. Tom Sachs, based in New York, continues to present works in which irony and humour coexist. After the COVID pandemic, the two met for the first time in many years for a relaxed conversation about art, culture and world affairs.

PHOTO BY Manami Takahashi
coordination & translation by Yoshiko Kogi
interpretation by Kanoko Tamura
text & edit by Kazumi Yamamoto

TS When was the last time we had a talk?

HF I think it was 2017, so 6 years ago. We did it during the exhibition at the Mori Arts Center you were participating in.

TS Oh yes. The Universe and Art. That was a great show.

HF I remember you said you were going to Hamburg after that. Was it cancelled? That was the time the COVID pandemic had started.

TS The show in Hamburg was delayed for over one year. It was good after all because it got to run longer for six months instead of four. The reason I came to Japan this time is my second solo exhibition at ISETAN. It’s really good. I hope you can see it. This year we had the opportunity to do it again but raise the bar. My supporting team, Tokyo Studio did a fantastic job.

Tom Sachs: Retail Experience, currently on at ISETAN THE SPACE until 23rd October. From new paintings, sculptures, and large sound systems, vessels, furniture and apparel – works in the exhibition are on sale. photo by Shiga Shunsuke

HF Tokyo Studio? They are not based in Tokyo, right?

TS They are in Tokyo.

HF Oh, I see.

TS Yeah, it’s a team of art builders and they make things from wood and metal. They work for various artists.

HF So artworks like furniture were made in Tokyo?

TS No, we made the furniture in North Carolina and all of the fine artwork in New York, but all of the walls, some of the displays, details, the graphics, the installation, the windows, the window displays are all by Tokyo Studio. Like all wood veneered windows on the main crossing of Shinjuku with a video display, giant LED screen that works in direct sunlight. This show proves everything that composes this exhibition, from the paintings and sculptures to the furniture and clothes, is art.

11 window displays on the ground floor of the ISETAN Shinjuku main building were taken over. That includes a video installation. The windows alone are fun to look at. photo by Shiga Shunsuke

HF What did you have in mind when you planned this show?

TS There are the values of transparency, of building a greater connection with your things, keeping old things alive today are in everything that we do. I believe those values are very at home in Japan. What it means to me is that the values of the art are in everything. So, for me, it’s about showing the evidence of how it’s made, showing the cut, the evidence of the construction, the screws, the glue, the Kintsugi, the repair. My goal is to build “a connection with things”. This is something I notice that’s much more alive here in Japan than I see in the US. Here, there is a respect for resources.

HF “Retail Experience” is an interesting title for the exhibition.

TS Consumerism is our religion. I’m a devout participant. [Laughs] You’ve been hearing me talk critically about consumerism, but you cannot be critical unless you are a participant. So I want to be clear that I am part of this, too. And only by being a participant can you be truly critical. Only by being involved can you truly understand it.

So if ISETAN is arguably the best department store in Japan and everything on earth that is made in Japan is better than everywhere else, you could argue that this is the Notre Dame of consumerism. “Retail Experience”, I mean it.

Tom Sachs Born in 1966 in New York. Artist. He attended Bennington College and then London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture before working as a fabricator in Frank Gehry’s Los Angeles furniture shop. Since the 1990s, he has produced sculptures using icons of contemporary capitalist society, such as brand logos and characters. In recent years, he has also produced works on the themes of space and the Japanese tea ceremony. Currently based in New York.

There is beauty in experience

HF But you want people to keep things forever and clean up.

TS I think nothing lasts forever. You know, we’re getting grayer. Do we have many more of these over the next years? We are all fading away anyway. Well, to me the important idea is that when possible we work on ideas and values that are bigger than our lives because our lives are, let’s say, 80 years if we’re lucky. But something that I make maybe will last longer than me and some of the things that I own or take care of are older than me. The metaphor and importance is of course global that we are all on Spaceship Earth together and none of us are passengers. We are all crew.

HF By the way, the other day I saw the report talking about Kintsugi. It was about Kintsugi being accepted overseas. It’s very straight forward in terms of ‘the value of things’. You are also making Kintsugi works, aren’t you?

