It was pleasant Friday evening on Japanese 2nd biggest holiday season well known as it is called Golden Week in May, Cairo Apartment team and artist JUN IWASAKI just popped into Italian Cafe near nidi gallery where Jun is currently having solo exhibition at. Jun’s first solo exhibition will be closed in a few days. Luckily we had a chance to hear about his project and thought for his life and style. While evening breeze was blowing, a glass of Negroni on my right hand, a cup of espresso on the table too.
Cairo Apartment(Below: CA)How have you found your first exhibition in Tokyo so far, now that it’s coming to an end in a few days?
JUN IWASAKI(Below:J)I’ve actually been feeling more relaxed than I thought I would. This being my first photography exhibition, I had already finished necessary preparations e.g. printing my work, testing frames, and drafting descriptions before proposing my idea of doing an exhibition to nidi gallery, so this saved me from the stress of pieces missing or simply not being ready on the day. Every day, I’ve been inspired by the people who have attended the gallery.
CA : I was actually impressed - after spending the day with you here - people are really taking their time and paying close attention to the pieces. And many of your old friends and basically people who were looking forward to seeing your work in real life.
J : Yes - so many people have said that, very kindly, because I’ve never showcased my work properly before. Not only have there been people who saw my photographs on social media or purchased my photo book earlier, there have been people who had read my diary and/or essays and who wanted to chat with me. I mean I love writing, but the thought of my words being interpreted by various people is quite embarrassing though, because I’ve only really been noting them down for my own sake. In any case, seeing my friends with kids, and old friends, like those from primary school, there have been many moments where I really felt how we have all grown.
CA : I see. I’m just going to briefly talk through your bio for the online readers now. We are interviewing JUN IWASAKI, an artist from Kyoto whose photo anthology “To Find The Right Chair” was published by Cairo Apartment in March 2021. Iwasaki san’s primary medium is photography, and he uses sequential images, images that leave space into which the audience is invited to interpose their own emotions. We’re very happy to be chatting with him today, mainly about the “To Find The Right Chair” series.
J : Very happy to be here, though it feels a bit strange, a bit nerve-wracking to sit and have a formal chat with you like this.
CA : To start off with, could you talk a little bit about how you started to work on the “To Find The Right Chair” series?
J : Sure. Since I started taking photos in 2012, although I had a vague idea in the back of my mind of producing a photo book, I struggled to find a theme that felt right, and spent a long time feeling a little bit lost. One day, when I was looking back on my past photos, diaries, and notes, I noticed that what I had been capturing on camera wasn’t just simply the views in front of me, but was instead my emotions at a particular time, projected onto the subject. So, this realisation may have been what kicked off my project because it developed quite noticeably after that.
CA : You said you started to take photos in 2012. Is that when you went to Fiji?
J : It is. When I was still a student, I read “The Gift” by Marcel Mauss and got interested in the Fijian community, particularly the culture of ‘kele-kele’. Since I was researching public art for uni at that time, I added the concept of ‘community’ to my agenda which I looked at from the cultural anthropology point of view. The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, which occurred around the same time, forced me to rethink my way of life quite deeply and gave me a push in the back to go to Fiji and live with the locals. That’s when I picked up my camera and started to take photos as a record, almost like field research.
CA : I see - so you were just taking photos as a record back then. And you used various cameras to take the photos for “To Find The Right Chair” instead of sticking to particular ones, didn’t you?
J : そYou’re right. I didn’t really use a particular camera obsessively for this project (nor do I in general, even now) so I used a variety: Leica M6, Ricoh GR2, Kyocera Slim T, Olympus Mju2, the disposable Fujifilm camera “Utsurun Desu” and I was even using a medium-format camera MAMIYA RB 67 and a half-frame camera Kyocera Samurai at the beginning as well. The only consistent thing about them was that they were film cameras. It’s not like I was studying photography, and my priority then was to be able to take photos in Fiji where they have regular blackouts often – so electronic appliances wouldn’t have been reliable. I remembered reading in some magazine or book about mountain climbers whose camera was simply an “Utsurun Desu” tucked into their pocket, and felt I wanted to live with the locals with a similar attitude. What was important to me then was to be able to have a record to take home.
CA : I didn’t realise you put that much thought into it before making your way to Fiji.
J : Well, although I started travelling when I was 15 and had been to many developed countries, it was my first time travelling to a developing country so I may have been feeling a more apprehensive than necessary after overthinking it. But the actual experience in Fiji turned out to be tougher than I thought. There are so many funny stories I can tell you but that’d be too much of tangent so perhaps another time. Although, these experiences definitely informed “To Find The Right Chair”.
