Interview with TAKU OBATA: The Lonely B-BOY Sculptor Who Freely Manipulates Space & Gravity
A self-proclaimed “B-BOY Sculptor,” TAKU OBATA is an artist who uses B-BOY (break-dancer) as a motif in many of his works. After leaving behind his days of dancing and basketball in his native Tokorozawa (Saitama Prefecture), he decided to pursue sculpting at Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai) after three years of entrance exams. Afterward, he gained much attention for winning the grand prize at TOKYO WONDERWALL for his final university work and is now well-known for his B-BOY-inspired artwork in Japan and overseas. We interviewed TAKU OBATA at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, where his most recent exhibition is taking place in collaboration with Kazuki Umezawa titled “HYPER LANDSCAPE KAZUKI UMEZAWA × TAKU OBATA,” where the two artists challenged themselves with new forms of motion picture work.
— First of all, could you tell us how the collaboration with Kazuki Umezawa came to life?
“This particular exhibition was curated by Mr. Watari (Kouichi Watari/ CEO of the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art). Mr. Watari wanted to see works by two contrasting artists such as myself and Ume-labo (Kazuki Umezawa), so that’s how this exhibition happened. One of my juniors from SIDE CORE, who frequently works with Mr. Watari, introduced us. He took a liking for my work, and that’s how talk of this exhibition first took place.”
— The clash of two completely different worlds has really created an amazing space.
“At first I was a bit skeptical because his walls are very vivid and over-the-top, but it turned out alright (laughs). Sculptures really have a strong presence, so I know that I can create art that isn’t overshadowed by Ume-labo’s work. Each of our work is contrasts in many ways. Ume-labo’s work is all about collages. He takes stuff he finds on the internet and puts them together, as well as adding pieces he’s created himself. For me, I focus my attention on one piece of artwork at a time – I’ll absorb myself in one single wood carving. The number of art pieces we do is also completely different as well. The only pieces I have for this exhibition are the two wood carvings on the second floor, as well as two 2D pieces on the fourth floor (photography and motion picture), so only four works total.”
—The second and fourth floors are completely different spaces.
“The second floor consists mainly of the sculptures, both of them being bigger than life-size. That’s why on this floor, whoever sees the work will feel overpowered, more like a hands-on learning experience. But the fourth floor has no 3D element to it, and both of my works here are in 2D. It’s an abstract way of expressing the concept of space, so the viewer has to use his/her imagination. But in the end, even though the art forms are different, what I wanted to do was essentially the same as when I make my sculptures.”
— The motion picture work on the fourth floor titled “Takuspe buttai Abstract” is a kind of work never before seen from you.
“I actually wanted to present a motion picture piece the most, so my work on the fourth floor is my main focus this time. I’ve been doing photography since 2013, but I also wanted to try motion picture, and I’ve been warming up for the day to debut this part of my portfolio .”
—Would you consider your motion pieces to be an extension of your photography piece?
“I guess you could say that… Motion pictures are actually a lot similar to sculptures than most people think. Since motion pictures are obviously always in motion, the viewer recognizes space easily. Because you’re only using one lens when doing photography, the finished product is always “flat” no matter what you do with it, and sometimes it only looks like you pasted an object on something else. Even so, that aspect of photography is actually fun and unique in itself. Throwing objects in the air with human strength and watching it fall down with the force of gravity, and capturing that one moment in between with the lens of a camera. More than wanting to do photography work, it all started with me wanting to create something based on the motif of weightlessness, or non-gravity. I mean, it’s not literally “weightlessness,” but the push and pull of human strength and the force of gravity, and I just find that competition so interesting.”
—Can you tell us about the “objects” in both your photography and motion picture work, the so-called “B-BOY objects.”
“I love the matière (French for texture/artistic effect) that I used for my sculptures. I’ve always wanted to extract that and create some kind of sculpture that is like an object. The wooden sculptures I usually create are described as ‘creating a B-BOY,’ but in the end, that’s just a human being or a ‘representational’ sculpture. In contrast to that idea, I’ve been wanting to create an ‘abstract’ sculpture since I was a student. It’s probably a reaction to what I’m used to doing. The actual shape of the objects (sculptures) come from the silhouette of down jackets or shoelaces known as ‘fat shoelaces.’ That’s why they are interconnected with my previous works that go along with the B-BOY motif.”
—So how did those objects end up in your motion picture work for this exhibition?
