Art Talk with Takashi Horisaki
New York, NY
"Social Dress Buffalo" (installation view, Mason Gross Galleries, Rutgers University) © Takashi Horisaki
Working primarily in sculpture Japanese visual artist Takashi Horisaki has exhibited widely at venues including New York City's Socrates Sculpture Park and St. Louis's Kemper Art Museum. He has also received a Daedalus Foundation Master of Fine Arts fellowship, and commissions from the Queens Museum of Art and Southeastern Lousiana University, among others. Horisaki was also one of the artists featured in the inaugural Prospect New Orleans biennial. We spoke with Horisaki via e-mail about his take on the artist life, current projects, and the relationship between the artist and the community.
NEA: What is your version of the artist life?
TAKASHI HORISAKI: Looking at and interacting with the world around me is an important part of my artistic practice. I don't work well in a vacuum, so I take time to go and look at museums, galleries, movies, performances, and other types of arts. I also find it important to spend time walking, looking at the people and city around me for clues about how we live, then talking with other artists as well as kids who want to know more about art and society to gain a new perspective on what I see. After I do this, I usually come up with some observations or questions, and I begin to research these questions online. Such research often delves into a basic understanding of cutting edge technology and future forecasts of upcoming technology, as well as the histories of individual neighborhoods all the way up through the development of civilizations as I look for inspiration in my consideration of our current and future society. Recently I have found online social networks to provide me with such inspiration as I am able to talk to and see the differences between various generations.
NEA: What projects are you working on now?
HORISAKI: I just finished a project in Buffalo that involved casting architectural details of abandoned homes around the city with student volunteers. Buffalo, like many Rust Belt cities, has problems with a large number of abandoned homes, but in this case many of the homes are from the early 1900's, built quite sturdily and could provide good housing, or at least materials to create good housing. However, since this problem has been growing for decades, the neighborhoods where you can find many of these houses are generally considered dangerous and unappealing. I worked with local students specifically so that we could naturally go into these neighborhoods and interact with the residents while working on our own project. This allowed the youth, many of whom had only heard of but never seen these communities, to begin to understand the human impact of the housing problem in the city. At the same time, as this was not the ultimate goal of the project, this interaction could occur naturally and without interfering with the local community and their daily lives. The details we cast in latex were then assembled like a collage on a geodesic dome structure that both served as a kind of monument to the housing problem and as an intimate space for people to sit, contemplate, and possibly discuss the history of and possible solutions for the city.
Going forward, I would like to expand this community-based approach to slightly different subject matter, specifically considerations of networks and the dematerialization of experiences. These projects, which I am just starting to experiment with in my studio, will likely combine some of my latex work with possibly some drawings or videos, moving between two-dimensional and three-dimensional media to mimic the replication and substitution of experience that network culture provides us with. I am very early in these projects, so it is hard to tell how they will develop, and it is likely that, like many of my earlier ideas, they will develop into more than one project.
"Social Dress Buffalo" (detail) © Takashi Horisaki
NEA: What inspired you to create "Social Dress New Orleans"?
HORISAKI: I had just moved to New York City from St. Louis on the day Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Before living in St. Louis, I lived in New Orleans from 2000-2003; that was the first place I lived in the U.S. I did not know the fact that Hurricane Katrina was on its way or hit New Orleans since we were still unpacking and hadn't set up the television yet. My wife called me from her job and told me to set up the TV or radio. I was seriously shocked when I saw the severity of what happened and called as many friends as possible, though it took me some days to reach many of them.
After that I was struggling to adjust to my new life in New York while paying attention to the news about New Orleans off and on. Finally, a year later I had an occasion to visit my alma mater, Loyola University in New Orleans, and travel across the city to see how things were for myself. It was totally different from what I imagined based on the information I received through the news media at that time; it really felt like the city had been frozen from the moment the flooding receded. I wanted to show the real situation by bringing something more tangible than a photograph to rest of the world, but in an economically viable way, and so I came up with the "Social Dress New Orleans" project.
NEA: In the light of catastrophic events, such as the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes, what do you think that art (and the arts) can do?
HORISAKI: When I decided to do this project, at first I kept feeling guilty about making an art piece because I didn't think I would be helping anyone out since I was not gutting and rebuilding houses. That seemed the most urgent thing needed at that time, but I also knew I didn't have the skills to do that well. Instead, I found myself in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere in the ninth ward, painting what seemed to be gray paint on a clearly unlivable house with my volunteers and interns. People occasionally passed by and asked if they could help re-paint and fix up the house as well. I hesitated to say that we were making art as that seemed so far removed from the basic needs of the people in that neighborhood. But word got out about the project, and many people came by a couple of weeks after starting the project and told us how positive it was to have an art piece being made there after seeing only demolition for so long and that eased my fears a lot.
In either case, though, it is truly up to the situation. If there is really an emergency life-threatening situation at such a disaster site, I think it may not be the time and place, so I would rely on the coordination and advice of active NPO groups to see how things are progressing and whether it is realistic and appropriate to do a project there. It really has to be decided on a case-by-case basis, and sometimes a situation may need artistic action to draw attention to the problems, even if they do not yet have enough places to sleep. Sometimes in such situations music or simple community involved projects, like maybe something involving origami for kids, might actually cheer them up and that is very important in really bad situations.
My project was specifically two years after the disaster to inform those outside of New Orleans about not only the scope of the disaster but also the slow progress of recovery efforts. It was meant to inform and possibly inspire action in those outside of the city, and the added bonus was that I found it also inspired hope in those community members from New Orleans who helped or watched progress on the project. To me, such inspiration---both the hope of the locals and the action of those outside the immediate community---are really some of the most invaluable effects of a good art piece, and it is what I aspire to in all my projects.
