The Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi is renowned for his exceptional public art projects in which he merges the boundaries between the public and the private. Paradoxically, he achieves this by constructing temporary living or hotel rooms around the monuments of the world’s great cities including a living room for the Christopher Columbus statue in New York and a hotel room for the monument of Queen Victoria in Liverpool. In the following conversation, the artist speaks frankly about the various problems associated with the elitist world of art galleries he escaped from and his subsequent desire to make public art for everyone.

As an artist you’re known for your unconventional and exclusive site-specific art projects in which you enclose public artworks and other public objects in a temporary domestic environment. How did this idea first come into your head, and what’s the main idea behind your work?

The main thing that led to me exhibiting my work in open spaces can be traced back to the time when I was still an art student in Germany and I had an exhibition at a prestigious gallery in Cologne. The situation might have been different if it had taken place in New York or London, but in Cologne I was shocked to discover that, with the exception of the opening, the number of people visiting was very small. In addition to that, those who visited the gallery were all art collectors and people connected with the art industry.

Having realised this gap between the general public and the art world I decided to keep a distance from the scene not only to save my work from being reduced to a mere ornament for a limited audience but also to not get drowned in the ‘reality’ of the art scene. Or to put it another way, I wanted to say goodbye to a bunch of lukewarm, dull and over-protected art pieces that only have relevance within the white cube environment. It was almost an inevitable course of action that led me to step outside into the open air where people are bustling about.

However, you can’t just display your work outdoors. This straightforward approach is no different to showing your work in a museum or gallery. If you’re working outside, it’s much more exciting to maximize the mechanism of outdoor spaces. So I came up with an idea for an artwork which would work by transforming the quality of the whole outside space, which paradoxically resulted in creating an indoor room. That’s how the Swapping Outside and Inside and the Swapping Public and Private ideas came about.

Why did you choose to build domestic environments?

The first thing I had to do, when I’d just started working in public spaces, was to brainstorm how to make the public’s feet stop in front of the artwork during their shopping or on the way home. Audiences in public spaces are very different from those who visit art museums and galleries to see ‘art’. Therefore, I had to work out some strategic plans such as building a living room that people could relate and feel attached to. Those who saw my work might then start to develop a sense of strangeness towards their own living room after they got home.

How do you choose public objects for your projects?

Most of the time I select a monument because of where it’s standing and its external appearance rather than its historical background. The first impression of a monument is very important, with themes and concepts coming later. However, my interest is merely art itself, themes that many of my works have in common, such as ‘public and private’ and ‘exterior and interior’, are more important to me.

When I think about the interior of a room, the historical background of a monument may be needed, yet I’ve never deliberately chosen a monument to criticise a figure of the monument or the period of that time. To say something extreme, I’d say that the history of a monument is unnecessary. Of course, I understand that because of the history people understand my work with multiple perspectives, and I don’t mind if some people dig into my work from a historical perspective.

Interesting fact: you work under a variety of different names including Tatzu Nishi, Tatzu Oozu, and Tatsurou Bashi. Why is that? Are there any hidden meanings behind the names you choose for each project?

Ever since I was a student in Germany I’ve been changing my artist name every two-to-five years, and there are some reasons for that. One of the biggest reasons is its meaning as an artwork for the ‘exchanging project’. I’m calling it the Name Change Project. When I was a student, I discovered the key word ‘exchange’for an artwork idea. Just imagine if we could exchange the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad with the statue of Lincoln in Washington. With the concept of ‘Exchange’, varieties of things can become exchangeable. I can think of exchanging roles or exchanging places, but by that time I didn’t have enough money and my name was always something I could ‘change’ instantly.

In this year’s Kaunas Biennial you’ll present something interesting. Could you tell us a little hint about what it’s going to be and what you’d like to say to all those who are looking forward to it?

I believe contemporary art is about changing matters within everyday life according to the unique point of view of the artist and to suggest different ways of looking at the world. By seeing artworks they’ve never experienced before, allowing audiences to re-realise or discover the essence, people begin to notice them in their daily life too. This allows them to separate themselves from the stereotypical way of thinking, accumulated and fixed within their everyday lives, and allows them to see things more actively and freely. In other words, this is how people’s imagination could broaden. Places that stimulate the imagination shouldn’t only appear in books and museums, but also should be present in everyone’s daily life. An artwork shouldn’t just be for a selected group of reviewers and collectors because imagination is the only proof of man, and it’s with imagination alone that man can move forwards.


11th Kaunas Biennial THERE AND NOT THERE: (Im)possibility of a monument

15 09 2017 – 30 11 2017