The Rise and Fall of Hideki – a serialized mystery
He went up, up, up, like one of his beautiful balloons.
Then all the air went out of him and he came crashing
back to earth, like the failed astronaut that he was.
Or, you know, like that Humpty Dumpty fellow.
– Famous art critic, Sheldon Massey, summing up Hideki’s artistic career
“What is this crap?”
– Less famous art critic, Bruno Hedges
by Liz Nunoda
In addition to being a JCCA board member I occasionally moonlight as an investigative journalist. I’d like to share with you the first installment of an intriguing mystery that has consumed my life for the past two years. It’s one of those stories that falls into the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category, as you shall soon see.
At the centre of it all is a man known to me, at the time, as Hideki. Just Hideki.
And So It Begins
While beginning my journey as an investigative reporter, I obtained a freelance writing assignment for an obscure online art magazine called Art-Z. The editor asked me to write a feature article on a hot new artist from Japan who was gaining popularity as a world-renowned balloon sculptor. Yes, you heard me right: a sculptor of balloons. But not just any balloons.
In the beginning, Hideki was a completely unknown and unrecognized fringe artist who had once dabbled in clothing design, apprenticing with the likes of Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto. If it weren’t for a Canada Council Arts grant, he would never have achieved the heights of fame and fortune that he did, despite what came afterwards.
According to his website, the enigmatic Hideki was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1972. His father was the chief of cardiac surgery at Koto Hospital in Tokyo, and his brother, Kenji, is also a cardiologist. Hideki was expected to follow in their footsteps but greatly disappointed his family by leaving Japan and attending art school instead, namely the BC College of Art and Design, after having relocated to Vancouver, Canada. In a translated interview posted on Hideki’s website, his father, Dr. Ichiro Sato, quipped, “He didn’t even become a painter, like Picasso or Rembrandt. He became…something to do with balloons? I don’t understand. Pah!”
One gets the impression that his family still does not understand exactly what it is that Hideki does. This is the struggle of the misunderstood, avant-garde artist and, in Hideki’s case, his art is on the fringes of fringe art, treading a fine line between the commerciality of balloonery and what is now recognized, thanks to him, as ILA – Inflatable Latex Art.
Upon first meeting Hideki I was struck by two things: his thick and rather unusual Japanese accent, and his perfect English, which was also tinged with what I guessed was a British accent. When I pointed this out to him, he explained that it was due to his many years living in both England and Canada.
As for the perfect English, he thanked me and said he’d learned it from watching reruns of TV shows like ER; thus his knowledge of medical terminology is rather impressive, as well. This, if nothing else, might please his physician father to some degree.
Prior to his art school admission, when he was a starving, newly arrived artist, Hideki enjoyed performing on the streets of Vancouver, selling his balloon creations for as little as 25 cents, as well as performing at children’s birthday parties. One can only speculate what these early works are now worth, that is, if they haven’t yet popped or deflated, which is unlikely given the fragility of the medium.
A while back, I did spot one of his early works (titled In the Gloaming) on an episode of Antiques Road Show where it was appraised at $25,000 US, much to the delight of the married couple from Baltimore who’d purchased it at a yard sale for $1. (I have since read on the art-world gossip website, Parallax View, that shortly after the show aired, their dog mistook their art investment for sausage links and did what any hungry dog would do. If given the chance, I would ask the eager investors why they allowed their pet to play with such a valuable piece of art in the first place.)
Art of the Transitory
While a student at BCCAD, Hideki distinguished himself by focusing on ‘the art of the transitory.’ Like the impermanence of the Tibetan Buddhist mandala, Hideki said he focused upon making art pieces utilizing balloons, while his classmates sculpted figures from conventional clay, because he wanted to make a statement about the ever-changing nature of life. His use of latex balloons was a commentary on the throwaway nature of the items we use every day.
At first, he stood out because other artists did not take his use of latex seriously, and his works were often dismissed as juvenile. Nonetheless, he persisted, exhibiting his work at every art show that would accept his unconventional works, and along the way earned a reputation as an avant-garde, even Outsider, artist. True to the origins of those considered Outsider artists, Hideki claimed to have once spent time in a psychiatric hospital in Japan, after having been placed there by his parents, where he taught some of the other patients how to tie balloon animals. In fact, he claimed that Junji Sakamoto, famous creator of the Shiva elephant balloon series, was one of his students.
I asked Hideki why his family had placed him in a psychiatric hospital. He responded that normally he refused to talk about this time in his life but that, due to my frankness, which he claimed to admire, he would tell me and that I could write about it.
