Interview with Ryota Sato (director)
Matsushima Island Residency
C: Perhaps you can tell me when you first heard about Matsushima, and how it all started for you.
R: When I first heard about Matsushima, I heard it from my friend. We used to organise events together, like exhibitions and music events - this was about eight years ago. We started small, a group of friends started to gather for drinks and we’d chat about art and started to make exhibitions. It gradually started to become a little bit bigger. We started to have commissions from local business communities that asked us to organise something so the people can gather. So I proposed that we would make a tent that people could gather in. Then we landed this opportunity with an abandoned museum. A friend of ours asked us if we wanted to borrow that space and run a museum again. The owner of the house was kind enough to lend it to us for free for one year. We ran this space for two years. After two years I left to go to New York.
C: Where was the space?
R: In Shimotsu area. It was owned by a wealthy family who had lots of important collections of arts and crafts.
C: Oh that’s right, you showed us.
R: Yeah, and plates and old Japanese paintings and stuff. But they went bankrupt. So the building was empty. When we arrived, it was so sad that their storage was just gone. We wanted to fill it with contemporary art that might fill it and bring people and the community together again. So that was what we started. And then I left to New York, and when I came to visit for holidays, Kata told me “hey, we might be moving to Matsushima”.
C: That project?
R: That project, that’s right.
C: So the project continued whilst you were in New York?
R: Yeah, I guess so. And, I call it ours because I was involved in the beginning as well, and even though the place, the situation and people had shifted, we always considered this as one big project. Our names have changed to Matsushima Bunko Museum now, but our project has remained the same: to provide some kind of place where creative people can gather. And that has remained the same, that’s the only mission that we have, if we were to have any kind of mission. So that’s how we are now. At the beginning of this Fukiyade Museum, we called it Fukiyade Museum, the museum we were able to borrow for one year for free - at the beginning I told them, “we should not do this project because it’s going to cost us too much. The running cost of this museum will be insane.” And just as I predicted, in the second year they asked us to pay for the rent. It’s so cheeky, really.
C: Yeah they let you have one year and then say “actually…”
R: Yeah. So there was no way we would be able to pay it, you know. We had maybe five to ten people at the weekends, and there’s no way we can maintain that space.
C: What kind of events did you have there? Like exhibitions that you curated?
R: Exhibitions, workshops, I curated a show there, and I’ve had a lecture there before. And we had gathered, like drinks. Not only art related events but also some other cultural events as well. The local people appreciated it really well. They regarded us and welcomed us so much, because at that point anything was welcome. People had gone and they had a feeling that they’d been forgotten.
C: This is right nearby where there’s a recent cafe that’s been opened up right? And that seemed to be also very exciting in a similar way.
R: Yes, nothing has been happening for the last thirty years. Ever since the bridge was built, it’s been a decline of population, businesses, and everybody’s I guess happiness has been declining. Everybody had the impression that when the bridge was built, people would have come - more people would come - but the opposite has happened. And that shock, that trauma, has been haunting them for all these years. So, anything that is happening there, especially with young people, is welcome. They liked us very much, but we just, it couldn’t continue - there was no way that we could have continued. But because we did this unsustainable project, we landed this new opportunity on the island. I think Kata and people were talking about, or trying to convince bureaucracy, that we needed that building on the island from day one that we opened. Everybody kind of knew that it’s not going to last. That’s how we found it on this project on the island.
C: I remember when I first heard about Matsushima, it was from Jonatan and Lasse when they’d been in New York and met you at the Project Anywhere conference. And I was in Iceland at the time, so I was there looking after the school with Shan while they were away in New York. I think they came back and said that they’d met you. Somehow we had heard that you were there as well, presenting about this project. I heard that it was this impossible kind of museum project, and you spoke about it as if it were already - that it was going to be a failure. So I’m interested in what your interest is in that kind of preordained, failed project.
