Yasumasa Yonehara × C.H.I Interview
Photo: Norihisa Kimura
Beijing-based photographer and contemporary artist C.H.I launched his exhibition at DIESEL ART GALLERY in November, and fellow artist Yasumasa Yonehara served as the curator for this particular exhibition. The two met 5 years ago, both having backgrounds in editing magazine editorials. This time, C.H.I was able to hold his first art exhibition in Japan. As someone who frequently travels to and from China and is currently a noteworthy artist in Beijing, he talks to Mr. Yonehara about how they met and the current art situation in China, as well as his upcoming projects.
A506: (To C.H.I) With this exhibition being your first in Japan, what is your impression of Tokyo?
C.H.I: I haven’t ventured outside of Shibuya, but it’s very lively and colorful. There’s a sense of order that makes it feel like a sacred place.
A506: How did you two meet?
Y.Y.: There was an art festival now called “ART021” that one of my friends hosts, and C.H.I had his exibition at my friend’s gallery in Beijing back in 2012. When I first saw his work there, I was very impressed that there were artists like him in China. That’s when I met C.H.I and took his photo. We were in the talks of designing T-shirts together and other collaborative work, and even though we thought of the design it didn’t go through. After a while I’d go to parties in China and he’d also be a guest there so we’d see each other quite frequently.
A506: What kind of parties were they?
Y.Y.: I’ve been to a party hosted by a big movie company in Beijing, and I also walked the red carpet for a party hosted by the Chinese version of “FHM” Magazine. A lot of celebrities would attend the parties I went to.
A506: Is there a piece of C.H.I’s work at this exhibition that you remember seeing for the first time?
Y.Y.: The first piece of artwork I ever saw of his was something with 6 strings that kind of randomly “grew” out of it. But for C.H.I, this work is something of the past, right?
C.H.I: Yeah, this style of artwork is old for me. It’s something that’s “done” and in the past. I didn’t put too much effort into my work back then. It was low art, low quality. I hope people can focus on my other, newer pieces in my exhibition.
A506: What was your first impression of Mr. Yonehara?
C.H.I: I first heard about Yone when some people I know working in media told me about him. His style is very to-the-point, and he was so different from the stereotypical photographer that I’ve come to know – not talkative, kind of cool, you know? (laughs). But Yone proved to be the complete opposite, and he exudes a lively personality similar to the youth in China.
Y.Y.: It’s the same in both China and Japan, but there’s a preconceived notion that having a “good” camera means you can take good photos, or having a larger camera is better. But for me, I try to turn regular “snapshots” into art form, which I think is what Instagram is now. I started doing this style of photography when Instagram was still new, which was to take photos of objects without looking through the lens. It was a concept popular among junior high and high school girls, but at the time it was so fresh and something new to me. I started using this technique within the art industry, and the people around me were asking what I was doing and trying to copy me. Now, so many photographers are trying to incorporate this technique within their work. I started shooting with this technique in China, and I think it was a entirely new concept since the photographers there were still used to shooting with large DSLR cameras.
C.H.I: This has something in common with Terry (Richardson).
Y.Y.: When Terry came to Japan in 1998, I saw him shooting like that and I thought, “Oh, I wanna do that…” I compiled all the photos I took in that style and created a photo book titled アウフォト～OUT OB PHOTOGRAPHERS～. This is also a concept that Japanese school girls came up with. Mattius, the current chairperson of Lomography, found a copy of OUT OB PHOTOGRAPHERS in Japan, and since then we’ve become close friends. I’ve been invited to Europe to do exhibitions and event photography at parties, and soon everyone started copying what I was doing. Same in New York and Los Angeles. I went to Shanghai for the first time in 2008, and after going there several times a year, Polaroids became popular by 2010.
I brought to China what was popular in Japan in the 90s, ten years later. It was just starting to be more accepted to do stuff away from the norm in China, not only through photography, but also that there are old guys like me out there. I think the trend spread quickly because it was something anyone could pick up, not just professionals. SNS was also starting to gain popularity at the same time.
A506: Mr. Yonehara, you seem to be pretty active on SNS platforms like Weibo. Do you use a lot of SNS platforms also, C.H.I?
C.H.I: I do have about 250,000 followers on Weibo, but we don’t have Instagram in China, and I also have limited time so I don’t really use social media all that much…
Y.Y.: But he uses Yizhibo. It’s a live streaming app, and yesterday we walked around Maruyama-cho and introduced different spots in the area. Why it’s called a “red line,” or explaining the history of the area as we walked.