TS Yeah, Kintsugi is a great manifestation of this. Because you take something that’s broken, and then you fix it with gold, the most precious material, and you are celebrating and even screaming, “hey, this is repaired”. And you’re celebrating the repair.

HF The original pot you made and a pot with Kintsugi, which one you think is valuable?

TS To me, they’re the same. I mean you could also maybe argue that Kintsugi is more valuable because it went through a trauma.

HF But some people really want to keep original as it is in the box, in the packaging.

TS I think there are two ways of looking at it. I think there’s the idea of the perfect classical like Adonis, the perfect Venus, the youth. But I would argue that, especially as we’re getting gray hair, that beauty is not limited to youth. There is beauty in youth, but there’s also beauty in experience. That may be counter to the values of advertising, because if you can make someone feel insecure about their aging, it’s easier to sell them creams. That may sound cynical, but you all know exactly what I’m talking about.

HF I think it’s very interesting because some people – let’s say breaking a cup, they try to fix it as it was originally, but some want to show Kintsugi.

TS I think the things that you say are true, there are contradictions. Both are true. I think it’s important to accept that both can be true. I think you can accept it best as being perfect, best as being repaired. So when we do Kintsugi or anything, we always try to make the form perfect, but the lines show in the same way as we age. Same with the planet. We might have polluted this planet with nuclear waste and garbage, but we clean up as best we can, use it, remember it and we go forward. We do the best we can. What’s past is past, we must move forward positively.

Art should have a cynical side

HF By the way, I wanted to ask you about the art. Like you did with your work, Chanel Guillotine, I’ve always thought that art should have an ironic side to it. An aspect that turns the world into a kind of funny thing. Up until recently, that was possible, but nowadays, even in the art world, I think it’s difficult to do that because of the reactions of the people around you. What do you think?

TS That’s a great question. That’s also a very difficult one. Yes, this time it’s getting more difficult, but it’s still important. A great work of art must mean different things to different people.

HF That’s what I really think so.

TS And I think you always must fight for that and in a way, you must do what you believe for yourself in your community and fuck the rest.

HF Right. But it’s difficult to do it.

TS It’s difficult. I think this is one of the problems of the age, but it’s also why it’s very important to understand ourselves and to be careful to respect others, to find a way to show simultaneously how we see problems in it. There are people who see Chanel Guillotine as a critique of consumerism. Others see it as a celebration of consumerism.

For me, it’s both. I love Chanel because it’s elegant and beautiful. It’s the best in class, but I do not agree with all of its values of prioritizing beauty only associated with youth. I think that’s very destructive and dishonest, but I can appreciate the brand at the same time. I think both can happen. That’s the hardest thing because there are contradictory ideas. The algorithm hates contradiction. That’s when we get into trouble and why there are more extremist values being promoted globally because extremism loves to choose a side. Nuanced politics helps to understand all sides.

HF But do you think you still can continue doing this kind of making fun of something?

TS I resist the term “making fun” because I think you have to always do it with respect and integrity. Maybe that’s not what you mean, but I think you must always try and die trying. I think for me and because of the nature of the work that I do, this is the place where I must give it all no matter what. The standup comedians like Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle, I think they’re the ones who are on the edge of this battlefield and are the best equipped to deal with it. They are the ones who are most at risk. But that’s their job.

HF I hope you can continue what you are doing.

TS I can’t stop! By the way, how have you been, Hiroshi?

HF Very well, thank you. I haven’t been traveling for a long time since the pandemic started. Now I’m getting back to going overseas. I actually went to Portland a few months ago, but I was really shocked when I went there. The city has changed. I used to think Portland would be one of the most trendy fashionable cities – people riding bicycles, bikes, wearing cool sneakers, but now it’s a city of junkies. How about New York? Does it still have the same atmosphere or you think it has changed?

TS Yeah, I think what I’m experiencing globally is that with every year that passes, it’s harder for individuals to keep their businesses going. During the COVID pandemic, we lost a lot of small businesses and they just got replaced by international brands. I think this is the phenomenon that we’re experiencing in Portland. It used to be a home to many small but nice libraries and hardware stores, but they are disappearing. I was in Seoul recently and there was an incredible maker community, but it’s being surrounded by development. Maybe in three years the situation would be different.