CA : 以 I have heard snippets of those stories before – the time you were staying with a family and you walked in on your gigantic host mum wearing your t-shirt, where the faces of Elton John and his boyfriend David Furnish were completely stretched and distorted, and when you kept cash in your socks when you walked down the streets etc.
J : そYes – something funny happened every day.
CA : And since then, up until 2018 you’ve lived in Byron Bay, Melbourne, and Paris, and have been to Auckland. When did you start to have a clearer vision of making this project into an art piece or a photo book?
J : That would’ve been in 2018 when I put together a zine just as a dummy book. I just used really thin A5 paper and only made a few copies, but since I made the effort and was quite attached to them, I put them up online. And Bruno, the owner of a book shop in Paris called Librairie Yvon Lambert, got in touch with me and said “This book isn’t for sale, is it? It’s such a lovely book.” So, I was so chuffed I sent him a copy. His compliment encouraged me to make this into a complete photo book.
CA : Yeah, I can see that the photos and layout used in the dummy book were the foundation of the photo book even though they are completely different pieces, especially when you look at the binding etc.
J : When I was putting the dummy book together, I was already looking for what I could express through a book. I’d followed a similar process when I put together my previous photo book “Hear The Wind Sing (2018, Self Published)” too, so I had the foundations already.
CA : You would’ve had an enormous amount of photos then, that is 9-10 years’ worth of photos since 2012. How did you pull it all together?
J : I did have so many photos, because I’d taken them without confining myself to a particular theme. But going through them, I noticed that although I’d been taking photos as a record of fieldwork, I also found that many of the scenes I’d captured stood out as metaphorical or emotional. I really like photos that are in a sequence and metaphorical. I also like to take photos of what falls between the undramatic, the matter-of-fact. But as I did that, my photos drifted away from being a record of fieldwork. Rather, I may have been capturing what existed between the actual things that I was meant to photograph for my fieldwork.
CA : I see, so those photos were unintentionally expressive.
J : I have a vivid memory of when I came across the expression “drawing a spiritual picture”. As I was writing a diary everyday, that was also an element of my process in choosing photos. By treating “shooting” and "editing" as completely separate tasks, to exaggerate it, it was like I was interpreting and editing someone else’s photos and text. I think this is how I shaped the series. It can also be framed as the photos of my 20’s, when the repetition of moving to and settling in various places formed my core values and perspectives. This is why I centered my photo selection around the pictures that are associated with moving – those of airplanes, airports and the sky – and with settling – those of table surfaces, chairs, computers.
CA : I see, it can indeed be interpreted that way. Now that you mention it, there are many photos which you can’t necessarily place, but many of table tops and airports, and the sky. And is there any work of other photographers that has had any influence on you while you were creating this work?
J : Those would be “Paris 11-15 November (MACK, 2015)” by the photographer Paul Graham, the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi and the photographer Robert Adams who is based in Oregon, the United States. “Paris 11-15 November (MACK, 2015)” is probably my favourite photo book, it such a masterpiece. It is a series of photos taken at home during his state-of-emergency-induced isolation due to Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015. The kind of fear that he and society was going through, nothing like they had ever experienced before, is not present in what was captured in this series of photos: movement of the scenes and the calm atmosphere. Audience would just see them as the photos with beautiful light pouring in, since the only clue to the background is the location and date in the title. As for Vilhelm Hammershøi, I was inspired by the big work displayed in the permanent exhibition room at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. When I went to Copenhagen to see my girlfriend who was living there at the time, I saw his work a number of times there. I also went to the house he lived in and the lake where he went for his summer holidays to feel the atmosphere he would have experienced. At the end of my trip, I came across a large collection of works at a second hand book store there. Visiting a place where the artist I adore lived is not only good in terms of tourism, but also influences my view artistically. People often tell me that my work is like a painting, but it would be because the details are touched by what I felt on those occasions. As for Robert Adams, I am not only intrigued by the visual elements of his photos but also his spirituality and his take on daily lives. Among the non-dramatic plain photos, I like the ones that has intense emotions and stories behind them. I want to produce work with a spirituality like his, but with my own style.
CA : You have an exhibition on at the moment, but created your photo book first.
J : Yes, I finished making my book a year ago. Strictly speaking though, it’s more like I wasn’t even intending to do anything beyond creating a photo book. What I’m interested in how showcasing my work in the form of a book governs how the photos are seen. Books can unfold a story in such an interesting way.
CA : When we were working on your book, we certainly were trying to achieve something only possible in book format.
J : Yes, that’s something that we discussed a lot, there was a lot of backing and forthing to get it right. By flicking through pages, pictures emerge one after. This structure allows the images to be stored at the back of readers’ mind. What I hoped to achieve with this project was for them to have this sort of feeling, after going through all pages, of what is similar to that after watching a short film. By working with Cairo Apartment, I was able to publish a book that gives a more sophisticated impression; it looks good and you can read it easily without getting bored.