R: I think the strategy of Fukyage Museum was, and that’s why I’m convinced that this kind of stupidity would work in some good ways - just as I predicted Fukyagi Museum would fail, and it failed - but if we didn’t fail, we would never have landed on this new opportunity. So bigger failure would lead us to bigger opportunities. And we are convinced of that. Any stupid ideas are welcome, I thought. And the idea of the museum on the island - it’s a crazy idea. Nobody would come, we don’t have the infrastructure, you know. There’s the success of Benesse Island in Naoshima, where they curate Setouchi Triennale. They spent so much money. We’ve been speaking to a person who was working for their accounting department. They told me that for the last four times they have had the Triennale, even though millions of people came, they’re not making profits from that project. If they didn’t have the support from their mother company, who sells educational texts for kids, they would not be able to make this happen. So we kind of knew that there was no way we could make this sustainable, in terms of a business, so we would need some kind of funding. If we were going to fail, I thought we might as well have fun. I think my colleagues invited me because they just didn’t know what to do. When I joined them, I don’t really know what to do either, but I think it’s nice. We landed this opportunity first, just as Fukiyagi Museum, we really didn’t know what to do there. We were fortunate enough that people came and suggested what they wanted to do. It kind of worked - you know we asked people what they wanted to do and they curated a show, they curated drinking events, and it was fun and it worked - at least for a small community. We wanted to do the same and we expanded the idea so that we wouldn’t have any goals for the museum either, but rather we would invite people, artists, creative people and local communities to design and develop a goal together. So rather than us telling people “we want to do this, can you help us,” or have mutual benefits for museums and artists, we just invited people to tell us what they wanted to do, rather than telling them what we want to do. That’s how I envision this museum to be, but this is only the vision that I have, you know, Kata and Yamaguchi and Taka would have very different visions of what they see this museum as. I think it’s fine to have different ideas - we have so many communication problems, because we don’t have an agenda, or a concept, there are so many difficulties in telling people what we are and who we are.
C: There’s four of you at the moment?
R: Yeah, there’s four of us.
C: The architect, Taka and Kata, and yourself. And you don’t have clearly defined roles in this at the moment? Or did you determine you would each function?
R: Yeah we do - I mean Kata, on the paper, he is in charge. But none of us are really in charge. And i really like that, you know. There are some roles that we have developed naturally. So for example the Artist in Residence program - I promoted that idea, I wanted to do it, so I’m in charge. The school project, Kata is taking the lead in that department.
C: More like the workshops?
C: And the connection to the elementary school?
R: The Shimozu, no, we were trying to develop a different art school. Not only for the kids, but also for the adults as well. I think that’s going to happen this winter. But, yeah, we just do stuff that we want to do. Of course there are things that nobody wants to do, like cleaning and accounting types of jobs, admin stuff. But that kind of stuff we just all share the workload. And it’s been working ok so far.
C: I imagine it’s a difficult premise for a project or an organisation to propose to bureaucracy to receive funding. Did you describe it in a different way to them?
R: Again, convincing anyone is really difficult with what we do. Particularly with bureaucracy, because they like to hear a certain type of language from us. And they have a certain idea of who we are or who they want us to become. They have invested quite a lot of money, which is why we are not so free on some of the programs. But I guess I see it as trying to talk to a different kind of audience… this might not be a good analogy but you know, when you speak to kids you use a different kind of language. Even though you’re trying to say the same thing. And I think we have to do the same, you know. And they do admit that they don’t really know about how the art world functions, or how art institutions function
C: In a way that’s kind of a good thing right?
R: It’s a good thing. In a way I try to not educate them, but make them familiar with how other institutions are functioning. I’m fortunate that many of the bureaucracy staff are capable of listening to what we say, and understand that what we are proposing is not so alien to other cultural organisations. We use a similar language. The thing that I’ve been explaining now, I think it’s straightforward enough, you know?
C: I was thinking when you were talking about Naoshima and Setouchi Triennale, if they’re not making profits either, in a way that’s also a failed project, really, just on a bigger scale - more hidden or something. Would you consider that to be more of a ‘successful’ project? Perhaps it’s an interesting thought exercise in actually what is successful in terms on an organisation, or in terms of a project like this.
R: It’s a conversation that would go towards what success is for instiutiosn really. We welcome failure because through failure something unexpected will come to us. And we would really like that. Failure to them, because they have a business agenda, or have certain goals themselves, and they are really successful in terms of achieving their goal. They’re not successful in terms of making profit, but it’s not their goal, really. Their goal is to promote, ultimately, their sponsor. They’re really successful at doing that, and they’re gaining a lot by promoting the Benesse company, although they’re losing money, they’ve gained international reach of their name, for their development of art and culture.
C: Could you talk about the island itself and the special conditions of it? I know you’ve talked a lot about kind of how you see one of the residents on the island, Sagemi-san. Can you talk about how you interact with you and how she interacts with the project. How does it work and how is it a consideration for you?
