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L.A. based artist Naotaka Hiro talks about the exploration of the “unknown body” in his multi-media practice. The Osaka-born artist, who works across painting, drawing, video, film, and sculpture, often puts constraints on his body as he works, embracing his own limitations and failures. In this episode Hiro gives listeners intimate insight to his nuanced process, and the private performance that goes into making his work. He also talks about how 2020’s pandemic and unrest directly impacted his recent exhibition, Armor.
“I think that making failure is to show myself, like a raw myself.. Not pretending or dont try to be pretty like something extra. I always have the tendency to make it neat and nice, but having a failure kind of pulls me off from that.”
Host and Producer: Lindsay Preston Zappas
Production and engineering: PJ Shahamat
Theme music: Joel P West
Lindsay Preston Zappas: Hello and welcome to the Carla podcast. My name is Lindsay Preston Zappas and I’m the founder and editor-in-chief of Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles.Carla is a quarterly art magazine, online journal, and podcast committed to being an active source for critical dialogue surrounding L.A.’s art community. In this episode, I talked to L.A. based artists, Naotaka Hiro. Naotaka is a multidisciplinary artist who works in sculpture, painting, drawing performance and film. He’s constantly exploring the idea of the unknown body. His work itself becomes a never ending exploration of attempting to understand his own physical form. In our conversation, we talk about the restrictions and constraints that he puts on his own body. As he works in the studio, sometimes wrapping himself in a canvas that he paints into and how he breaks his own self-imposed embraces failure in the process.
Naotaka Hiro: I think that making failure is to show myself, like a raw myself.. Not pretending or don’t try to be pretty like something extra. I always have the tendency to make it neat and nice, but having a failure kind of pulls me off from that.
LPZ: This is a packed episode. So stay with us.
AD: The Carla podcast is supported in part by the Box L.A. Located in the Arts District of downtown Los Angeles, where Naotaka Hiro’s Armor exhibition took place in Summer 2021. The Box L.A. is currently closed, but will reopen October 9th with Paul McCarthy’s exhibition “Parts Make Up A Whole”. Stay tuned for more information on other projects, including our partnership with PHR parking space and our recent publication of Julien Bismuth. Check out our instagram @theboxla and our website at boxla.com.
AD: Did you know that in addition to this podcast, Carla is a quarterly magazine. You can get our current issue of the magazine which features critical essays on Arnold Kemp, community art, an interview with CAAM curator Taylor Renee Aldrige, and reviews on recent L.A. exhibitions. The magazine can be found in Los Angeles at about 100 galleries where you can pick up a free copy, or you can order a 1-year subscription at shop.contemporaryartreview.la and let us ship Carla right to your door. Subscriptions also really help us sustain our magazine and podcast, so its a great way to support what we do. Podcast listeners can use the offer code PODCAST for free shipping on a one-year subscription so head on over to the shop and order one now.
LPZ: Naotaka Hiro grew up in Osaka, Japan, before his family moved to the Bay Area in 1991 when he was 18. Hiro works seamlessly across mediums, doing performance, sculpture, painting, drawing, and film. His drawings and paintings have a layered and textural quality to them, in which his own hand and repetitive mark making guides the dense compositions. For Hiro, the idea of the unknown body guides his work. He talks about his own body like an unknown ghostly void that he will never fully be able to see — and his work becomes an ongoing process of discovery. Often as he paints and performs, Hiro places his body under constraining conditions—for his recent show, he hung wood panels about two feet above the ground, crawling beneath them to make his paintings. Hiro’s practice has always appealed to me: the way he moves so seamlessly between mediums, and enacts private performances in his studio while making the work that the viewer will never see. Or the way he hangs his canvas paintings unstretched –with the holes cut into their surface and ropes that drape down to the floor pointing to some unseen action. In our conversation we talk about his process, the unknown body, and how he embraces failure as a vital part of his process. Later, we talk about how the artist’s experience of contracting Covid early last year, and how last year’s social unrest and violence towards asian americans affected his recent exhibition titled Armor. Here is my conversation with Naotaka Hiro.
NH: I always wanted to be a filmmaker when I was child and I moved to the us when I was 18 and I couldn’t speak English well, but I still wanted to make a film. But then I was too shy to ask actors and I needed to hire an actor to act for the camera. So I naturally started making a film in one production. Still, filmmaking is still the foundation of my work. I make up people with action. You know, I make storyboards. I act, act means like I perform for the camera or act as a painter or a drawer or sculptor. Then editing is one of the most important process for me and edit and manipulate the action and time.
