You are currently viewing Artist & Gallery Owner Ichiro Irie on Humanity’s Autoerotic Death Wish and the Psyche of Post-WWII Japan

Artist & Gallery Owner Ichiro Irie on Humanity’s Autoerotic Death Wish and the Psyche of Post-WWII Japan

Juggling a career as a contemporary artist and running a gallery single-handedly are hard enough endeavors on their own, yet Ichiro Irie manages to handle both – in addition to curating shows as far away as Helsinki and Bogota. Add fatherhood to the plate, and it’s a wonder that we managed to interview him at all.

 

Born and raised in Westside LA, Ichiro Irie originally studied film and communications at UCSB. After several years working in the television, music video, commercial, and film industries, Ichiro decided to pursue either art or film school. He submitted a short film to several film festivals, and while waiting to hear back, took some community college art courses. Though his film did get invited to a few smaller festivals, Ichiro had already fallen down the rabbit-hole of art-making. He has pursued art ever since, from a one-year Fulbright in Mexico City (turned into 5 years stay) after his MFA up till now. Since 2009, Ichiro has also been running a space that he named JAUS (pronounced like “house”). Bright and early the morning after Thanksgiving, we find Ichiro Irie in his studio and ready to ponder with us how an early childhood interest in commercials has precipitated a career as an artist, curator, and gallery owner.

 

AZ: Why do you think you were so drawn to TV commercials as a child? Do they continue to compel you? 

II: As a child, we didn’t have so many channels like we do today. A lot of the shows were super boring, so when cartoons and stuff weren’t on, I just liked to flip the channel and watch just the commercials. I probably had a short attention span. Of course, we didn’t have a remote either, so I had to get up out of the sofa to change the channel. So I asked my dad, “Why don’t they have a channel that just shows commercials?”

 

Currently, we don’t have a TV in the house, so I don’t watch commercials that much. I’m pretty annoyed by all the ads on Youtube and Spotify. I usually turn the sound down. I’m not that against television, and I hear that there are some great shows out there, but I just turn into a TV watching zombie if there is one in the house. I don’t want my son watching too much TV either, so we just haven’t had one since moving back to LA in 2006.

 

As a teen, I really got into films like A Clockwork Orange, Bladerunner and Blue Velvet. Those were my favorites until I entered college. I came to the awareness that Ridley Scott started his career in advertising and commercials, so I naively thought it might be a good place to start.

 

 

AZ: What was it that drew you into Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange that drew you in at age 13? What’s your favorite scene? Has your enjoyment or appreciation of the film changed over the years?

II: I just remember being at my friend’s house seeing it on VHS, and having only watched movies like Star Wars until that moment. It blew my mind that a film could be so violent and intelligent at the same time. I was pulled in by the whole film, and not just any particular scene. I think the scene where they make the protagonist keep his eyes open to watch a lot of violent movies and the last scene where he is deprogrammed and feels liberation were very powerful. I think I liked movies that are very ambiguous and gray, that make you question issues of ethics and morality: when there are no good guys or bad guys, or the good guys aren’t all that good, and the bad guys aren’t all that bad. These days I don’t see too many movies except the ones my son wants to see like Star Wars and the earlier Toy Story movies. My favorite from the last 10 years is a film called Love Exposure directed by a Japanese director named Shion Sono. It’s 4 hours long, and in my opinion one of the most twisted, entertaining, and romantic movies I’ve ever seen. It’s a love story that revolves around the idea of sin, but also deals with family, Catholicism, Japanese up-skirt photography, and religious cults. In the end it’s a deeply moving film about redemption.

 

01
Self Portrait by Ichiro Irie (2001). Photo courtesy of artist.

 

AZ: What movies, directors, or comic artists have inspired you or continue to influence your work?

