Chikako Yamashiro’s Interview

《土の人》(2016/2017) 協力:あいちトリエンナーレ2016 ©︎ Chikako Yamashiro, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates 《土の人》(2016/2017) 協力:あいちトリエンナーレ2016 ©︎ Chikako Yamashiro, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates

Known for her photography and video practice that deals with her home region of Okinawa, the artist Chikako Yamashiro is part of the lineup for Kyoto Experiment 2018. Alongside an exhibition of her major video installation Mud Man, which was shown at Aichi Triennale 2016, she will premiere And I Go through You, a live performance developed from the earlier piece. The artist was interviewed about Mud Man, her new performance, and her interests in voice, language, and the legacy of memories of the Battle of Okinawa.

Interview on July 10, 2018 at Wacoal Study Hall Kyoto
Interviewer: Megumi Takashima (art and performing arts critic)

Megumi Takashima: Could we start by discussing the idea behind your new performance?

Chikako Yamashiro: My recent work has continued to explore the theme of voice. This began with Your voice came out through my throat (2009), which traced the testimony of an old man who experienced the Battle of Saipan, and which brought out the image of a voice incorporated into the body of the self. Until then, I had made performance works, but I realized that I needed the power of fiction in order to express what is inside my own body, and so transitioned into being a video artist. I’ve been making video works now for around ten years, but they are always a continuation of previous work and sequential in some way. Out of this sense of flesh attached to the voice inside a body came A Woman of the Butcher Shop (2012), followed by Mud Man, where the sense of voices further increased and became words that seemed almost like murmurs. There was a scene where poetry was recited and also a sense of wanting to restore one’s own speech.

©︎ Chikako Yamashiro, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates

In fact, I have already presented quasi-trial versions of the performance on two previous occasions. Last November, I participated in Teratotera Festival 2017: Neo-political—Our Festival, held in Mitaka in Tokyo, where I created a space simulating the experience of being in an air raid by adding the sound of gunshots made by a human beatbox to film footage of the Battle of Okinawa. This enjoyed a favorable response and I really felt the potential for sound. I could experience how the scene really transformed through the time showing the film footage without sound and the time with sound produced live by the body of the human beatbox. A re-edited version of this forms the first part of the new performance at Kyoto Experiment. The human beatbox artist Sh0h, an official Japanese champion, appears. We also performed together in the Mitaka version.

The second part features the hip hop artist Tokiii and will shift from the beat of the human beatbox to the lyrics of hip hop, from sound to words, while together thinking about what we can talk about. In my previous work, particularly Mud Man, it seems like the voices of people who are probably the dead can be heard reverberating. Since sound is the vibrations that drift through the air for a very short while until they reach the ear, there is probably sound that continues to drift if stretched like in slow motion, testing the sensitivity of the listener whether he or she is then able to catch that sound or not. I wanted to put this into the third part as “reverberating sound.” More concretely, it will feature DJ Shota and use a machine to make a loop of the previous human beatbox sounds and hip hop rapper’s words in order to make sound itself drift. I will also make video in a form that seems to resonate with the sound that drifts here. Is video footage not the carcass of the past, a time preserved? The video explores themes of flashbacks and war and eros. In terms of war and eros, I will resolve from now on how these two concepts are entangled inside me, so it’s rather difficult to put into words at present, but I plan to shoot in a cave. The cave is a space that feels like someone’s body, such as the throat or the cavities inside the body. Moreover, caves in Okinawa, which we call gama, are places where people fled to survive or where people committed mass suicide or killed their immediate family, and accordingly are unavoidable spaces when it comes to discussing life in Okinawa. I want to think about life connections while experiencing the DJ sounds and remixed video that forms a kind of flashback on a cave-like stage.

Eros is related to primordial desire in the sense of connecting life. For the fourth part, I am thinking of performing the last scene of Mud Man live with the sounds of clapping hands echoing as seeds sprout and flowers bloom. From a time preserved without the body, the fourth part will re-enact this last scene with performers actually surrounding the audience packed tightly into the venue, clapping like they are bursting open. It will be like they have jumped out of the video footage.

Now, of course, I face the challenge of how I can make all this happen. (Laughs) While things had previously somehow come together in the editing, I now have to make it work in an actual place. It’s a new challenge. I’m used to negotiating and arranging things with the crew during the production of a video work, but I’m aware that I’m weak when it comes to directing, since I’ve never made a feature-length film. With a film, you have your hands full with the shoot and don’t have time to take care of the actors, while with a stage performance, you have more time to work on these things together ahead of these moments that cannot be repeated ever again. I can gain such experience this time, which will also help me with the feature-length film I am thinking of making in the future. Actually, I have been studying at theater school in Okinawa since last year.

Takashima: You previously presented performances with the group Ramanokinawa, so I imagine you must have gained relevant experience then.