A506: What kind of things do you post on Weibo?
C.H.I: I create 5-minute videos by myself. I took some footage of where I went today, so I’ll create a video when I get home.
A506: Since both of you have backgrounds as editors, are there any points in common when it comes to how you percieve things?
C.H.I: I was doing art and album-related work for Rolling Stone for a year starting in 2005, and in 2006, I picked up photography. By 2008, I established my own art magazine O’ZINE-符号.
Y.Y.: C.H.I has been doing his band since 1996, and he’d make his own flyers. That’s when he started doing design-related work.
C.H.I: I think I’ve been doing design since 7th grade. I loved art since I was a kid and I’d draw on walls. I was also introduced to rock music in 7th grade.
Y.Y.: He was in a punk-rock band at the time and sang about unrequited feelings.
A506: Even political topics?
C.H.I: I do but not really… I can’t sing about that kind of stuff so directly.
A506: Are there also any hidden messages in your current work?
C.H.I: Yes, I’ve always incorporated political messages in my music and in my artwork.
Y.Y.: That’s why when I first saw his work, I honestly wondered if it was okay for him to do so. Or what kind of person he was. But he goes to so many crazy parties despite his views, so I’m pretty sure it’s okay (laughs).
C.H.I: I used to be an editor-in-chief for a magazine so I kind of know how much political content is okay to be published.
A506: Have you ever thought of living in a different country to do your artwork more freely, or wish to create more expressive work?
C.H.I: My artwork now compared to my older work is not as heavy and has a level of sarcasm in them, which is why I don’t really feel the urge to have more freedom of expression. But if I really live away from China, I feel like I won’t be able to come up with all of these ideas. Because there are so many social issues where I am now, if I end up somewhere with too much freedom, then I’m afraid I’ll have absolutely nothing to do.
A506: For this particular exhibition, did it start with Mr. Yonehara wanting to do C.H.I’s exhibition?
Y.Y.: Talks of the exhibition started when I was discussing with DIESEL ART GALLERY about properly introducing a Chinese artist to a Japanese audience. During the presentation process, we were in agreement that it would be nice to do something like this, and then it eventually became official. I don’t think many Japanese people have really seen the artwork of a prominent Chinese artist.
C.H.I: Japanese people probably don’t have a strong image of Shanghai or Beijing to begin with.
Y.Y.: Yes, so when then question the kind of work they create, all they have is a question mark in their heads. A while back, DIESEL ART GALLERY hosted a fashion and photography exhibition by a female artist from China called Chen Man. This time, C.H.I is focusing more on culture, similar to myself. I’m not necessarily saying it’s far from what Chen Man did but C.H.I is more about the street culture, and I thought it would be a great opportunity for him to share his art in Japan.
C.H.I: I’m actually not a huge fan of Chen Man… It’s a bit too commercial for my taste, and not enough attitude.
Y.Y.: It’s the same in Japan, and when you do things too commercially, you have less freedom to do what you really want. There are companies who dislike my erotic photography, and it’s still a problem when my work doesn’t fit the category of “erotic” that most people have.
C.H.I: That’s one point in common between China and Japan. China is becoming different from how it used to be, and right now we are in the generation of self=media, better know as “self media.” In contrast to the image of magazines or large corporations we’ve always had, each individual is a form of media – I’m a form of media, that person is a form of media, and so on, and I think now, an individual can become a brand in itself by being a form of media. This sort of freedom of expression is expanding in China as well.
Y.Y.: In terms of media, I think China is much freer than Japan is. One of the big differences between Japanese and Chinese people is that while the Japanese perceive what is going on around them and think really hard about what it is they can do, the Chinese just do what it is that they want to do. It’s different when you actually think about what you can do versus doing what you want to do, and it’s common for Japanese people to consider what will and what won’t work, and in turn everyone becomes the same. Even though there isn’t really a sense of unity in China (laughs), and it’s very spread out and it’s ok to talk about what we want to talk about, like we’re doing now.
C.H.I: China is crazy.
Y.Y.: The Chinese way of perceiving things that Japanese people have now is actually pretty close to the China before.
C.H.I: There’s too much freedom in China.
Y.Y.: Even if there is nothing to look up to, there’s the notion of finding something that no one has ever done before, as well as using a system or incorporating new kinds of media as gadgets.