R: It might be difficult for me to speak about her, because like you did with her, I had researched about the island, and I have heard about Sagemi-san from people. So I had fantasised about her already, and I’d been wanting to see the vision of what i have of Sagemi-san before I actually saw her. So my experiences have devleoped from my image of how she is, but by interacting with her I’m so surprised with how open she is to the proejct. I don’t think she understands that we are artists and we’re trying to make work on the island. I don’t think she fully grasps what that is, because to her what we do is very alien.
C: I mean it is to most people, I would say, in general, let alone for someone who’s lived for as many years as she has on this little island with very few other people.
R: Yes. When people come to her and say “I want to cut this grass, for me” it’s quite hard to understand why the fuck you want to come and cut the grass for free… you know but she’s so open, “yeah sure, you can do that, you can have all this stuff”. I really admire her openness.
C: Now after today, I think if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about Sagemi-san is that you just can’t make any assumptions about what she might be thinking or who she is even.
R: Exactly. My idea that maybe she might not understand what she do - maybe she understands what we do fully, but we just have a conception that she may not.
C: Mm hmm. Or you know, I guess there’s also a possibility of the museum performing a function for her as well, in that it allows her - she has this extra help, it allows her access to other things that maybe she wouldn’t otherwise have - so I think it definitely goes two ways. Can you talk about your idea of her as a ghost on the island? Or a queen?
R: I first thought that, all my colleagues said, when I asked if I could have beehives on there, or if I could have a farm, if I could plant this, if I could use the houses… everybody said “you have to ask Sagemi-san” - even though those probably don’t belong to her. They know that if Sagemi-san approves we can do anything. From that perspective I regarded her as a queen of the island. Everybody serves her because she is the one who lives there. Having a museum on the island, her and her husband are the only audience that we have. So if we can satisfy them, I thought our job would be easy. Our main purpose is to serve them. So from that perspective I have regarded her and her husband as the King and Queen. But as I work harder, Sagemi-san doesn’t really expect anything in return from us. She just likes being around us.
C: It seems she has this kind of curiosity as well, about what’s really going on, not too much, but a little bit.
R: Yeah, definitely. Because we’ve been cutting the grass around the school ground, we also don’t really finish the job that day, because she’ll continue thinking that that’s what is expected. And she wanted to help as well, but by her doing that we would help her to finish the job as well. It’s not like we are serving her, but she kind of helps us or she interacts with us and then we react to her reaction as well, you know?
C: Yeah, it’s kind of like this two-way motivation or something.
R: Yeah, and she keeps moving stuff, you know. Our stuff. I think her main reason is that she’s scared of fishermen coming in and taking our stuff. So she hides stuff. We often don’t know where things have gone.
C: Like what?
R: (laughs) For example, there is a screwtop on the outside water tap. You need that little thing to be able to turn the screw on for the water. One day it was gone and we were looking for it, we just didn’t know where it was. Sagemi-san came to us and said, you know, “because that thing was on the tap, I was scared that the fishermen would come and take it. So I’ve hidden it inside the washing machine.” And we were just leaving, so we said “yeah okay, thanks Sagemi-san, we’ll find it.” The next day we came and it wasn’t there. Sagemi-san was like “oh I’ve hidden it somewhere else because I thought that if the fishermen opened the washing machine he would see it, and it would be gone.” Now we don’t know where it is! Similar things have happened with other stuff as well! But it’s quite… cute. The other thing we thought she might be a ghost is like when Lasse was there, alone. He had been alone for quite a while. There were times where I wouldn’t see him for three or four days, so it’d only be him and Sagemi-san on the island.
C: You wouldn’t go there for a few days, or you’d go and you couldn’t find him?
R: No, I wouldn’t go there for a few days, because I’d just been occupied on the mainland and couldn’t get there. So he’d be there a few days alone in this very alien environment to him. Because Sagemi-san just keeps appearing from nowhere. Sometimes he would have the impression that she might not exist - he might be seeing a ghost. And I really liked that terminology a lot more than a queen, because that’s how she really acts. She doesn’t demand things, she doesn’t order things, she doesn’t do things for anybody.
C: Yeah, just a kind of presence. My feeling was that she just was - it’s like she just kind of had this sense. Not only is she an enigma with all these incredible stories and secrets like that she was a diver for mussels and oysters, a dancer in Tokyo… you know, all these different things. But also that she just sort of, I just liked to believe that she knew everything that was going on. And she did know! From my first interaction with her when I looked out the window from my bedroom, and she immediately turned around and looked up. And it happened a couple of times like this.