Yamashiro: What I take from that experience is the idea of, when doing a shoot, producing an image of the work from what I have experienced with my own body; the idea that I always want to experience it once for myself. For this project, though I am partly entrusting some of it to performers, I will still maintain the importance of the feeling that something cannot be trusted unless it has been grasped with my own physical senses. I’ve been told that this is a major difference from the stance of other directors. In my case, if I have the image of being underwater, then I have to get the license and dive myself or I can’t see the next scene. It’s a kind of documentary of imagined landscapes. It’s experience in order to see the next image. It’s like making a drawing. After drawing one line, you can see the next one—something like that.

Takashima: So you don’t start off with a precise structure.

Yamashiro: Right. I doubt things. “Really?” I ask myself. “Didn’t that just appear from somewhere without realizing it?” At that time, I trust more in what comes out intuitively and make changes straightaway. But when making something within a large system, things stop being flexible, so I always think like I need to be the groping for an approach.

Takashima: To return to Mud Man, there are many powerful scenes in it, but the scene where a human beatbox is placed over footage from the Battle of Okinawa was shocking. May I ask why you felt it was important to use an actual person’s voice, rather than a synthesized sound made by a machine?

Yamashiro: When talking about their experiences of the Battle of Okinawa, my grandparents often express themselves using sounds like “dadadada”—which is just like a human beatbox. Experiencing the fighting in Okinawa when they were about 20, my elderly grandparents are very talkative when speaking in the Okinawan language but struggle to explain things in Japanese, so rely instead on onomatopoeia and mimetic words.

Another reason is that the war scene from Mud Man is not meant to be expressing war itself but rather the old man with bulging eyes who has come out of the hole remembering his experience, in the role of the sole person who has experienced war. The young people whose faces later appear out of the hole together watch the war that is reflected on the screen inside the mind of the old man. Because it is footage from memory, it is the old man who is probably making the sounds. Long ago, what you could access through your own imagination could bring you closer to other people’s imaginations, right? As such, I adopted the sound of the human beatbox as the medium here. While it is somewhat contradictory, the footage was actually shot by the American side. Since we cannot see any of the scenery seen by the residents who were caught up in the fighting, it can only be footage left behind by the Americans. I think this is the complex process of recognizing one’s own history while intersecting with the Battle of Okinawa through the eyes of people who were at that time part of an enemy nation, whereby we later view footage shot by America and it is then that our history enters our minds, so I employed an approach of expressing this through a human beatbox from hip hop, which became established as part of our culture afterwards.

《土の人》 (2016/2017)
©︎ Chikako Yamashiro, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates

Also, American culture has now become established in Okinawa, and hip hop and human beatboxing are very popular with young people and important aspects of culture for conveying yourself through language. I thought that this element was significant as a sound that you can hear in Okinawa. In addition, when considering how to pass on memories, using sounds from familiar aspects of culture makes it more accessible for young people. So I used the approach for these various reasons.

Takashima: I see. In the second half, the human beatbox shifts from the sounds of gunshots to club dance music. Club culture also appears in your early piece Okinawa Graveyard Club (2004), in which contemporary dance music plays of footage of a traditional Ryukyuan grave, where you are shown single-mindedly dancing. I sensed the curious coexistence in this space of youth culture brought in from America and an old, waning Ryukyu culture.

You earlier said that all of your work is one continuing sequence and indeed they are connected in various kinds of ways. The theme of voices and passing on memory is also present in Virtual Inheritance (2008), while the voices of the dead resonating across time can be sensed in Sinking Voices, Red Breath (2010). After microphones bundled up like a bouquet are thrown into the sea, like an offering to the dead who sleep below the waves, bubbles begin to rise. In that work, breath appears as the bubbles of air, but we cannot hear what is being said. In your later work, in particular Mud Man, there is a sense that the breath sealed up inside the microphone becomes a concrete voice and reaches us as we watch the screen.

©︎ Chikako Yamashiro, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates

Yamashiro: Yes. And now I feel like I want to link things up with words. That’s why I need the abilities of the performers.

Takashima: Will you decide what will be said in the rap scene in consultation with the rapper?

Yamashiro: Yes. I will send him a text to provide inspiration but I don’t want to lead things too much. Rather, I want him to make something. The rapper Tokiii, who is from Okinawa and works today in Tokyo, has recently been thinking personally a lot about death and so was very interested in the theme of the reverberating voices of the dead.

Takashima: And what kind of text will you write?

Yamashiro: I am thinking that I will extract some text from a novel by the Okinawan writer Tami Sakiyama. Her novels are created out of sounds. Her most recent novel, Kuja Illusionary Travels, is about the dialogue with the dead, featuring a protagonist who is writing a book about the Battle of Okinawa and suddenly starts communicating with the dead, with the sounds of this communication filling the pages of the book as onomatopoeia.

