Kaori Kasai: Sleepless @ Blim
Visual artist Kaori Kasai’s world is populated with whimsical creatures, large-eyed children, and androgynous characters. Her paintings and drawings create short vignettes dealing with friendship, alienation, emotional boundaries and our interactions with our physical environment.
As her own website says, “She creates her own world of eccentric creatures and personalities which bloom into the void: gigantic space dotted with tiny, intimate kinships and spirits bumping into one another, narrating signs of life across a dreamt universe.”
Born in Japan, she graduated from art school in Tokyo before leaving to explore the world. Her works have been exhibited at gallery 1 (Japan), Giant Robot, Little Otsu and SOMARTS (San Francisco), Compound Gallery (Portland) and the Helen Pitt Gallery (Vancouver).
On Thursday, March 4, the Powell Street Festival will launch its 2010 season with an exhibition and residency by Kaori Kasai at Blim.
The exhibition, Kaori Kasai: Ura Monchan, which runs March 4 – 27, is held just ahead of the release of Kasai’s first children’s book, Monchan’s Bag, published by Simply Read Books. Both Ura Monchan and Monchan’s Bag feature the character Monchan, created by Kasai ten years ago as a kind of avatar. Monchan reflects the artist’s struggles of acceptance and sense of self as a landed immigrant in Canada. On the surface, Monchan is the epitome of calmness, but on the inside, Monchan faces emotional turmoil, just like the artist. As part of the residency, Kasai will also curate FLIM night on Friday, March 26, where Kasai’s selection of films and new works produced during her residency at Blim will be presented.
I sat down with Kaori Kasai at Blim on the eve of her exhibition opening and talked about her art, her imaginary friend and her need to keep moving.
In Her Own Words: Kaori Kasai
Who is Monchan?
In 1994, when I was 24 years old, I came to Canada from Tokyo. I always felt frustrated being stuck in a small city on a small island. I wanted to pursue my art, so I came here. Monchan was born on December 26, 1999. I remember clearly, because I felt so isolated at the time. I was living in a little room by myself and suddenly Monchan popped up in my head. Without thinking, I drew this Monchan character on paper, and after I drew it I suddenly felt so happy. I felt this was going to be my longest friend, my closest friend. This main character, Monchan, is my creation, is part of me, like an imaginary friend. Monchan always takes my side, even if I’m wrong. At that time I couldn’t imagine that this was going to be my first book!
Does this sense of isolation come from living in a strange culture and different world, maybe?
Yes, I think so. I have no relatives living in this country and language is a big problem for me. I have close friends here, but I still get frustrated sometimes, using another language. It’s not only language, though, it’s cultural as well. Even when I’m speaking Japanese, I feel uncomfortable because there are some things I can’t communicate through words. I feel like I am bad with language, even Japanese, but I can communicate through my art.
Your first book, Monchan’s Bag, will be published this spring. That must be exciting for you.
From three years old I knew I wanted to be an artist and when I grew up I wanted to write children’s books. There’s a lot of competition—everyone wants to be an artist or a writer, to write children’s books—so it’s very hard. But Simply Read Books found me and I feel so lucky. They are shipping the books from Singapore very soon. It’s been a longtime dream and it’s coming true!
Where does the name Monchan come from?
Mon is a contraction of monster, and chan is the Japanese word we use for children or people we are fond of—so Mon-chan . . . She wears a monster costume because she is very timid and cannot go out by herself. Wearing the monster costume makes her comfortable. She always carries a bag and she can put her favourite things inside—like sweets and cigarettes!
Now I’m getting confused. The book is called Monchan’s Bag, but the exhibition is called Ura Monchan . . .
Omote means front, ura means behind. So Ura Monchan is the story behind the book. Like in DVDs they have special features—the making of the movie. This is like that. Ura Monchan—it is like the reverse side of Monchan.
You say “she”, but Monchan seem quite genderless.
When I was child, I always felt that I shouldn’t have any borders in my mind. I get sad when I think about the millions of borders in this world. People make borders and rules: you’re a woman, you’re a man. Women have to love men. You have dark skin. You came from that country. I am tired of these issues and rules. Sometimes I feel Monchan is a man and sometimes a women . . . or something else! It really doesn’t matter for me.
Much of your work seems to spring from some fantasy world – almost like from a child’s mind . . .
It’s kind of dreamy – when people look at my artwork they think maybe cute, or too cute. Someone said, the characters looks like me.
