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A Changeless Place


The artist on his portraits of disaster, invoking empathy, and Godzilla as “the loneliest guy in the world.”

Man, animal, and the elements: none are spared in artist Jave Yoshimoto’s scenes of technicolor wreckage. Outsized wildlife hint at a surreal eschatology, but a second look confirms that this is indubitably the present we inhabit, and, as disasters proliferate, increasingly our future. In the piece “Evanescent Encounter,” a man cleans pools of oil from the shore, under a bright red sky, as Godzilla watches haplessly from the water. An oil rig aflame in the ocean emits plumes of smoke that envelop a textual call and response: “Where would you possibly go? I am seeking a changeless place.” But no such place exists in Yoshimoto’s paper tableaus.

Yoshimoto captures cities in the aftermath of natural and manmade disasters using scale and a flat graphic style, which he characterizes as easily digestible, the better to rouse viewers to action. He bridles against a flavor-of-the-moment approach to catastrophe and disaster relief, and seeks to create an awareness of the destruction that persists in locales ranging from Fukushima to New Orleans. These are works—some small and others monumental, as the thirty-foot painting that captures Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami—of struggle and also of survival. Yoshimoto, a trained art therapist, means to create links of empathy—between audiences and the subjects of his pieces, and between the world and himself.

Born in Japan to a Chinese family, Yoshimoto draws often on Japanese woodblock printing, manga, and Godzilla; the prehistoric monster recurs as the artist’s surrogate. But he is quick to point to the obliqueness of his personal connection to Japan and Japanese art, which might account for the balance of homage and subversion in his work. In Japan, Yoshimoto was singled out as “the Chinese kid,” before immigrating to San Francisco as a child, where other children of Chinese descent referred to him as “the kid from Japan.” Claiming to have cultivated an aesthetic that is more “true to [himself]” than the “Western training” he has received (he has studied and worked across the United States), Yoshimoto seems to be in constant contention with his public and private selves. To behold the roving, Japanese-influenced landscapes of an artist who does not know quite where to place his Japanese-ness is to consider the push-pull of belonging and estrangement, and the arrival at locative specificity by way of dislocation.

When asked if his brand of modern disaster art is also in some way a prophecy, Yoshimoto disavows an apocalyptic future; he is something of an optimist. “It’s hard to think about because I don’t want the world to be dystopic,” he says of the prospective implications of the scenes he depicts. His belief is in the strength of the human spirit, which he hopes his work both depicts and elicits, and in the possibility of a course correction for a world that, as yet, spins madly on.

When we spoke over Skype, Yoshimoto had just arrived in Portland following a residency in rural Oregon. He is due to continue traveling over the summer, to Nepal and the Greek island of Lesbos, where he plans to paint stories gleaned from earthquake survivors and Syrian refugees, respectively, and continue to represent citizenry of the everywhere and nowhere. His cityscapes invoke place to evoke placelessness and, above all, the need for connection. But, he tells me, he takes these trips mostly to search for himself.

Jill J. Tan for Guernica

Guernica: Where does your interest in natural disasters and their aftermath stem from?

Jave Yoshimoto: I was in graduate school in 2011 when the Fukushima disaster happened. I was originally born in Japan, so that was my only connection; I was never near any of the regions where it happened, but it shook me, no pun intended, and I wanted to do something about it. People were creating pop-up charities but I felt like I could do something with my own skill sets and talent, and do something different. I had this thirty-foot-long piece of paper and I wanted to do something with it, so I went into residency and started painting. Initially it was going to be seven or eight feet, but people in residency came over and suggested I paint the whole thing. I wanted to capture as many catastrophes as possible but also capture some of the hope and rebuilding that is possible with the human spirit. After that painting was done, 328 days later, I had a show in Manhattan and I made a bunch of small reproduction prints which I sold, donating the profits to a charity in Japan that funds art classes for kids, to help them recover. From there I did a piece on the debris washing up in Seattle, and I wanted to touch on other disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy.

I was inspired by Japanese woodblock prints because I was born in Japan and wanted to pay homage to my cultural heritage. Though I don’t think I’m exactly like [those artists]; I have my own style, which is a mix of graphic design, woodblock print, and is almost comic, manga-like. That’s what people tell me. I think it’s easier to read an image when it’s nice and flat as opposed to photorealism, in which our eyes must work harder to read. So it’s kind of a nice way to capture people’s eyes and hold them there, too.