Takashi Horisaki working on "Social Dress New Orleans." Photo by Michael White, courtesy of the artist
NEA: Did anything happen as a result of this project that surprised you?
HORISAKI: When I decided to pursue graduate studies in Visual Art at Washington University in St. Louis after leaving New Orleans, but at the urging of New Orleans artists, I honestly was not aware of the power of arts in terms of political effects. I even doubted such effects so I often debated their relevance with my peers. However, when I visited New Orleans in 2006 for the first time after Katrina, I was simply ashamed at how ignorant I was about the situation. What I saw was not the full scale rebuilding of the city I expected but rather scattered rebuilding while cars were still under or on top of the houses in certain areas and houses were still waiting to be demolished. I wanted to share what I saw with people outside of New Orleans and so came up with the idea of bringing the house skin to New York City.
I did not have a real political agenda when I started, but through the course of the production in New Orleans, and after the exhibition, I finally realized how much of a political message the piece and its production contained. It sounds silly to say now, but that was a real surprise to me as I hadn't thought about the action in such a context. I was just thinking of my friends and the people I met in New Orleans, and trying to give a voice to their frustration to get more volunteers or donors to contribute to the rebuilding, not the kind of politics that it would get me involved in or the link between communication and politics. It also changed my impression of the finished work and let me feel that once art is created, it really has its own presence and agenda that may not have anything to do with the artist's identity or agenda.
NEA: You clearly have a great love for New Orleans. What do you think is the role of the artist in the community?
HORISAKI: New Orleans had a big impact on my life, even before Katrina, and I proudly look to it as my U.S. home. In the case of New Orleans, I feel that many people there live like artists even if they do not say they are. That's how much art is ingrained within the daily life there. That could be a rare case, but I think it is a good example of how artists can work well within the community. So, I personally feel there needs to be strong leadership, and that maybe continuously and actively making noise that inspires and/or tells the story of the community through artistic creation is the role of artists. Ingraining their practices in the community---including opening up art space and events to the local community in an active way and involving the community in production of various artistic pieces---is an important leadership role for artists. It's not just about raising hard questions or critiquing problems, but also about generating community through collective creative action and inspiring the others within the community who have specialist knowledge and skills to come up with innovative answers to social problems.
NEA: Conversely, what do you think the responsibility of the community is toward the artist?
HORISAKI: I find that a more difficult question to answer. Arts are oftentimes thought of as an extra, an unnecessary part of society or the community so it becomes hard to explain why it is necessary for the community to expend effort for the artist's sake. Certainly art is not as essential as food and housing, but those are basic needs and a healthy community should be functioning beyond the level of basic needs. The artist participates in the economy of the community, both as they buy materials for their projects and daily life, as well as when they sell their work or services, and at the same time provides a release from the everyday routine, much like television/movies or literature, which provide entertainment as well as critical thought. If this is lost from the community, a hole develops that leads to stagnation---without the critique and critical thought as well as the economic input the artist provides, the cycles of innovation and progress are slowed and the community flounders.
Ultimately I think the community's responsibilities are to make a place---I don't mean a physical place but rather a place within the fabric of the community---in which art can happen, and to be open to the experience of art whether that means viewing or participating. I think these responsibilities do include education and government assistance for the arts, but not particularly more so than any other industry as most industries receive some form of tax break and/or governmental grant in order to operate effectively and ethically within the community.
NEA: Any last words? Anything you wish I would have asked you---and, of course, how would you have answered?
HORISAKI: Is the "Social Dress New Orleans" project complete, or are you still working on it? Most of my projects involve more than one stage, and I think this is especially true of the "Social Dress New Orleans" project. We recently had the fifth anniversary of Katrina, and so it seems that the immediacy of the tragedy has passed, but I think that is a misconception. There is still a lot of work that needs to happen in the recovery of New Orleans, and the city will clearly be a very different place than it was before Katrina. I see the "Social Dress New Orleans" project as more important now than earlier when we still discussed Katrina regularly: the effects of the hurricane were dramatic not just on New Orleans but on the entire U.S. The makeup of many cities was changed as refugees gradually became permanent members of other cities; the insurance system was severely impacted by not just the initial claims but also the inefficiency of the recovery; and the vulnerability of many of our major metropolitan cities was revealed.
We have a tendency to forget about these effects of natural disasters and the need for improvement to our emergency response systems when we are not directly confronted by such problems, so I am working on securing more opportunities to show "Social Dress New Orleans" over the next few years leading up to the tenth anniversary in order to remind people about the broader discussion around disaster preparedness and social responsibility. I hope to work not just with arts spaces but also with various non-profits to bring the work to audiences outside the normal art audience and organize discussions not just about Katrina, but also about our relation to the changing environment and the effects of other disasters such as the Haiti earthquake and the Thai tsunami. Having grown up in Japan I remember the Kobe earthquake of the mid-90's, and the response there was so different from what I saw in New Orleans. I think there is a lot to consider about society's effect on and responsibility toward local disasters so I hope that showing these pieces in different communities will allow an opportunity to bring these discussions to places with different experiences and build up a body of thought that helps us better prepare for and respond to the inevitable disasters of the future.
Check out our most recent issue of NEA Arts to see images from Takashi Horisaki's "Social Dress New Orleans" project and to read more about the relationship between arts and community in New Orleans.