Talking in Circles: An Interview with Aki Sasamoto

Amongst the many trends floating around the contemporary art world, you may have noticed a resurgence in performance art in galleries and museums.  The old guard of artists from the 60’s and 70’s are being recognized in grand retrospectives, such as Marina Abramovic’s critically acclaimed The Artist is Present at MoMA in 2010, as well as the Guggenheim’s current show, Gutai: Splendid Playground, a retrospective of the often over looked, post war Japanese artists who regularly crossed over into performance. Meanwhile, a groundswell of young performance artists have been showing at venues ranging from theaters to galleries to biennales world-wide.  One of these emerging artists carving out her place in the movement is Aki Sasamoto, who performed at both the Whitney Biennale and MoMa PS1 in 2010.  Her performances involve interactions within installations that are reminiscent of the Fluxus artists of the 60’s, but with a more personal twist.

Aki Sasamoto, "Centripetal Run" (Performance View) 2012, Courtesy of the artist

I first met Aki when she was a visiting artist at the University of Colorado Boulder. We got to know each other over lunch at an oddball Mexican restaurant in Denver that serves frozen dinner quality food while cliff divers leap from the rafters, which was a great meal to share with a performance artist.  Since then, I’ve followed her work as she has shown in India, Korea, Japan and Mexico, published a book, as well as had two New York solo shows – Centripetal Run (2012) and Talking in Circles in Talking (2013) – both favorably reviewed in the New York Times. A year after that first meeting, I was able to catch up with Aki and ask about her renewed interest in performance art and the question of commodity in her work.

Michael Holmes: I recently watched Centripetal Run online.  It was interesting to be able to see your performance in that context.

Aki Sasamoto:  Oh, thanks. I enjoyed doing that but I didn’t have a videographer, so it’s a partial view and bad documentation but that’s ok, it makes people think that you need to see it live.

MH: That’s an important factor, witnessing it in person. I think that is a big part of the renewed interest in performance art. People want to see art live, in the location.

AS:  That has something to do with it. I think people want to witness the body, rather than a static object. They want presence.

MH:  Right. People can more easily access painting or even sculpture online, but performance begs to be witnessed in person. So it’s good for the gallery, good for the museum. It draws people in.

Aki Sasamoto, "Centripetal Run" (Performance View) 2012, Courtesy of the artist

AS:  I was just invited to participate in a panel at The Kitchen, called Language, Art, Bodies or L.A.B.  They invited artists from different mediums to talk about the idea of presence. I find that really interesting. Presence is not limited to performance either. Painters, musicians, writers can all talk about presence.

MH: You work in an interdisciplinary way yourself, mixing performance with dance, music, sculpture, even math and science. With such a varied mix of interests, where do you draw your inspiration?

AS:  It just happens naturally. My ideas start specific, because I’m looking at my life here. It’s a very particular environment, like Brooklyn or my friends.  So it starts very particular and private. But then at some point it gets divorced from that line and goes into different layers. I start making lots of different parallel lines until it’s not even specific to me anymore. At that point it becomes more universal for the viewer.

MH: You often perform outside of an art context, like your show in Mexico.

AS:  Right, my performance in Mexico was for a friend. He has an archival museum that deals with journalism and activism. So it was nice to perform outside of the American art world context.

MH:  So you like performing overseas?

AS:  Yes, the right amount of exoticism is good. Most places that invite me to perform would already be following the Euro-American art context. However, when the audience is unaware of that context, that’s when I feel like I can play off that strangeness. If there is some tension there, from that exoticism, it really goes well with my work.

Aki Sasamoto, "Centrifugal March" (Performance View) 2012, Courtesy of the artist

MH:  Then what about Japan?  Do you perform in Japanese when you are there?

AS:  It changes to Japanese over time.  I conceive of my ideas in English, but I don’t rehearse or translate them before going over there.  I just let it translate itself over time.  I just start performing in English and it may end up in Japanese on its own.  I try not to practice outside of the live performance.

MH:  For Centripetal Run, there seems to be more planning, as far as when the music happens and when the lighting changes occur.  So do you plan those aspects then improvise in between?

AS:  That was definitely different than my solo work.  Because it was in a theater, I tried to really return to the vocabulary of theater.  Even though I have danced for other choreographers, I haven’t made a piece for theater for several years.  So I really wanted to emphasize that context.  So I worked with a lighting designer, I put in seats for the audience.  That’s not what I do in a gallery setting, I sort of mingle with the audience.  I was very conscious in making it more theatrical.

MH:  So there’s a difference in the performance according to the venue?

AS:  I’m not married to a particular way of doing it but this time around, because the theater gig and the gallery gig were back to back, I could experiment with the form and see the difference.  It was fun, obviously you have to use whatever you got.  In the theater I have to set the order, so I can’t change it as freely as I would in the gallery space.  In a gallery there is a lot of potential for change.  Sometimes I switch the order of things, or stay in one area longer depending on how it’s going with the audience.  It might be quicker, it might slower, but in the theater it was much less flexible in that way.  It wasn’t like 5, 6, 7, 8, it’s more about working with cues.  For example, when the lighting changes, this happens.

MH:  After your performance is over, you have these sculptural remnants like walls stabbed with ice picks or paper with paint on it.  Do you keep these objects?

Aki Sasamoto "Centripetal Run" (Performance view) 2012, Courtesy of the artist

AS:  That’s the thing I’m dealing with now, I don’t keep those.  It’s going to become a problem at some point if I want to stay in the art world.  Either I deny all of that and just keep it ephemeral, or I consciously create art objects.  The objects I create during my performances now aren’t meant to stand on their own.  For instance, the paper I painted and drew on in Centripetal Run wasn’t archival.  Although, maybe it doesn’t matter.

MH:  Does you gallery ever wonder about that?  Are they interested in selling your work?

AS:  My current gallery doesn’t do that to me, which is nice.  I feel privileged enough to stay away from it.

MH: That’s nice.  Some galleries would want to sell whatever they could.

AS:  It’s a funny thing, because if selling debris is going to cheapen my art, then I have to avoid that.  It’s something that might come down in value too, if it doesn’t last as a material.  So many artists have had issues in the past with galleries just selling stuff and later they have problems controlling their own work. Luckily, my gallerist is just letting me figure it out.  It’s a constant discussion I have now.  Certain things like the chair with the light in Centripetal Run, I consider that as possible sculpture, it could stand by itself.  Other things have to be thrown away.

MH:  Ephemeral or not, these objects hold a lot of meaning in your work.

AS:  Right.  I use objects like metaphors, so there is a power of meaning in each object.  Usually that power of meaning is going to be inside my personal life.  The object becomes a line, and the next line is in the receiver.  So the metaphor is really successful if those two parallel lines are clear, if the audience can sense that.  If the viewer can sense that the object has meaning attached to it by the artist, then it’s successful.  Because for me it’s not about the surface of the object or materiality, it’s more about the meaning I pour into it.

Aki Sasamoto’s next performance will be at the opening of Struktur & Organismus on May 4th in Mühldorf, Austria.  She will also be dancing in Yvonne Meier’s This is Not A Pink Pony 1+2, May 30th – June 1st at the Abrons Arts Center in New York.