C.H.I: If you’re talking about contrasts, then you could say the Chinese now are trying to do new things like the Japanese used to back in the day.
Y.Y.: During the time of really high-speed growth, I think everyone felt that they could try new things. Because the economy is doing so well, there’s so much that we could do. But then again, not everything goes smoothly, like the movie we’re trying to make… (laughs). C.H.I is gonna produce a movie.
C.H.I: It’s a story called “Five Star Hotel,” based on a different work. Even though it says “hotel,” the plot takes place in an old, run-down apartment complex, and Yone’s part is the old Chinese building manager. In a tank top with his stomach out and always drinking tea. There are many different people in the building, forming a sort of community. For example, there’s a prostitute constantly on the run from the cops, and within the movie, each character living in the building will have a story unfolding through the eyes of the building manager.
Y.Y.: One of the obstacles when it comes to creating movies in China is that you need to get permission. First, you submit what the movie will be about to the Cinema of China, but our submission was rejected because apparently, it was too foul (laughs).
C.H.I: Also they said there aren’t enough protagonists. All the characters are antagonists (laughs).
Y.Y.: There aren’t any superheros or “good guys” in this movie like typical Hollywood movies, so we need to re-organize the characters. We’re in the process of re-writing the script a second time…
C.H.I: No, not just the second time, more like at least ten times (laughs)
Y.Y.: Ah, then that means we’ve been told the same thing that many times (laughs). Maybe we need to completely change the plot…
C.H.I: I can understand their requests though. It’s true that there are too many societal issues within the plot. I’ve slowly come to understand the feel of this.
A506: Will you be filming the movie in China?
C.H.I: Yes, in my hometown (Shijiazhuang). I can create an atmosphere that would fit the image of the movie better there.
Y.Y.: But we’d have to wait ’til next spring because if we filmed in the winter with my stomach hanging out, I’d probably die of cold (laughs).
A506: Since you two will spend some time together, it would be nice to try some new projects.
C.H.I: It would be easier if we just started, but I think that’s the most difficult step right now. But I’m excited.
A506: Will you two be doing anything while the exhibition is ongoing?
Y.Y.: The exhibition will go on for three months, so I’d like to have C.H.I come out here a couple of times.
C.H.I: Maybe even have the band reunite.
Y.Y.: This exhibition will display C.H.I’s older works as well as his latest, and like I mentioned earlier, his older artwork does not reflect his current style. He continues to produce new kinds of art, so stay tuned for more of his work.
C.H.I is an artist, photographer, designer, rock singer, director, magazine creator, and editor-in-chief based in China. His following mainly consists of the youth born in the eighties. There are no limits when it comes to his various occupations in art, fashion and pop culture. Born in 1981, his parents immediately recognized his artistic talent at a young age when they saw his artwork on the walls of their home. In junior high school, he was introduced to punk-rock, and formed a band in high school. He continued with his music while he attended art school, and in 1999, he formed a band called “昏熱症 HRZ,” touring with other bands of his generation. He enrolled in Hebei Normal University (an art school), but dropped out when he realized it wouldn’t accomodate his musical ventures. “昏熱症 HRZ” eventually rose to the top in the underground scene but disbanded in 2003. In 2005, C.H.I became the artistic director for Rolling Stone magazine, and in 2007, he produced a new kind of art magazine called O’ZINE-符号, and became the editor-in-chief and artistic director. In 2010, he opened his first exhibit overseas in Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery, and in 2011, he founded his own art firm, C.H.I FACTORY. He is currently in the works of producing a movie.
Yasumasa Yonehara is an editor, artist and photographer. Inspired by the Japanese school girl street culture, his work is often expressed as a form of media, a pioneer of the Japanese school girl underground culture after the 90s. He forsaw the influence of social media, and uses his Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Weibo platforms to upload content that pertains to Japanese culture. In June of 2017, he introduced 3 artists’ opening exhibitions with similar themes put together through different approaches, and continues to climb the ladder of success.
【中國最先端 – CHINESE CUTTING EDGE –】
Nov 17—Feb 14, 11:30am—9pm, FREE, Diesel Art Gallery.
cocoti B1F, 1-23-16 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Nearest Station: Shibuya.
Tel: 03-6427-5955 https://www.diesel.co.jp/art/en/
Artist: C.H.I / Curator: Yasumasa Yonehara / Coordinator: CULTURE CLUB ’75
Translated by Samantha Mariko