“..in Japanese we say “iwakan” – it’s a feeling of unease”
ArtPeople’s Kathryn Hunyor sat down with Hiroshi Fuji to talk all things Jurassic Plastic as well as gain a personal insight into the artist’s practice, intent and lifestyle which aim to re-invent the potential of plastic…
KH: Your two years volunteering in Papua New Guinea after graduating from art school where very formative. Could you tell me the story of the stray dogs?
Oh, that’s a long complicated story! But in short, when I was in Papua New Guinea I was interested to see lots of scrawny stray dogs around the town. These dogs were really mangy and starving, and whenever I went into rural villages in particular, there was always a small group of them – say 5 or 6 – hanging around. Their presence interested me.
Then I heard that they actually chased and caught wild boars. I thought there was no way they could do such a thing. But then I saw it myself – these scrawny, half-starving stray dogs, the moment they saw the wild boar, they pursued them with enormous ferocity. These dogs were transformed in that moment. They metamorphosed in front of me.
As I witnessed this transformation, I thought “this is beautiful”, which started me thinking “what is beauty?”. I wondered, these things – be they stray dogs, or plastic for that matter – that are looked down upon by society, and considered a problem, a nuisance, something of no value – they actually have a lot of energy. And they can change – they can be transformed. These moments have the power to move you – they can create an emotional response – and therein lies the beauty.
This is what those stray dogs taught me.
KH: So is this how we can make a connection between these stray dogs,
Well yes, but it relates to everything. Take the act of drawing. You have a pencil for example. That’s made from charcoal cinders, or coloured pencils made from crushing rocks – it’s like rubbish don’t you think? So you take this rubbish, you refine it, add energy, line it up, and create something of enormous value. You transform it into something completely different.
It’s not just drawing, it’s the same with sculpture, or music. Just a simple clapping of my hands – this is a basic sound and beat, it’s nothing – but in the hands of a talented drummer, it becomes an amazing rhythm that thousands of people will flock to hear.
So that’s the realization those dogs gave me, and it was a major part of my experience in Papua New Guinea. It’s not about what society currently deems ‘valuable’ – it’s more about engaging with those things that may be transformed through energy and creativity. I wonder if that’s the job of an artist – to engage with those things and create something from them.
KH: Your Papua New Guinea experience also directly inspired you to use plastic. You’ve talked about how the local people really valued it as a precious resource and beautiful material. Could you tell me about that?
Yes, the local people taught me its value. One of the students at the art school where I was teaching used to make jewellery – bracelets and earrings – from turtle shells. Then one day I saw her proudly wearing these earrings she’d made from the plastic clips on bread packages – to her this was a beautiful, light, colourful material – and at first I thought it was ridiculous, I thought “that’s not right”. But when I tried to say that to her, she showed me how it had real value to her. And I realized that depending on the context, the idea of ‘value’ changes.
KH: So Fuji-san, do you like plastic?
At the time I hated it! I was living in Japan, where plastic was so prevalent, and wherever you looked, the volume of plastic around you was growing and growing … it was awful and I would wonder “why is there so much of it?”. I started to feel such a deep sense of discomfort about it – in Japanese we say “iwakan” – it’s a feeling of unease. And I couldn’t shake this feeling of unease.
KH: So what about now, do you like it?
Do I like it??!! (Ha ha ha.) I can’t say whether or not I like it. Of course it upsets me to see it in nature – in the mountains, on the seashore. But for me personally, when I think about plastic – plastic was invented and came into our society in the form of consumer products in the same decade as I was born – in the 1960s. I think that by the time I die – so, in my lifetime – or at least within 100 years, plastic will be gone. This will be due to the problems with crude oil, the negative effect it has on society and the environment, and nowadays of course we have biodegradable plastic. So I think the plastic that we know now will disappear within my lifetime. If you look at it like that, it’s quite a short span of time that this product ‘plastic’ has come into our world and totally changed it. It’s a material that’s had a radical effect on the whole world.
So here we are – we happen to be living in this era where plastic is everywhere and we can’t escape that. If you look at it this way, and if we agree that it’s only here with us for a short time, then I think it’s important to face it head-on. Rather than thinking about whether you love it or hate it, you face it. I think we have no choice but to look it straight in the eye.
Of course if you just choose to throw it out – and most people do just that – then that’s the end of it, but this is the only moment we have to be with it, and face it. That’s what I’m doing.
KH: How did you begin collecting the plastic toys that you use for the Toysaurus sculptures and landscapes?
The starting point was when my family and I decided not to create any garbage. We didn’t throw anything out. So of course we ended up with so many toys and it was really hard to separate them because they contained so many different materials. We tried to work out how we could use them in a different way. My daughter decided to open a shop, but I didn’t want the children handling money so we set it up as a kind of barter stall for kids, where they could manage the shop, practice counting, and trade items.