Guernica: Can you speak more about bringing together tradition and pop culture in these landscapes?

Jave Yoshimoto: I am who I am because of where I come from, but also because of what is happening to me today, because of these flashes of the lowbrow. I am trying to find a mix of both when it comes to composition.

I think it’s worth caring about the human spirit; we can overcome any adversity if we choose to.

Guernica: I heard that you’re going to Nepal this summer to study the impact of the earthquake on urban centers. Can you tell me more about this project?

Jave Yoshimoto: I got this grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation in New York to go interview people recovering from the earthquake in Nepal last year. From what I hear they haven’t rebuilt everything yet, so I want to see the infrastructure, I want to see how people are getting by, I want to talk to the humanitarian workers to see what’s been going on. There was another small quake in Nepal recently as well; I have a friend there who has built this power box for houses and wants to distribute them to people in small villages. I want to go follow up with what they’re doing and if it’s working. It’s just a bunch of stories, right?

I am also doing a second project where I will go to Lesbos Island in Greece, and I am going to interview Syrian refugees to get some ground-level, first-hand stories that you don’t normally see in the news. I want to get all these data and come back and make paintings and share the stories here. I think it’s worth caring about the human spirit; we can overcome any adversity if we choose to.

Guernica: You were born to a Chinese family in Japan and then immigrated to the US, where you have lived in several different states. Do you consider yourself a citizen of a particular place, and how is this reflected in your craft?

Jave Yoshimoto: I never felt like I fit in anywhere so I always felt like an outsider; in Japan I was picked on for being the Chinese kid, and when I first moved to the US I moved to San Francisco, where I was surrounded by a lot of Chinese kids, but because I was from Japan and had a Japanese last name, they called me “the Japanese kid.” Since moving out of California, I’ve lived in the Midwest and upstate New York, and I’ve always been attacked by stereotyping and racism, even if people don’t necessarily mean it. It hurts, but I have to explain to people that that’s not exactly how it is. I’ve never really felt like I belonged anywhere, so my travels are about me searching for something, which is why I painted the Godzilla series. In the movies, wherever Godzilla goes, he gets attacked, so I imagine he’s the loneliest guy in the world. I’m basically painting myself as Godzilla traveling to different parts of the country. And then the Godzilla series turned into the disaster series. Godzilla has now become my compositional signature rather than a tool to send a message. It’s also more accessible because people see Godzilla and think it’s funny. But when they actually look closer at my paintings they realize this is serious stuff.

I moved to the US when I was a kid so I would say I am a very Western-trained artist, but I have chosen this style to uniquely identify myself because I feel like this is more true to me and I don’t feel like I’m copying anyone else. It’s a process. I feel like now I am not so worried about, “Oh, can I paint super photorealistically or can I be famous like Jeff Koons?” I am more concerned with sincerity and authenticity and whether the work represents what I believe in.

Guernica: What are some other of your influences?

Jave Yoshimoto: An unintended influence was learning through academia and art history which artists had been financially successful, but it felt very insincere to me. It made me feel like I was part of a system, a commodity for rich people, rather than making art from a genuine, personal place. It just felt like shopping at a highly exclusive department store that no one can afford. For me, art is a communication tool—that was my takeaway from graduate school.

I am also inspired by my fellow artists who are trying to make it work out there, trying not to get discouraged when they don’t get to show, and keep plugging away. Ultimately I think it’s about perseverance.

Guernica: Have you tried to put your work in dialogue with other artists whose works touch on the natural and nuclear disasters in Japan?

Jave Yoshimoto: I tried reaching out but no one really got back to me. I’m not sure if I fit in as a Japanese artist because of my Chinese background. I’ve been in a show about nuclear disaster in Chicago called Chernobyl at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, and I was the only Asian artist there. So that was more about the common subject matter. But I would like to engage more with works about Fukushima and the tsunami if the opportunity comes, for sure.

Because I moved around so much and still don’t know who I am, being labeled as an Asian-American artist is hard for me sometimes. That sets a ceiling for my career that I don’t necessarily want to hit—I want to go as far as I can. I feel like the stereotypes that people may hold, intended or not, lead to certain limitations.

Guernica: What kinds of stereotypes do you think people may hold about Asian-American artists?