LPZ: Well, that’s so interesting because you do work across film, but also drawing and painting and performance and sculpture. I mean really all the mediums, but you know, it’s really interesting to hear you use the language of cinema and editing as something really important and also acting. Can you talk about that a little more? Like you, you take on this persona of the artists as the painter or as the sculptor?
NH: Well, in film productionI found that there was a two separate walls I was dealing with. One is a performer slash actor and the other is a director. And then I am seen and I see. I have to shift back and forth because there’s no way I can do it at the same time. I cannot see myself acting with my own eyes, but then I work for a longer period of time and then the separation become blurred and vague. I start losing the sense of presence. It vanishes in those two worlds.
LPZ: Hmm. And that kind of fluidity seems like something that the work really brings about is that a sort of meditative state that you’re attempting to achieve in the work?
NH: It’s not really meditative, but I, maybe I can talk about the idea of ‘unknown’: the foundation of my work. ‘Unknown’ is myself. It’s a vague and empty void and a ghost. Somewhere in between those two worlds I’m dealing the subjective and objective and I’m in the middle, it’s unknown. It’s something that I cannot define what it is since there’s no way I can see myself with my own eyes. It’s a dilemma, it’s confusing and it brings the anxiety, but it deals with a type of horror. But then at the same time, it exists with the sense of
LPZ: I think we all can relate to that idea of our bodies being this kind of unknown entity, right? Like we can’t fully understand them. We can’t fully see inside of them, but also, I mean, do you think of like this unknown, are you speaking to like more of an internal bodily experience external or, I mean, it kind of seems like both and also obviously mental and like the sort of expenses of our minds and where those can go.
NH: Yeah. Just to kind of find what’s unknown. That’s where the art practice comes in. And that’s how I started filming and photographing myself, or wrapping myself with a paper or canvas to trace my position and movement. And I saw myself on a hardwood panel surface, it just to all know what it is but the answer is still vague and empty and in no way I can find what it is, but then it’s always the center of the art. For me, this is all kind of experienced and exploration to find out what it is at work, I think.
LPZ: That’s so interesting. It’s like you set up this kind of lifelong prompt for yourself. Like it’s like a research mission or something does of understand this thing, but you’ll, as you were saying, like you’ll never quite know. And I think that sort of gets at like the core of being human, right? Like there’s these like big, unknown questions that we’ll never quite be able to grasp.
NH: Yeah. It’s, it’s always some mystery, but then by making art, I kind of feel comfortable and it’s kind of like my mission to keep going to see what it is.
LPZ: Yeah. I want to talk about, you sent me some of your early films, which were so great to watch. And this early film from 1996 called Elephant, where you sort of wrapped your body or your head in kind of plastic material. And then you have this kind of like tube coming from your mouth for breathing. And the tube kind of goes off the screen. Like you can’t quite see where it’s going. And the video is not very long and just, it’s like the motion of your breath and like trying to breathe in this apparatus.
NH: At the time when I was at UCLA, I made a bunch of videos with a video camera on a tripod, and then I acted in front of the camera at our apartment. I wrapped myself with saran wrap and then I had an elephant stuffed animal in between my head and the saran wrap. And I was breathing through the tube. I did it for like five minutes. I started getting suffocated. Five minutes was kind of with all the way I could go. I wanted to make the relationship with me as an actor and the camera and what’s behind the camera. So I want to play with the layers and I see the camera and the camera sees me, but it’s different. You know, I wanted to play with the gap between perceptions and stuff like that.
LPZ: You know, I feel like your work often involves this kind of constraint that you’re imposing on your own body. And then you’re kind of performing a task. So in that early work, it was just, the task was breathing, right? Like the most basic human task, but with all of these limitations and constraints placed upon that process. And I think in recent work, that’s translated to your process of the paintings and drawings and that idea of kind of wrapping yourself in a canvas and then kind of painting within that, or like laying underneath a panel while you’re drawing. Can you talk a little bit about those constraints and maybe what that friction creates for you in the studio?
