The Big Interview: Richard Hawkins

US artist Richard Hawkins talks about his obsession with bizarre Japanese choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata, and how it formed the basis of Tate Liverpool’s (soon-to-close) ground floor exhibition…

How did you discover Hijikata?

Ever since I was an undergraduate in the mid ’80s, I was interested visually in what ‘Butoh’ (a performance art and dance movement referring to forms of traditional Japanese dance (‘butoh’) and ‘ankoku’, which alludes to extreme ideas of abjection, darkness and eroticism) was — I had no interest in dance or performance – yet was very intrigued by that. And that had always been lingering. In 2010 I ran across one of Hijikata’s sketchbooks; it was relatively unknown, if known at all. Having made collages myself… I felt some affinity. I went and read everything on butoh in English and had huge questions. I got in touch with the Hijikata archives and they eventually gave me images; it just spiralled out of control.

What makes butoh so special?

If you go on Youtube and look at a video called Hosotan (above), you’ll see Hijikata himself dancing; see how transgender it is. A famous film historian, who was also friends of Hijikata, said that Western dance is always about ascension and ballet, but butoh is also about gravity. In both terms – the force that keeps you down but also the graveness of contemporary life.

One thing I read about butoh was that it was totalised by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it didn’t necessarily seem true. I think this is a very narcissistic way of the West to understand butoh – we did this horrible thing to you, look how abject it is. And Hijikata was so much smarter than that; if someone totalised him, he would rub it out and go in the other direction. So I knew something else was going on.

At some point every one of those butoh books would mention he was interested in Jean Genet, author of Our Lady of the Flowers… all about the taboos of wartime French culture. Hijikata at some point changed his name to Tatsumi Genet, but nobody could explain how. Looking for these gaps, I assumed there was something there that I could begin  to find, but I’m not a scholar. The way that I work through it is collecting things, digging through things, writing my own things, attempting facsimiles that then spiral into my own works.

And the obsession continued… a lot of your collage works in the exhibition are actually research file folders on and inspired by Hijikata’s scrapbooks.

A lot of it is about being infatuated by his mind, and being haunted by whom I considered a very brilliant, irreverent figure. But to me, since I have an old love for mid-century, post-war European things like (Jean) Dubuffet and (Graham) Sutherland, it was a new way in to look at those things I loved. So it was re-energised by the stories that Hijikata would just make up out of his brilliant mind about these mid-century artists.

Hijikata was a very lasy researcher. Even though he talked about Francis Bacon time and time again, the only Bacon produced in the seven or more scrapbooks are that one (points to vitrines in gallery), and the one in the other case there. So I wanted to imagine: what if I’m the research assistant to Hijikata, circa 1967?

Was that laziness, or actually an access issue? How easy was it to seek out pictures and information about Bacon in 60s Japan?

His focus was the dance choreography; he could make a world around one Francis Bacon. But I wanted to see what would happen if he saw the really famous carcass painting, what would he have to say about that? How would he use Genet if he read (more) Genet quotes?

(Points to translations of Hijikata’s dance notes, taken by two of his students, in exhibited scrapbook) The way Hijikata’s mind worked was: “Hair, teeth, pieces of dried dirt and pus become attached to the skeleton”. Which is a very grotesque horror story. But imagine if you’re a dancer, and he’s telling you to think of your body that way. All of a sudden you come up with moves, slow moving, pus driven, things hanging off a skeleton – very grotesque ideas that changed dancers bodies into the way that he hoped they would move.

(Looking at) All the visual artwork – not sculpture or other dancers – meant he was looking outside for this entirely new thing that no one had ever done before.

Would you say that you and Hijikata are kindred spirits?

I have the same vulgar sense of humour and the same affection for horror movies. If you look up this on Youtube it will change your life: The Horrors of Malformed Men (centre). It is Hijikata himself, on the seashore, in a tattered old kimono, just doing something very Vincent Price, with this maniacal laugh on top of it all. He had a great, amazing, brilliant sense of humour, that was just very ’60s.

There are so many rabbit holes in here to fall down, if you’re interested enough.

As told to Laura Robertson

Richard Hawkins: Hijikata Twist continues until Sunday 11 May 2014 (free entry)

Read Tate Liverpool’s Exhibitions and Displays Curator Darren Pih’s mini-essay on the ‘dirty avant-garde’ thinking behind Hawkins’ show

Richard Hawkins’ first book of fiction, Fragile Flowers eight jubilatory and decadent short stories – is out now

Posted on 09/05/2014 by thedoublenegative