He started by saying, in his thick and unusual Japanese accent, “I was always considered an odu daku (odd duck).” It occurred to me that this might have inspired one of his earlier works titled “Plucky Duck,” but I forgot to ask if this was the case. He went on to explain that he was trying to stage a performance piece on the Tokyo subway titled “Moon Over a Speeding Bullet Train.” After nearly being run over by said train, Hideki was arrested by the Tokyo police and thrown into a psychiatric hospital, this being just the latest in a string of unconventional public behaviour on his part. His family refused to acknowledge that he was, indeed, a relative of theirs. So great is the shame of nonconformity in Japanese culture that I can’t say their response surprises me. It explains why Hideki fled Japan for a country more accepting of eccentricity or, at least, one that tolerates it to some degree. Upon reflection it makes sense that Hideki’s fringe art was a hit first and foremost in Europe, where they seem to appreciate off-the-wall artists more than North Americans do.
It was clear that Hideki’s stint in a mental hospital only added to his credibility as an avant-garde artist; he had suffered for his art.
As a newly minted graduate of BCCAD, it didn’t take long before the Canadian art world began to recognize and promote Hideki’s work, especially in the Pacific Rim city of Vancouver. Soon, his balloon pieces were on display in the most toney art galleries across the country and were starting to sell, too, for increasingly high prices. However, success in his adopted home country could not rival the heights of fame he achieved in the European Art World. Hideki’s European debut was in a tiny, avant-garde art gallery in London, attended by an exclusive clientele of art collectors. Word soon spread and before long his works were being displayed in Stockholm, Munich, Paris and Rome.
Here is a sampling of some of Hideki’s most celebrated works from his traveling European exhibit:
Hideki told me Poodle in a Doodle was an homage to his second wife’s drowned pet shiht-poo (a shih-tzu/poodle cross), Daisy. Others have speculated that it is a therapeutic piece for Hideki, helping him cope with the trauma of having found Daisy in the swimming pool, or alternatively and more controversially, an expression of his guilt over having drowned Daisy for destroying his work in progress, as he reportedly entered his work studio to find her lying asleep on the floor amidst a pile of shredded latex. Regardless of its origins, Poodle in a Doodle was hailed as marking the nadir of Hideki’s artistic and professional career.
Sex, Lies and More Rumours
Much has been made of Hideki’s adventures in the world of love. It is true he has been married several times, most ending in a bitter divorce, not to mention several children of varying ethnicity, yet he told me that each union, in the end, taught him more about himself than any work of balloon art ever could.
His first wife was Maggie, a talent agent who discovered Hideki tying his balloons on Robson Street in downtown Vancouver. He still speaks of her with fondness.
“She was my first love, and she taught me to believe in myself and my art, which is a lot more than my parents ever gave me.”
He said these words with obvious bitterness. When I asked him when the last time was that he’d spoken with his parents, he replied, “It has been so long I cannot even remember. Of course, when I became famous and rich, they tried to get a hold of me, but I did not bother to call them back. What is done is done.” Such is Hideki’s character: stubbornly unforgiving, very much in keeping with many of the temperamental, misunderstood artistes I have personally known.
Wife #2 was his most famous one; Hollywood starlet Monica Fields. Their union was brief, passionate, and rather bloody, according to Hideki, who filed suit against the Academy-Award-nominated actress for attacking him with a pearl-handled fondue fork in the kitchen of their 6.3 million dollar Beverly Hills mansion. Everyone has seen the photograph of Hideki waiting in the Beverly Hills Hospital emergency room in his trademark ripped studio blouse, with tiny, dual puncture wounds all over his arms and face. The couple divorced after only two months of marriage.
As stated previously, tragedy had befallen the doomed pair, as Monica’s toy shiht-poo, Daisy, was found dead, floating muzzle down in their Olympic-size backyard swimming pool. Monica publicly accused Hideki of bringing about Daisy’s demise, but Hideki flatly denied the accusation.
“She was in a bad place because her latest movie had flopped at the box office. She was lashing out at whoever was close by. That was me.”
While marriage #2 was being fought out publicly, and in court, Hideki was photographed enjoying Berlin night life with German countess, Verna von Stadt, a well-known avant garde artist in her own right and rumoured niece of a high-ranking Nazi SS officer. Once his marriage to Monica Fields had been dissolved, he immediately married Verna and went to live in her German estate just outside of Braunschweig. This union was a little more successful, lasting two years and producing a son named Claus (of whom Verna has custody) but, in the end, they amicably parted and went their separate ways, Hideki taking up residence in his Paris loft.
