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"Koji Kamoji. Silence and the Will to Live," exhibition view, Zachęta, photo by Marek Krzyżanek

No. 10

The Will To Live Is the Most Important Thing of All

Koji Kamoji, Monika Kamoji-Czapińska and Janusz Czapiński in conversation with Maria Brewińska


From a whisper to a scream. We begin the latest issue of our online magazine with an interview with Koji Kamoji, his daughter Monika and Janusz Czapiński accompanying the exhibition Silence and the Will to Live.

Maria Brewińska: We are here to talk with Koji and about Koji. Is that difficult for you, as his loved ones?

Monika Kamoji-Czapińska: It is for me. It’s not really comfortable, talking about my father; family relationships and art tend to overlap.

Janusz Czapiński: It’s easier for me, especially since I like him a lot, in fact, I liked him at first sight — our meeting, when he allowed me to marry his daughter . . . And that was only because I beat him at jan-ken-pon (rock, paper, scissors). We’ve known each other for 30 years. Koji is an easy-going man who’s a friend to everybody. He’s very agreeable, although he can be really stubborn when it comes to things he really cares about, particularly those connected with his art. What’s special about him is the fact that he is not driven towards having a career, however broadly understood. In other words, he is an internal artist, who does count on any splendour or profits; instead, he treats his artworks like his children, and any attempts at buying anything from him is almost certainly doomed to fail. He does everything for himself, for his own satisfaction, even though exhibiting his works is important to him.

We’ve been planning an exhibition at Zachęta for quite a few years now, which was postponed a number of times. Koji said: ‘Maybe we could do it at the end of next year, because right now I’m going to a yoga workshop in India’, then we postponed it for a number of reasons. However, you strived to organise this exhibition at your own, slow pace?

Koji Kamoji: I wanted to do it the whole time. After all, it’s Zachęta, the most important artistic institution, but I’m not doing it for splendour. The exhibition is mostly a summary of my life in Poland from 1959 until today. Many of my works, particularly the early paintings, just aren’t there, but the most important ones are on display. I see my own life, my work, I talk to myself. For me, that’s the main reason for organising this exhibition.

JC: So, an autobiography?

KK: You could say that. It’s also a token of gratitude towards Poland.

JC: I once asked Koji whether he would like to go back to Japan. He said that he wouldn’t, because everything there is cramped and too orderly, including social norms, because people are given specific behaviour patterns to follow. Here, he had more space and freedom.

MKC: The exhibition is a summary and it took you a while to decide which works you should choose. Coming up with the title also took you some time.

KK: I kept changing it, because the selection of a title is the selection of the sense of an exhibition, and the sense of my life.

The exhibition title is really strong: Silence and the Will To Live. You came up with it at a mature age. Moreover, you add a new title — Old Age — to the Draught installation, the one with a sheet of paper with holes in it. The installation has its history. You said that when you created it in 1975 as a 40-year-old man, you suddenly felt old. You look at yourself in your art in a number of ways, by living and by passing away. You often go back to Sasaki, among others.

KK: The will to live is something that you feel at any age. My friend Sasaki committed suicide when he was 20. He wanted to die, so he took sleeping pills, but the thirst caused by the medication forced him to crawl to the sea shore, where he met his demise. On the one hand, he wanted to die, but on the other, his body still wanted to live, to drink water. And that’s how the will to live works. Regarding old age, you can also see the will to live here, like with Japanese tissue paper with holes — life yields to the movement of air, to gusts of wind, and does not oppose them. The air moves through the holes, but despite this, the tissue paper still exists. Here, I can see the will to live, to survive. I believe that the will to live is the most important thing of all.

MKC: What dad said just now is symptomatic: all his life, he remembers a friend who committed suicide. He started with a strong experience from his youth, which moved him a lot and actually determined his work, growing into an existential problem. He touched upon the question of reason, which is not everything. A person wants to decide their own fate, but at the moment when the power of the intellect disappears, because the pills put the mind to sleep, the body seeks help. This problem appears in many of ’dad’s works. Neither the title of the exhibition nor the subsequent works are something new, seen only from the perspective of an 83-year-old man.