II: Beyond what I’ve mentioned there are way too many to count among those who’ve inspired me in the past. He’s neither a filmmaker nor a comic artist, but Prince has always been my favorite musician and artist in the greater sense of the word since the album 1999 came out. His death this year was a total bummer for me. I don’t think I’ve ever cried after the death of a celebrity or public figure. Again, his ambiguity in terms of gender and race was fascinating to me as a teenager. I’m not saying anything new, but his talent as a musician and entertainer was exceptional. More than anything, he wrote music that I was totally addicted to for a long time.

 

Back to your question, a film I often show my students is the second version of Imitation of Life by Douglas Sirk. It’s a movie about a white unmarried actress, a black maid, and their two daughters. The maid’s daughter looks white, and even though the actress is the central character in the movie, the maid’s daughter is the spiritual center of the film and the character I relate to the most. The movie has this ironic self-conscious tone, but is also a classical melodrama that pushes all my buttons every time I see it.

 

To make things easier, here is my maybe top 12 all-time favorites in no particular order:

Santa Sangre by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo

Love Exposure by Shion Sono

Imitation of Life by Douglas Sirk

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me by David Lynch

Old Boy by Park Chan-Wook

Olivier Olivier by Agniezka Holland

Bladerunner by Ridley Scott

Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee

Au revoir les enfants by Louis Malle

Sex, Lies and Videotape by Steven Soderberg

City of God by Bráulio Mantovani

Actually, this list could go forever and ever, but I’ll just stop there.

 

As far as manga artists, there are many as well, but Osamu Tezuka is generally considered the father and great master of modern manga. His series Hi No Tori (Phoenix) is a mind-bending epic.

 

Junkyard series by Ichiro Irie (2015). Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

I don’t know how much music, film or manga influence my work now, but what I do like is the directness of these forms of expression. They are all popular media, so there is much less convincing to do. You can’t pretend to love a movie, song or comic that you don’t, and there’s much less of a learning curve than in fine art because most people are exposed at a young age. Of course, if you are hearing hip hop, jazz or classical for the first time you might not get it. But once you do, if you love or hate something, you usually know after a few listens. Most people, even my students, can’t relate to art at that level until they get a considerable amount of exposure and understanding of historical context. I want my work to have that kind of directness. I like art that has that kind of directness. It doesn’t have to be direct with everyone, but at least with me.

 

AZ: You mentioned that you grew tired of working in the television and film industry, do you ever foresee returning to those mediums in your artistic practice? 

II: It was the industry I got tired of, and not filmmaking itself. As someone who works with images, I think what I learned studying film feeds itself into the artistic practice in one way or the other. I make videos sometimes too. However, as far as making a film off a script, well, I don’t foresee anyone handing me a wad of money to make a movie anytime soon, so I don’t fancy myself being a filmmaker at any moment in the foreseeable future.

 

 

AZ: During your Fulbright in Mexico City you started and edited a contemporary art magazine RiM, would you consider returning to publication or has curation fulfilled that drive?

II: The publication almost started as a joke, and grew into something much more ambitious than I ever wanted – although it was never that big a thing either. I don’t think I ever had a drive to be an editor. At that moment, a fairly well-known art magazine called Polyester went out of circulation, and there was a lack of art publications in Mexico City. There were a couple, but now there are many more. It was fun while it lasted.

 

Bill Viola cover of RiM magazine issue number 3 (Spring 2003). Founding editor Ichiro Irie (2002-2006). Photo courtesy of Ichiro Irie.
Bill Viola cover of RiM magazine issue number 3 (Spring 2003). Founding editor Ichiro Irie (2002-2006). Photo courtesy of Ichiro Irie.

 

My drive has always been to be a creative person and be surrounded by other creative people. As long as the next project is more interesting and/or exciting than the last, I’m pretty content. I think of myself as a visual artist first and foremost, although at times, I get more caught up in the extracurricular activities such as teaching, curating, and even music.

 

When someone gives me an offer to put together a show in Helsinki or Bogota, I find it close to impossible to say no. I always have curatorial ideas and artists I want to work with, so going to a new place or a familiar place and organizing an exhibition is something I really get excited about, even if I know I should be in the studio more.

