interview by Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen
Fredi Fischli & Niels Olsen: You’ve said that your dreams are a significant source of inspiration for you. Have dreams been important to you since your childhood?
Keiichi Tanaami: For the most part I don’t remember my dreams from childhood. At a certain age, I began to keep records of my memories. The reality I experienced in my early childhood was overwhelming. Dead bodies lay in the streets, and just about everyone had an extreme case of dermatitis because of malnutrition.
FF & NO: You were nine years old during the bombing of Tokyo and when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. What kind of impact did the war have on your childhood?
KT: I was very young and I didn’t fully comprehend the current situation. I did experience the Great Tokyo Air Raid, which happened before Hiroshima. Several hundred bomber planes clouded the sky above Tokyo en masse and bombed the city. The sky was completely covered by the planes. For as long as I live, I will never forget the dazzling memory of what I saw through the tank full of goldfish that my grandfather kept as a hobby. At the time, he was cultivating telescope eye, ranchu and other large goldfish. As I fled for the bomb shelter, that fish tank was above my head, and I remember the goldfish and the bombs being so bright. Incoming B-29s would drop flares that lit up the city, so the first thing I saw was that brilliant light. The diffused reflection of the light off the scales of the goldfish and the fish tank was beautiful. It wasn’t so much a frightening experience as it was a beautiful one.
FF & NO: Those memories became powerful images and appear as a variety of motifs in your work. Blasts of colors and flashing lights have been a consistent theme in your art since your films made in the 1970s.
KT: Yes, this image is always in my mind.When I was young, there was no type of rehabilitation for the trauma that children endured in their experiences of the war. As a result, these images remain as extremely significant memories of my childhood. The film Crayon Angel (1975) in particular relates to those memories of World War II.
FF & NO: In addition to studying graphic design, you also painted. What sort of paintings did you make when you were young?
KT: Modern European artists like Picasso and Matisse were famous at the time, but I wasn’t interested in that sort of fine art. I was completely obsessed with American comic books. Subculture influenced me more than fine art.
FF & NO: Wasn’t it rare for a young person in Japan at that time to be so devoted to American subculture? Was it not considered socially taboo to immerse yourself in the culture of Japan’s former war opponent, America?
KT: Many students were politically anti-American, but I loved the American cities, architecture, landscapes and glamorous women that I saw in movies and comic books. I often went to the movie theater to watch American B movies.
FF & NO: What did you do after you finished college? When did you first go to America?
KT: I worked at a major advertising agency after I graduated, but two years later I became a freelance designer and illustrator. I went to New York for the first time in 1967. There, I came across experimental films by the effervescent artists of the time like Warhol, Jonas Mekas and Kenneth Anger, as well as the comic artist Robert Crumb. I was intensely inspired by their experimental, creative work. Also, Divine’s dodgy performance in the movie Pink Flamingos (1972), which I saw at a late showing, had a particularly shocking impact on me.
FF & NO: Besides your commercial work in graphic design and illustration, you have also made many video artworks, animated pieces and experimental films. Why did you decide to make films?
KT: When I was boy, I hung out at Meguro Palace, a movie theater that specialized in B movies. I have never felt as happy as I did when I was immersed in the movies there, enveloped in the darkness. I would watch cowboy westerns and Western action movies, Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, Popeye and other cartoons from morning until night, over and over. This was an era when there weren’t even picture books, so I would stand under the emergency light and scribble drawings in a small notebook and then go home to carefully color them in. My interest in moving things escalated, and I came up with a cruel game using my uncle’s cherished projector. I locked a live sparrow inside the projector and became completely absorbed in this unholy game, projecting the moving image of the sparrow onto the wall as it tore about in agony from the extreme heat, and finally burned to death. Perhaps it’s connected to the strong fascination I felt for that secret movie game that took place behind closed doors. In my paintings and drawings today, the thought of what would happen if I put it in motion becomes the major premise. I am always conscious, albeit unconsciously, of movement.
FF & NO: Were there places in Japan where you could show your films at the time?