HF It’s going to disappear.

TS I was also in Bangkok earlier this year. I think there is much more time there because the people of Bangkok are still repairing and making things. So for a maker, it’s very difficult to be in these thriving metropolises. I feel envious of you, Hiroshi. You have lived in Tokyo for a long time and have a network of people who care about things. I’m like the last man standing in my neighborhood for repair. I think I’m the last metal and wood shop in Soho. When I moved there 30 years ago, it was all metal and wood shops.

In 30 years, very short time to be a manufacturing centre, to turn from a service centre to a consumer centre. It is hard on the culture and something like COVID made it even harder for people who were scraping by.

HF So you think the city is getting a little boring.

Fujiwara’s personal item, Doraemon, signed by Tom. “Made in JAPAN” is a key point.

Fujiwara continues to use “HIROSHI’S BAG” after the talk.

Fujiwara’s keyboard with the message ‘Please return here’.

Hiroshi is a Japanese cultural leader “Maven”

TS Yes. I remember, last time we met, we were talking about Jamaica. Have you been yet?

HF No, I haven’t.

TS We talked about how it’s very exciting and authentic, but it’s not good on service. It’s not a cultural priority. The priorities are fashion, food, sport, language, music, and so many things. But … don’t go over there expecting hospitality. The country is not about that. I think there’s rebellion and spirit in the people to prioritize that. Which is what makes it cool.

HF But here in Japan, there are many kinds of hospitality and we are not trying to do service of hospitality. I think that is Japan. No one really knows what is hospitality.

TS Well, hospitality is the basis of the Japanese tea ceremony.

HF Right. You actually do a tea ceremony, don’t you? Does it inspire you in some way?

TS Hospitality is part of Japanese culture and a pillar of it. This is one of the cornerstones of the tea ceremony. Of course to a Western eye at first, it might not come across as being hospitable. In my experience, as a visitor, if you meet that kind of greeting with humility, respect and openness, it’s like your mind expanding.

Whether it’s this bean cake or a Toyota, I am just impressed with the prioritization of quality and making things be the best they can be. That seriousness and humility is “hospitality” and what makes true excellence.

HF So do you feel the same thing? This kind of atmosphere or feeling anywhere else? Or you think that is only Japan?

TS When it comes to hospitality, I think Japan is the ultimate country. But in terms of inspiration, I can feel it in other cultures. We spoke about Jamaica, didn’t we? They have elite cultural leaders. There’s been a great heritage that continues with the food, with the music. I ultimately believe that it stems from language and the street. I’ve known you for so many years and you’re always really interested in the best of everything. Like you’re known as an expert. In New York, we call someone like you “maven”. Have you ever heard of the word “maven”?

HF No.

TS M -A -V -E -N. You should look it up. It’s a good word. I think you are a maven. It is a kind of expert or connoisseur, who is not directly involved but can advise or teach about something. And there are areas that I have “maven” in, too. We are all to some degree. I think you do a lot of them. Your ideas and public statements become information and culture.

Tom was very excited to see “Dorayaki” with their portraits printed.

HF Do you have a plan to come back to Japan soon?

TS Yes, my intention maybe this spring or next autumn to come and visit Kumano Kodo.

HF Ise town itself may be more interesting for you. Ise is the origin of Japan. The biggest shrine.

TS Yes! That’s on my list.

HF Important to know is that on the first of every month, Ise shrine opens at four in the morning. And in the dark, restaurants and vintage shops in town open at about 3am. That’s really exciting. It’s not just the vintage shops, the whole city seems to wake up. With a red light on in the still pitch dark, it’s like a world of Ghibli films.

TS Oh, magic! Please take me there.



Hiroshi Fujiwara
Born in 1964 in Mie. DJ. Music Producer. Fashion Creator.
Under the name fragment design, he has been involved in the creative direction of various genres, including fashion. He greatly influences street culture.