by Sukanya DebAug 31, 2022
"When do you see something as a mistake? Mistakes only happen when you have the correct answer in your mind already."
It was for a 10am New York time call on a recent weekend that Yuko Nishikawa had graciously agreed to spare a few minutes to speak with me on Zoom. Fascinated to discover more about her colourful practice where she makes mysterious-looking everyday objects using recycled paper, clay, wire, and fabrics, I had all my questions ready but the moment we began our chat, the sequenced trail of my thoughts were taken over by random curiosities, all thanks to a beautifully chaotic background that the Tokyo-born designer graced our call with. Sitting in her favourite indigo t-shirt, and surrounded by an assortment of workshop accessories and hanging prototypes of her delicate paper cookie installations, what followed was a mesmerising dialogue that peeked into her labour of handmade love.
Zohra Khan: If you look back to the start of things, do you recall a definitive memory when you held clay in your hands or tended it to make something?
Yuko Nishikawa: I don't think there was a definitive moment. I think I just decided this was my path, or this was how I am going to spend my time. My interest evolved gradually from my childhood. When I was young, I was always using my hand to make things. I played with clay as a kid when I was maybe in the second or third grade. That time I was living in Japan. My grandmother was teaching ceramics in her local studio. It was like my fun summer activity, of just following her and playing with the clay. But then I stopped doing it for many years. I started picking it up about seven years ago when I rented a communal studio space in Brooklyn. I played with different kinds of materials. I took some glassblowing classes, and did woodworking, painting and metalwork just for fun. And then ceramic was the next thing that I wanted to do. While working with ceramic with my grandmother, people did not allow me to throw clay onto the reel because I was too young, and that convinced me to take up the skill at some point in my life. Clay is such an inexpensive material and you can spend as much time on it as you like, unless you fire it, and you can recycle the material over and over again. So I would just go to the studio before my daytime job, played with it, practiced throwing on the reel, and that's how I started making my own artworks. And now it has expanded. Clay is not the only material that I use right now. I work with paper and wire too. I don't think I am limiting myself to certain materials right now, but I think that renting the studio here in Brooklyn, and starting playing with clay again was probably the beginning of creating art for me.
In my process, everything that is a part of the process and that leads to the next, and any decision I make, I don't consider it as a right or wrong decision.
Zohra: You studied interior design in New York and then practiced furniture design for over a decade. What was it that you found missing in the practice that brought you back to your passion, in creating things with hands? Also, what inspired the transition from furniture to objects?
Yuko: While working with interior design offices, I didn't get a sense of my involvement in the final project. I was part of doing the drawings but I didn't get to experience the actual space. So then I started getting into furniture, which is, if it was a chair, then I can sit on it, play with prototypes and actually feel the materials and forms and modify it, work with manufacturers and craftsmen, and that was real fun. I learnt a lot from craftsmen and artisans about making objects from ideas. But it was for a brand, which had a specific style approach, was high-end, really clean-crisp-shiny-don't leave the fingerprints kind of-furniture.
On the contrary, what I wanted was not the clean options but something that only I can make, which has the evidence of hand on it. I wanted to explore the form that shows the hands of its makers, and I think this fascination encouraged me to explore more sculpted forms. Working with the furniture design industry taught me how to design and compose lighting fixtures, the hardware and wiring, and now I combine those technical skills and understanding of the construction with the sculpture forms that I make.
Zohra: Working with hands encompasses a practice of patience, perseverance, and there’s a chance that mistakes would occur along the way. What are some of the biggest lessons that your craft has taught you?
Yuko: When do you see something as a mistake? Mistakes only happen when you have the correct answer in your mind already. In my process, everything that is a part of the process and that leads to the next, and any decision I make, I don't consider it as a right or wrong decision. In the process of making something, I have to make a decision so that I can move on.
It's very important for me to keep a good physical condition. Eating and sleeping well, and then doing some exercise. I need to have a good body to be able to do my work. And it's not only about the body, but also my attitude towards things; I need to be optimistic. If you have a good stance, your body and your emotional attitude towards it then you'd be able to make the most of unpleasant moments too. And that’s important for me in continuing this practice.
I am always working with something that I happen to stumble upon. There is an element of surprise and encountering something by chance. I enjoy that part.
Zohra: Which aspect of the design process do you like to have a control over, and in which do you let things flow?
Yuko: I need to have a plan so that I have something to start with and these plans need to be physical. I make those plans, and I make them so I can get things started. And I am free to change them. I do a lot of drawings, but that's just for me to keep my ideas going to the next one. I don't necessarily go back to those drawings to produce the artwork. I think the part that I want to control or something I want to keep doing is this physical process so that I can go to the next, but then as I start making the work, I want to be able to witness what's happening in front of me. I don't think I want to control everything. I want to be surprised by the result too.
Zohra: Paper and clay are central to your practice. What is the most liberating aspect about working with this material palette, and what is the most challenging?
