Louise Noguchi: the faces of identity
YO-IN Reverberation, the current exhibit at the Nikkei National Museum, features the work of eight Japanese Canadian artists spanning several generations and time zones. The artists—Nobuo Kubota, Cindy Mochizuki, Kazuo Nakamura, Emma Nishimura, Jon Sasaki, Louise Noguchi, Aiko Suzuki and Shizuye Takashima—represent a broad cross-section of Canadian Nikkei artists with very different experiences and approaches. Some, like Aiko Suzuki, Kazuo Nakamura and Shizuye Takashima, set the stage for others in the show, breaking ground at a time when Asians were not well-represented in the visual arts. Others in the show represent a new generation of artists.
Toronto’s Louise Noguchi falls somewhere in the middle. Active in the Toronto art community since 1981, she has exhibited both nationally and internationally. She received her MFA from the University of Windsor and AOCA from the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. She is a professor in the Art and Art History program, a collaborative joint program between Sheridan Institute and the University of Toronto Mississauga where she teaches photography and performance-based art. She is represented by Birch Libralato Gallery in Toronto, Canada.
Louise Noguchi spoke to The Bulletin by e-mail from her home in Toronto.
Louise Noguchi: in her own words
You are attending the Honorary Degree ceremony for Japanese Canadian UBC Students of 1942 on May 30. Do you have a personal connection to the event?
My father Kiichi Noguchi went to UBC and earned his Bachelor of Science degree specialising in Chemistry in 1942. However, he was unable to attend his graduation ceremony because of the internment. Along with giving honorary degrees, UBC will be re-conferring degrees to Japanese Canadians who missed their graduation. This past February my father passed away. It is sad that he will miss the ceremony once again, but my brother Vincent will be representing him and I will be in attendance to both remember my father and to honour the students who were forced to leave UBC due to the internment.
You were born in Toronto but I imagine that your family can trace it’s Canadian roots to the west coast. Tell me about your family’s history in Canada.
My mother Makiye Noguchi (nee Nakamura) was born in Salt Spring Island. Her family owned a laundry business and a strawberry farm. She said that her father advertised their strawberry business on one side of their truck, while the other side was an advertisement for the laundry business. Depending on which side of the road you were standing on, you would see a different advertisement, which effectively gave the family an appearance of being very enterprising. My father was born in Seattle and grew up in Vancouver. To help support his family he delivered the newspaper Canada Shimbun and worked at a fishing camp owned by the Koyama Brothers on Gabriola Island during the summer months. His father Mitsujiro was very active in the Vancouver Japanese community.
Were you were drawn to the arts as a child?
My mother was always very creative. I think I was inspired by her devotion to all things visual, whether it was arranging flowers for the dinner table, gardening, making objects or oil painting. She always valued the beauty of an object.
In your 2004 exhibition document you look at the mythology of the North American cowboy through colour photographs and a video installation . . . One website describes it quite vividly: “Staged six-gun shoot-outs and smoking aftermaths are the stuff of Noguchi’s probing scrutiny. Her photos are a seductive and shrewd exposition of anachronism, ethno-bending, and contemporary art-making.” I also had a fascination with the wild west and the whole cowboys and Indians thing when I was a young boy – where did your interest stem from?
When I went to grad school, I wanted to make a Chinese knot, a large round knot that is used to make buttons. When I got to the school library, the book on knot making was beside a book on trick roping. I thought it would be more interesting to learn how to do the fancy cowboy tricks that were described in the book rather than making knots. My earliest work dealt with the idea of the artist as hunter and I felt that roping animals and doing fancy tricks with a rope had a relationship to the idea of hunting. I wasn’t very good at trick roping and I could never find the right type of rope to do trick roping, so my professors told me that I had to find an instructor to teach me the skill. In Southern Ontario, finding someone who could trick rope was not an easy task, but eventually I found a teacher who was a third generation rodeo and wild-west performer. Since my instructor was skilled in many of the western arts, my training extended from trick roping to knife throwing and bullwhip cracking. I decided to make videos and photographs using these skills, along with the skill of stunt riding with a horse and wild-west gun-fighting. I titled the video series The Language of the Rope, while the series of photographs depicting gun-fights at wild-west theme parks were titled document.
In YO-IN you are represented by Compilation Portraits, a series in which you interweave photographs of yourself with photographs of mass murderers and their victims. These are striking visually but also disturbing on a number of levels. What provided the inspiration and impetus for this work?