NH: That was my kind of limitation, like reading, like a five minutes. And then I started also making super eight films, which also has a limitation that it only takes like three minutes from the one cartridge. So I have to finish everything in the three minutes. I also shot with a self timer device. I made a bunch of films then. Also, now I have this canvas wrapped around my body and all these restraints and rules, but I like to intentionally set those limitations and obstacles during the productions. They will naturally cause delay and reroute practices, but those introducing those unfamiliar rules are kind of forcing me to reevaluate my familiar process.
LPZ: Yeah. We were talking about acting earlier and like, you know, in the studio thinking about yourself as an actor, is it that kind of motive or not quite, is it maybe shifted a bit and it’s more maybe about like your body’s own limitations and productive surprises that come up because of that?
NH: Yes. Also by limiting the duration and other obstacles, for example, I set the timer every time I work on paintings and drawings. Whenever it rings and then I stop, that way I can keep my action kind of clean. So I don’t touch it, you know, afterwards, are you attempting to do something afterwards? So that’s kind of the limitation, kind of makes the action clean. So what it is, it’s simple in this case. So that’s how I use the time.
LPZ: And yeah, and I read that you describe these periods as sessions, which I think is really interesting because I think about like a therapy session or like a workout session, you know, it’s like, we don’t often think of that word session in the context of the studio. So I think it’s really interesting. It’s kind of like a thing that you show up for, for a certain amount of time. It has more of like a clinical feel to it, I guess.
NH: Yeah. I guess it’s like in a studio, I think it’s maybe from the filmmaking process also kind of like takes or a certain amount of trial, you know, in a certain time. And then I’m a kind of a lazy person. So I just have to have all these rules one after another, I have so many rules and restraints. But then I want to tell you that I have all these rules, but this is just for myself. I make my own road and I break the rules and then it’s just a framework for my awareness and consciousness. It’s like a borderline when I work. So I hear the alarm sound like ‘beep beep beep’ that keeps making the sound, but I ignore it sometimes, I keep going and I get like completely, you know, tired.
LPZ: Right? I mean, that’s like, you make rules to break them. I love that. And it’s, you know, I think it’s a very productive place to work from as an artist. It’s just like these parameters and something to kind of push up against. Right, right. Yeah.
NH: I think I got all this from like sports or a game. It’s like a sport, you know, you rack up, there’s rules and you know, all that.
LPZ: Yeah. That’s so funny. Cause I was about to ask you about sports because I do think your process is so athletic in a lot of ways and the things you’re doing to your body and even talking about like, you have this timer, but sometimes you go past it and you’re like pushing yourself. It’s like, you can see yourself maybe getting stronger, you know. I was thinking also about Matthew Barney’s drawing restraints, right. But I don’t know how you feel about that worker if you relate to that. I mean, to me, those pieces feel a little more like masculine or a little more about sports than I feel like your work is. I think your work has more internal or like quietness to it, but what do you think about that?
NH: The first time I saw was I think I just got off from school. That was his videoI saw, Cremaster 4. It was actually a book he made. And I was kind of shocked that it was like the stuff I want to do, I’ll be doing. And then I’ll have found lots of similarities. So before I see his restraint on the drawings and stuff, like I found that there’s lots of similarity about the way he approaches bodies and organs and stuff like that. But to me, it’s like an Olympian, like Olympic sports. Mine is about all about like contradictions and a failure, you know, sometimes. So I’m not, the direction he’s approaching is completely different in a way. But even though the idea of the, you know, the way he used the body, but the direction I’m heading is somehow the different almost opposed to it.
LPZ: Almost opposed. Right. Yeah. I feel that too. And you talked about failure. Can you expand on that a little bit? I mean like, you’re kind of pushing your body to the limits in these performative sessions and how does failure manifest in the work?
NH: I like to see failure, even though I get completely depressed. Every time I make a sculpture, I get so depressed and confused after I see what it is, you know, but then that’s, I have to take it because that’s what it, what it is. You know, it’s a, it’s a portal thing. Like, you know, the idea of making the rules and restraints. I think in a way I try to set up traps, you know, I can to make it failure. The failure is beauty for me. I don’t know. It’s like, I like it.
LPZ: Well it’s yeah. There’s something like, so raw about your work that I think is maybe this failure that you’re talking about and even like, thinking about, so these sculptures that you make a lot of times, again, you’re in the studio by yourself and you’re kind of painting your own body with a silicone mold. Right. So you kind of can only paint certain parts of your body. Like it’s not like a full bust, so it’s like kind of gets painted on in these stripes and strips. And then the figure in the gallery is like a fragment. Right. Is that kind of what you mean by failure in terms of those works?