Hideki and the Contessa
His other ex-wives include a beauty queen from New Delhi (their union producing two daughters, Jhumpa and Deeti), an Afrikaans attorney from Soweto (yielding a son named Henry), and an adult film star from Italy named Contessa Sophia (though I seriously doubt that she really was a noblewoman; I believe this to be a screen name. For a brief time, there was a rumour that Hideki and the Contessa had a sex tape floating around on the internet, yet none was ever found. There is some debate as to who started this rumour. Yet another rumour is that it was Hideki himself, in a shameless bid at self promotion).
Yet More Rumours
It was around this time that rumours of a cocaine addiction and binge drinking began to spread throughout the art world. At first, arts patrons ignored them, preferring instead to focus on Hideki’s ongoing output, mostly displayed and sold in Europe. By then, his popularity in North America had waned considerably. His previously best-selling papier-mache Puppy Poodle in a Doodle Dolls were flagging in sales, as well as the DIY Hideki Balloon Zoo Kits.
In an attempt to either confirm or rebuke these allegations of Hideki’s abuse of illicit substances, I went undercover as just another avant-garde art scene hanger-on in the hopes of spotting him.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Beginning of the End
There are those who believe it’s wrong to show others at their worst. In my view, celebrities of Hideki’s caliber must accept that their lives are public because they are, after all, a public commodity. When you live a life as flashy, overindulgent and soaked in illicit substances as Hideki has, not to mention six failed marriages, one to a Hollywood starlet, you have to expect some negative publicity at some point. Besides, as they say, bad publicity is good publicity.
To be fair, Hideki was encountering the same things that many creative artists who achieve commercial success do. As the noted art critic and close personal friend of Hideki’s, Sheldon Massey, stated in an e-mail interview with me:
“His fans started complaining that they had bought one of Hideki’s balloon pieces only to realize that it was starting to deflate and shrivel up. He tried to explain that was the point; that all things in life, including art, do not last, but they wouldn’t listen. His agent put pressure on him to start papier-mâché-ing his work so that it would last, so that his fans would be happy and keep buying his works, but he refused, initially. The worst of it is that, out of pure desperation, he heeded his agent’s advice and started designing papier-mâché versions of his most famous designs. That is death to a true artiste like Hideki. It is what is called ‘selling out.’ So if you do write about him, go easy, would you?”
World-Class Train Wreck
I thought carefully about Mr. Massey’s words about his treasured friend. Then, true to my journalism training, I decided to go ahead and write a no-holds-barred piece anyway, exposing whatever sordid details I uncovered. If Hideki’s life had, indeed, become a train wreck, then it was my job to show that train wreck to the world.
The Sweet Potato Sculpturist
Hoping to find the reclusive Hideki, and in the hopes of scoring some photographs of him, I attended an invitation-only, post-bas-couture fashion-show party in the home of a sweet-potato sculpturist with whom I had a passing acquaintance. It turned out she and Hideki had attended the same vegetable-sculpture class in art school, just before his rise to fame in the art world.
Where’s the Head?
Upon arriving, I immediately asked if Hideki was at the party and was pointed in the direction of the men’s washroom, which, in this case, was just the general washroom for the downstairs of the house, which looked to have been built circa 1970. If it was true that he really was inside that bathroom, I would be the first journalist to see Hideki in six months.
I posted myself patiently outside the closed washroom door and dug my trusty iPhone out from my purse. After hearing the toilet flush once, then twice, then the water tap run for a few brief moments, the door was finally flung open. There before me stood the man himself, Hideki, who appeared startled at first, taking an off-balance step backwards. iPhone at the ready, I took a shot of him. After giving me a rather disdainful look, he clicked the bathroom light off and brushed past me without showing even a flicker of recognition. I followed him down the hallway.
“Hideki? I know it’s you! Where have you been hiding all this time?”
He halted and started turning to look back at me but lost his balance slightly and leaned against the wall. He was obviously pickled and I noticed a smudge of white powder on the tip of his nose. I quickly took another close-up photo before he could react. “–Heyyy!” was about all he could manage at the time.
He then removed his eyeglasses and, in vain, tried to wipe the incriminating powder from his nose. I lifted my iPhone again and he tried to shield his face from my prying camera lens. Realizing that he couldn’t see me very well, he started looking for his misplaced eyeglasses which, I kindly pointed out, were situated on top of his head. After replacing his glasses, he resorted to uttering expletives in Italian (at least, I think it was Italian) and gesticulating wildly in my general direction. He even tried to take my iPhone away but given his obviously altered state, missed by a mile and grabbed nothing more than a handful of cigarette-smoke-laden air.