The inspiration for the Compilation Portraits began by reading the book A Father’s Story written by Jeffrey Dahmer’s father. The book had a sweet and innocent picture of a four-year-old Jeffrey Dahmer. Looking at the photo, I couldn’t imagine how he could have developed into the serial killer he eventually became. When I was reading the book, I became more aware of news stories with images of victims and murder suspects on the nightly news. I began to think about who these victims might be, whether this could this ever happen to me, and I wondered at the same time how someone becomes a serial killer—was it nature or nurture? To empathize with these stories, I thought that I would superimpose a photograph of my face with a photograph of a murderer or murdered victim. I decided to use the kindergarten craft or technique of weaving paper together as a way to merge the two photographs; this decision was probably a result of thinking of the young Dahmer photo. I thought the work would yield an image where the two portraits remained separate and distinguishable from each other; instead, I was surprised to see one portrait that combined my physical appearance with that of the other.
In your Outline of Research you state, “Throughout the development of my work, I have dealt with the concept of the artist as hunter. This theme first emerged when I began to question the role of the artist in a broad cultural setting as well as the artist’s possible motivations. In some of my earlier work, my investigations led me to explore ideas of violence and transgression associated with the primitive hunt.” Given the theme of YO-IN, which ties contemporary art in with the Internment experience, I wonder if you see the internment or even the whole Japanese Canadian experience as impacting your world-view and your approach to art.
Definitely. When I went to grad school in 1998, my classmates said that my work was very violent. I thought I had to address the causes and effects of violence in my work during my MFA. I still wanted to pursue the same issues in my work, but I didn’t want to displace this violence onto my audience. Eventually, I saw that my work could act as a warning of potential violence. It is a warning full of ambivalence because I try to look at both sides of the violence. Perhaps this is the conflicted nature of being both Japanese and Canadian and having to deal with these histories.
You have had a long and varied career as an artist but you also teach. Art is such a subjective and open-ended medium of express. Do you have a philosophy behind your approach to guiding students?
Most teachers have a written teaching philosophy, mine begins with a quote by Joseph Kosuth: . . . the strongest artists have their why before they have their how. It is about having one’s why and realizing that everyone else’s how won’t do; and the continuing search for a personal how that directly answers and relates to this why. This basically sums up the way I try to direct students with their work. Understanding the broader “why” in one’s work, along with the why in each individual work, directs “how” the work can be completed. Kosuth’s philosophy could also be applied to other things in life if you substitute the word “artists” with the word “people.” Very few students attending art school become professional artists, I wanted a philosophy that could have different applications and could be extended beyond a career in art.
Teachers can have a profound impact on their students – do you see it as a big responsibility?
Yes, I believe it should be.
Do you find teaching impacts your own art, or is it completely separate?
I try to help students to develop their own direction to making work and I try as much as possible to avoid influencing their work with my own personal perspective. When a student graduates, I hope that she or he will have an understanding of who they are and what their work is about. This wasn’t the case when I came out of art college in the early 1980s; it took years to shake off a teacher’s influence. For this reason, my teaching is separate from my art practice.
Whenever I talk to people from east of the Rockies it always gets me thinking about the east/west divide within the Canadian Nikkei community. Have you spent much time in Vancouver? What is your impression of the art scene on the west coast as opposed to Toronto and central Canada? And what is your impression of Vancouver, leaving art aside?
I haven’t spent a lot of time in Vancouver. The first time I went to Vancouver on my own was in 1996 when I had an exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Vancouver or British Columbia. My father felt he was “ousted” from BC because he had to choose between Japan or east of the Rockies. He never really complained about his treatment during the war, but whenever the CBC’s weatherman reported that it was raining in Vancouver, he always remarked “good.” He would visit Vancouver because of business, but he never wanted to live there again. He was a forward thinker and always tried to look to the future and not the past.
My mother on the other hand, always dreamed of retiring in Salt Spring. She had wonderful memories of the island and also of living in Victoria.
As you can see my family’s attachment to BC is quite ambivalent.
Having said that, I do like Vancouver and have even thought of living here. I don’t want to get too much into comparisons, but I am envious of the high level of engagement which the Vancouver art scene has with art. The Vancouver art scene also has a strong sense of identity, which is supported by its curators and museums; whereas Toronto seems to lack some of this.
Do you have much involvement in the Japanese Canadian community in Toronto?
I was a founding member of Gendai Gallery, a gallery within the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, but I left the board many years ago to pursue my MFA. This year I decided to become a board member once again and have rejoined the gallery, which has now moved to downtown Toronto, renamed itself Gendai Workstation and serves a wider community of artists.
I talked to Vancouver writer Hiromi Goto last month. She’s moving to Toronto and when I asked her why she said she felt like it was time for a major life change. She also thought it would have a big impact on her writing, being in a different environment. Visual art is very different from writing. Do you see your own environment having a big impact on your art?
I admire her for making such a significant change in her life. I find that my experiences impact on my work more than my environment does. Many times I choose to make work that has an experiential element to it and to develop work from it. In some ways I enjoy challenges that are more psychological and interior in nature than choosing to physically change my environment, which for me would be a much more frightening experience.