NH: I think that making failure is to show myself, like a raw myself.. Not pretending or don’t try to be pretty like something extra. I always have the tendency to make it neat and nice, but having a failure kind of pulls me off from that. So like the timer I put for the canvas in drawings, I don’t want to work more than, you know, then it turns to something else that tries to be cool and stuff. So it stops at what it is. And even if it’s failure or not, I stop, you know, then of course I don’t like it because it’s short. It’s what it is and it’s its role, you know? And, it’s sometimes a big mistake, but then that’s what you get from the action and whatever you do in painting in a sculpture. So that’s what a failure kind of relates to the sculpture.
LPZ: Right. And yeah, I mean, are there moments where the, the final piece is hard for you to look at? You’re talking about it as this thing. Like it’s not perfect. Like you, you might spend more time on it, but it’s like not your practice. Right. You’ve created these rules for yourself. I mean, it all sounds very vulnerable too, because you’re kind of showing the viewer that exposure of failure, you know?
NH: Right. Yeah. Exposure of failure, yes. It’s like once I finished the project or canvas or drawings or sculpture, and then, you know, first you’re all, “oh my God, what have I done? It’s wrong”.But then at the end, you kind of accepted, you know, that’s what it is. And then actually it has the strongest moment that’s better than the overwork. You don’t just stop there and then, you know, whatever the set restraint and it says stop. And that’s the best part I kind of noticed from that.
LPZ: Yeah. I think your work feels very active and there’s a lot of movement there. And I think part of that is what you’re saying. This you’re literally pausing mid action sometimes. And it’s like, well, this is, I guess this was the stopping point. Like this is it.
NH: Yeah. It’s like a sport. You just have to take something even if you lose.
LPZ: It’s like what’s the score?
NH: Yeah, the score you lose and you know, then that’s what it is. You know, it kind of shows who I am, who you are, you know, that’s maybe that’s actually kind of how it, how it’s been working.
LPZ: That’s great. And I want to talk about the visual aspect of your work, right. Which is very colorful and segmented. And there’s a lot of pattern. And obviously like we’re talking about this constraint that you put on your body, there’s a lot of moments of these little, like kind of scratchy lines and sometimes you’re carving into the wood panel and creating a texture there. Can you talk about just like the aesthetic aspect of your work and maybe what other influence you’re drawing from, or if you’re really trying to sort of just expose something about your body’s limitations through the lines that you’re making?
NH: The color I use for paintings and the palette functions like a code. I consider my work as a type of documentation of my physical and emotional presence. For large drawings and paintings, each color documents strains of movement and placement. In other words, each time I move, I use a singular color to draw or paint. Like if you see closely like red lines represent my particular movement for a certain duration of time or the, the larger green splits field, that means I was there for the certain time, like laying down or sitting in a position in the spot for the duration. Or I use some asterisk marks on the drawings that represent like a position of my eyes or nostrils, if you have to seal them like a nostrils or eyes or genitals. If I have one of them, it’s like a genotype or something like a fixed point on my body, it’s like a registration mark.
LPZ: Right. And so is that then literally where you would be sitting or laying, or, or is it just more thinking about the panel as like this kind of representation of your body? And so you’re using, you know, I know a lot of your work has this kind of like center line and it feels very spine like to me, but then as you said, like the genitals or different areas have like a lot of energy and kind of lines around them, is that literally where you locate your body on the canvas while you’re drawing?
NH: Yeah, I mean, even with just my hand, it’s about my movement. It’s also kind of involved with editing in a way it’s a type of categorization, like laboring or indexing. So it’s like information graphics you see on the maps or a diagram or anatomical models, but then those colors do not necessarily represent the actual color of the land or organs. It’s the representational of colors in a way.
LPZ: And do you think of the colors as like representing different emotional states or not necessarily?
NH: No, it’s just the color. And I have tried to use like primary colors, but I do it over and over again and wrap the color all by wrapping and they turn into something else which I like, so it kind of shows the duration, but then it becomes more, the patterns more gets more complex.
LPZ: Yeah. So interesting. And like when you’re making the work, I mean, it’s such a record of your body, like you’re saying like this infographic almost of your physicality in a certain time and place. Do you feel like the work is highly specific to you and your body, or is it more of like, could we expand out to just like a larger exploration of the human body?