She’s a novelist who is originally very sensitive to sound and comes from Koza, a rock music city that is today run down but was bustling during the Vietnam War when it was frequented by American soldiers. Wherever there’s a military base, it leads to a big gap between rich and poor. There might be a landowner, who can earn tens of millions of yen every year without working, and then next to them there might be very poor and orphaned children, brought up by their grandmothers, never going to school, and just hanging around. Sakiyama experienced adolescence at a time when there were many rapes around the time Okinawa was returned to Japanese sovereignty, so the subject matter of her novels is very dark. Through another person’s eyes, Okinawa is a charming resort place with blue seas and blue skies, but she writes about people shut up inside tiny apartments. TakeHip hop is no longer talked about as American culture; it’s become part of Okinawa and possesses a power as the language of the young. It’s my hope that someone who has become an artist from this context can intersect with Sakiyama’s text through this upcoming performance.

In addition, in the testimony from survivors of the Battle of Okinawa, people said that the sound of gunshots heard when trying to flee sounded like the beat of a paaranku. This is a large drum used in the eisa dance, so I thought this was very innovative of people to express the sounds of gunshots with a folk instrument. When I then asked the rapper what he thought, he said he would read up on it. In this way, I also research things during the creative process and, in a place that isn’t formal education, there seems to be a Battle of Okinawa that I share with these people between ten and 18 years younger than me.

Takashima: I would next like to ask you about women, the theme of Kyoto Experiment 2018. I think A Woman of the Butcher Shop was a work that quite directly dealt with femininity, but then with Seaweed Woman (2008), I had the sense that gender was being disturbed in the way that the titular character that you played was tangled up in the seaweed almost like she had a beard. What do you think about femininity and your own work?

©︎ Chikako Yamashiro, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates

Yamashiro: If I’m honest, some of what I did when I made it was unconscious. But I had in the past felt anger toward the male subjugation of women that we can sense in Okinawa and that was particularly present when I made Seaweed Woman. In A Woman of the Butcher Shop, there is a scene where a woman takes apart another woman, which was the image of taking apart my own body with my own hands and which brought with it a feeling of liberation. Like I just said, I had this image of the voices amplifying and flesh attaching, like this creaking from the inside of my body and another person destroying me; it was a terrible fear that I would be taken over. But after taking the body apart and tearing it up while making the work, I rather felt this sense of release, a comfortable feeling of living and interacting with others, of living together with the dead, and that having this sense through being born in Okinawa is a really good thing. But A Woman of the Butcher Shop became about portraying a male-female composition, so with Mud Man, I felt very strongly that I didn’t want to talk about femininity too much.

Takashima: In Mud Man, I rather had the sense that dichotomy schemata and boundaries were melting away, whereby Jeju Island and Okinawa seemed to mix together in the footage, and how acoustically the Japanese and Korean seemed to blend into one.

Yamashiro: I was conscious of that. But the sense that produced Mud Man is now all gone. It’s like, though the moist soil and mud still comes out, the soil is dry and cracks. So for my next work, I feel the urge to get wet, to be slippery, to return to the darkness. Doing so means I cannot help but express things through my own sense of eros, so my feminine sensibility will probably come out.

It’s perhaps possible that I made Mud Man too clear-cut. I heard that some people felt the last scene, where the clapping comes together in a single rhythm, was somewhat authoritarian. But another person also said that when the masses raise their voices to protest against the authority of the state, these voices only reach those in power when we speak as one and this can’t be called “authoritarian.” That made total sense to me. I’ve been many times to see the people protesting the military base development at Henoko Bay, but those voices will absolutely never reach those in power. In how it ends with the people speaking together affirmatively, Mud Man is easy to understand and also has a climax for the viewer. Next I want to want to pick up more ambiguous and detailed emotions, to express what is internal and can only be conveyed precisely through words.

Takashima: In the first half of Mud Man, part of a poem is used.

Yamashiro: Yes. I quoted from a poem by Yugo Nakazato, an Okinawan stage actor and poet.

Takashima: The scene in which the woman references Korean poetry felt very musical.

Yamashiro: I quoted poetry by anonymous poets dating back to before the Korean Peninsula was divided into North and South Korea, from a book edited by Shijong Kim. The poetry seems to be calling the stone, trees, and wind to wake up. In this way, I mixed up Korean poetry from the Joseon dynasty with the Okinawan language, treating these words rather as sounds when the performers said them.

Takashima: I think what distinguishes poetry from a novel is the sense of rhythm in the sounds. Do you ever try reading out loud?

Yamashiro: I read aloud in a quiet voice. Many of the poems I chose were ones whose sounds I liked. For example, the part bogo bogo bogo bogo is a play on words, implying both the sound of water as well as bogo, mother tongue. I am interested in the gap between poem and word and what happens in the shift from one to the other. When poetry completely becomes words, then it becomes normal and stops being interesting. Words, sound, rhythm, and then voice. The vibrations of a voice left from someone being there. I think it would be very interesting if this could come out in the performance. While it would then be the voice of a human beatbox, I hope those vibrations can feel real while evoking the past and without conveying a sense of his body. This is what I hope we can achieve in the performance.


  • Chikako Yamashiro, And I Go through You, 2018, Kyoto Art Center.

    Chikako Yamashiro

    『Mud Man (Exhibition)
    And I Go through You (Performance)』