In his agitated state, he again removed his eyeglasses and, in desperation, after having missed grabbing my camera, tried to take a punch at me, which might have worked if he’d been sober, as he seemed to have forgotten how to make a proper fist, plus he now couldn’t see very well because he’d removed his eyeglasses again.
After putting his glasses back on and after exhausting all of the cuss words in both English and probably Italian languages, Hideki resorted to cajoling and deal-making in an attempt to get me to hand my iPhone over. It didn’t work.
He then struck a strange, Nixon-like, ‘I am not a crook’ pose and pleaded his innocence, insisting he was being unfairly persecuted by media types like me, that the white powder under his nose was really the icing-sugar coating from his favourite French bonbons and that he just wanted to be left alone.
Not buying any of it, I tucked the iPhone into my purse and hastily left. I believe Hideki tried to run after me but failed because, as I departed, I heard the sound of IKEA furniture being collided with, a body thumping heavily onto the laminate floor and Hideki swearing his head off, in French this time. To his credit, the man speaks at least five languages, or at least knows how to swear in them.
With Hideki now babbling incoherently, yet convincingly, in High German (I know it was High because I studied a bit in university), I immediately dialled 911 and notified the authorities that I had located the elusive Hideki and that they should come right away and arrest him. The operator seemed to doubt my story and said she’d never heard of a balloon artist named Hideki, so in the end the police didn’t show up. She kindly (I suppose) offered to send a mental health worker, though I suspect she meant for me, not for Hideki, so I declined.
It didn’t matter anyway because by then, Hideki had run out of the house with a tall blonde lady, perhaps a new girlfriend, and both had jumped into a black sports car and fled into the night.
After ringing off from the unhelpful 911 operator I immediately texted as many members of the upscale arts community that I could think of to let them know I’d found the elusive Bigfoot, who goes by the name of Hideki, but that he had escaped. I wasn’t about to give up my pursuit though. That would have been unprofessional for an investigative journalist such as myself. And I wanted my $1,000 back (more on that below).
It has been several months since Hideki vanished mysteriously from the art scene. If it weren’t for my photographs, the persistent rumours of him having jumped off the Lions Gate Bridge might have held some water, so to speak. But where was Hideki? Many think he retreated back to his loft in Europe, yet my contacts in Paris who have been staking it out report they haven’t seen anyone remotely resembling the legendary, eccentric balloon artist. At this point I thought he could be anywhere, perhaps even in his native Japan.
However, after doing some research online and at the public library, I created a list of all of the people in Japan with the surname Sato, found their phone numbers and/or e-mail addresses and contacted each and every one of them. Believe me, this was a long list, as the surname Sato is kind of like Smith in Japanese, so you can imagine.
I inquired of each contact as to whether or not any of them had a relative named Hideki. 15 of them did, but none of them were balloon artists nor, in fact, artists at all. The closest I got was a 75-year-old man named Hideki Kato who made sculptures from fish bones, and it sounded like he, too, had been shunned by his family and by Japanese society in general; another ‘odu-daku.’ He responded personally and said that he would like to deliver one of his sculptures to me but that no courier would handle it due to the odour. Is it just me, or is Japan a global leader when it comes to bizarre and sometimes smelly art? I can attest to the fact that it is the land of smelly food; if you’ve ever been in the same room with a dish of pickled daikon (radish) you’ll know what I mean.
There is also the theory that Hideki’s disappearance was nothing more than an elaborate publicity stunt, which I will concede is quite possible. However, in order for this to be a publicity stunt, Hideki will have to resurface again, somewhere, sometime. I, along with many others, will be waiting for that day.
If I Had 1,000 Dollars
Prior to his disappearance, in addition to his unseemly coke habit, Hideki had started borrowing increasingly large sums of money, first from the bank, then from his patrons and hangers-on, and then from his friends and some die-hard fans. He even convinced me to lend him $1,000, opining that he needed it to store the remnants of his balloon installations, now that his various exhibits around town were closing down, plus to help him make that month’s rent. He’d been evicted from his tony Yaletown penthouse apartment overlooking the marina in False Creek and was renting a basement suite in East Vancouver from a fan who had given him a break on the rent in exchange for a few of his balloon pieces. Hideki looked so forlorn at the time that I took pity and cut him a cheque, which I now regret. He had that way with people; always knowing which buttons to push when the circumstances called for it.
I fully intend to get my money back!
Liz Nunoda is a JCCA board member who occasionally moonlights as an investigative journalist.