“At first, all I wanted to do was create the object and put it next to a human sculpture. But as I was asking myself all these questions, I realized that it wouldn’t be any different than the placement of an object, only the shape wouldn’t be a human silhouette, and what I’m striving to do is to create an abstract sculpture to go against the human form. And that would be such a waste. If a human form is connected with gravity, then this abstract sculpture needs to be non-gravitational. This eventually led to a more conceptual idea. I then created a small sample object, took photographs and was playing around with it when it became an actual piece of artwork. I thought, ‘This would be more interesting if I added movement,’ so hence the motion-picture piece.”
—Before you got into sculpting, you were trying to pursue motion picture, correct?
“Yes. I was actually majoring in motion picture at the prep school for art university and then transferred over to sculpting. I thought my passion for motion pictures would lessen once I started doing sculpting, but it never went away. There was always that wish of wanting to eventually do something with motion picture, and it finally came to fruition through this exhibition. You know the very first scene in Star Wars where the Star Destroyer appears from the top of the screen? I love what they did there, and I thought it would be cool to use that concept but with an object. So this art piece generally started with that in mind.”
—In reality, how did you shoot this particular work?
“This particular motion picture is really just special effects. I created a wooden frame set, attaching a 4K high-speed camera that takes 400 frames per second inside, and throwing material in there and capturing it on video. I made no adjustments to the speed. I merely just dropped the object, threw it bottom up, and depending on if I throw it catch-ball style, the speed also changes accordingly. If the object stops moving or looks like it’s floating in the air, it means I moved it with the wooden frame. When the object is in the air, I try to move the frame to match the movement of the object to achieve a stopped motion. There were nine people in the studio during the shoot.”
—This shoot must have taken a lot of effort with nine people in the studio at once.
“It actually required physical work, but there are people who think it’s a CG work. But I actually think that’s fine. The speed of the motion changes when the object is dropped or passed back and forth like catch-ball, and I think it’s quite interesting to see all types of motion in one work. Also, not only is it just about the object, but also about having created a space is what I find so fascinating. Usually, sculptures are placed in an existing building, hence creating a certain space with its placement in a room. But for this motion picture work, I’ve also created a structure which is the wooden frame. The background is white with the sculpture practically in your face, so much so that the sculpture is really the main act. That’s why I believe there is no other motion picture work out there that is so sculpture-like.”
—Out of the two wooden pieces displayed on the second floor, one of them (“B-GIRL Down jacket NAGAME”) of a woman has been displayed at a previous exhibition, correct?
“That sculpture is from 2016. Even before that, I was in the process of creating the material, and I wanted the texture of the down jacket to be the same silhouette as the shape of the object. The pattern is not just a line – if you look closely, it’s actually pretty complex. It’s a continuation of upward and downward per block of material, and by creating the shapes it’s all connected by one line. Looking at it from a distance, it’s hard to notice the finer details, but that’s also what makes it unique.”
—How about the other sculpture (“B-BOY AllDown Quinacridone”) depicting a man?
“I made that one this year and exhibited it at group exhibitions held at Geidai and in Taiwan. I actually did something extremely tedious for that one. When you look at it from the side, there’s nothing horizontal about it, and the lines in the front and back are all displaced. The sculpture of the woman was made of all horizontal lines and was easier to create, but I made things difficult for myself with the sculpture of the man. At first glance, you might not notice it, but I feel that it is portrayed well in this work. It was a challenge for me and will be with me for a long time. Like a balloon, continuing to do the same thing just because it seems good now really shrinks your perspective on things. I basically have to continue inflating it. And when it explodes, I have to move on to the next. Repeating that process is so important. That kind of material aspect (= balloon) and mental aspect is the exact same and I have always found it so interesting how they connect. Like two sides of the same coin. Because Earth was created within this vast universe, the concept of “nothingness” was born. Nothingness exists because of what is. The concept of weightlessness or non-gravity in opposition to gravity is also two sides of the same coin. Everything is the same. I tend to talk about weird stuff like this (laughs).”
—In reality, there’s a philosophical element to your story, and your work is very conceptual.
“I don’t really read books but it really is [philosophical]. When creating sculptures, gravity always comes into the equation. Having to make something stand, or having to carry something, etc. That kind of talk comes up, generally speaking. When sculpting, the concept of gravity is inevitable.
—Has your thought process been like this since you started sculpting?
“It was drawing. During my second year at prep school, I transferred from the motion picture to sculpting major and also started drawing. While learning how to draw, I also learned how to properly think. Before that, I had only danced and played basketball so thinking just wasn’t something I did (laughs). At first, I assumed drawing would be a piece of cake and I had so much confidence in my skills, but when I was drawing a plaster figure, the instructor said, ‘Do you really think that’s good composition?’ He then proceeded to tell me that the face was too close to the screen and to redraw the whole thing. I tried so hard to fix the drawing without having to erase most of it but to no avail. In the end, I had to erase the entire drawing and start again from the composition. It turned out to be so much better after I did that. Fixing even a small portion of a drawing means moving everything else around. That’s when I became more intrigued by the depth of the art of drawing. When I was told that ‘everything is made from the surface,’ I had no idea what that meant. But that’s exactly how everything is. Even if something is round, it’s a group of surfaces put together.”