CA : If you’d made all the selection of photos with a view to publishing them in book form, was it then difficult to display in an exhibition space?
J : It was, but I focused a lot on different factors for the exhibition. I made sure that each piece would have a presence strong and independent enough to hold its own in the space of exhibition and then on the wall when it’s brought back to someone’s home. I worked with a framing company that I trust to get this particular shade of white with a hint of grey – rather more complex than simply off-white – and it was an enjoyable process. It sort of gave me a reaffirmation that I do like objects. When we look at the same photo, the framed work embodies colours and structure in a different way compared to that in a book because the paper and printing technique used are completely different. I also displayed a few additional photos that weren’t in the photo book. So, one thing I want to say clearly is that the photo book published by Cairo Apartment is a completely separate piece of work, not the compilation of what is showcased in this exhibition. So these two things should best be understood as two different works because there are things that can only be achieved only by the books on the one hand and by the framed pictures existing in a space on the other.
CA : Although that is something we wanted to say as Cairo Apartment, it is much more persuasive when the artist himself explicitly says so. That way, what we want to achieve is communicated better. People often think that works in a book are the compromised version of the original.
J : They are both different things. On top of that, Mr. Shimizu from nidi gallery is very understanding with regard to artists. If it wasn’t for the opportunity he gave me for this exhibition, it wouldn’t have been possible to communicate clearly how hung works and photo book are different. I am really grateful for this opportunity.
CA : A lot of visitors mentioned that your work leaves an impression of calm and light and that there are many photos which cannot be identified as a particular location.
J : I feel the same about the light. I would be taking photos like that because of my love for it. I intended to choose the ones that are visually clean and would give you a feeling of stillness. The worry and insecurity that my mind was going through behind this project, which embodies beauty and stillness, isn’t very obvious in my work yet still present. The bigger this gap is, the more your perspective of the work changes drastically when you know this background. What is really captured in my photos are the things I felt in my 20s, all things including my insecurity and worries, as I sought a way of living my unsettled life overseas. I intended the location of my photos to be ambiguous because I feared that they would otherwise be directly associated with the concept of travelling – they were taken in my daily life, not on a trip.
CA : There’s more to it than just the stillness and beauty; it’s the spirit behind the project. You’re saying that there’s a clear reasoning as to what makes the configuration of your exhibition seem classical, even.
J : Exactly right. There was a lot of trial and error to get to how the exhibition looked like in the end especially regarding frame sizes and the arrangement. I was initially going to display them like an installation with furniture. But as I was rethinking the project during preparation, I came to realise that my worries and insecurities were an important essence and that turning it into an installation would blur out the feelings that my work and myself embody. It was only by exposing that, I thought, that people would be able to see the essence of my work. I wanted to confront them, naked, full frontal. Maybe it is imposing, I don’t know, but even hunched over, I don’t care I wanted to stand naked centre stage.
CA : I also thought your work would look even better displayed with furniture, but what you said really makes sense. The space really conveys that message and the framing of your choice allows us to appreciate the pictures in it. I intuitively felt that your work does invite the viewer to become part of the picture.
J : By displaying the work with furniture, we could show the harmony between the two and tell different stories. But that’s not what I wanted to do with this project. I didn’t want to hide anything with an installation. I’m not really the type of person who can take photos that hide something anyway. In the past, I’ve had to go through various things - lived on the street due to financial difficulties, drove a truck to deliver organic lime and worked as a dishie at a restaurant. There was a period of time when I wanted to approach my life in just that way – stoically and sincerely. Back then, I was feeling that the true way to know if something is necessary is by living on the street before living in a house, or by walking barefoot before putting shoes on.
CA : Working on the book with you made me really understand the perspectives you have.
J : I’m honoured.
CA : By the way, was there a particular meaning for the title of your photo book/exhibition “To Find The Right Chair”?
J : Something like ‘To Find The Right Place’ might make more sense - I used the word ‘chair’ to give more particularity to the title. The idea of the title is to find somewhere comfortable. As I mentioned before, I spent my 20s travelling to various places. Worry, insecurity and the reckless confidence was what I had. Through repeated trial and error, I sought comfort. Not that I can say that I found it, but the act of looking for one that way is crucial in our lives, I feel. My work can also be referred to as my own record for that. There is one of the photo books Robert Adams published from Apature in 1989, which is called “To Make It Home”. What I get from the title is the strong intention of staying at one place, resisting and accepting its changes, and yet making it home - which I adore. That’s why I named my book “To Find The Right Chair,” starting it similarly with ‘to’.
CA : I know this is not a well-thought out question but I ask this anyway because I just heard many visitors did, are you a photographer? Or an artist? Or perhaps, would something else that would make more sense to you?