 

JAUS, artist-space run by Ichiro Irie (2009-present). Above: Firewall by Kiel Johnson (2016). Below: La Grange Multiplayer by Mark Dean Veca (2016). Photo courtesy of Ichiro Irie.
JAUS, artist-space run by Ichiro Irie (2009-present). Above: Firewall by Kiel Johnson (2016). Below: La Grange Multiplayer by Mark Dean Veca (2016). Photo courtesy of Ichiro Irie.

 

AZ: What are your guiding principles for running JAUS? Are there particular artists or shows you are targeting?

II: When JAUS started in 2009, several spaces such as Machine Projects, Farmlab, and Gallery 727 were receiving a lot of attention, and they all had fairly specific missions based on a set of ideas. I wanted the opposite of that, but I still wanted the shows to have high criteria in terms of the artists and the types of work being shown. In a way, my mission was to not have a mission. That being said, I wasn’t so excited about just working with artists who already had galleries in LA and were already selling a lot of work. We’ve shown those types of artists as well, but I’ve always seen JAUS as a stepping stone or pit stop for artists to move on to greener pastures. It’s a place of convergence for artists, curators and art lovers to have a place to hang out every 8 weeks, and feel a sense of relevance and community; things I had found always difficult in L.A., especially on the Westside where I grew up.

 

 

AZ: What is the significance of Ultraman to you?

II: As a five or seven-year-old kid, I loved Ultraman. I didn’t think about him/it for a long time until I saw the Gerhard Richter retrospective and 48 portraits at MOMA in New York from which my series Ultraman Encyclopedia is based. For me, this series is a deconstruction and unfunny parody of the idea of historical portraiture.

 

As for Ultraman him/itself, Ultraman is the brainchild of Eiji Tuburaya, a special effects guy who didn’t create, but was in charge of designing the original Godzilla. As the original Godzilla movie is seen as a parable about the A-bomb, I see Ultraman is the alien that fights the A-bomb. The atomic bomb in Japan can be seen as a metaphor for an uncontrollable monstrous foreign or alien threat.

 

From the series Ultraman Encyclopedia by Ichiro Irie (2002-2004). Acrylic on canvas. 22 x 28 inches. Photo courtesy of artist.
From the series Ultraman Encyclopedia by Ichiro Irie (2002-2004). Photo courtesy of artist.

 

Interestingly, the look of Ultraman is like a hybrid between an expressionless Zen Buddha, and modern Western European design – particularly automotive design. The protagonist in the Ultraman series almost dies from an attack by a giant, Godzilla-like monster. As he is almost dying, Ultraman arrives, feels compassion for the dying earthling, and agrees to give the protagonist his own Ultraman powers if said human agrees to protect the earth and humanity.

 

Ultraman is a Japanese guy borrowing powers from an alien, to become superhuman and protect Earth. More specifically to protect Japan from other alien monsters or foreign threats. Japan, of course, lost the military conflict in WWII, but I think there remained, in the collective postwar unconscious of the Japanese psyche, to rebuild Japan and win the economic war. The Japanese experienced a major Westernization during the Meiji restoration, and became further so after the war. Part of this phenomenon is perfectly symbolized in the “salary-man” business suit, a modern western suit and tie uniform that nevertheless perfectly encapsulates the Japanese mentality of studying hard, going to a good university, and working for the rest of one’s life at a respectable corporation. The business suit in Japan is a costume of sorts that imbues an ordinary Japanese mortal with the modern powers of the western alien.

 

From the series Ultraman Encyclopedia by Ichiro Irie (2002-2004). Acrylic on canvas. 22 x 28 inches. Photo courtesy of artist.
From the series Ultraman Encyclopedia by Ichiro Irie (2002-2004). Photo courtesy of artist.

