Q&A with Sebastian Masuda

Q: Since the opening of 6%DokiDoki in 1995, you have explored your vision across stage, screen, and galleries worldwide. How has your understanding of kawaii evolved over the past two decades

A: Kawaii has spread all over the world and has created a global social phenomenon. Unfortunately, only the surface aspects have spread. The spirit of kawaii was left behind, which is very sad. In recent years, my mission is to bring back the core spirit of kawaii and reunite it with the superficial kawaii.

Q: While kawaii is generally translated to “cute” in English, you assert that this doesn’t quite cover the concept. What’s lost in this translation?

A: Kawaii is interpreted as cute in English, but kawaii cannot truly be translated to English. At present, kawaii equals cute, colorful, and childlike. However, the visual layer is only one element of kawaii culture. The most important element, the spirit of kawaii, is lost in the translation as “cute.” Kawaii is close to the spirit of the punk and the hippie, representing the fashion of rebellion against the present state of society.

Sebastian Masuda, Soda Blue from the series Colorful Rebellion, 2016. Ronin Gallery.
Sebastian Masuda, Soda Blue from the series Colorful Rebellion, 2016. Ronin Gallery.

Q: What do you mean by “colorful rebellion?” What are you rebelling against through your work?

A: The concept of “colorful rebellion” is a means of freeing oneself from the realities of our world. My work rebels against our era with no colors—colors that have been stripped away by terrorism, war, stressful societies, and meaningless life. The reintroduction of color frees us. It is better to be free.

Q: The individual elements that make up your collages—plastic toys, stuffed animals, doll furniture—carry connotations of childhood and innocence. Does nostalgia play a role in your work?

A: I am not aiming for nostalgia. In childhood, our world is filled with colors. As we grow into adulthood, the colors we used to see begin to disappear from our everyday life. My work does not look back to the colors of childhood. I’m producing the color with what is available now.

Sebastian Masuda, Peach from the series True Colors, 2015. Ronin Gallery.
Sebastian Masuda, Peach from the series True Colors, 2015. Ronin Gallery.

Q: Following your successful New York exhibition Colorful Rebellion: Seventh Nightmare many visitors noted a markedly dark undertone to your work. Is this a direction that you intend to pursue further? Is there a dark side of kawaii?

A: There is a reverse side to the superficial cuteness. Surely, I want to represent this dark, opposing side of kawaii. The two are inseparable, bound in their contrast; the beauty stands out when the dark side exists. I want to express them together.

Q: Have you noticed a different reception of your work abroad versus in Japan?

A: The reactions of Japan and of the rest of the world are completely different. Abroad, people do not hesitate to give their opinion even if it is their first time looking at art. The Japanese audience has a tendency to search for the explanation, to situate the work with the career and awards of the artist, and even depend on an evaluation by a third party before they determine the quality of an artwork.

Q: Who are your greatest artistic influences? Are there any working artists that you particularly admire?

A: Shuji Terayama and Yoko Ono.

Q: Ukiyo-e emerged as the popular art of the Edo period, offering its viewers the chance to shape and engage in a popular culture. These works provided a manifestation of the unique culture of the “the floating world.” Do you think kawaii provides a similar means of engaging in and expressing today’s contemporary culture?

A: The word kawaii works as an adhesive between our vast contemporary culture. It unites objects, fashion, and art from seemingly totally different genres. From Hello Kitty, to lunch boxes, to Harajuku fashion, all are connected by the kawaii.

Sebastian Masuda, Anger #1 from the series Emotion, 2016. Ronin Gallery.
Sebastian Masuda, Anger #1 from the series Emotion, 2016. Ronin Gallery.

Q: How do you perceive the discourse between contemporary art and pop culture? Is there a clear delineation between the two or are they inseparable?

A: There is a clear purpose of pop culture: to make the recipient happy with an easy-to-swallow message. Here, the end goal is audience satisfaction. In contemporary art, the work challenges the artist and the viewer, the important concern is how to emphasize your message. In other words, [in contemporary art] one must visualize the message and intention.

Q: Your ongoing project, Time After Time Capsule, consists of ten enormous kawaii time capsules that will be filled with items personalized by the inhabitants of ten cities worldwide. In 2020, each of these time capsules will return to Tokyo to be assembled into a sculpture for the Olympic games. In discussing this work, you’ve cited these interactive sculptures as a means of bringing people of many different backgrounds together. Is this an example of kawaii spirit at work?

A: Through this work I am experimenting with whether I can change the world by collecting global expressions of kawaii in one place. Each person has their own kawaii. My expression of kawaii is a microcosm of my favorite things. This is a purely personal expression; the evaluation of others does not intervene at all. In these time capsules, unique, personal kawaii spirits from around the world are collected and assembled. While the question of how these scattered time capsules will be collected is a big headache right now, this project captures the idea of participation and collaborative art. It’s a journey, with unseen paths, but this is also the best part of this project.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: Lately, I have been making large kawaii installation works to undo the [negative] emotions of the present. In the near future, I want to do a project which focuses on the power of madness that lurks beneath the kawaii to unleash the feelings of people. At first glance, it might appear kawaii, so to say, but I aim to consider the undercurrent of kawaii and compel the audience to experience an emotional response, whether they are happy, begin to cry, or become angry. I want to unhinge emotions and set them free.

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