KT: I showed my animation for the first time at the Animation Festival at So¯getsu Art Center in Akasaka, Tokyo in the mid-’60s. This sort of venue, where you could present new forms of media, was very valuable, and it was an important opportunity. 1972 was a time when young people weren’t interested in experimental movies. There were many days when there wasn’t a single audience member. People angrily demanded their money back, the receptionist quit and finally I stopped playing movies there. After that, the Image Forum Festival became an annual event and, little by little, the audience grew. Today I receive invites for screenings at international film festivals around the world almost every month, and I’ve juried film festivals in Norway and Germany. And something happened that was unimaginable to me back then: private collectors and museums began to acquire my animations and original pictures from the ’60s.
FF & NO: What sort of programs took place back then?
KT: My first film exhibition was “Keiichi Tanaami: Cinema Demonstration,” held in 1971 at the So¯getsu Art Center. It included mainly animations and seven or eight short programs that I created for the late night TV show 11PM. I only had one week to prepare, and worked a very tough schedule, drawing the five hundred or so original pictures by myself. I take pride in the way it turned out. Good-By Elvis And Usa, Good-By Marilyn, Commercial War and Flicker Love No. 1 were among the pieces, all shot in 1971. In 1975, “Far From Cinema-Film Exhibition/Keiichi Tanaami + Toshio Matsumoto” opened at the Seibu Theater, Tokyo. Matsumoto was a director known for his film Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), and was one of the forerunners of experimental film in Japan. It turned into an overwhelmingly busy year, as I made 4·Eyes, Shoot The Moon, Spectacle, Artificial Paradise, Human Events and WHY all in one fell swoop.
FF & NO: You command a variety of techniques, like using flashing, subliminal and repeated images. The trend toward those types of visual effects is often associated with the psychedelic experience.
KT: The term psychedelic is frequently used in writings on my work. I think the album jacket I designed for Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s (1967) is where that started, but I have never actually used any term like that myself. The monstrosity of the war I experienced as a child thoroughly wrecked my young mind and spirit, and I think I entered adulthood without ever regaining a normal perspective. The incoming flares in the dark, the ominous light of the firebombs, the searchlights that illuminated the bomber planes, the heat and pressure given off from the explosions — this hallucinatory drama that took place in the darkness was perhaps a sort of “psychedelic” for me. If there are people who get a hallucinatory or psychedelic sense from my paintings, perhaps that is based on the unimaginable experience of war. The light from the searchlights cutting through the bright red night sky left deep scars on my young eyes and heart.
FF & NO: What do the differences between the mediums of animation, experimental film, painting and sculpture mean to you? How are they different, and what significance do those differences have in your creative work?
KT: In my film Artificial Paradise (1975) I experiment with the process of taking photographs that had been decomposed into dots through the use of color designation and printmaking screens and making these the major motif of the filmmaking process. In other words, I incorporated the printing process of graphic design into filmmaking. I have several other film works in which I incorporated design
techniques, and I tried various different experiments with each. They are unlike the still image of a painting; with the addition of music and time, the range of expression widens, and you can attempt to challenge a variety of methods.
FF & NO: Were you a part of the art scene of the time? How was the feedback from museum curators and other artists regarding your work back then?
KT: The way people think about my overall mode of expression hasn’t changed a bit between then and now. Whenever I’m focused on one thing for a while, other genres start to look appealing. Maybe I have a short attention span, as I’m unable to stay focused for very long. I lived a life without any certain direction, swaying this way and that, in an era that approved of delving into one job in-depth, driving forward in a straight line, without so much as a glance in any other direction.
FF & NO: Lastly, what does the period of the ’60s and ’70s mean to you?
KT: It was for me, at any rate, a supremely stimulating and erotic period of time. Tatsumi Hijikata’s Ankoku-Butoh, Shu¯ji Terayama’s experimental plays, movies, paintings; all realms of art were immature, brimming with a green, untamed air. It wasn’t the best environment, but it stimulated my imagination, and was connected to me taking on the challenge of new media. Recently, a large number of my paintings, collages and animation negatives from the ’60s were discovered in my home’s warehouse. This group of works had lay dormant, unnoticed by anyone for almost fifty years, yet had a power to them, like they were new pieces, and I was very much moved by them despite the fact that I was the one who had made them.