Interview: Michael K. Yamaoka
Luca Curci talks with Michael K. Yamaoka during ALCHEMIC BODY at THE LINE Contemporary Art Space.
Born in Japan, and educated at The Art Center College of Design in California, Michael K. Yamaoka honed his “eye” as an award-winning advertising and editorial photographer of the Fortune 500 in New York, before devoting himself to his fine-art work. In his worldwide travels, he seeks majesty and beauty in both nature and man’s creations, often including a “Goddess” figure in a visual interpretation of modern mythology. In addition to his many international exhibitions in Germany, Japan, the United States and Great Britain, in 2017 he was honored with a solo exhibition, “One World,” at the United Nations in New York. His work is included in corporate and private collections worldwide, including the personal collection of I.M. Pei. He exhibited for many years at the Atlantic Gallery in NY and is presently a member of the prestigious Salmagundi Club in NY, where he has been honored with numerous awards for photography.
Luca Curci – What are you currently working on?
Michalel K. Yamaoka – A few years ago I began combining figures with locations I shoot on my travels, and I continue to expand this body of work, incorporating imagery of beautiful women with depictions of time, decay and ruin. I want to show how these evocative places relate to and yet maybe contrast with human beings – but I also intend the women to symbolize goddess figures, and to suggest stories from myth and fantasy. These recent images combine places where I’m inspired by both the backgrounds themselves and the feelings of solitude and the solace they bring, with my philosophy from my ancestry and where I grew up – enhanced by some technical magic. Most recently I photographed some breathtaking locations on Guernsey, the Channel Islands, and have completed several new images in my Goddess series.
LC – What’s your background? What is the experience that has influenced your work the most?
MKY – As a young man in Japan I was very influenced by the writings of Baudelaire, which were similar to my own way of thinking, coming as I did from a Zen Buddhist family background, and experiencing a world in ruins as a youngster. I feel there are parallels in my work, where there is an element of contingency and the accidental juxtaposition of things – those lucky chances. I shoot what’s already there, but maybe all broken up and in ruins. Everything is eventually destroyed by war, age, time. All is really impermanence and decay, as Baudelaire saw it. So my images of old buildings, peeling paint, and crumbling walls show my attitude. When a personal tragedy struck – after I lost my son in an automobile accident – my world was forever changed, and I turned my focus away from my commercial photography studio and simply recording images of everyday life, to creating art in memory of him, including publishing a book of my work, Odyssey, A 35 Year Photographic Journey, dedicated to him. I accumulated many shots over the course of my travels, and a good many are of the remains of the ancient world. Wherever I traveled, I searched for this theme; from Greece to Morocco, to Moscow, Egypt, Rome, London, Portugal, China, Italy, Spain, Austria, Germany, Norway, Ireland, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Japan. I also shot in Alaska, the Greek Islands of Santorini and Mykonos, the West Indies, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Azores, and now the Channel Islands. It even amazes me, sometimes!
LC – Where do you find your inspiration?
MKY – For inspiration, I go to museums and I read books to enhance my travel experiences. Every day you have to have some inspiration. There’s no limit to inspiration, but my own limitations set me back sometimes. Another thing that inspires me is music. Whenever I hear music such as a symphony, I see the whole world and its history, and whenever I’m shooting I hear music in my head that fits the location – in Norway, it was Solveig’s Song, in Germany, Beethoven and Schubert, and in Austria, Mozart. Many of the scenes I shoot are inspired by music, and give me the same sort of feeling as hearing music, so many of my images wind up having musical titles. Meeting and talking to people from other parts of the world has given me other windows on life, and “windows” have become a feature in my recent work. And then hearing people’s thoughts – especially when they relate to images from their home countries, as they did at my solo shows at the United Nations and the German Consulate as well as shows in Japan and Germany, I often learn details about the locations that I didn’t know before!
LC – Which art themes do you pursue? What is your preferred subject, if there is any?
MKY – One of the things I look for is the “sublime,” a crystallization of light and subject. I know what I’m looking for, yet I’m still transfixed when I encounter it. In Venice, for example, I couldn’t stop clicking – the water, the old buildings, the reflections. There were so many subjects, I couldn’t even be selective, because everywhere I pointed my camera there was beauty. The same was true among the ruins in Greece and Egypt, and in the majesty of the fjords of Norway and the wild surf of the Channel Islands – the transient and the timeless. Sometimes you hit an unbelievable moment you never expect, so I continue to travel and shoot. When I think about my work, what I come back to time and again is a search for the overlooked detail or unusual juxtaposition. One of the earliest examples shows the reflection of the Empire State Building in a puddle. It’s a New York cliché, but from a totally unexpected viewpoint. I’ve recently begun experimenting with other iconic landscape images, adding additional elements to suggest mood or story. And a theme I regularly return to is my “Goddess” series, where the combination of landscape and figure transcends the individual elements with a feeling of mystery and references to mythology.
LC – How is being an artist nowadays?
MKY – People are getting more sophisticated nowadays, so I have to do more sophisticated art; I have to choose whether I should adapt or keep my own vision.
LC – We were attracted by your last artistic production, has the artwork presented been created for the festival or as a part of preexisting works?
MKY – These were existing works, part of my “Goddess” series. They seemed to fit in exactly with the theme of the alchemist’s elements, as I conceived of the exhibition’s overall direction.
LC – What is the message linked to the artwork you have shown in this exhibition? How is it connected to the theme of the entire festival?
MKY – The title of the exhibition was ALCHEMIC BODY: FIRE, AIR, WATER, EARTH, and the four images I showed were four of my Goddess images, which each seemed to exemplify one of the elements. The leaping figure in Rapture at the Cataract dances in ecstasy before Kegon Falls, in Japan: a contemplative figure in London watches the fiery sunrise through a window; a lithe figure arches in a backbend preparing to climb a vine upwards into the heavens, and a kneeling figure crouches in the earth before an ancient wall in Rome. Four figures, four elements. Each figure at the moment of decision to engage in a transformation.
LC – Do you think ITSLIQUID GROUP can represent an opportunity for artists?
MKY – I think ITSLIQUID offers a good opportunity for artists to offer their work to be shown in person to an international audience, who they would never be able to approach otherwise. Seeing the work hung in a gallery setting is a very different experience from viewing it online – but even online, your work needs to be seen, and there is so much competition out there these days.
LC – Would you suggest a collaboration with us? What do you think about our services?
MKY – Artists need to carefully consider their audience and choose exhibition venues to make the most of opportunities to show their work. And if an active dealer/rep collaboration is an option as a separate consideration from a purely exhibition venue opportunity, it might be worth exploring.