Published  10/01/2017

Aki Sasamoto: ‘I enjoy how much I can push meaning with the wrong answers’

Aki Sasamoto: ‘I enjoy how much I can push meaning with the wrong answers’

New York-based performance artist Aki Sasamoto has a tendency to speak entirely in metaphor, sit in abstraction for hours, and mark her responses with a small question at the end: No? She asks, smiling. As though everything, at all times, may be overturned


Aki Sasamoto’s work consists of building complex landscapes in which she performs: she is at once darkly humorous and sharply insightful. Born in 1980 in Yokohama, Japan, she now lives in New York City and teaches at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, New Jersey. Primarily known for her site-specific installations, her most recent solo show, Delicate Cycle, at the Sculpture Center, Long Island City, New York, has just come to an end. She made an interactive installation at Frieze Projects at Frieze New York in 2015, performance/installation works at the Gwangju Biennial in South Korea in 2012, and the Whitney Biennial in 2010, among several others.

I met Sasamoto in Kochi, India, the day before her performance at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016, on a sweltering December evening. The following day, after her performance, Sasamoto asked me whether she should leave her grainy charcoal drawings up on the wall – she had drawn mountains and rivers, and words in Malayalam. I said I thought she should, that everything she did could build on this landscape. Later, I noticed that she had, in fact, tried to wipe away her drawings. Faint but traceable – her presence could not be so easily erased.

Skye Arundhati Thomas: Tell me a little bit about your project for Kochi.

Aki Sasamoto: I wanted to make a very clear and simple statement – which was a hole in the ground – and the biennale seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that. I have always wanted to dig a hole, and it was to do with this area: about all the people who have come through and the histories that are buried underneath; all of the ways in which Kochi itself is buried underneath. I felt digging a hole made sense: people could help me and, in most places, you can’t dig a hole. I went eight foot [2.4 metres] deep. This possibility of place felt really good. I often do installations that are super site-specific, or, if not, that are composed of a very complicated system of objects that form a world in which I can perform.

SAT: There is something very instinctive about the way you move during a performance. You spill out a sentence, for instance, or a gesture – and I wonder how much of that is subconscious, and how much rehearsed?

AS: I don’t think I focus on me. I am not really letting me do the performance: it’s more like, whatever sentences I uttered or objects I made, they are making the score, and I’m just unpacking what is already in front of me. I think performance can deal with identity and I do use identity a lot in my work, but not as a necessity – my politics are a lot more low-key. There are a lot of relationships in 20th-century performance between the performer’s body and identity, but if you go back further, it’s more an act of translation: an energetic translation – particularly if you look at dance. For me, that is a way to connect subject matter to its performance body – both as equals – where the body simply activates the subject matter. I cannot really spot, this is what I do: it’s just flowing between art and life, between me and another person, between object and body. For me, having access to dance was very important. It’s a little bit detached, especially when we’re talking about self-consciousness because if you’re self-conscious you can’t dance. I mean, you can, but certain dance forms are not about looking in the mirror, and I dance with my eyes closed.

SAT: You use metaphors a lot in your work. How do you translate the language of metaphor to that of your performance?

AS: I think it’s about the game of misunderstanding. A subconscious thing: like when you make a link in the brain and it forces an equal sign between two things? An almost inevitable wrongness comes out, and I enjoy that, how much I can push meaning with the wrong answers. I think it probably comes from language: poetry is really big in Japan and I have always liked it, but when I went abroad in my teens, I was not really able to speak English well – so I took everything said quite literally. Someone would say: “It drives me nuts”, and I’d go away and really think about somebody turning into a pistachio or into walnuts, and wonder, what nuts are they talking about? Taking everything literally was already an extension of the poetic, and also it was fun; I had a lot of fun not being able to speak well. If you are foreign to a language, everything works as a kind of metaphor; some word just sticks out and slowly starts to define a context – that is my guessing game. And I like that. I’m not trying to take away responsibility, but rather, do something random and be totally responsible for what comes out.

SAT: What about the intimacy that forms between viewer and performer? Do you keep some lines in place that you don’t want to move – perhaps these are more structural, or, metaphorical, too?

AS: Viewer-wise, I usually don’t care, so it’s a problem when I have to accommodate them in a space. For example, in the biennale, I’ve forgotten to have a space for them. I think about the objects more, and where they should go … and I forget about the bodies. When I make an installation, there is a borderline, if, say, I am going to talk about coconut and lime and mint, I just don't start talking about something different. So that’s the given thing. I am very inclusive, so there is a mixing that happens – coconut and lime already don't make sense, but, if you put them together, it becomes a certain combination and I don’t really talk outside that flavour. Within that, I might rephrase it, so it’s OK to change what I say or do, but the elements, the themes, are already in place.

SAT: So if you’re not thinking about bodies, you’re thinking about the space and the objects in the space … then, is the performative gesture enough? Regardless of who sees it?

AS: I think the body is simply a still carrier of this energy, this conviction. And that’s needed, no? The performance is needed … Then afterwards, hopefully, the object or space will carry it and, to help that, I will keep performing multiple times. It’s all about the buildup to a sense of conviction; the space already carries how you do it, as does the object. I am just a body, which becomes … experiments (laughs). I offer my body up for these experiments.

SAT: Although I am hesitant to use these words, is this an approach to be somewhat genuine or authentic?

AS: I am interested in them, but the words sound so embarrassing, I won’t even say them out loud. Authenticity or impulse … “institution” is another one. If I drop them, I just sound cheesy so I can’t say them, but I am totally interested, you know? I am interested in improvisation, and the idea of jazz music, but this improv thing is really hard to talk about with words. I can only do it. As soon as I have a big-picture agenda, some kind of ego comes in. That is paralysing for me. Because once I become aware of what it should be, it’s dead.

