Art as an antidote: artist duo Kyun-Chome discuss the fragility of the human condition and why we all need art

By Jessica Holtaway
Translation:  Kaori Homma

Kyun-Chome – Eri Homma and Nabuchi – are a collaborative artist duo who live and work in Tokyo.  Their work unravels social preconceptions and exposes ecological and political damage inflicted by, and on, society - but with a lightness of touch.  Darkly comedic but full of compassion, each artwork demands that we sustain sensitivity to others’ experiences.  Kyun-Chome don’t tell us how to respond, but they ask us to shift our focus from ourselves to ‘the other’, and to suspend judgement.

This summer, Kyun-Chome are in London for the Art Action UK 2016 residency.  The last two years have been busy and eventful for the artist duo – in 2014 they won the 17th Okamoto Taro Art Memorial Award for Contemporary Art, in 2015 they took part in the Tokyo Wonder Site residency in Berlin and this year they were hailed as one of Art Review’s ‘Future Greats’.  Their inaugural London exhibition Ain’t Got Time to Die, featuring new works from their UK residency, is now open at the Deptford X Project Space until May 21st.

Ain’t Got Time to Die features 6 moving image works, each exploring themes of personal and collective loss.  The shock and absurdity of disaster is explored through Wake Up! in which alarm clocks, set at different times to correspond to different historical events, are placed next to sleeping stray dogs. 
Wake Up! 2015 © Kyun-Chome
A number of pieces pieces respond directly to the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown of 2011 – in Do Not Enter the artists try to stop the sea sweeping onto the beach using barrier tape, and in The Story of Making Lies they teach members of displaced communities to use Photoshop, so that they can figuratively remove the road barriers that prevent them from returning to their homes.  The installation Time of the Sea and Time of the Town presents two hour glasses containing substances collected from irradiated areas: Time of the Sea is an hourglass containing particles of seaweed that the artists collected by diving down to the seabed next to the Fukushima Power Station; Time of the Town is an hourglass containing powdered rubble from abandoned buildings in Chernobyl.  These pieces indicate unimaginable scales of time.
Perhaps the most disquieting piece is Rhythm of Survive, a video-work that jumps between images of the artists collecting rope from a suicide site, Jukai forest, and images of the same material being used as a skipping rope in Tokyo.  This artwork, with its evocations of both childhood and mortality, uncomfortably reminds us of our liability to trip whilst trying to keep up with the rhythm of life. 

Rhythm of Survive, 2015 © Kyun-Chome

Finally, their newest work The Plough, created specifically for this exhibition, follows a constellation of migrants who, tied together at the ankles and holding torches in their mouths, link arms with each other and resolutely advance through the darkness of their surroundings.

This is an exhibition that doesn’t let us ignore unpleasant realities.  However, in a strangely playful and elegant way, it seems to reach out personally to each member of the audience and offer a tender kind of hope.

Here the artists speak about working collaboratively and how they understand the role of art in society:

First of all, congratulations on being listed as one of Art Review’s ‘Future Greats’ for 2016!  Your work often focuses on social and political issues in contemporary Japan.  How important is it for you to share your work with global audiences?

Most of our works are triggered by the disasters that have taken place in Japan. However, natural disasters and man made disasters can happen anywhere, at anytime, in the world. It is inevitable that each one of us will have to face despair at some point in our lives. In this sense, the issues we are dealing with is not so much related to "Japan and Disaster" but to the question "how do we live as humans?" This is not an issue we can discuss with specific reference to any nationality or race, but should be considered a global issue that has implications for the entire human race.

When and why did you start working together?

We started to work together in 2011, and for personal reasons.  Nabuchi had been ‘Hikikomori’ for 6 years, and was in a rather desperate state, where without collaborative interaction with Eri Homma, he might have gone over the edge. But we also recognised that by working together we could go beyond our own individual limitations, and create something much more potent and powerful.

Image © Kyun-Chome

What are some benefits and challenges of working collaboratively?

The positive aspect of working collaboratively is that when one of us is asleep, the other can continue working, so the work can develop further. Also when one of us thinks a work is OK but the other thinks it is not interesting enough, we then have to work harder to get to the point where both of us feel happy, so as a result our works get stronger.

The difficult aspect of working collaboratively is when we are at loggerheads. We then inevitably get to the point where we can sulk in silence for more than five hours before reaching a conclusion.  When this marathon-like stage arrives, especially when one of us is in a bad mood, it can be like hell. 

Your work combines comedy and tragedy in a very sensitive way.  One of the things I really like about your artworks is the absence of a specific moral message.  How does this ambiguity affect your audiences?

We think that when information becomes more concrete, we can become bound by specific information. Perhaps it is easy to repeat a mantra of  "Anti-War" or "World Peace", and highlighting the wretchedness of a specific war might not be too hard. However, we are interested in the issues behind those obvious moral messages. We are interested in the hidden aspects of human actions; the way we live, the beliefs we hold onto and the way our emotions sway from one side to another. News of war, or disasters we hear about from distant places, quickly becomes issues far removed from us, and can appear to be ‘other people's problems’. However the narratives of human behaviour are universal.  These narratives transcend time and place - even after thousands of years people might be able to relate to these narratives with their personal stories.

I am particularly interested in your work ‘Do Not Enter’, in which you try to stop the tides using ‘do not enter’ tape.  For me it provokes questions to do with the function of art; what does art actually do?  Can you tell us more about the role of art in Japan, particularly art that responds to the disasters of 2011?

Throughout history, Japan has experienced many tragedies. Considering the area is geologically prone to major earthquakes and tsunami, from now on, Japan will continue to face more tragedies. However, if we treat this itself as a tragedy, these incidents can only exist as archived parts of history. In other words, it will only remain as a data for future generations, but will not communicate the human impact and experience of these disasters. Therefore, art needs to go beyond the polarity of tragedy or comedy. We believe that art is a language beyond verbal language, and we feel that we need to further develop its communicative potential.