At home in objects
Berlin-based artist Yuka Oyama was in Aotearoa New Zealand from October 2017 to January 2018. She was Te Whare Hēra International Artist in Residence at Massey University Wellington, making a new series of work called “Helpers: Changing Homes”.
Sian van Dyk: You have earned a diverse range of qualifications over your career: a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Rhode Island School of Design, a Masters in Jewellery Art and Sculpture at Munich Art Academy and a PhD in Art and Craft at Oslo National Academy of the Arts. What first drew you to jewellery and how does it sit within the other disciplines offered at these schools?
Yuka Oyama: When I enrolled at Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1990s I wanted to study painting. Back then, the department played music like Enigma while we were encouraged to react and draw freely using charcoal. I felt too pragmatic to follow this programme for three years and wanted to ‘learn’ something more concrete. I looked into joining Industrial Design but immediately felt in the wrong place as I couldn’t calculate or draw straight lines. Being female, I was also a minority in this department and felt disadvantaged. Across the hallway was the Jewellery Department. I was drawn to the way jewellery sat between artistic disciplines such as sculpture, fashion, costume, industrial design and architecture – so that’s where I stayed. The strict training in jewellery craftsmanship taught me how to make: how to treat materials; express concepts; care for tools and pay attention to detail. This foundation gave me the confidence to learn new media such as welding, sewing and photography later on. My interest in the malleability of contemporary jewellery saw me undertake a PhD and become involved in interdisciplinary art projects with students in the Dance, Choreography, and Stage/Costume Design, Sculpture and Liberal Arts Departments. I frequently ran workshops about how to collaborate while keeping one’s own artistic identity and vision. These combined experiences of learning the fundamentals of a craft and working, researching and facilitating in a way that emphasises a collaborative, multi-media approach has allowed me to reach a much broader audience and show how the principles of contemporary jewellery can really seep into people’s lives.
SvD: I first came across your work in 2015, at a lecture series called ‘Art Jewellery and the Public Sphere’ staged in Munich as part of Schmuck. I was curious about how these two ideas would come together. Why did you introduce a participatory aspect to your jewellery practice?
YO: When I was an art student at the academy in Munich, I was hospitalised for over a month with cadmium poisoning because of the enamelling work I was doing. This experience blew my mind, as in hospital people of different age groups, socio-political-economic backgrounds and beliefs spend a lot of time together. I realised how small my world had been as my circle of friends and associates were based in the art world. I began to understand that most contemporary art existed in a place very far from everyday life. In the hospital, I started working on a knitting project and many people commented on my artworks, and it was far more interesting than any crits I had received at the academy. I discovered the richness of interacting with people. This inspired me to start working in the public space with a performance project called Schmuck Quickies, where I built jewellery out of scrap materials based on people’s desires. An inclusive approach has been a trademark of my artistic activities ever since.
SvD: You’re here undertaking the Te Whare Hēra Wellington International Artist Residency with Massey University – can you describe the project you are working on?
YO: This project is about having a home that is constantly in motion or having many homes at the same time. In the past, the place we grew up had a big influence on who we became, but for many people, this idea is less relevant in the 21st century, which is much more hybrid and global. In my project, Helpers: Changing Homes, I explore how objects we emotionally attach ourselves to help stabilise us and evoke notions of home. SvD: There would have been some intimate and private feelings stirred up through these objects. On the other hand, immigration is a public topic, and one that can polarise people. How did the idea for this project develop, and how are you addressing these variances in your work?
YO: This project has stemmed largely from my own transient life and the experiences of living in seven countries. The current closures of national borders – regardless of our intentions not to judge others according to race, gender or religious beliefs – influenced me to reconsider the notion of home. I began the project by interviewing 20 people who had also moved a lot from early childhood – as much as 12 times in six months! We talked about their experiences and the objects they carried with them. It became quite apparent that your appearance and gender makes you more aware of your ‘self’ and ‘belonging’, and has a great impact on your sense of ‘home’. The process made me realise that I had forgotten the way I look – like an Asian woman – to others in Germany. I also realised I miss Asia and began remembering my feelings of being a stranger in a new country. Some of the interviews confirmed for me that in New Zealand, a Caucasian person who has previously lived in English-speaking countries is often accepted as ‘Kiwi’ more easily and experiences far fewer challenges compared to a person of colour. It was especially moving to hear an Indian participant speaking about their sense of homecoming from the papers they carry with them that confirm their qualifications. Keeping these ideas in mind, I selected seven stories and created wearable homes for these participants out of cardboard moving boxes. The wearable sculptures represent their emotional objects, and are about the size of a tent. Instead of revealing every private detail, I wanted to commemorate their experiences in an accessible and symbolic way. I decided to orchestrate a filmed performance, where they would enact their sculptures to represent the movements of hermit crabs, who swap their shells – or homes – for new ones in order to grow.
SvD: There is a fine balance between control and spontaneity in your choreography: how do you manage this? How much coaching compared with collaborating do you do with the participants?
YO: This varies depending on the project. As I generally work with everyday people, I try to incorporate gestures that their bodies already know. In Cleaning Samurai, for example, I invited my karate club to take part – who already knew sets of karate kata – which helped generate the choreography. I then try to provoke participants to step out of their boundaries just slightly. The duration of the coaching varies according to each artwork. For Helpers: Changing Homes we have three hours to rehearse, since the crew is very large – 30 people! It is challenging, so I need to plan very precisely. That’s the control. Spontaneity comes from working with non-actors.
SvD: What do you hope your participants and audiences, will take away from Helpers: Changing Homes?
YO: I’m asking people questions that perhaps only they can answer. What makes a place your home? How do you conceptualise this if it is constantly changing? How do you fill the void of a home you have moved away from? I hope to broaden people’s understanding of home towards a metaphorical or psychological state of mind that includes people and circumstance. Like a building façade, a physical home only sits on the surface. In the end, who we are – represented here by the objects we hold closest to us – is what creates a sense of home. As we grow, so too does our understanding of home.
This interview was published by Art News New Zealand, Autumn 2018.