SAT: Has that ever happened to you in the midst of a performance? Do you ever check yourself suddenly, and then freeze?

AS: What if it happens tomorrow? (laughs) No, I don’t think so. Never during, but certainly after. Sometimes I realise: “Oh, maybe that was embarrassing”, but then I quickly forget about it. It has to be that way because once that self-checking type of thing comes in, I don’t think I can do it. It’s a technique to stay in improv; once you lose it, you lose it. Like virginity or something, or death. Birth. You just can’t go back. So how do you fool yourself that you are not past that? It’s a technique. You need to make that transition smooth, because sometimes the transition can be quite abrupt, but you still have to make it good music again. I do think about music a lot, because now you can listen to so many different types of music from different cultures and you realise how they make transitions. It’s a way to change, a way to leave this timeline, and there are so many different ways – sometimes subtle, sometimes sneaky … sometimes completely crazy; classical music is full of crazy transitions. But authenticity, I often ask my students about authenticity, and it’s a very tricky word. The trick is: the sense of the genuine, or the sense that something is authentic, changes every moment that we speak, as we have these “spills” … so to keep moving you have to maintain that look, and I think that is a very difficult question for art. I was re-reading Duchamp and how he changed his mind about the object over eight years – that the maker is, in fact, responsible for shifting with the object. I think with performance I am lucky to able to keep doing that; I can keep shifting by just showing that things keep shifting.

SAT: Do you look to your audience for cues?

AS: No, not the audience – I look for cues from the objects in the space. It’s very inside – inside the room and inside my head. I used to say I don’t rehearse at all, but in my head I am already doing it. I just never rehearse physically, because the freshness of the act – to grab something, say, and for that action to be strong, it can’t be rehearsed. I am really looking forward to doing it and it has to be fresh when I do it. If I do it once, there is a nervousness of the first time. The second, third time is about getting deeper into the narrative. I don’t care about the audience but I really need them there. It’s a luxury. This is why people go to shrinks, people pay money so that someone will listen to their bullshit – so the art world is thankfully doing this for me – and I don’t have to pay for counselling!

SAT: You teach sculpture and performance at Rutgers – what kind of questions do you ask your students?

AS: I ask them how they clean their rooms. It’s not a question, really. In Japan, you have to clean in elementary school. That was the best part of Japanese education: at the end of each school day, everybody cleans. Now I teach in America and nobody knows how to clean, and half of my class is about the importance of cleaning.

SAT: Is that a metaphor?

AS: I think so. Again, it’s about intentions, or affordance. I ask students about their cleaning technique, but it’s actually a query about what it is they are making. I teach in New Jersey, and there is a high population of immigrants there – so people come from everywhere. I get to learn about a lot of different cultures; it’s very metropolitan. And when I travel, I look for these things, too: how people cook, how people clean, how people eat. It’s interesting. It’s methods, techniques, strategies, it’s all the same thing – because it’s about how people do this shifting, this performance of the everyday, and I can borrow from it.

SAT: It must be strange to “teach performance”.

AS: That’s why I ask about cleaning. I don’t teach performance, I teach doing … and about meaning that comes out of doing. At graduate level, I just do activities instead – guiding people to do a show, or guiding people to make a performance without actually telling them to do it. It’s really tricky. This semester, there was a show at the school on Collective Actions – a Russian performance group from the 70s, like a Fluxus counterpart, but born separately. I wanted them to learn about that – let’s look at this thing and talk about it. Meanwhile, I had already booked a funky chapel space, so we would do something at the end, but I hadn’t told them what it was; I just wanted them to do it. So, I said: “OK, the topic is Rumour.” The students had to, at the end of the semester, claim the rumours they had started. I was interested in how to claim a rumour, or if such a thing even exists. Some people went online, others tried other things, and somehow – it generated work. Last year, I asked my students to do standup comedy and they were terrified. I do standup myself and I started from a school assignment, actually. I find the technique in standup comedy very similar to the one I’m doing in my performances. It’s totally about timing, but in standup comedy you have to handle your audience. I think the stakes are much lower in an art context. I don’t really have to handle them. I forget about them and that’s OK.

SAT: But don’t you think self-consciousness and vulnerability are always at stake with performance?

AS: If it is image-based, then, yes, but I am more couch-based (laughs). It sounds too much like Freud, so I would like to think about other things. I am more Jungian actually. I don’t like Freud; I think he was very helpful, but I don’t like the couch, especially if we are to use metaphors. We started with language but Jung didn’t rely on language; he was a lot more sceptical of misunderstandings and “wrong-reads” – and the fact that there is a wrong read makes it a right read – that’s the kind of meta-thinking that he is engaging with. Say, the idea of the collective consciousness, I really like that. To remove self-consciousness, to remove the ego, that idea to me is more generous – so I simply do what’s there and I am not going to force anything. It is as is.

SAT: And what happens to identity? I am thinking of Foucault’s prediction: identity as the future currency of politics.

AS: I am trying to stay away from that market, to use a different currency. But I am aware it exists and that it is a very strong technique, a strong method. I cannot tell if it’s luck or not, but I didn’t have to negotiate the price of my identity, hugely thanks to what other people have done before me. So I don’t have to be a feminist, I don’t really have to be Japanese, and in that post-identity situation in New York I really like that selfishness, so I am going to bank on that. I just keep bartering and not using that currency. But if I have to step in and use that currency, I will do that consciously. I haven’t made that conscious move with my work yet, but let’s see.

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