 

This to me is the significance of Ultraman. He is larger than life, shoots lasers from his arms, feels no emotions, and fights and destroys dangerous aliens. The essence of the Japanese, one might argue, is appropriation – a means of adaptation and survival for an island nation – and the preservation of self through self-negation and sacrifice. This very notion is perhaps what compelled my mother and father to move to the USA. My mother, in particular, felt the limitations for her career as a cancer researcher to grow, as a woman in (at the time) a rather feudal Japanese university system. Also, Japan has a long history of sending their scholars abroad: first to China, Mongolia, and Korea, and later to the West in order to absorb and bring back knowledge and awareness to the motherland.

 

I am in many ways a byproduct of that history colliding with Southern California. I grew up in L.A.’s Westside, went to college at UCSB, went back to L.A., lived in Mexico City for 5 years, and live in West L.A. again.

 

 

AZ: We really liked your observation about Ultraman and (Zen) Buddhism, could you expand on that a little more? Do you still find this in current Japanese or American pop-culture figures?

II: The younger generation of Japanese have an acutely different view on life. In my view they are still experiencing some of the after-effects of the post-war trauma of their parents and grandparents, as seen in the Hikikomori and Enjokōsai phenomenon that have emerged since the 90’s. The Japanese are generally non-religious and only religious during funerals, and Japanese religion is a strange hybrid of Zen and polytheistic Shinto traditions. Still, these teachings find themselves in everyday life and everyday proverbs used by the Japanese – all common sense type stuff in Japan, that don’t have the dogmatic ideology of religion attached to it. I think all forms of literature, especially in the realm of science fiction and fantasy have a socio-political element that reflects the mood of the times, whether it’s the xenophobia and McCarthyism of Invaders from Mars or the xenophilia in ET.

 

The more recent Japanese hero/antihero is exemplified I think by the protagonist in [Neon Genesis] Evangelion, a rather weakish and insecure young boy who must enter and control the humanoid robot to fight an enemy that is far more ambiguous and nameless than the monsters in Ultraman. He does this almost unwillingly under the forceful and cruel urgings of his rather unsympathetic father. A very different kind of hero than Ultraman’s more proto-masculine protagonist.

 

 

 

Refractured series installation shot by Ichiro Irie (2014-2015). Broken sunglass lenses on panels and found object. Photo courtesy of artist.
Refractured series installation shot by Ichiro Irie (2014-2015). Photo courtesy of artist.

 

AZ: Do you think that a character like Ultraman is still relevant to the contemporary era? How has this changed in the advent of AI and near-future technologies? In the changing relationship between “the East” and “the West”?

II: That’s the thing about these iconic products of capitalism, they keep reproducing themselves beyond their relevance. For better or for worse, Mickey Mouse is just as relevant as he was when he was first invented, and they keep coming out with new Ultraman series even if One Piece and Naruto eclipse their popularity. However, in Japan and Asia, among very small children – especially boys – the Ultraman figurines are just as popular as ever, probably because of parents’ influence.

 

In Japan at least, I think the things people are paranoid about (perhaps for good reason) is the Fukushima nuclear reactor, more earthquakes and tsunamis, North Korea, a decades-long ‘recession,’ and their own government’s more militaristic disposition after years of staunch pacifism. This is largely influenced by pressures from the U.S., I’m sure. America, I think, is getting tired of playing big brother, so Japan is feeling the pressure to protect themselves instead. A lot of young people aren’t too happy about this. Young people in Japan have, as far as I can remember, been quite apolitical, but they are engaging themselves more with politics for the first time since the late 60’s and early 70’s.

 

AZ: Is the dream of the (comic) superhero still alive? Has raising your son donned any insight into the psychological landscape of today’s children? 

II: I’m not sure I understand this question, but it seems superhero movies are the only movies made these days. I’m quite nostalgic about a time when kids in their teens and twenties talked more about art films and their favorite albums than video games and superhero movies. I think I’m old in this regard.