And that got me thinking about how to turn it all into something that we can’t put a monetary value on. A mechanism that doesn’t rely on money. And that’s how I came up with the ‘Kaekko’ system.
KH: In the Australian context, your work is read as having a strong environmental and sustainability message. But when I mentioned that we were trying to have the left-over plastic junk from Jurassic Plastic recycled, you were disappointed and wanted to take the Australian plastic junk home with you! Is this because your work is more situated at a personal level, rather than global?
Well yes, but let’s consider that all of this is recycled – it gets changed from one form to another. So within that, I wonder if we’re the only ones who can preserve something of its current form? And have a relationship with it.
But also, as I mentioned, the starting point for me was trying to not throw anything out. I wanted to look at the reality, to gaze straight at it, and spend time with it. It started with me wanting to have a relationship with it.
KH: That’s interesting because we want it out of sight. We want to deal with it responsibly, but we don’t necessarily want to see it.
Yes that’s right, people avoid looking at it. So my work is about staring it in the face, and bringing it into the open. People are confronted with something that they’ve been averting their gaze from. At first it’s beautiful, but behind that lies the deeper questions of “why is there so much stuff?” “what’s going to happen to it all?”.
KH: Yes but your work is not didactic, which is why I like it so much. You’re not hitting us over the head with a message or trying to make us feel guilty.
No, the sole purpose of my work is not about a message. Rather than trying to lecture people about plastic, I’m simply giving insight into a subject that I’ve been considering intently, and that we can’t ignore. So for visitors to the exhibition – children and families – my simple message is ‘have fun!’. And in the future, let’s take a closer look at this.
But really, this whole situation is not the children’s fault. Kids have done nothing wrong. They haven’t created this. We really need manufacturers and companies to take a closer look – they are the ones with the responsibility to consider the impact of their output.
Even parents who buy or let their children play with plastic toys – I don’t blame them, or think they’re necessarily the problem. It’s hard to not have these things – they’re all around us. Telling people what they can and can’t use…feeling like we have to do everything perfectly – that just makes everyone really stressed and that’s never good. If you start to think about it, it’s endless. You can’t live like that.
KH: Westerners might say that’s a contradiction, or hypocritical, but Japanese people seem to find a way to live with contradictions. I often find that in Japan, many ideas don’t fit into a simple ‘black and white’ dichotomy – rather, there is a large grey zone. Japanese people seem generally more comfortable in the grey zone than Westerners who tend to see things in black and white.
Ah yes, but my feeling is that we should live neither in the grey, or the black and white – we should live in a rainbow of colors! Let’s make the world a rainbow. I think that is the role of the artist. Of course, if you mix them all together, you just get grey…! But a little splash of everything – diversity is what we should really be seeking.
KH: So if we were to categorize you, then we would call you a ‘rainbow activist’.
I like that!
KH: Recently I’ve been looking back to the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), which was as we know a period of over 200 years of almost complete isolation from the outside world. People lived in a closed ecosystem, recycling back to nature as a matter of course. Japanese ideas such as “mottai nai” where people felt very strongly about using everything without any waste, were very important at this time. Does that history of Japan impact you and your thinking?
Yes but that wasn’t just Japan. All around the world people in those generations had to live in harmony with nature making the most of what they had and using it carefully. Human beings have that capacity in their blood and so in the modern context we have to think about using those skills to face the issues of today. I think it’s natural for us to want to have a connection with that kind of traditional thinking and to find ways to incorporate that into our modern lives.
KH: That’s interesting – in Sydney, we’ll be appearing on a panel discussion at UTS with two Indigenous Australian artists and this is one of the topics I’d like to discuss. Australia’s Indigenous people also believe in living in harmony with nature, but sadly the colonialists and subsequent settlers didn’t have the same mindset. So I’m wondering if you consider your thinking as coming from the fact that you’re Japanese?
Not exactly – bias can come from all directions. For me, my parents are from Amami-Oshima Island – a tiny island between Kagoshima and Okinawa – I find that my influences, more than being associated with Japan, are probably more from Taiwan, Okinawa, China and continental Asia because of the location of my home island. People’s views and perspectives change depending on their background and experiences. My thinking and my blood are strongly connected with this local culture, with my roots. I don’t think of ‘Japan’ and my connection to the culture of Japan; I see myself as a product of my indigenous roots.
KH: As you know Wesley is an Indigenous Australian artist, so it will be interesting to discuss that on the day.
Yes. The reason I’m based in Akita right now is for exactly that reason. There are still a few areas of Japan that haven’t been totally overwhelmed by modern living and ideas. Traditional festivals, traditional instruments, kabuki – we should be proud of those and maintain them. Little by little.
KH: Thank you – we look forward to having you in Sydney in January!
This interview was conducted in Japanese and translated into English by Kathryn Hunyor.