NH: It’s all my body, me everywhere in a way it’s like, I don’t want to say this, but maybe a Frida Kahlo or Egon Schiele or other people. I think about like, Atsuko Tanaka who was a Thai artist.
LPZ: Or another one is Lucita Hurtado’s drawings of her own body kind of painted down, like looking down on herself, but less, less, I guess, of this like generic inquiry into the human body. The question I’m getting at is like, then is your body like a stand in for all bodies? You know? Or is your process looking at kind of like a deeper human connection where you’re trying to understand all bodies, all people like all physicality, or is it more focused on just your own kind of restraints and constraints?
NH: I think what is is is I’m trying to just share my story and experience to the audience in installation format. The story is kind of based on the mix of imagination and then my experience, investigation, and discoveries and that’s kind of how I show it. And then everybody has different reactions to it.
LPZ: Yeah. I mean, there is though this kind of disconnect that I think is really intentional in your work where you have this really specific process and almost performance that you’re doing, but the viewer doesn’t really see that. Right. So the viewer is seeing only this, like the infographic or like the documentation of the event or of the performance, and then there’s also a part of your work that’s really hidden. Can you talk about that or that tension?
NH: Yes, the production process is a significant part of my work. Even though I don’t show them in a show, it’s not the work, it’s just a process. To me art works are already a kind of a memory device. The object, paintings, and drawing, sculpture, videos, are documentation, and a type of end result of my action and presence. So art practice is a process of investigation and research discover to try it, knowing my actual physical being. And so I, I just show the end product, and then not showing the process so much. The only time I show is just to do an intentional video piece like the one I show that the Box going underneath the house or the canvas piece where I go into the tube of the canvas and stuff.
LPZ: You’re talking about peak, I think it was called. So that was like, I’ll describe that a little bit. There was canvas that kind of looks like a big cocoon or something, and it’s hanging in the gallery and you can’t really see totally inside, like there’s little slits where you can kind of see inside and see that something had happened in there, like there’s marks and drawings inside. And then in another room of the gallery, you have a video that it’s almost like this first person perspective of you inside this cocoon wrapped in the canvas and actually drawing the painting. So you only really see your legs and the marks you’re making and spraying this dye. What was that impetus like? When was there a specific tension between those two pieces in the same space that you were looking to kind of create?
NH: It is a video piece and the canvas was almost like a set or a prop. So the video was kind of primary and the canvas piece was the secondary. But that’s when I started working on the canvas, that was the first piece I where I started working on canvas. So it’s a little bit different.
LPZ: Did you know that going into it, I guess you just had that kind of setup going into it, like, this is a video versus other pieces you make of this is a painting. This is a drawing, but essentially the process is almost the same, but it’s just like what you’re exhibiting is kind of flipped
NH: Yeah, that’s right. In that case, yes.
LPZ: So, yeah, I think with that too, though, there was this kind of, again, like concealing from the viewer, right? You’re like withholding something like you didn’t put that painting spread out on the wall, it’s wrapped in this cocoon. And you’re only kind of, you’re choosing very specific elements to show the viewer, which I think can be, you know, as a viewer, it can be kind of frustrating because we’re like, I want to see this other part, you know?
NH: The inside? Interesting.
LPZ: Yeah! But I think the frustration is interesting. You know, I’m not, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I’m just saying, this is like a frustration that I think is really productive in your work.
NH: I always intentionally kind of work as a video. And then the first time I worked inside of the canvas and I used graphite and then most of the graphite came off because I rubbed with my body and then most of them were gone at the end. So I mean, as a painting it kind of shows, I mean, it can be open one day and then shows what it is. But then at the time I was maybe too shy to show what happened. That’s my honest opinion.
LPZ: So interesting. But it was like your first foray into the canvas, which now is, you know, you’re now going to panel and making pieces on wood, but like the canvas works are, you’ve been making for many years now. Right?
NH: Yeah. Since then, it’s like five years I’ve been working on the canvas.
LPZ: And tell us a little more about that process. Like I know a lot of times your canvas, it’s hung in the gallery as just like a raw canvas. It’s not really stretched and there’s ropes on the edge and sometimes crisscrossing and there’s always like a big hole, right? So my understanding is that’s where you place your body. And then the whole thing gets sort of cinched and kind of wrapped around you. And then from that place, you paint in this kind of hidden cocoon.