 

In grade school, I used to get into a fight like once every other week. In junior high as they used to call it, I got into a few more scraps. My son who is in middle school now has never got into a fist fight, and maybe only has seen one or two in his entire life. Like him, I grew up on the West side. The psychological landscape is very different. Being a nerd isn’t that bad anymore, and being a jock or bad boy isn’t as cool… at least not in Santa Monica.

 

Driving a Prius is considered cooler than driving a Ferrari, girls wear less makeup, and rebellion just isn’t the same as when I was growing up. Overall, I think this is a good thing. Of course, we live in a very sheltered and isolated part of America… Fast and Furious still makes a lot of money, so jocks and fast cars still certainly have their place in society.

 

RX-Heaven by Ichiro Irie (2012). Holographic film on Mazda RX7. Dimensions variable. Photo courtesy of artist.
RX-Heaven by Ichiro Irie (2012). Holographic film on Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy of artist.

 

AZ: You mentioned Chuck Close and Eric Fishl as different types of influence on your work, which other artists do you look towards?

II: They were certainly early influences. My biggest influence has always been my mom. Haha. She’s ended up in science and medicine, but she’s the type of person who would have been successful in any field of her choice. She has organizational skills and attention to detail beyond most anyone I’ve met. She’s about 5 feet tall, in her mid-70s, and has more energy than my students in their 20’s. It’s kind of scary. She’s the person I respect, and at times fear, the most.

 

Art wise, I have a lot of artists I admire. The ones I am most influenced by are the ones who traverse genre and media and get away with it… Gerhard Richter, Tim Hawkinson, Miguel Calderon, etc. Sometimes I’m more influenced by artists I don’t like… they shall go nameless. I don’t know about “influence,” but I love a great painter as well. I find painters like Jenny Saville, Agnes Martin, Julie Mehretu, Wangechi Mutu, Victoria Gittman or Iva Georguieva pretty awe inspiring.

 

Refractured (Burst) by Ichiro Irie (2014). Broken sunglass lenses and silicone on panel. 12 x 12 inches. Photo courtesy of artist.
Refractured (Burst) by Ichiro Irie (2014). Photo courtesy of artist.

 

AZ: What is the importance of self-imposed rules to your artistic practice? Are they necessary? Are you an adherent of the “Dogme 95 Manifesto,” or however that theory may be applied outside of film?

II: I always have self-imposed rules. I create a new set of rules for each body of work. I can’t work without them because otherwise I’m all over the place. “Dogme” too was an early influence when I was more of a painter. The best part of making your own rules is breaking your own rules.

 
AZ: Can you talk about your telephone card portrait of Carlos Slim? Are you happy or conflicted that it landed, at least temporarily, in his office?

II: I feel like after a work is made, it should have a life of its own. There is only so much an artist can do to control its reception and interpretation. I bought so many telephone cards while I was in Mexico (cell phones weren’t that common there yet), so I’m glad he was able to indirectly pay me some of that money back.

 

Busto Slim by Ichiro Irie (2005). Mexican telephone cards. Approximately 110 x 150 inches. Photo courtesy of artist.
Busto Slim by Ichiro Irie (2005). Mexican telephone cards. Photo courtesy of artist.

 

AZ: From titles like Screwball to Teecup, what is it about verbal puns that delights you? You mentioned that the specific pun Golden Balls would only make sense to those who understood its Japanese meaning – is such a warping of language especially pleasing or satisfying because you are trilingual?

II: I drive my family crazy with my stupid puns in Japanese. In Japan, puns are considered a very base and crass form of humor that only old men seem to enjoy. Again, puns and plays on words are a sort of rule or starting point for me, a completely absurd raison d’être for an object to come into existence. Mexico on the other hand, have a whole culture built around plays on words. I don’t understand all of them, but the ones I do are funny as heck.