Jave Yoshimoto: I looked at some artists like Roger Shimomura and Masami Teraoka, who borrow from Japanese traditional painting aesthetics. [Teraoka] did a series called Mcdonald’s Hamburgers Invading Japan. Again, very contemporary, but culturally relatable to both countries, and also very similar in aesthetic. Maybe if people see that, they don’t expect you to do anything else. Teraoka has decided to start painting Italian-style paintings now. And I think he should be allowed to paint whatever he wants.

When I worked with refugees and immigrants there was a language barrier most of the time, so instead of us trying to talk, they could draw.

Guernica: Do you foresee your previous aesthetic carrying over to your planned projects in Nepal and Greece this summer?

Jave Yoshimoto: The location will definitely affect the way I work. I will still paint in my very flat manner, but I want to be inspired by any Nepalese traditional art or architecture and see how it will influence my composition. With the Syrian refugee pieces I want to be influenced by Greek art and any Syrian art that I can think of through history. It will [invoke] those things but still be within my style—it won’t be a complete jump but it’ll be a transition.

Guernica: You have a master’s degree in art therapy in addition to your degrees in studio art. How has your practice been influenced by your work in the mental health profession? What made you get into art therapy?

Jave Yoshimoto: When I was an undergraduate I started working with homeless shelters and women’s groups and adolescents with mental disabilities. Everyone that I’ve worked with has wanted their stories to be heard and to be appreciated as individuals, and that’s where I started to feel like art has a bigger purpose than being self-serving. The whole process of art-making can be a little narcissistic, and I think that art can not only help to communicate, it can help others heal. I believe in that process because I’ve experienced it myself, which is how I got into art therapy. That was great, because when I worked with refugees and immigrants there was a language barrier most of the time, so instead of us trying to talk, they could draw, and it was much faster in establishing trust in the space when I’m just there watching them make things. I’m not there to teach them how to draw, I’m just there to help them get out what it is that they are feeling. And when I saw that power, that was when I wanted to cut the bullshit out of academic art and apply it to my own work. I wanted to make something that I knew I had to make.

Guernica: How do you relate to trauma in your work?

Jave Yoshimoto: I had a pretty tough childhood where I was homeless and came from an abusive family, so I know and can empathize with pain. When I am creating these images, I am trying to empathize with the plight of others, but I am also trying to heal myself from having seen these images, knowing that people are helpless, and being unable to do anything about it. Healing for myself and others is what I am aiming for, especially when I will be working with people in Nepal and the Syrian refugees in Greece.

Guernica: Are you planning to include an art therapy component in your work in Nepal and Greece?

Jave Yoshimoto: No, it will just be interviews. I don’t think it is my place to enforce any Western art healing methods when it is not asked [of me]. Nobody wants it shoved down their throats. To empower their stories I think I just have to be there to listen and capture, and share them back in the US.

Guernica: As these disasters become more and more common, do you think we are increasingly coming to them with indifference and forgetting them rapidly? How do social memory and amnesia play into your work?

Jave Yoshimoto: Ultimately I want people to feel touched and to empathize with the stories told, enough that they will hopefully take action to give back to these affected cities, be it Kathmandu or smaller villages, or even Sendai, Japan, where they are still working on reconstruction. The news cycle moves so quickly; even if we read about tragedy today, we may forget about it tomorrow. I hope my work is a reminder to pay attention. Like New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina—there are still houses to be built and people who are still suffering. It’s been eleven years, and it’s pretty sad that we forget so quickly. So it’s really a reminder to have hearts and give back.

Maybe it is not what people want to see but it is what they need to see.

Guernica: Do you see commonalities between the various disasters you have painted and hope to portray?

Jave Yoshimoto: With natural disasters, or any disasters, we are never prepared. If this continues it will be more of a dystopic landscape. Will we have cities that are beautiful and shiny? Probably not. We will have a whole bunch of cities that are crumbled, that do not get a chance to be rebuilt, and are forgotten about. It’s hard to think about because I don’t want the world to be dystopic. I think, though, that I am painting the world as is rather than the future—maybe it is not what people want to see but it is what they need to see.

Guernica: How do modern-day media influence your pieces?