R: Wow, as if she knew that you were looking at her.
C: It was as if she had a sense that someone was there. Maybe from having that much time alone has made her hyper aware of other presences on the island.
R: I think Lasse had a thought that she keeps moving stuff because she notices all these small details on the island, and she moves them to make the island and herself feel comfortable. It was interesting, I interviewed Lasse as well. In his interview, when he first arrived at Matsushima he just didn’t really do anything for one week. He was just taking down notes on the pattern of the waves and tide, types of birds, when the chime plays at certain times. He was just noticing the patterns, and trying to adapt to the environment at Matsushima. But also he mentioned that he was letting the island accept his presence as well. I understand that as both on the isalnd itslef, but also from Sagemei-san’s point of view. Matsushima Island and Sagemi-san are like the same thing.
C: It’s such a unique circumstance. Can we talk a little about your work, and your own practice, and how you would see this project as part of that, or if it’s not at all it’s just something completely separate.
R: At the moment my practice is very separate from what I do on the island or with this organisation. I’m starting to not consider them as so separate anymore, just different projects. What I really want to do is, I really want to write something about the island.
C: Like a book?
R: Maybe like a book, but maybe like a love story. I think that’d be really nice.
C: that sounds great! Your background is in painting? What was your introduction to art?
R: installation probably.
C: I wanted to ask you before, because we were talking last week or something about there not being such a contemporary art scene in Japan. It’s more crafts and folk art. So what was your exposure to contemporary art? Did your parents encourage you, or was it something you came across at university?
R: I went to UK when I was sixteen, to go to boarding school. So I was pretty young then and I had more training in Western art history and theory than Japanese crafts and art. My practice is built on Western theory.
C: Then did you come back to Japan to study, or did you study art in the UK?
R: I finished my undergrad, and I just didn’t know what to do, so I came back to Japan. Then I started to work for this web developer. Somehow I started my own thing.
C: Web development?
R: Web, and design.
C: And that’s where your interest in product design I suppose comes from?
R: Yeah… and no. I really like making stuff. Whether it’s my work or a product. My desire for product design on this island is I think… I think it has the potential to have fun with people. When I speak to them they seem really excited. And I just want to have fun. I think we can make something nice. I don’t have anything other than that with this product design idea. I hope it will sell but if it doesn’t it doesn’t matter.
C: This is the tent project?
R: The tent project, yeah. We’re hoping to make some soaps and other stuff as well. And I’m hoping to develop a line of products related to fisherman’s nostalgia. Because there’s lots of that around here, fisherman-related objects and things. I would love to do that.
C: That sounds great. I reckon there’s a huge market for that.
R: Yeah, because there’s no fishermen anymore.
C: Yeah, but there’s so much paraphernalia around the sport. Or maybe there’s just less fish as well.
R: Things like fishing nets, fishing lures, fishing baits and fishing vests. I think those things are really cool.
C: It is it’s own craft in a way isn’t it? Like an art. Some of the individuals that have been quite obsessed with the sport, you could class them in a similar way like we talked about with Sagemi-san - kind of an artist that doesn’t know it, or think of themselves in that way, but definitely has the same sensibility. Maybe it goes hand-in-hand with finding something you can really obsess over.
R: Shan and I had an interesting conversation, because the land and sea are so different. I told him that with certain types of fish that travel in a big group - when you catch one of them - some fishermen don’t release them, even though it’s so small. Because the small fish will tell the rest of the fish that it’s been caught and they’ll become alert, so the fishermen can’t catch them anymore. So we thought it’s like when aliens come to us and humans get sucked into their UFOs, when they come back they warn us like, “hey guys we saw this fucking weird thing!” [laughing] So there’s like two worlds. It’s kind of funny.
C: I like that, fishing superstition.
R: And fishing is trying to understand the underneath as well. You can’t really see them but you’re trying to feel underneath with this bait and with the fishing rod. I think that’s quite interesting, trying to communicate with different things.
C: This other world. It’s a bit like putting something out into space and wondering what’s there. Probing it, trying to get some signal back, without really having a clear picture of what it actually is. So interesting. How about we finish with you telling me what’s next. Or what’s the next year hold for you.