NH: I started using the large canvas so I can reach to bigger and wider area to cover my body, like a 360 degrees. And the canvas was more flexible and soft but stronger. And then I can wrap all the way and it creates a canvas cocoon. I paint in an enclosed space and I put my legs out and upper body sometimes through the holes or sometimes have a cut in the center of the canvas and then I paint on the canvas in between my body canvas and it’s a body wrapper. But every time I make it, it’s a different shape, I mean, two holes. I react to the wrinkles and shape of the canvas. But then the movement is consistent. So you kind of see the same patterns here and there, but then that’s how I work with the canvas. I have grommets around the edge and I use the rope to suspend from the ceiling and just to make, you know, hang from the ceiling and I go inside. But then, two hours in the session, it started going down. I used the floor eventually to work on with my body in between and stuff. So, the shape changes during the session. And then also I use the rope not just from the ceiling, but I like pull the ropes to kind of handle like a maneuver the canvas shape and then I use a fabric dye and the drips go here there and stuff. And like how you operate the mast on a boat or something like a ship. And then I use a pump, it’s kind of like bug spray from Home Depot and you pump 20 times and it shoots for like 30 seconds. So that’s for the bigger area and the smaller area, I use oil sticks and finer movement and I repeat like four, eight times, nine times, 9 sessions.
LPZ: 9 sessions, right. Yeah. And then recently you you’ve been working on these panels, which are so different because they’re wood and so they don’t wrap around your body. Right. But, but there’s like a different way that you’re creating this duality to it. So for the panel, can you talk about that process? I know you’re like suspending it above the ground about a foot or two.
NH: Yeah. Actually I made like a table and then I put the wood panels on top. The idea came from the idea of two worlds. I always think my art practice, either drawing or painting, has two steps, The character of two parts steps contrast each other. And the first step is subjective, instinctive, and organic and more like a drawing, a graphite. And then the second step is more objective and I’m sober, like I’m aware of editing in the painting. So I go back and forth. I wanted to go back and forth with the two personas, like underneath is the actor, the top is a director. And then it’s the subconscious and top is conscious: filming, editing interior, exterior, POV inside and underneath. It’s more like a tripod shot on the top, to see or be seen. So constantly, it’s agreeing in a conflict with each other. It’s doing the whole process. So, I came up with wood. It’s actually kind of physically separating the two step procedure, like two step, two worlds underneath and on top. So that’s kind of how I started working, yeah.
LPZ: Yeah. And it’s interesting that like the underneath part. So that’s the part where you’re laying under the panel and that you’re saying is representing your subconscious. So this is a space where you’re kind of constrained you’re under like the weight of this thing and like making all these marks that sort of then set the pathway for what you respond to later. And then you go on top of the panel, you flip it right. And kind of respond to those marks, but it reminds me a lot of the ego, the id, the sort of inner, like, you know, mess up our own minds. And then how we’re always kind of responding to that as, as like our sober selves are kind of like, wait, what did I just think about like what in the world? So that’s a really interesting that like raw energy is the thing that you do underneath and kind of similarly, like with the canvas, that was the thing you do while like, hidden, like you’re always kind of in this like hidden or constrained position when you’re exposing that subconscious. I’m curious too about like the mental state that you get into with your work. I know you talked before about acting, I guess the other word that I brought up earlier is meditation, but those seem like very different things. Right. And then we’ve also talked about sports. So there’s like this endurance element, like where does your mind go while you’re making the work and maybe between these two different processes?
NH: It’s the same thing that I use when I work on the painting pieces. Like early stages, I’m reacting to whatever I have right in front of my eyes or whatever I feel on my hand and arms and body. And it’s more reactionary and I feel and react, feel and react. So then I can just keep the action simple. It’s kind of like, I call it a near-sighted image. I only work on a very particular area, like where I work on, like maybe like 5 inches, 10 inches, 30 inches at the most maybe.
LPZ: Oh my gosh, were you just measuring? I can hear your measuring tape!
NH: It’s inches, it’s easier. It’s like a very particular spot. So then I don’t get like a second thought or I want to keep everything simple. And then that’s kind of how my mental state is just reactions. Don’t think too much. Just react, react, react, react.
LPZ: So I mean, another thing that’s really interesting about that is often when you’re making work or any, not you, but like an artist is making work. There’s a moment where you kind of step back and you step, you know, you’re able to like take a step back and see what you’ve just done and, um, you know, respond to the composition. But when you’re underneath, you don’t have that luxury. Like, you can’t really see what you’re doing. But then you go on top after and you then are like, oh, okay, like, this is what I did. And you kind of have to respond to that.