JC: My research shows that the will to live is an aspect of the psyche that does not age. As people age, they may complain more and more about their health, be less satisfied with their family, with the place they live in, be less and less happy — spiritually dull and grey — but they retain the will to live until the very last days of their lives. What is more, even people who commit suicide do not lose their will to live: they take things into their own hands and hang themselves, because that is what they are told by their reason or the image of the world or their own life, which they have in their heads . . . But if you manage to stop such a person from taking their own life, it is rare that they repeat the suicide attempt. Koji is right: the will to live is the most important thing we have in this world. It gives us the ability to go through the challenges of life, all traumas and tragedies. Had it not been for the will to live, we would pass away far quicker than we do now. This applies to the entire human species, and this is how we have been shaped in the process of natural selection.

KK: But this does not concern only humans, does it?

JC: You’re right, natural selection applies to all species.

MKC: With the only difference being that animals do not commit suicides.

JC: Or, at least they rarely do. There is also one more aspect, which explains why the memory keeps coming back. Koji, like many other people, still has a child in him, even despite his old age. The smells from our childhood, the memories of our childhood friends do not age either, they remain within us, becoming a point of reference. When Koji says that the exhibition at Zachęta is important for him, because he can look at himself reflected in his artistic life, it is because he has this point of reference that he knows what was at the beginning of his path, including his career as an artist, that he sees how it changed in the subsequent years. And finally, he can confess before himself — I have arrived at a certain destination.

Koji, are you trying to come to terms with your life?

KK: Yes, this is one of these very important moments, until this stage. But then, my life is going to follow its course. I would still like to paint and work in peace.

When it comes to the works like the The Auschwitz Stone, Hiroshima or The Prayer and The City, Koji emphasises that they always had the will to live. Does he show empathy in these works?

JC: Empathy is an attempt to guess or feel what others are experiencing, and he was concerned about what he would have felt had he been in that time and place, had it touched him. As far as Warsaw is concerned, Koji also meant a dead city — I suppose that he is able to imagine himself among the rubble. In other words, he feels empathy for the world. This broader attitude concerns not only relations with people, but also relations with the world.

MJC: This is a kind of sensitivity and vigilance.

JC: It’s an attentiveness and general sensitivity to the world. Koji also has one more characteristic feature, called ‘mindfulness’ in English. This allows many things around Koji to go unnoticed, simply because he may be focused on something at the time, particularly when he creates — absolute focus.

This is probably the result of consistently working on his discipline.

JC: We rarely talk about Koji’s artistic activities, because he is a rather quiet man. I understand him when he doesn’t want to talk about his work even with his loved ones, because for him, it’s an intimate matter. If he agrees to hold an exhibition and the whole process takes a few years (as is the case with Zachęta), it is because this intimacy is not yet mature enough to be shown. And since he does not care about splendour, let it mature in peace.

Few artists talk about their art today like Koji — about spirituality, being, essence. This philosophical approach to the world and restraint is rooted in Japan, isn’t it?

JC: Yes, when I visited Koji’s closest family in Japan with him, I had the opportunity to see it for myself. They do not talk much, and if they do, it is about things that are really important. Koji’s brother is also completely focused on what he creates — wigs for kabuki theatre, a family tradition taken over from his father. I visited their workshop once and that’s what it looks like: complete silence, a few apprentices and a master, doing work that is precise down to the micron, because they have to fix every hair in these forms. Koji doesn’t talk a lot, and when he does, he talks about the essence, without sliding over the moving surface of the world. In Poland, and in the Western individualist culture, this is rare, but in Japan it is quite a common way of dealing with the world.

MKC: I think that for dad, art is an attempt to find answers to the most philosophical questions, a visualisation of issues and problems by creating installations and painting. In that sense, I think that Koji is more of a philosopher, rather than a painter.

Koji, do you feel Polish?