—That is true if you say it that way, but it’s hard to realize that in everyday life.
“Also, when drawing nudes, I was always told, ‘Imagine the bone structure inside’ or ‘think about where the most weight is’ or ‘look behind.’ At first, I didn’t know the answer to these questions, but once you take all this into consideration when doing the task, it completely changes everything. I realized all these things when drawing and that’s when I became a better thinker.”
—When you first started doing art, you were already thinking of sculpting the B-BOY, correct?
“That’s right. During prep school, I was attaching motors to them so they could do backspins or windmills. They were very light-weight ones made of paper clay, though. I also made clay animation when majoring in motion picture called ‘Brea-kin’ (the ‘kin’ at the end is a play on the Japanese word for bacteria) that is a movie on breakdancing. Clay animation is also connected with sculpting. After I started attending Geidai, anything I created in my free time was always based on the B-BOY motif. I decided to do wooden sculptures because of the level of difficulty. I didn’t think going the easy route with clay sculptures was for me. In contrast to the molding that is done with clay, carving sculptures made me a stronger person. Also, wooden B-BOY sculptures just don’t exist elsewhere. By treading the path with fewer people, you become stronger as a person. Wooden sculptures are also a huge part of Japanese culture. Even the equipment used to make them. In the end, all of these things are interconnected with the Japanese B-BOY concept.”
—How do you think wooden sculptures will evolve?
“Of course, I will continue to do what I’m doing now, but I’m so interested in scanning. The first time I did it was for ANA’s digital museum titled ‘IJC MUSEUM.’ At first, I was very opposed to the idea of scanning artwork, but I realized that it’s very similar to making a plaster cast for a sculpture. Thinking of it as a high-tech version of plaster casting made the concept more pleasing. I also wanted to make a bronze sculpture with the data I scanned. I use the same data from my soft vinyl creation for ‘SOFB BOY.’ As long as I have the scanned data, I can make creations of any size and it’s even possible to make creations with reversed data. If I spit out a wooden sculpture with scanned data, add some more carvings, scan it again and enlarge the size, I can make another original creation. By repeating this process, I can make even more creations from the original creation. It’s great to have a lot of originals, but that’s not my style. After I make one original, I like to take a break and just have fun (laughs). Also, to keep the balance, I like to move on to other projects like motion picture or drawing after finishing a sculpture.”
—There are only wooden sculptures and motion picture for this exhibition, but I hear you frequently draw as well.
“I’m actually compiling my drawings for a book. I plan to have it finished by the end of the year. There are different types of drawing, such as prep diagrams for my sculptures, or drawings done very quickly. You could say this is a reaction to my doing wooden sculptures because while I spend a lot of time creating the sculptures, I spend even less time with my drawings, at times only ten seconds per drawing. The movie I did for NIKE is just a slightly longer version of that. It did take a long time to make it but I just practiced for it once and went right into final take without thinking too much.”
—As you continue to create your masterpieces, will the B-BOY motif always be a part of them?
“I would like my audience to know that my work comes from B-BOY. The reason why I am a self-proclaimed ‘B-BOY Sculptor’ is to categorize myself and force myself to create only certain types of artwork, and also by categorizing myself, I want to grow even more and throw myself into my work. If I label myself as just a ‘sculptor,’ then it gives me an excuse to branch out and therefore becoming loose. I go by ‘B-BOY Sculptor’ on purpose to strictly categorize my work and then inflate. Not too unrelated to the balloon story earlier but if you don’t categorize yourself, you can’t ‘inflate’ and become more creative. But now, I’m ok with either. People know me now as what I want to be known. And if I keep emphasizing the B-BOY, I know it’s going to be annoying at some point.”
—Do you think you’ll branch out to incorporate other motifs into your work?
“I’ll only create artwork that has a connection to B-BOY, so I definitely won’t be doing something totally unrelated. This summer, SIDE CORE did an exhibition titled ‘PLAY OUTSIDE！- From Picnic to Skateboarding’ at the Ichihara Lakeside Museum, and I exhibited my motion picture work ‘Floating vegetables outside.’ I’ve been creating movies with floating objects for a while, and I was commissioned to create something more in depth. The museum is located in the countryside of Chiba Prefecture, so I thought, ‘What about using vegetables?’ What I’m actually doing for this movie is pretty simple, taken in one cut. Pantomime derives from dance, too. The weird feeling of vegetables floating in the air is the same as what I try to recreate through my sculptures. That’s why this work was a very sculpture-like, dance-like piece.”
