The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Installations of the body and light  The art of Hiroaki Umeda
Installations of the body and light  The art of Hiroaki Umeda
You just mentioned about using drawing to work up an abstract image. Is there any larger concept of the overall work that precedes the drawing stage and sets the prerequisites for it?
Yes, there is. There is something that sets the larger initial framework for the things I want to express in the drawing stage, and I call that framework the work’s “concept.” At the risk of these concepts sounding irresponsibly broad, and I don’t believe they are, for example, in the case of Haptic the concept was “color” and in Accumulated Layout it was the tactile sense, in Adapting for Distortion it was perceptual illusion. I get inspirations for these concepts from everyday life and then I bring them to the stage in a form that embodies what I want to express [what has emerged in the drawings].

In Adapting for Distortion you use a video that includes a number of moving lines, which seemed to show a strong emphasis on visual effects.
I had strongly experienced the fact that dance is mainly viewed as a visual art. For example, thinking about how a dance form like ballet came to have the type of movement it does, I believe it resulted from an overriding concern for form, such as how to make the most beautiful [body] lines, or how to make the most beautiful combinations of vertical and horizontal lines. If that is true, it seemed to me that dance would be treated mainly as a visual art form. I even dislike watching dance on video and having my dance be watched on video, so I find it stressful knowing that dance is treated that way.
 Therefore, if it is being treated primarily from a visual standpoint, it seemed to me that as long as you controlled the visual aspect, anything could become dance. That is the kind of twisted viewpoint I came to think about. That led me to the idea of calling it visual performance from the start and bringing the visual to the forefront as the concept for my works. For example, I created the work DUO in which I have the real me dancing alongside a videotaped image of me dancing, which was a concept that came directly from that stressful aspect I had been feeling. I very much wanted to show the changes that take place when my actual physical body is transcribed into a video image. I wanted to show how something different emerges when one focuses on the visual and shows it as visual performance.
 Our society today is strongly influenced by the power of the media, to the point that people think everything that is broadcast [on the news] is real. But is it really? In media news high priority is placed on visual images, but is that really where the truth lies? I have a very strong tendency to question that and doubt it.

In that sense, I think Duo is successful. Despite the clear focus on the visual, we don’t know whether it is purely a visual work or if it actually hiding another deeper aspect that is also functioning in the work. The answer of course is left up to the audience and how they perceive the work individually. There may be people who read deeply into the work and others who feel some kind of metaphoric reference to the fictional and the real, or there may be others who simply enjoy the visual aspects of it. I believe that the fact that it contains such deep possibilities means that that the original plan for the work has been successful. However, even though we refer to it with the single word “visual,” there are actually many different forms of expression and artistic directions that fall under that description. Is there a particular direction that you are aiming in with the use of this visual approach?
 With regard to the visual, I am very interested in the function of the “eyes.” The eye is a receptor for light. For example, when we see you here before my eyes and when we see you on television, we recognize both as you, Ishii-san. That is something that causes me to question that recognition, and since I want to distill things down purely to the function of the eye as a light receptor, I choose to do things like using very abstract video images and manipulate the volumes of light. Also, since I am aiming in the direction visuals that do not elicit cerebral judgments about the information involved in the light perceived, but rather seek a more physical and primitive perception of the light, I most often use black & white.

The way you use sound is usually in continuing noise-type patterns. Do you have any specific concepts concerning sound?
With sound as well, I choose it on the basis of its physical qualities. Thus, for example, I eliminate any sort of melody as much as possible. Melody has a feeling that is close to verbalization for me, and that is not what I am looking for. I want to think of sound in terms of the vibration of air, or as a something physical.

Does that mean that you want to think of both the visual aspect and sound on the physical level, like myoelectrical reactions?
That’s right. What I often say recently is that, rather than looking at it as dance, I want the audience to experience the space. I am very much interested in the possibilities of bringing about a change within the people in the audience via the tension, the sound and the light of my stages. In other words, I’m interested in the possibilities of my performances as a stimulus to the audience. In fact, I think that is the reason why my performances are well received overseas. The fact that my works don’t cost much to produce and that I can perform them alone may also have something to do with it, but I believe also that the fact that my works are of a type that appeal to the audience on a physical level, it means that people can watch them without any special knowledge about the cultural background from which they have emerged.

I the creation of your works, is there anything in particular that you absolutely cannot compromise on?
That would be timing, the sense of time. According to my way of thinking, the way (and timing) in which variation and change occurs in the work is extremely important and can’t be compromised. It is really only moments of change that we perceive.

Considering the fact that you played soccer for so long and undoubtedly had your physical perceptions conditioned by soccer, as I listen to you I can’t help but feel that your dance has something in common with soccer. In soccer you can’t play well unless you are reacting with skillful timing to the changes taking place around you second by second. Rather than trying to dance skillfully or beautifully, it seems that your dance is a type of holistic performance in which our body is constantly reacting dynamically and with perfect timing to the changes in the taking place in the sound and light moment by moment. And because it has that holistic performance quality, it doesn’t really matter if it is called dance or not.
I don’t think in the usual dancer’s mindset, and I have the sense that I am not really a dancer type. And it is true that when I dance it is as physically demanding (and tiring) as playing soccer. And my dance may also have things in common with soccer in the sense that the ultimate aim is to score a goal no matter how you do it and it only matters if you are able to express what you want to express.

Your work while going to a condition has been performed by you many times all around the world. In such a case, artists often tend to get in a rut and lose inspiration performing the same thing over and over. But it seems to me that hasn’t happened in your case because, even though the main outline of the work remains the same, 80% of the movement is improvisation, which enables you to react with a fresh attitude and movement each time. In the case of soccer as well, although the rules and the team members are the same each time, every game brings completely different spaces and timing to react to, doesn’t it?
I feel that definitely to be true. I very much dislike setting the choreography to a point that it stops any new developments. I distinctly choose improvisation so that I have the freedom to react in real time to what I feel. However, there are times lately when I am bothered with the feeling that it is not really that smart [cool], but my soccer type sense of physical drive keeps me from quitting it (laughs).
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