Jave Yoshimoto: I started to make reference to modern-day icons like Google Map pins or Snapchat and Instagram in order to poke at the idea that this is how we see the world, and to question if people are really paying attention. The painting I am working on is about Syrian refugees and there are a lot of Instagram images of refugees swimming for their lives or drowning. In a way I am critiquing how we look at the news on our phones and computers. Hopefully it triggers the audience to examine how they look at things but doesn’t offer a solution, either. I want people to come to their own interpretations and conclusions about what has to be done. If I tell too much, people may dismiss it, but if I tell too little, people will be confused.

Guernica: Beyond physical wreckage, does your work address the sociological dimension of disasters?

Jave Yoshimoto: We, governments and scientists included, do things without thinking. We don’t have safeguards when things we construct like power plants fail. We didn’t learn when it happened in Chernobyl and we didn’t learn when it happened in Fukushima. Radiation is still seeping into the water every single day; that’s a pretty scary thing. We put on blinders when things are working well but we don’t think about consequences or risks. That’s my critique about needing to be more socially responsible as a society.

Guernica: In the piece “Evanescent Encounter,” you ask and answer a question: “Where would you possibly go? I am seeking a changeless place.” Can you talk about what this means?

Jave Yoshimoto: I don’t remember exactly where this passage is from, but those lines were taken from a conversation between two monks at a temple. One decided to leave because he felt that what was happening in the temple wasn’t good enough for him; he wanted to find a place that was more stable and never changes. The irony is that there is no such thing. I was attracted to those two lines because that is what is happening in the world right now—everything is changing and we are having to constantly adjust to that.

Guernica: Have there been any particularly memorable responses to your work?

Jave Yoshimoto: When I showed in Manhattan, dancers from the Yuko Takahashi Dance Company from Sendai, where the earthquake hit, were very touched. The owner started to cry and wanted to name their dance piece after my scroll, “Baptism of Concrete Estuary.” I’ve traveled around with the piece since. Recently, in Tulsa, a man was brought to tears and decided he was going to give me $10,000 through the gallery to support my project with Syrian refugees. It’s such a huge gesture which I did not expect. I don’t sell my paintings at all; instead I use them as a touring exhibition tool, so galleries sometimes do not want to work with me because they are more interested in selling. But I have a very strict philosophy that my work needs to be shown together to make an impact. To actually get financial help and continue my project was very surprising. This support is the most I can ask for as an artist.

Guernica: You’ve talked about one series of your work evolving into another. How do you determine when you’ve satisfactorily addressed a subject or locale before transitioning to another?

Jave Yoshimoto: With the scroll, I read and watched as much news as I could, collecting hundreds of images. I had to go over it in my head—what would go together, what would make it more seamless. It’s just about gathering more data and I don’t know when the cut-off point happens until I feel I have too much information. Then I filter through and pick the highlights. I imagine this will be what it will be like with the Syrian refugee project, because I will be collecting so much data and so many stories. What do I do with them? Do I maybe use them for an Internet radio story? Do I put up a blog? Or can I turn it all into a painting? Maybe it could be all these things. I’m definitely open to the possibility of it being more than just a painting, using different ways to reach out to different people. Not everyone is going to respond to a painting and that’s fine. Gallery-goers are very specific people. They may not be very interested in social issues, so I’m hoping to bring that into the gallery space, too.

Guernica: Do you anticipate reacting differently to the first-hand data you’ll gather this summer, as opposed to information you have read or watched?

Jave Yoshimoto: Though I had never been to Fukushima, when I felt how much it triggered inside of me just from hearing about it, I knew I had to act. But I have not yet experienced that personally. Wanting to pursue these projects in Nepal and Greece has come from realizing the limitation of my work—my information has all come filtered through media outlets, and I felt it wasn’t sincere enough. These weren’t their stories. I want to see for myself.

Guernica: Do you hope to show your completed work in the places in Nepal and Greece where you’ll conduct interviews?

Jave Yoshimoto: I think that would be ideal. Maybe I could also use the Internet to reach out to places I am not able to go [back] to. But I think if I were to go back, maybe I could visit places without access [to the Internet] and start those conversations there. One of the things I’m concerned about is that if I capture their stories in a log or painting, it may re-trigger their trauma. That would be the adverse effect of what I intend to do. So I need to be highly sensitive to and aware of this. I don’t want to be using their stories as an exposé—that’s the most disrespectful kind of art. That’s a balancing act I must manage.

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