Does that frustrate you?
Sometimes I get frustrated when people call my art too cute, that my art is for kids. I do art for everyone, especially for adults. When they don’t look deeper, it makes me sad. Cuteness is an outside shell. I hope that people can enjoy the cuteness, but discover more than cuteness underneath. I want to show more depth. Everyone has a evil side. For children’s books I have to create educational, cute characters, but I want to show that things are not only beautiful and cute—that there is another side. If you look at children, they are cute, they look happy, but there is another side to children too, I think. When you see my prints, the faces and expressions are calm. This is the Japanese way—we don’t express feelings much. But inside, there are lots of emotions. When I draw, I calm down, the canvas sucks out all my sadness and anger.
On your website you describe yourself as an artist-in-motion. Do you mean that literally or figuratively? You have lived in Japan, San Francisco, Vancouver and Hong Kong.
Even living in my own country, Japan, I felt very uncomfortable, so I left. But when I settle somewhere, I always want to go somewhere else, to move. I always think, Oh, I want to settle, but at the same time, when I do get settled, I want to move—that’s why I move around!
Your book is published under another name, Sleepless Kao. Is that true—do you never sleep?
I go to sleep really late, three or four in the morning. But I get up late too. So I actually do sleep (laughs). People think I don’t sleep, because I often e-mail really late at night, they think I stay up all night.
Beside painting and drawing, you’ve also done other kinds of art – movies and animation . . .
I went to the British Columbia Institute of Technology and studied new media. I learned web development but I didn’t like building websites so I switched to a different field – making movies and animation . . . I worked with a local group, Mimi’s Ami, Miko Hoffmans’ group. I made a promotional video for her song Duet and it was shown at film festivals in New York, San Francisco and San Diego in 2007.
Duet is the story of two girls and now I’m making a children’s book using the same characters. Simply Read Books is interested in making a book so I am working on it, it will be my next book. I made the characters using felt and animated them. I showed it to the publisher and they liked it, but they want to illustrate it using acrylic paint, so I am painting now . . .
I also teach at Arts Umbrella, the children’s art school, teaching computer arts and visual arts.
It’s funny you know, your work reminds me just a little bit of Maurice Sendak. When I look at them side by side, they are very different, but still, there is something there that is similar . . .
(laughs). Yes – everybody tells me that! But I never heard of him before . . . when I moved to North America, everybody asked me, “do you know Maurice Sendak?” And then this year they made a movie from his book . . .
Have you seen it?
No. (laughs) Not yet. I’m a little bit scared . . .
Are there artists that influence your art?
Not really. I always get inspired when I have a sanpo (little walk). When I paint I need a good calm song.
How do you see your art progressing, now that your first book is being published?
I want to make more children’s books. Right now, Monchan’s Bag is a three-book series. I’m working on the next book, plus the book Duet. Every year I want to create one or two books, and maybe export to other countries like Japan, Europe . . .
I make children’s books and I do this kind of exhibition because I want to show all sides of my art. When you make a book, there are so many people involved. The cover says Sleepless Kao, but sometimes I feel this is not really my product . . . Ura Monchan is my art work, 100%. Even if people don’t like it, I can hear people’s voice directly and get their feedback. That’s why I like doing exhibitions.
So you are an artist-on-the-move, but you have been living in Vancouver for a while now. Where do you feel most at home?
Anywhere near water. I grew up in a small town in Japan. There is the ocean and Mt. Fuji. The feeling is similar to Vancouver.
Kaori Kasai: Ura Monchan
March 4 – 27, Blim
197 17th East Avenue, Vancouver
Phone 604 872 8180
Friday, March 26
Kasai’s selection of films and new works produced
during her residency at BLIM will be presented.
Entry fee: sliding scale of $7 – $10.
Hula Girls (2006) – Directed by Sang-Il Lee.
Written by Sang-Il Lee & Daisuke Habara
Hula Girls is an award-winning Japanese film based on the real-life story of how a group of enthusiastic girls hula dance to save their small mining village, Iwaki, helping to establish one of Japan’s most popular theme parks, Joban Hawaiian Centre. It may not look like it, but Hula Girls was a deserving winner at the Japan Academy Awards.
Blimited: Limited Edition Screenprinted shirt by Kaori Kasai available at Blim for month of March.
More information at www.powellstreetfestival.com. Follow on Twitter @ twitter.com/powellstfest