J : I was asked that a lot at this exhibition. I’m happy either way – photographer is fine, but I don’t want to lose my perspective as a human who is just living a life. Before being an artist who expresses creatively, I want to be the human who lives meaningfully. I’m not expressing things through my art just because I am creative. The way I look at it is that if you have a way of life to face every day, you can take photos in a particular way. Of course, perspectives will change, but this is how I feel at the moment. It’s good to uphold these values constantly.
CA : The writer Haruki Murakami and film director Jean-Luc Godard said something similar too. Murakami said “the way you flirt with women, the way you eat sushi, the way you argue with friends – these are the key of writing a good novel.” I thought this would’ve been a quote from Godard. He said something similar when a student asked him how to shoot a good film.
J : That’s right. I like both artists and I remember the feeling of my ideas being articulated when I read his interview. There’s also another thing that I could not forget, which is when my mentor Koji Baba from Starnet, who passed in 2013, said “serve a tea to a delivery person who kindly carried your parcels – that is hospitality.” The idea is, if you want to run a cafe, then can you serve the right tea and snacks when your friends come over to your place? Can you change the artwork on the wall to best serve that friend – the core idea is the same.
CA : Have your style of living, and take videos or photos or write something in it.
J : Yes. It is also a very tedious and difficult thing to do, but if you look at the bigger picture, it is quite an important thing. The most difficult thing is to do this continuously because once you stop, it’s way harder to get back into the rhythm of it all. Writing every day makes me feel that.
CA : I agree to that too. By the way, now that we are on the topic of how we spend our days, what’s normal for you?
J : Before the pandemic I often went out for dinner after work and had people over to my place. I haven’t really been doing that at all for the past two years but recently started to have people over slowly. I rather enjoy having friends at mine and seeing them meet for the first time or enjoying each other’s company, so I like cooking for everyone and cleaning afterwards. This might be the same for my exhibition – I just like to see people have a good time in a space that I created. If it’s in my space, I don’t necessarily have to be in a conversation with them to enjoy it.
CA : That might be why I feel this unique distance when I look at the photos you take.
J : That was never my intention but now that you mention that, I don’t really try to get close and overpower people.
CA : If you look back over the last 10 years since 2012, what were they like? Was there any change?
J : I was strongly influenced by my parents, I inherited their values and hobbies, and I wanted to get away from that and that safe cocoon, and so I relocated to Fiji, a place they would be least likely to live. It’s been 10 years and I’ve experienced many things that they haven’t, but my core values and hobbies haven’t really changed – if anything, we’re becoming more alike. Just like the kind of change that growth rings make, where they stack up more and more, but the shape doesn’t change. So if you ask if I’ve changed, the answer would be both yes and no. But one big thing I learnt when I was in Fiji was that knowledge means nothing if you go to a place where it’s not relevant. In those places, your actions carry the most important meaning. I still think this, so I have a kind of fear of taking things in as knowledge. This might be why I am drawn to things my affection for which I can’t quite articulate.
CA : Have you already started working on a new project?
J : Showing my work to many people made me look forward to sharing a new series already. What I’m working on now is a new series which has also been featured on the “& Premium” website. The theme is “whether memories are what you’ve earnt or what you’ve lost”. Photography work and editing work are done separately for this one, which is the same process I followed on “To Find The Right Chair,” almost making it an extended project of that. At the same time, I’m also considering a series of photographs on a particular theme just like my 2018 work “Hear The Wind Sing”.
CA : That’s nice. You’ll be able to achieve a wide range of work, since “To Find The Right Chair” is unique in that its editing was done afterwards and the works on a specific theme are also unique in their own way.
J : Definitely. I would also like to create a work by facing right at it too.
CA : Was there anything else you wanted to say before we close this interview?
J : I’d like to thank Mr. Koga, Matsumura, Shirai from Alfo atelier and Suga Art in Kaminoge for looking after me so well. My partner Seiko helped me a lot with creating invitation cards and other designs, and various media platform kindly promoted this exhibition. Many people listened to me talk about the exhibition also, which was very helpful. I’m not usually the type of person who can offer words of appreciation like this and I know I cause inconvenience to those around me, but ever since I started working on my photo book it really made me realise that I can’t achieve something like this without those around me. Also, I have been insensitive about people’s feelings in the past, so I try to remember my appreciation to others daily. Working on a new series too feels to me like a part of saying thank you to them.
CA : I truthfully hope that many people get to see this in person in the next few days.
J : Thank you.
We didn’t realize that it's got busier with young people in the cafe until our conversation was done. They seemed they don’t care what we’ve spoken about. They just wanted to meet new friends as if they fill their 2 years long blank. So, we put 1,300 yen on the table and walked forward to the exit.