|Did the “Vanishing Points” exhibition that you held at the gallery P-House in Roppongi, Tokyo also begin in the same way from a single image that came to you?
That was also a case where the image suddenly came to me about a month before the exhibit. It was a time in my life when I had been living a rather reclusive life in Tsukuba and rarely having contact with people. The place where I had been living for about three years was rather secluded with few houses around. When I came back to Tokyo I was intending to do something [in the art world] but I hadn’t decided what exactly I would do. I am basically one who prefers to have other people decide things for me, and I thought that if I just hung around for a while someone would decide things. The first one to come to me with an offer was Takaaki Akita of P-House. So, it was decided that I would do an exhibition. If it had been someone from the theater world who had made me an offer first I would probably have begun doing theater first.
About a month before the exhibition was scheduled to open, I woke up one morning and was washing my face when I had the thought, “I should put myself in a box for this [exhibition].” I have no idea why I thought that. Perhaps it was based on the fact that I had once been interested in mummy (Buddhist monks who confine themselves to a hole in the ground or cave before death and end their lives in a state of meditation and the body goes on to become naturally mummified) and done some study about it. But at the time this exhibition idea came to me I had long forgotten about mummy.
In fact, you put yourself in a box with a minimum ration of food and water and the box was displayed with yourself inside at the gallery. No one who came to the exhibition could see you inside the box but they could knock on it and call to you inside. Can you tell us what you experienced in that box, at least to the degree that you are able or willing to? It was certainly completely dark inside, wasn’t it?
Yes, complete darkness. In order to keep my caloric consumption to a minimum, I just lay down most of the time. I was awake but lying down all the time. There was no particular reason for the 24-day length of the stay in the box, other than the fact that 24 days was the period the organizers had given me for my exhibition. In the early stages there was a strong sense of fear involved and around the 12th day it was quite difficult being confined in the box like that. But since there was also a feeling that I had reached the halfway point, it became easier after that I just spent my time counting the days and thinking about a variety of things. I limited energy intake to about 128 kilocalories a day, which is pretty close to the limit when you consider base metabolism. As a result, my bowel movements and such stopped very soon after entering the box.
With the body being thrown into this extraordinary condition, there were times when I felt that I might go over the edge and die. It was as if I was suddenly confronted with the extreme decision of, “What should I do? Can I just let myself die like this?” I don’t think this is a decision that can be made purely in the head, but the feeling that I was facing that decision came, and I believe it was on the 12th day or so. It felt like a temptation to just let myself die that way. But I was still able to think rationally, so I was able to stop myself. I thought it would be a terrible imposition on everyone involved [if I died], or that there would be people I would anger by letting myself die that way.
By the time I had passed the halfway point, however, I had made the decision to keep living, and I found myself deciding that I wanted to have children, which showed that I was beginning to use the circuits of thought of someone who intended to live normally.
The doctor I consulted had told me that I might be in trouble if I didn’t consume more a liter of water a day, but I found myself only desiring to drink about 250 cc a day, and I had no problem living on that amount. I wasn’t forcing myself to limit it to that amount, and I was prepared to drink much more if I needed to. I just didn’t feel a desire to drink more. My body was in a self-protective mode and I felt as if my body had become transparent. Also, in the complete darkness I lost the sense of time.
In complete darkness you also lose any sense of color, don’t you?
Black is a concept in the head, and I found that it is eventually a relative concept, because after I had been in the box for a while I lost the sense of black as a color. What was it I felt? Can I say that in contrast I sensed the generation of a very white light? There was no difference anymore between the generation of light and darkness, to the point that I no longer could tell one from the other at all.
From some point in the 24 days I began to be extremely aware of the sound of cicadas singing. It was summer at the time and every time the gallery door opened and someone came in, there would be a rush of the sound of cicadas coming in too. I believe it must have been partly due to the extreme state my body was in, but all the sounds felt as if they were assaulting my body and the sound of the cicadas in particular was so overwhelming that I almost couldn’t tell what was happening. The call of the cicada is actually the mating call of the male. And, although this may be after-the-fact reasoning, it can be said that the busy commercial area of Roppongi in Tokyo where the gallery is located, is a place where the natural environment is almost completely destroyed and must therefore be a very severe environment for the cicadas to live in. Nonetheless, the mating call means that the cicadas are still trying to leave a next generation, doesn’t it? And, doesn’t the desire to leave offspring imply the judgment that it is a place worth living in? That realization truly left a strong impression on me, and I feel that it changed something in me.
Gradually I also began to have something like a sense when people were around in the daytime and the feeling that they were there for me. But at first, when people would knock on the box it was annoying and a real bother for me. After I went through that change, however, I was able to appreciate it as a form of contact and be happy to receive it.
Reading your blog at the time, you said that you didn’t want people to see your “Vanishing Points” performance as god-like act on the order of a mummification. You said that at the end you wanted to surprise everyone by coming out of the box happy and healthy.
That’s right. I had taken some medicinal alcohol in with me from the beginning for the purpose of wiping my body clean, and before I came out I was very careful to clean myself well. And when it was about time to come out, I found that my hand was forming the shape that a sushi chef uses to make sushi. So, I thought to myself that I must want to eat sushi when I get out (laughs). Before that, as I was nearing the end of the stay in the box, I had been doing some image training of myself going to eat Peking duck when I got out.
It seems to me that, thematically, the act of displaying yourself shut up in a box involves the question of human communication.
Yes. The things I do always have things going on at a number of different levels. For example, although it is an act of exhibition, the viewers can’t see me from outside the box, can they? Although it is written that I am inside the box, that is only information communicated by words that may in fact be a lie, and in fact there were many people that did think it was a lie. And there were surely people who wanted to believe that at night I would come out if I wanted to. Even if there was a list there of the things I had taken in the box with me, there was no way that people could verify if it was in fact true. For that reason, you could say that it was also an exhibition dealing with the question of “reality.”
As another example, there was a time when I exhibited some HIV infected blood with a notice saying “This virus cannot be transmitted by airborne infection.” The sample exhibited actually did contain the blood of an HIV-infected patient, but because it was simply written that way on the display card, viewers didn’t know if it was actually true or not. But when people read something like that it can induce a high level of fear, whereas if there were no notice they would think of it as nothing more than a fluid that looked very much like blood. It may be the same when a friend or family or co-worker makes some kind of a confession to you. But at a time like that, the judgment as to whether it is true or not is not made purely on the basis of those words but also peripheral nonverbal elements you sense may also make you feel that it is probably a lie. That is why I don’t want to do the kind of exhibition that states a concept.
In the case of the “Vanishing Points” exhibition, the only evidence that I was actually in the box would be the occasional shuffling sounds I made, so people might easily imagine someone or something was used to make shuffling sounds. And, in fact, that kind of device is often used in theater. There are devices to make people think that there is a person there, or that a person has died or that this person is in fact a ghost. So, I do a lot of thinking about the various ways that “reality” can be communicated, such as through the use of tricks and devices, or through the use of film or video, or by actually having a person present, or through the combination of words and having an actual person present.