Yuko: Ceramics: it’s its own thing, it has its own life, especially when you are firing it, you cannot really see the result until you open it. The transformation happens with the heat. If you like it or not, there are always surprises. Sometimes those are not pleasant, but that is part of the process.
Right now I am recycling paper to make paper pulp that I turn into air dry clay. Because it’s the recycled paper, the first materials come to me. They can come in different colours, and that colour affects the final colour in the artwork. I like this process where I am not fully in control, that something that comes to me becomes part of the artwork. I can, of course, choose which colours to use from materials that are available to me, or I can combine different colours to make new colours, but I am always working with something that I happen to stumble upon. There is an element of surprise and encountering something by chance. I enjoy that part. Material wise, I like working with clay and paper as they allow me to be able to touch them and form something with my own hands.
Zohra: Contrary to unpredictability and surprises, how do you respond to commissioned projects, in cases where there is a brief attached to the development of a piece of work?
Yuko: When I work on a commission, I have a perimeter, a space and the scope, but I keep it really loose and I communicate that with the client, saying this is the direction I want to go, or this is the feeling I want to achieve. But it may change. I make that very clear that this is not a manufactured industrial item, and that it can change along the way of developing the artwork. And, so far clients are understanding the process. They do give me the freedom to develop the work.
Zohra: Your aim with every piece of work is to evoke a reaction in the person experiencing it. What are some of the most memorable or strangest things that people have said about your objects?
Yuko: I remember when I was showing my ceramic sculptures at one of the design trade shows and a few people commented that they think the objects look like a cheese slicer. The collection’s name was Possibly Tools. Here I made a series of objects that were intended to be functional, but these aren’t. I left this imagination up to the audience encouraging them to come up with their own ideas of the functionality of the objects. And people came to me and said some interesting things. Some related it to a big cheese slicer for a strange cheese, and some said that it looked like a baby silencer or a musical instrument that soothes a toddler.
Zohra: Creating something with hand and letting unpredictability decide the outcome, one is likely to develop an attachment with the product. However, for you, you like to let things go. You don’t often keep them for yourself. How do you balance this contradiction in your practice? What does letting go bring you in return?
Yuko: I don't have a desire to keep them really. I want the objects that I make to go out in the world, and start living their own lives. Letting things go is what I like, so there is no contradiction there. I don't want to keep them.
Zohra: What role does the context play in the creation of your works? Would an empty room have a say in how you proceed in conceptualising a piece?
Yuko: The space informs me a lot. I like going to exhibition spaces to see how people will circulate in the space, where the light is coming from, how it feels, how deep-high-wide the space is. It’s not really about the numbers - the square footage or the height of the ceiling - but it's about the feel of the environment, and also where it is located. So a space in New York would be different from one in Tokyo, which is actually what I am working on right now. I am doing a show in Tokyo, in January 2023. This is going to be my first time showing in Japan, and I don't want to bring everything from New York to show there. It would feel like pushing in a foreign object, even though Japan is my home country. But since I have been living in New York for so many years, I don't think it's right. And that is why I’ll be spending some time in Japan to experience what's happening there and then I’ll spend some time making the work for the show. So yes, the space gives me a good starting point.
Zohra: Could you tell us:
Your biggest fear...
Yuko: That used to be snakes, but I am discovering that I actually like snakes.
The best advice that someone gave you…
Yuko: You can do it.
And the worst?
Yuko: That you cannot do it.
A book you keep going back to…
Yuko: The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey.
A ritual for times when your ideas factory runs dry…
Yuko: Swimming fixes me. When I feel tired, I go swimming and then everything is great again.
If not a ceramic artist, what would you want to be?
When you are in your atelier, what is it that you strictly leave out of the doors?
A pet peeve…
Yuko: Messiness. I don't like it, but that happens once a month. So once a month there are moments when I say, we must clean up.
The time of the day when you are high on energy to create…
Yuko: Mornings. They are always good to me.
A skill in your craft that still eludes you…
Yuko: Everything. I don't think I am done with anything.
Zohra: Is it true that you don’t like wearing colour black?
Yuko: When I was in my twenties, I really looked up to other women who wore black, and then I fantasised being the one who can wear it too. I tried a few times, but never really felt comfortable in it. It’s not a feel good colour for me.
Zohra: So do you also avoid using colour black in the objects that you create?
Yuko: I like a deep indigo colour, and that could be really close to black, but then to me that's not black.
Zohra: How would you describe your work or what you do for a living to a child?
Yuko: I make objects.
Zohra: What does a typical day look like for you in your studio?
Yuko: The typical (ideal) day for me is to come to the studio early in the morning when there are no guests, no visitors. When I could just quietly work by myself and spend a whole day like that. But that hasn't been the case.
Zohra: What is NEXT for you?
Yuko: I am heading to Taiwan to do a residency there for one month, and that will give me a chance to be away from my studio and to be able to work in a new environment. After Taiwan, I am going directly to Japan where I’ll be spending another month working on my own project towards the exhibition in January.