Repetition: an interview with Ken Matsubara

by Mara Sartore
October 2, 2015
Mara Sartore
Matsubara Ken

Born in 1949 in Tokyo. Ken Matsubara graduated from Musashino Art University in Tokyo in 1974. His work often examines our understanding of memory. Matsubara’s lives and works in Tokyo, Mara Sartore met with him in Venice to discuss his recent and upcoming projects.

Mara Sartore: I’d like to start discussing the combination, that can be found in your work, of personal memories and new geographic spaces like Vietnam or Myanmar where you have recently been.

Ken Matsubara: In the beginning when I started making movie-object, I can call them this way, I was interested in this kind of repetition. Because the movies are a fluctuation between past and present.
Recently I started thinking about why I was interested in movies, repetition and memory and I realized it might be influenced by Buddhism even if I don’t believe in any religion. I always think about Buddhism, I don’t know why but one of the reasons might be that our life is so limited, it’s not long so we have to care about each other because we have a mission to respect each other and forgive each other.
Japanese beauty is based on everything that is impermanent, the time disappears, it doesn’t stay. For example “Hojoki”, the oldest book in Japan by Kamo no Chomei, who wrote his very first page ” The flowing river never stops and yet the water never stays the same. Foam floats upon the pools, scattering, re-forming, never lingering long. So it is with man and all his dwelling places here on earth.”
It means that the river is always there, it’s always the same, but the water running in it always changes and moves.
Japanese always think that nothing is definite, it’s melancholia.
When I see older movies, not only Japanese ones, I feel nostalgia, some kind of sadness of being in a life that is short and limited.

MS: You mentioned before that this melancholia and nostalgia that are connected to the caducity, the impermanence of the things. Japanese beauty exists because it will end.

KM: I recognized that the base of my ideas is “Mono no aware”, which means The sadness of the passing time. It’s like when you see the cherry blossoms falling down you feel sad, it kind of makes you cry.
The Japanese beauty can be described with the cherry blossoms or even with the samurai warriors that are going to die, when they see the cherry blossoms they have the same feelings, that they are all going to die one day.

MS: You told me in the past that you were doing a lot of research of these old images and I think that I recognized them in your work The Sleeping Water — Hotel Continental Saigon which was part of a long research during which in a certain way you tried to travel through time and through memory with this images that are not yours. What’s the parallelism between these images and what you actually see during your travels?

KM: When I travelled to Vietnam for the first time everything I saw, especially a huge wall, was very familiar to me, it was some kind of deja vù.
The huge wall I saw was the American embassy’s one that I had probably seen in films or documentaries of the Vietnam war. I saw a scene of Americans escaping from the embassy flying away with helicopters.
I went to a very old classic hotel, the Continental Saigon, which is a beautiful French colonial style building. The history of the hotel is very interesting, it’s built in 1800 and during the war many writers and journalists stayed there reporting about war.
I was walking in one of the corridors and I saw the curtains moving because of the wind and I felt so many memories, as if it was talking to me. That’s why I thought I should make a video of it.

There is the Japanese novel title is “The Burmese Harp”:
When the war was over there were a lot of Japanese soldiers in prison but one of them disappeared, as well as a Myanmar monk who also disappeared around the jail’s area. It was strange because the Japanese soldiers thought they were going to go back home but Mizushima, that’s the soldier’s name, said he was going to stay there with the monks to mourn all the people that had died, not only Japanese soldiers.
One day in NY a friend of mine was asking me about this story because she didn’t know it and I told it to her her but while telling it I almost cried. That’s when I started thinking why it almost made me cry, as if I was mourning for all these deaths.
I always think about when I was younger and there was the Vietnam war and I was against it and did some demonstrations that why I decided I should make some artwork about it.

MS: This video you’re working on at the moment is connected to Myanmar…

KM: Yes, it’s in fact about people outside temples, they buy little birds to release them and then these birds get caught again and sold again, it’s a circle. It’s a bit of a silly story but the concept of releasing birds is really beautiful. It’s not only a tradition in South East Asia, in older times it used to be done in Japan as well.
You can find this also in the Catholic church when the Pope releases the white dove in certain occasions.
Releasing birds is a very meaningful symbolic gesture.

MS: How do you choose your travel destinations, especially Myanmar?

KM: Well in Myanmar there are a lot of Buddhist monks, it’s the real original Buddhism. It is still the traditional one.
I filmed the monks there, when they get food in the morning in the market and then they only eat once a day.
Their faces are so beautiful, I shot the faces, I really felt the original Buddhism there but I also still want to go to Cambodia, Laos and the rest of South East Asia to look for original Buddhism.

MS: I’m really curious to see how this video will look once it’s completed. Where is it going to be shown for the first time?

KM: In October I will have a solo show in Hong Kong at 10 Chancery Lane. I am going to show my Book project there.

Ken Matsubara’s show at 10 Chancery Lane will open on the 15th of October at 6.30pm at the presence of the artist.

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