NH: I try to connect dots in a way, like when I flip the material and like sit back, and that’s when I come in with directorial eyes, like an editor or just to like say, okay, so this is what it is. Because I always think that there’s a two minds, always when I work on that, like on the earlier drawing pieces, but then what if I separated, you know, then what’s going to happen? It’s like two roles, I always think there’s two, there are two roles. And you know, physically each are separated by the material. So that’s how I started working on the wood.
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LPZ: Let’s pivot a little bit because I read that you found out that you had COVID last March, but you didn’t really know you were sick and then you took an antibody test, right. And I’m just curious, because your work is so about your body and like this unknown and the exploration of your own self. Like I had a friend by the other day and she had a little sniffle and it got me so anxious. I was like, oh my God, what’s that sniffle about? I just think we’re kind of regulating our bodies in a totally different way than we did before. And the fact that you had COVID and, and I’m just curious if that changed the way that you think about your own body and thought about your body in the making of the work for your Box show, which was over the summer and your process in the studio, like after learning that you had COVID
NH: 2020 was a really crazy year for me and I’m sure for everyone. But I’ve never been so unsettled since I moved to the U.S. I was constantly confused and upset. My studio was filled with anxiety and insecurity and uncertainty, again, like around March 2020, I was terribly sick because of COVID-19, that was like an early stage. So really the doctor wasn’t sure what it is. I mean, they kept saying, oh, you don’t have a COVID, you didn’t have a COVID but I had COVID! But I in bed for a few weeks and it was really terrible. But even then I got better after two weeks from the virus, but I suffered from the after effects almost a year. Then I thought I was, I had a very close relationship with my artwork like physically and mentally but then when I get back to the studio, I have to be buried. My work process changed since my body and mind were not functioning the way it used to be. So I became more conscious about my body especially internally. I started imagining like scanning my body. When I get sick, I do this often, but then I did more. I kind of visualize how my body is doing. So I was talking to my body parts, like from head to toe, kind of close my eyes and just sit for like 10 to 15 minutes. And then I’d just scan my body and see what’s going on. And I felt that I could gradually overcome my fear and anxiety. I don’t do meditation, but I think it was very meditative. And then it kind of became a ritual before I began to work. But like every time I go to studio, I do that ritual. And then I became more sensitive to my body parts, pains, and temperature movement, and sound of breathing also. I was sick for a whole year, but then all these cables come in like 2020 election and the storming the capital and the hate crimes against Asians. And they all really disturbed me so much. And it was really shocking. And I felt like I was crushed both internally and externally because I kept hearing this horrible news. It naturally kind of all the same strong emotion elements slid into my work. So that’s kind of what it is. All the other pieces at the Box show with other pieces with a kind of particular emotions
LPZ: Wow. It’s so, I mean, especially for your work in particular, because it is this like intense documentation of your physicality and your body and like your mental state, and a lot of people have been talking about kind of this work made in the last year, while we’ve all been under this like intense anxiety. And, but I think for your work in particular, it’s like this, even more of this like vulnerable kind of exposing of your own body and that experience. It’s really interesting to think about how that emotion kind of manifested in this work. And then you titled the show Armor. Can you talk about that?
NH: Armor is the blue bronze piece in the show. It’s also a live cast of my body. I wanted to start just kind of like a protection from the anxiety and I wanted to move forward by alternating or like hardening my own body, like steel armor. So that’s kind of how I felt when I made this. I kept working the whole time and that’s kind of the only way to make myself up, to not get depressed. And it’s a whole thing that kind of represents my body.
LPZ: Definitely, I mean, also in the show you had these large panels that were kind of free standing in the middle of the space, and they were almost like formed like a U-shape around that figure. So that also felt like another kind of protective cocoon or like protective barrier around that. So there was almost like these layers of protection or layers of armor? Were you thinking about that?