KK: Polish? Sure, although I don’t feel that I’m a Pole. I’m a mixed bag.

MKC: I think that Koji is purely Japanese.

JC: In 60 years, Koji learned Polish, but you can hear that he’s not a native Pole.

KK: Because I don’t really talk that much.

Becoming ‘Polish’ started in Japan, before you came to Poland.

KK: My uncle, Ryōchū Umeda, lived in Poland before the war, since 1921. He was raised in a Buddhist temple and later studied Buddhist philosophy in Tokyo. He wanted to study European philosophy, so he embarked on a ship to Berlin. On board, he met a Pole, Stanisław Michowski, grandfather of Agata Michowska, a Poznań-based artist, who was killed in 1951. They became friends, and then my uncle, encouraged by Michowski, moved to Warsaw. He lived here for 18 years, until the outbreak of the war. He was the first teacher of Japanese at the University of Warsaw and translated Polish and Japanese literature. Then he was evacuated to the Balkans and returned to Japan. He never returned to Poland, he did not get a visa, although he kept in touch with other Poles, including Professor Wiesław Kotański and many more.

At the end of his life he was baptised and took the name Stanisław, he died in 1962. He wanted his oldest son, Yoshiho, to live here, and he did. Yoshiho Umeda arrived to Poland after you, in 1963, he was taken in by a family in Łódź. Later on, he became famous due to his involvement in the political opposition, it’s such an outstanding story. Your uncle ‘arranged’ life in Poland for him, he also had great influence on you. Supposedly he even wanted to adopt you?

KK: Yes, he liked me a lot, but mother did not allow it, because my older sister had already been adopted by her younger sister. She did not want to give up another child.

MKC: At that time, this was a very common situation, caused by poverty. Uncle Umeda organised the first exhibition of Koji’s works in Japan.

KK: After returning from Poland, he was a professor at the universities in Kyoto and Osaka, he lived in a rental flat in Kyoto and organised my first exhibition there. I painted Kyoto. He invited his colleagues from the university, professors and so on.

What did he say about Poland that made you come here?

JC: It wasn’t really about Poland, he was rather fascinated by the people in Poland. He was encouraged to come here by a friend from the ship, and then he got in touch with other Poles, he felt really good in this society. Koji heard a lot of good things about people from his uncle.

KK: He compared Poland to Japan, he kept saying that Poles could better appreciate other people’s work and art. He had contacts with creative circles.

Then, there was your long travel on board of a ship to Poland. Wiesław Borowski remembers how important that space and water was to you and that the traces of this journey can still be seen in your art, despite strong experiences with nature brought from Japan.

KK: I sat there on the bow, I looked down into the water and I didn’t see anything, not even the ship, I only felt like I was going into the nature. There was only the sky and water. Then, they forbade me from sitting on the bow. I will never forget how I sat there, bent down . . . It was amazing. The journey lasted two and a half months, it started on 24 April. On 16 July, I reached Gdynia, then I took a train to Warsaw. Then, I spent a year in Łódź, where I learned Polish. I remember many smokestacks, a lot of smoke, grey sky, horses pulling carts with coal. I felt that I fell into a hole of sorts. Tokyo was poor too, but Poland was even poorer.

You have been tormented by holes, dreams about a black lake in a black pyramid (Black Lake installation, 1991), wells, chasms, things outside our perception, outside experience, opposite to the space around a ship for many years.

MKC: In Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle there is a fragment about a well and falling into it. I believe that this means going deep into the nooks and crannies of your subconscious that you don’t really see on a daily basis. Perhaps Koji also went deeper into his psyche using this well and the chasms?

Today we are still a rather homogeneous society, but back in the day you were probably the only Japanese people in here.

