25 Nov 2021

Q&A 11 Questions With A.A. Murakami

David Chan asked A.A. Murakami (Alexander Groves and Azusa Murakami) 11 questions about their creative process. Here is what they had to say:

David Chan (DC) is a Hong Kong and Shanghai-based curator who works with Pearl Lam Galleries and is the previous director of Osage Gallery and the Shanghai Gallery of Art at Three on the Bund.

A.A. Murakami (AAM) are the artists behind Studio Swine (Super Wide Interdisciplinary New Explorers). Working across the media of sculpture, film, and immersive installations, their work explores themes of regional identity and the future of resources in the age of globalization

1.DC: How would you define your art practice or explorations?

AAM: We would say the driving force behind our practice is an interest in materials, both as a way to explore the world and how humans can coexist with the natural less destructively. We have a fascination with the way materials shape us, our cities and culture, our value systems, etc.We want to work on the edge of what is possible, that blurred line between a dream and reality. It’s a line that is always shifting and we seek to occupy by combining material research with new technology and combining our different backgrounds in art and architecture.

2. DC: What are the shifts between the edges of dream and reality? 

AAM: As Arthur C. Clark said, “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” For us, this means doing projects that can be speculative and visualizing something not yet possible to make part of it real. So, we might design a system for collecting plastic at sea to make mobile factories onboard boats, and we actually go to sea and manifest part of this idea for real.

We are interested in the art in science and the science in art and how we can combine the two to bring into the world new experiences and new art forms. Most tech art relies on quite familiar forms of interfaces, projections, LED interfaces, and VR, basically different forms of digital screens; however, we spend more and more of our lives looking at screens, so we don’t want to make art that relies on the same familiar interfaces with technology, which in our view doesn’t make our lives better or our experience of the world richer.

We believe the future is integrating technology into our lives in invisible ways, indistinguishable from natural phenomena like rain, in installations or works we call ‘unnatural phenomena’.

We are interested in the ephemeral and the material qualities of real substances that can have a physiological effect on the viewer by not just engaging through sight or sound but also scent and touch, which bypass the language part of the brain and shortcut to some feeling or memory.

3. DC: According to your statement, your practice intends to combine rich and emotional narratives with rigorous spatial awareness. Would you mind elaborating on this point?

AAM: Azusa studied architecture, and I studied art, then we both took a product design post-graduate course, which is where we met. So, I think we have this desire to fuse what can represent the essence of these disciplines: to make one feel and to organize space.

When we started in design, we saw the functional side of design as frivolous, often pointless. For example, the most common archetype of design is a chair, whose function is to sit on. Over the last 150 years, mass production has solved this problem; there are probably enough chairs to seat the population of the world. But the chair is also a vehicle for ideas. One of the vital roles of design is to express the times in which we live and where we want to go as a civilization. Design and art can create a space, telling stories and evoking a feeling is the focus of our practice.

4. DC: Can you tell us about the impetus and concept behind your first collaborative project, the Sea Chair?

AAM: We were listening to BBC Radio 4 one night, and there was a science documentary about sea plastic. It was 11 years ago, and the first time we heard about the problem. They were recording from a sailing heading across the Atlantic with marine biologists sampling the water for plastic. It wasn’t at the time widely known, and the concept of being able to fish up this human-made material in the middle of the ocean fascinated us. 

We had the task of making a chair and had struggled to justify creating another chair in a world full of chairs. We had the idea of making a plastic chair that wasn’t from a factory to be shipped globally but was made on a boat with plastic waste fished out of the sea with a geographical location. 

5. DC: A.A. Murakami (Studio Swine) “saw creating as really something problematic in that it usually relied on making more stuff in a world already full of things, fueling endless overconsumption and being a drain on the planet’s finite resources.” What are the possible solutions for this dilemma in the field of art and design?