NH: Yes. The painting was done on plywood. It’s seven feet by eight feet. I’ve been working on wood surfaces, but then I wanted to stand them up vertically. I think I was inspired by all the barricades on the storefronts during the demonstrations. I like to play with covered windows. I wanted to kind of make it stand and it’s like a fort in a way, like a room. It’s the same method I use with the smaller wood panels, the ones you see in the back of the gallery but it’s bigger piece. So I can move around underneath in the same way I faced down the surface. I went underneath like a crawl space and I look up and then worked for like a few hours, like a session. So it was bigger than the smaller pieces so I get to move around just like a canvas piece, it’s just a flat surface. But then I can be more aggressive with paintings. It really takes my full force onto the surface of the canvas. You can rip a paper but it doesn’t work, the wood panels are pretty strong. So most of the time I was like hitting with graphite and the grease pencil, like knocking and hitting the hard surface. It was more aggressive. I think that emotion moving through that, the particular pieces, and also I used a carving knife at a vital point, like where most of my strength was in the particular position, I used the carving knife to carve or like a scratch almost.
LPZ: Yeah. And that, to me also feels like kind of marking time marking the days and like this year that we’ve had that year plus now just this ongoing, you know, just kind of like marking time. It felt very frenetic. It’s really like haptic response to what was going on. Another thing that’s really interesting is like, thinking about you making the show and in this last year, and I know a lot of people were like on their phones and on Instagram and posting and like looking to that form of communication for community and resources and things like that. And to me, like you’re processing so nice in a way as like an antidote to technology, because you’re not using it really in the studio. Like it’s very analog, it’s just your body and the material. And like, it just seems like a nice, like way to kind of combat our world right now, which is so infused with technology all the time.
NH: Yeah. I like to keep it simple because I get to think too much. I like to think about materials. The technology can help. Obviously, I mean, I make videos and you know, all these digital pieces and all that, but then, when I write on media the description of the piece, it’s just canvas, grommets, the ropes, and product dye oil stick and nothing else. And sometimes people ask med earlier, like performance video pieces I’m naked in a piece and then people ask why, but then I just wanted to kind of keep it simple, you know, my body. So, I mean, I kind of found out that, after I moved to USA, that’s where all this art education came. And then I didn’t know about Japanese art history. Like here, I went to UCLA and I met Paul McCarthy. He introduced me a lot of Japanese artists like Gutai and Western performance artist. When I look at Gutai, I didn’t know much of a Gutai but when I look at it, I see lots of things in common to my work like the way they use the materials and stuff, the simplicity. I was intrigued.
LPZ: Yeah. I mean, to me it feels like simple as one way to describe it, but also like a directness, you know, like you said, like the material list, isn’t some like long complicated, like it’s just is what it is, you know? And I think that relates to the Gutai movement too with like just the mark on the thing. Like it is the thing, you know, and there’s like a directness to it, which I think is really refreshing in a way, even though it’s kind of like a sort of old school way to work, but it feels really refreshing. I think that’s why it feels kind of analog to me because it’s like, it’s almost like paused in time. Like you could be making this work anytime, you know?
NH: Yeah. I liked that part. That’s kind of how I started using bronze. Also the first, very first time I started making a bronze piece, I wanted to make an instrument. I made a cast my butt to make a Gong.
LPZ: Oh! I saw that.
NH: That was kind of the first time I used the bronze. Then I liked how the bronze works. You know, even though the cast and the imperfection of the shape, but it lasts forever. Like one, you kind of found in the ocean you know, like in the ruins or something. You’re still there, you know, those kinds of stuff. I mean, the simplicity and it lasts forever, you know, that’s kind of how I like to use that aspect of it.
LPZ: Yeah. We talked earlier just about you seeking this unknown, right. This like thing that is sort of your whole practice of the exploration of the unknown. And I’m just curious, like some of the lessons that you’ve learned through that process, like, is there anything that you feel like your studio practice has, has like taught you about your body or just slowing down or like this idea of the unknown?
NH: Just try not to hide yourself, but I know I want to hide a lot of things, but then just try to be yourself and to be honest. To just show whatever I had, you know, from my studio.
LPZ: So for you, it’s like a way to connect really?
NH: In a way, yes. Like when I show it, that’s when that happens, I think. I have to have the show to kind of end my piece. I’m also interested in the layer, another layer of the viewer’s eyes and how it reacts to my experience. So that’s the installation in a space. I think that’s how it ends exploration in way.
LPZ: The Carla podcast is produced by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles and me Lindsay Preston Zappas with production assistance from PJ Shahamat. Joel P West composed our theme music. The podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. We also archive and post every episode, along with transcripts on our website, at contemporaryartreview.la. If you’re a regular listener of the podcast, please head over to iTunes rate and leave us a review of the podcast. Thank you so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.