R: Next year! I haven’t really told anybody but it’s going to be a challenging year for us. We initially thought we were going to be officially open this Spring, 2019. But we couldn’t because there was a lot of resistance in the bureaucracy. I think they’ve been warned that things are moving too fast, without explaining the project too much. I think the prefecture has warned the city that this thing is moving too fast.
C: On the island, you mean?
R: On the island. They have spent so much money on the island without having, you know, talks with local communities. So they’ve postponed the official opening to next year. At the moment the building is called Former Matsushima School. But they’ll probably give us a new name for the building. And our challenge is to claim what we do is a museum, not the building itself. We have become a company named Matsushima Bunko Museum. We can’t not call the buidling a museum. I think that’s going to be a challenging thing, that they would like us to call the building something different, but we want to challenge them that no the building is - you can call it whatever building name you want but what we do is an experimental thing. Our activity is a museum - it’s not related to the place or time or environment. And it’s a tricky thing for them to understand I think. We’re going to have to find the language to convince them. That’s going to be a challenge. So if things go bad, we might not be able to have that building. We don’t know. There’s a big unknonw that’s coming next year. But hopefully it’ll be ok.
C: Well... the tarot cards say that it’s going to be ok!
R: I hope so. But I don’t know what that means by ‘fine’. It might be, just as I regard failure as fine and great. So…
C: Well that’s the other thing. I think that’s an interesting thing, I guess coming back to the beginning of our conversation. This idea of the museum or the project - that it can be so malleable and keep morphing into the next thing, and the next thing, is its real value proposition and virtue. So in a way it’s irrelevant what building it’s in. It is irrelevant eventually. It can carry on in this continually evolving form. Hopefully. Although that can be tiring for you…
R: Yeah. So but. So what I want to do next year is that I would like to start maybe my own thing. So that I don’t have to depend on others particularly bureaucracy. I don’t think I need a lot of money to start.
C: I don’t think so. Maybe this project has taught you that people will come, if you start. Like you said, if you just open it up, you were surprised, but people just come.
R: I’m so grateful that you came. Anybody who came. I admire your trust in a way that you’ve never seen this place before. Nothing has been written online. It’s just me saying… and I might be saying bullshit, you know, but you trusted me enough to come.
C: Of course! You would probably do the same thing!
R: I would. Yeah, maybe. Maybe. But I don’t know if I would have, you know. But now I’m convinced that I want to try, as well - now that I’ve seen you guys come and having seen your time and at least getting something out of it.
C: I think there’s a lot to get out of it. I’m excited to see what you start on your own.
R: I think it’s already starting - there’s this farm that we got for free and I have always wanted that. It’s like five minutes drive away from here. I’d always wanted to have a farm. You know, I’ve been asking everybody, “if you have a farm will you let me use it?” And I asked this guy if we could use it for a small amount of money. He was like, just didn’t care and gave it to us. Well, he’s letting us use it for free. For as long as we want! We can just use it. But when it’s sold we’ll have to go away.
C: You’re kind of squatting.
R: We do have permission. I think if we can share that we’ll have fun, if I could convince people, then I think we’d be good. Gyon house - Yamagochi has been negotiating with them - we wanted to be given the house at the beginning, but that seemed hard and that it’s going to cost us a lot more than just being rented for free for twenty years. And we’ve made a contract that we can use that place for twenty years for free, and now it’s just like our place that we can use. And, yeah, so by seeing this kind of thing, we feel that we don’t really need to rely on bureaucracy or things that would dictate us or try to control us, you know. If we can build a circle that will let us do whatever what we want I think that would be beneficial for everybody. I think I’m trying to promote that. I like that strategy.
C: it’s also trust building, I think. Once people trust that you’ll have good will and will do the right thing by the property, or by them and the community that’s involved, you know, it dissipates a lot of negative uncertainty.
R: Exactly, and this should’ve been the case with Fukiyagi museum, they lent us that space for free for one year, and then started charging us in the second year - they knew exactly what our financial position was, and if you say that of course we’re going to go out and of course nothing will happen. And nothing has happened in that museum
C: It’s just vacant now?
R: It’s just vacant now, yes. And it’s just sad.
C: Maybe one day they’ll ask you back…
R: We don’t want to go back, no. Because they might say things like that again. The trust is gone.
C: Onwards and upwards I suppose!
R: Yeah, I hope we can continue to build small networks, not only locally but internationally as well.
C: I think an island-exchange program, between…
R: Iceland, Australia...