 

Tee Cup by Ichiro Irie (2008). Golf tees and wood cup. 4 x 6 inches. Photo courtesy of artist.
Tee Cup by Ichiro Irie (2008). Golf tees and wood cup. Photo courtesy of artist.

 

AZ: You have stated a fascination with industry, cars, and speed as semi-erotic expressions of humanity’s “death wish.” What do you think this “death wish” will look like in the future or near future? Where is the cellphone, the self-driving car, the spaceship? Do you think American culture will remain the frontrunner of these desires through industry, infrastructure, or economy?

II: I think there is only moving forward and no moving backward, although many people seem nostalgic these days for some kind of fictional past. I do see, however, an inherent contradiction in humanity’s drive for more productivity, longer life, and a better standard of living for all members of society as well as our drive to save the planet. You can’t have both. Through technology, statecraft, and intellectual advancements, the trick is, I guess, to balance these seemingly opposing forces or at least slow down the process of self-annihilation.

 

If all the people in China and India lived like the upper-middle-class in Germany or the U.S., I’m afraid that would be an ecological disaster. No culture has ever remained the most dominant forever, so the U.S.A. is no exception. You know, Athenian democracy only lasted for about 100 years, and citizenship and voting rights were only granted to about 1/6 of its residents. So 240 years of “democracy” in America isn’t too shabby. The world has become much more decentralized in the last couple decades. I am not an ardent believer in the great benefits of space travel. We still have the best planet in the reachable neighborhood… let’s make the best of it.

 

The Ford Effigy by Ichiro Irie and Randall Foster (2013). Repurposed lumber and other found and recycled materials. Dimensions variable. Photo courtesy of Ichiro Irie.
The Ford Effigy by Ichiro Irie and Randall Foster (2013). Photo courtesy of Ichiro Irie.

 

I think a sprawling city like L.A. is totally archaic. The idea of owning a single-unit house as some kind of standard of success is totally archaic. A city like L.A. needs more mass transit, more accessibility for pedestrians, and more pocket communities where everyday people can enjoy cultural life without having to travel 30 minutes in any direction. Everyone should work within a small radius of their home. The fact that many people have a 2-hour commute with traffic to and back from work is ridiculous. Who does this benefit? It certainly doesn’t add to the quality of life, and it leaves a horrible carbon footprint. I am guilty of this too as I live near Santa Monica, and teach in Oxnard and Cerritos. But I’ve never thought to myself, I should be working more hours, earning less money, and driving less, so maybe I’ll just work at the Orchard’s Supply Hardware a block from my house. I love teaching too much to ever do something like that. I think this frustration, though, is part of where my car series comes from.

 

The Ford Effigy by Ichiro Irie and Randall Foster (2013). Repurposed lumber and other found and recycled materials. Dimensions variable. Photo courtesy of Ichiro Irie.
The Ford Effigy by Ichiro Irie and Randall Foster (2013). Dimensions variable. Photo courtesy of Ichiro Irie.

 

AZ: How has your consumption of comics or manga influenced your work – especially your drawings? As a tie to your Japanese heritage or more purely aesthetically? 

II: I’ve never read American comics. Up until high school, and here and there beyond, I’ve been an avid reader of Japanese manga. I definitely think it has influenced the way I talk in Japanese, as I was raised in the States, and that was my principal source of Japanese media. It’s probably shaped the way I look at the world as well. In Japan, there is a comic for every substratum of society, for every age range, for housewives, professional men and women, young adults, old people, teenagers, and small children. Great manga about classical music, farming, cooking, gambling, computer geeks, sports, suburban life, gay romance… you name it. I think the majority of Japanese people are influenced by manga.

 

As for my work, I don’t think I consciously think about manga when I am making the work. But as I mentioned earlier, I like the directness of popular media such as music, manga, and movies, and I try to achieve that somehow in my own work without having it be too commercial-looking. I like to think of the work as having multiple layers like an onion.

 

Junkyard series by Ichiro Irie (2015). Photo courtesy of the artist.