—Is there anything you’d like to do or challenge yourself in the future?
“I’d love to do movies in the future. At first glance, it might seem like a normal movie but it’ll be very space-focused. Sculpting is all about space. That’s why it’s important to really make use of it well. For example, there’s a person in an empty space and even though it’s the same space, the feeling in the air changes when that person cries or laughs. I think that itself is so interesting and so movie-like. It’s a method of expression very unique for a sculptor so I’ve been thinking of creating an interesting movie utilizing this concept. Also, pottery. I’ve already presented my pottery in the past but I want to do more. Also, for the motion picture at this exhibition, I wanted to add sound effects, but recording sound was just too difficult this time. Eventually, I’d like to add more expression through sound. I also want to add even larger patterns in my motion pictures and sculptures in the future.”
【TAKU OBATA Links】
『HYPER LANDSCAPE KAZUKI UMEZAWA × TAKU OBATA』
Dates：Saturday, September 1st, 2018 ~ Sunday, December 2nd, 2018
Place：The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (3-7-6 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo)
Time：11:00 AM ～7:00 PM (open until 9:00 PM on Wednesdays) (Closed every Monday)
Admission Fee：Adult 1,000 yen / Student (under 25 years old) 800 yen
『RHYMESTER Utamaru & TAKU OBATA’s After 7 Junction ＠ The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art』
Date：Saturday, October 27th, 2018 from 7:00 PM
Guests：RHYMESTER Utamaru（Rapper, radio personality）／TAKU OBATA（Exhibition artist）
Entrance Fee：1,500 yen（Member discount available）
※ Please apply for the event in advance in order to participate. Check the museum website for details.
【SOFB BOY（RAW EDITION） Watari Museum Limited Edition Color】
＊The yellow version in the photo is currently sold out. The neon green version is scheduled to be released at the end of October.
Please contact the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art museum shop “On Sundays”（Tel: 03-3470-1424）
【Upcoming exhibitions ／events】
『Kigaku／XYLOLOGY-Origin and starting point-』
Dates：Saturday, October 27th, 2018 ~ Sunday, November 11th, 2018
Place：Former Residency of Hirakushi Denchu Atelier (2-26-3 Uenosakuragi, Taito-ku, Tokyo）
Time：1:00～6:00 PM (open every day during the exhibition)
Participating artists：Taku Obata、Yoshitoshi Kanemaki、Ayako Kita、Tadafumi Kobachi、Makoto Sasaki、Kanako Shirao、TENGAone、Yuuta Nakazato、Tsuneyoshi Nakamura、Shinya Nagashima、Kumiko Negami、Ai Haibara、HAROSHI、Fuyuki Maehara、Yuuki Murata
Dates：Sunday, October 28th, 2018 from 4:30 PM to 6:00 PM
Speakers：Torimega Lab/ Yuri Kawanishi, Takeshi Kudo, Takashi Murakami
Kigaku XYLOLOGY/ Taku Obata, Yoshitoki Kanemaki, Shinya Nagashima, Tsuneyoshi Nakamura
Participation fee：1,000 yen (capacity: 30 persons) ※ Please apply for the event in advance in order to participate.
＜Workshop “What is kawaii?”＞
Dates：Saturday, November 10th, 2018 from 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM / from 3:30 PM to 5:00 PM
Participation fee：100 yen (capacity: 10 persons) ※ Please apply for the event in advance in order to participate.
Participants will have an opportunity to create original artwork using wooden pieces.
＜To apply for the event＞
Please mail to XYLOLOGY office (email@example.com) writing down the desired dates of event, the name of participants, the number of participants, email address, and phone number.
『Tekkojima Fes 2018』※Will be participating as a part of the HIP-HOP Squadron B-BOYGER
Date：Sunday, November 4th, 2018
Time：11:00 AM～8:00 PM
Place：Ota-ku・4 event spaces in Keihinjima （Suda Iron Works／Sakai Stainless Second Factory／Kitajima Shibori Seisakusho／BUCKLE KÔBÔ, etc.）
Address：2-11-7, Keihinjima, Ota-ku, Tokyo（Suda Iron Works／BUCKLE KÔBÔ）
Entrance Fee：5,400 yen (pre-sale available)
Translated by Samantha Mariko
writer： Kiwamu Omae