AAM: While art represents a tiny amount of stuff compared to industrial mass production, its influence on culture is immeasurably vast. So, I think there is a responsibility to consider the environmental footprint of art, as it is linked so strongly to aspiration and the culture of consumption. 

We have approached the problem by looking at the materials we use and the lifespan of the work. Sustainability used to be seen as this undesirable frumpy thing that resulted in work that looked like Weetabix. Traditionally in art material choices can be quite standardized for sculpture, marble, bronze, etc. These are all excellent materials intrinsically; however, we find the magical thing about art is the ability to transform the undesirable into something beautiful. We see artists create this transformation with the depiction of a subject, taking an overlooked or everyday thing and handling it in such a way that it transcends the ordinary to achieve something almost sacred, think of the Jade Cabbage or Warhol soup cans, but this isn’t so common in the treatment of the materials. On a planet that decreases natural resources and increases waste, art can transform the perception of the value system around elements.

We have found that creating the challenge of working with something that is also sustainable is a great way to drive innovation and exploration. It has led us to go to sea to collect plastic, to the Amazon rainforest to obtain rubber from wild rubber trees and discover other sustainable rainforest materials, to human hair markets in Shandong Province, and to make a mobile furnace to melt aluminium cans into objects on the streets of São Paulo.

6. DC: What is your usual working process? There is always a sense of economy and
pragmaticism in your work or can I say intervention.

AAM: The process starts with a mixture of instinct and a lot of quite eclectic research. We have a real passion for history, science, materials, and geography, so there are several ways that we approach a project. Then it’s always important for us to visit a place that the project is connected to.

I think there’s a right amount of pragmatism combined with the irrational. Often, the main goal is irrational or you can say a poetic idea, but getting there involves a lot of rational and scientific research. The history of civilization is a mix of grand ideas with getting by and making do.

We like to work the constraints of a place because it will result in work that’s more particular to that place and time, less driven by trends, and our existing knowledge and more a result of exploration.

So, for example, working in São Paulo without a studio made us make the work on the streets; without a production budget, we used free materials from the streets. We made a mobile foundry to melt the drinking cans we were collecting so we needed free and plentiful fuel. We used waste vegetable oil from street markets and sand from construction sites to make molds from objects we found and cast the aluminium into a series of vernacular stools.

7. DC: What was the production process behind the projects Hair Highway and Metallic Geology? Both pieces were made in China. Were the processes of production in China very different than in the West?

AAM: We were first interested in human hair as it was being sold in London for hair extensions. The labels said ‘100% Human Hair made in China’, so we wanted to find out who was making it, how it was processed, and the story behind the product.

With Hair Highway, we had been developing the material that combined human hair and a bio-resin while in the UK. We then worked with Pearl Lam, who was able to connect us to the hair factories and find the markets that sold the hair before processing.

We used to find it easier to work with Chinese factories on small projects, which isn’t possible in the UK and generally the West.We don’t work with factories in the West. We work with workshops, fabricators, carpenters, etc. But factories would only produce one product, so there wouldn’t be a way for us to work with them. In China, there are a lot more factories and they are at the start of the production chain, so there’s a lot more changing raw materials into things.

There’s a sense that factories in China are more fluid and flexible, whereas in the West they usually strictly produce one product. They seem more specialized and inaccessible.

8. DC: Metallic Geology draws reference from Chinese rock gardens to bring natural elements into a domestic environment. With this free-standing object, the rock made with foamed aluminum opens up to reveal another structure within. Is there a hidden iconography or meaning behind this piece?

AAM: We are interested in how natural processes can be adopted into industry or technology. For example, we like combining chaotic and ephemeral matter such as plasma and bubbles with technology. Aluminium foam is a wonderful material as it’s comprised of hundreds of thousands of small bubbles. It’s 90% air and only 10% aluminium, so it has an appearance like pumice rock and it’s formed similarly. Pumice rock is made in volcanoes, as a hot molten rock is transformed by the pressurized gases passing through. Pumice is filled with air bubbles as it cools and hardens and is thrown out of volcanoes when they erupt. Aluminium foam is formed similarly, as aluminium is injected with gases when in its molten state.

