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  • Sean Holley

Monsters & Demons: An Interview with Suzume Uchida (Part 1)

After an extensive and rewarding dialogue, ARCHIVE.pdf is excited to release the first portion of our interview with Japanese artist Suzume Uchida. In her relatively short painting career, Suzume Uchida has drawn international acclaim for her unflinching, autobiographical approach to painting. Her work pierces the psyche with a distinctively human sense of intimacy, making it both thought-provoking and moving. She is also renowned for her ongoing collaboration with Yohji Yamamoto, which has seamlessly adapted her paintings to a new medium.

Our conversation with Suzume-san ranges from her background and artistic approach to her thoughts about fashion and attitudes towards collaboration. Due to the quantity and quality of responses we received, we have decided to publish this interview in 2 parts. (The second part is available here). Read the full text of our interview below:

Hello Suzume-san, we hope that you are doing well. For the first question, we’d like to begin with a discussion around your background. At what age did you take up painting, and when did you decide to pursue art as a career? Was art always your principal passion, or did you have other intense interests when you were younger that tapered off as you grew older? Also, what influence did your family life have on your development as an artist?

I have loved to draw and paint since I was a child. I think my first encounter with art was Pierre-Auguste Renoir's 'Portrait of Mademoiselle Legrand' when I was eight years old, and Van Gogh's blue self-portrait, which I saw at the Musée d’Orsay when I was thirteen. When I was in junior high and high school, I published my illustrations on the internet and interacted with professional illustrators. Finally, when I was fifteen, I decided that I wanted to do something related to drawing as my career.

When I finished junior high school, I talked to my parents about my desire to go to art college, but they were very opposed. I continued to persuade them and managed to get them to let me go to an art preparatory school. However, when the lecturers gave me critiques of my paintings, I felt rejected and cried after every lecture. I gave up painting at the age of 17, thinking that I would never be able to make a career out of it because I was such a weak person.

Later, I studied design at university. I chose to study design as opposed to painting because for me, painting is like a direct manifestation of my own mind – whenever my art is ridiculed, it hurts me on a personal level. On the other hand, design involves many elements such as planning, ideas and rhetoric. So, with design, even if things go wrong at work, I wouldn't feel as if I was being attacked directly from the heart. Then, I got a job in advertising, but because I was inexperienced, I couldn't live up to the demands of the position. My health was also deteriorating, so I chose to quit the job.

When I was lying in bed thinking about what I wanted to do with my life in the future, I happened to find a painting by a wonderful artist on my phone. When I went to see his exhibition, I was impressed by the artist who was roughly the same age as me and was desperately trying to pursue the path of painting that I had given up on. After seeing this exhibit, I was motivated to collect more art and try modelling for painters, and it made me realize that I wanted to give painting another chance. Then, I painted one or two pieces that led me to where I am now.

Self-portrait by Japanese artist Suzume Uchida

I am grateful for the family I grew up in, but I also wish it had been better. I think the fact that I didn't get much praise made the hole in my heart bigger and bigger. However, it is precisely this hole in my heart that led me to choose art as my career.

How did you find your personal painting style, and how do you continue to evolve that style in the present day? What drew you towards realism over abstraction, and have you spent time experimenting with other methods in the past? As an artist, do you think being consistent in your aesthetic values is a valuable limitation of scope, or can it lead to a lack of inspiration if pushed to an extreme?

I just draw and try to express my ideas, and repeat the process. At the moment I mainly work with pencil and oil, but I have experimented with different materials such as watercolour, pastel, Japanese ink and sumi ink. I think this trial-and-error process will continue for the rest of my life as I try to find the best expression that suits me, both in terms of technique and materials.

I feel that the reason I stuck to realistic expression was because I had an urgent feeling that I had to document my experiences. For example, in the work depicting the dead pigeon, I chose a realistic technique and sharply drew the details because I felt a sense of responsibility to preserve the memory of my pet, as I was the only one who could leave it behind in the picture. But as the days with the dead pigeon became more distant, my brushstrokes became softer and blurred. Perhaps it is the invisible things that are most important. For now, what comes back to me is not the image of my pigeon as it died, but the image of it as it flapped its wings in good health.

Pigeon dove painting the heart by Japanese artist Suzume Uchida

These tender memories now surround me, which is probably why my brushstrokes changed from being fine and sharp to being soft, fuzzy and blurry. Although it would still be called realism, changes in brushstrokes alone may give the work a very different impression. It seems that the changes in my own feelings have a direct effect on my paintings. I also recently completed an abstract blue work that looks like the sky and the sea. I think this painting is the result of an overflow of unspoken and invisible thoughts.

I believe that when life changes, painting changes too. It is wonderful to stick to one thing, but I believe that as long as you are consistently devoting time to your art, any changes that occur are natural.

Abstract blue painting by Japanese artist Suzume Uchida

What are your thoughts on the concept of collaboration between the art world and fashion world? When you discuss this topic with other artists, do you find that they are generally receptive to the idea or are they hesitant to consider working with fashion designers?

A painting that is displayed on a canvas does not move. But if a painting is applied to clothing, the cloth will sway in the wind, causing the design to change. It is as if the appearance of the painting is that of a wavering soul. I am happy that my paintings seem to have a new life. I am also grateful for the opportunity to let many people know about my art through my ongoing work with Yohji Yamamoto.

Our collaboration started in 2017. From then until now, we have been devoting considerable time to this project. During this time, many people, both artists and gallery owners, have been very receptive. Many people who were not previously interested in art and painting have started to come to my gallery exhibitions. I think it would be good if artists and galleries explored more opportunities outside of their ecosystem, because a creative collaboration can lead to great outcomes.

The success of our project would have been impossible without the customers that wear and appreciate our clothing. Their continued support has built a great sense of community around the work, and it is a sign that our collaboration feels genuine in the eyes of the public.

In your opinion, what are some good principles for both the artist and designer to follow to ensure that a collaboration is successful and mutually fulfilling? And to add on to the previous question, how do you personally define success in a collaboration between an artist and a fashion brand?

For a meaningful partnership, I think it is important that designers and artists can have a heart-to-heart conversation. If they are reserved, the work will be half-hearted. It's important to respect each other and have honest conversations about what you want to do and what you don't want to do.

When it comes to successful collaborations, people tend to focus on sales and sell-outs. But I like to take a longer-term view and consider more than just the immediate results. Is the work really good? Does it have a greatness that will last and be appreciated by future generations? These are important questions to think about. If the work is great, the collector will take good care of it for decades. Success may be defined by whether the work remains relevant after our death.

Why do you choose to incorporate elements of Japanese history and your identity as a Japanese woman into your art? What is the significance of the past to your artistic practice, and how do you think the past interacts with the present and future through art?

I incorporate Japanese history and female identity into my work because they are real to me. I don't consciously try to include them, they are naturally reflected in my work. This is because I am a documentary artist. I value the honesty of my own original experiences in my work, without any pretense. Because I believe that real experiences are what move people's hearts.

Paranormal scary painting by Japanese artist Suzume Uchida

As long as people are people, I believe my work will move someone's heart, even 100 or 200 years from now. It might even save them. I think that the “real things” in this world will remain the same, past, present or future, and they will always have the power to touch people's hearts. Genuine works of art should be loved beyond time, and I want to keep striving to make work that feels universal. I think it is my mission to continue to search for the real and to preserve it in my paintings.

Part 2 of our interview is out now, read it here

Suzume Uchida - Website | Instagram

Interpreter: Diana Shi

Writer: Sean Holley


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