There’s something about the material that is all the more beautiful when it’s very irregular and has cracks and fissures. It gives it a natural and elemental feel, as well as modern and industrial. The contrasts can give you a sense of the uncanny.
When visiting China, we always find it hard to reconcile its ancient history with modern China. Something about these rocks for us speaks of both.

9. DC: For your first interactive project, New Spring, the tress-like sculpture is reminiscent of Italian palazzo chandeliers. What inspired you to do this intriguing project? How did the audience respond to it?

AAM: We were invited by COS to propose an installation that would be put up during Salone del Mobile in Milan.It was an installation that would typically last a week, so we wanted to create an experience and leave nothing but a memory. We wanted to create not so much a physical thing as a moment. It was to be situated in a 1920s cinema, and we love Italian films, especially Fellini’s Casanova. There’s a scene after an opera has ended and the audience and performers have left, and Casanova is in the empty theatre. The giant chandeliers are being dropped down for a stagehand to snuff out the hundreds of candles. There’s something about the mood of that scene and the way Fellini can use visual metaphors as a vehicle for the emotions that appealed to us, a sense of melancholy and beauty in the passing of things. That is what we wanted to do with New Spring: to create a beautiful moment that is all the more memorable for its fleeting nature.

There was a really special atmosphere around the New Spring installation, which we could never have anticipated. There was somewhat of delirium within the crowd of visitors. I think because they had never seen anything like it, there was a sense of pure delight and wonder. Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It was something like a medieval fair, like out of a Bruegel painting or Rabelais’s writings on the laws of nature, where the norms of society are suspended and there’s a sort of heady drunken state under this tree with all these people looking up and catching the bubbles. That was the case in Milan, which was encouraged by the music, the scent, and the 1920s cinemas that was entirely dark except for this illuminated tree. It was great when it traveled to Miami and Shanghai, where we created a different environment, but it didn’t have the heady Bruegel fair feeling, which was perhaps unique to Europe.

10. DC: Blue (Infinity Blue) is a vast undertaking that uses cyanobacteria, the world’s smallest living beings, to create oxygen. Housed inside a monument made with Cornish
clay, this site-specific work emits aromatic smoke rings to create a primordial environment. What kind of senses do you want to evoke for audiences?

AAM: We wanted to show the invisible world on which our existence depends. In the past, art and architecture were made to depict these invisible forces: temples to worship spirits and giant effigies of Gods.

Cyanobacteria is one of the smallest and oldest lifeforms on Earth. They formed some 4 billion years ago in our primordial oceans. They performed photosynthesis for the first time, releasing oxygen into our atmosphere, which led to the transformation of our planet into a place where life could thrive. They still account for creating 70% of the oxygen in our atmosphere today.

Roman fountains often depict Neptune and gods of the sea. We wanted to create a type of spray as a giant monument that, in some way, worshiped cyanobacteria, which create the air we breathe and upon which our existence depends. Infinity Blue is a 9m high sculpture made from ceramics as it’s situated in an old china clay quarry. It contains 32 custom-made vortex cannons that fire scented fog rings that form O’s, representing the release of oxygen cyanobacteria.
We wanted to create a sense of this sculpture being alive and something that was somewhat alien, unlike our everyday experience of either art or nature.

11. DC: Can you shed light on your upcoming solo exhibition for Pearl Lam Galleries?

AAM: We have been developing works with neon, mycelium, waste, fog, and new production processes. We want to create an environment that explores the feeling of being human in our times, where rapid advances in technology and an ever-greater estrangement from the natural world can leave us feeling disorientated. We are creating works that combine the artificial with the natural to build a sort of science fiction manifesting in space and series of objects rather than in a book or film.