MKC: Oh, yes. We were Japanese children, and that was difficult. Our parents moved to Pruszków in 1967 — it was a completely provincial place, and suddenly there was a Polish-Japanese family. It was awful. We didn’t want to speak Japanese, I can barely speak it now, although I’m learning. Father spoke to us in Japanese, we answered him in Polish or pretended we didn’t hear anything. However, he also intensively learned Polish and he didn’t care about teaching us Japanese too much, because he strived to integrate with the Polish circles. We weren’t happy with being different, we preferred to speak only Polish. Even these days I sometimes feel like I want to disappear in the crowd. There was a Romani settlement in Pruszków, and children would often chase us screaming ‘Gypsy! Gypsy!’ at us. What’s worse, even when I walked through the Romani settlement, even the Romani people called me a ‘Gypsy’. That was just awful.

KK: I didn’t have any unpleasant experiences due to the fact I was different.

MKC: Koji was just so preoccupied with his art, that he simply did not see that people noticed.

KK: After I arrived in Warsaw, I lived with my uncle’s friend in Żoliborz. I was always covered in paint, and his grandma used to say: ‘Sir, we’re in the capital! You can’t walk around like that!’ At that point, I felt different. But I never felt different because of my Japanese origin.

MKC: We have photographs from our parents’ wedding in Łódź — it was a church wedding, because mother’s parents were deeply religious, but they both wore kimonos. It was 1963, there was even a short article in a local paper.

Koji’s exotic origin was often highlighted in reviews of his exhibitions: ‘Japanese artist in Warsaw’, ‘The stones of a Polish Japanese artist’, ‘The Japanese artist and us’, ‘Scream in Japanese’, ‘A rainbow between the East and the West’ . . .

MKC: Or even: ‘The Japanese made a mess, and the librarian was fired.’

KK: I think it was ‘hanged’ . . . It was about the Haiku — Water exhibition in 1994, a well dug in the library building in Legionowo. The director and exhibition curator lost his job.

After moving from Łódź to Warsaw, you started studying at the Academy, in the studio of Artur Nacht-Samborski. In 1966, the Foksal Gallery was established and you instantly joined the ranks of its artists. Who introduced you there?

KK: At the Academy, I had creative freedom, I did whatever I wanted to. When I prepared my diploma project under Nacht-Samborski, he told me that I had to arrange my own exhibition at the studio. I got half of the studio, Władek Winiecki got the other half. Zbigniew Gostomski visited this exhibition, I noticed him a number of times, then he suggested an exhibition for Foksal. When I defended my diploma project, Professor Mieczysław Szymański, whose assistant was Gostomski, shook my hand saying: ‘Congratulations, you’ve done it.’ That defence took a long time.

And did you have the Pruszków ‘boxes’?

KK: Yes. They discussed for a long time whether they were paintings at all, or a sculpture. Then I wanted to join the union, it was normal after university, but they rejected me. One of the sculptors from the union said they weren’t paintings. Edzio Krasiński had a similar situation.

MKC: Despite spending so many years in Poland, Koji is still perceived to be Japanese, he’s not considered to be a Polish artist. Do you also feel that way?

KK: I don’t want the things that I do to be perceived as exotic, Japanese through and through. I’m very attached to my tradition, to Japan and I like it very much, but at the same time, I would like for everybody to be able to experience it, I want this experience to be a common one, not only Japanese. I would like Europeans to perceive it in a similar way.

What are the differences between us?

KK: In my opinion, Europe puts an emphasis on the body, while in Japan we are dealing with a reverse body. The European culture is a culture of the body, logic and reason, while the Japanese culture is a culture of shadow. But I would really like to combine that.

You combine these bodies at your exhibition in Zachęta, in the new-old installation in the Matejko room, with an aluminium lake, paths made of paving slabs and a wheelchair.

KK: I got rid of sentimental elements. I got rid of music, rain and boats in the water. There is nothing, nothing but water and pavement around it. The wheelchair is a metaphor of the body, the limitations of our life, and the will to live at the same time.

translated: Paulina Bożek, Grzegorz Nowak

Koji Kamoji — born in 1935 in Tokyo, lives in Warsaw. Painter, author of objects and installations. Graduated from the Musashino Art University in Tokyo, moved to Poland in 1959 and began studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, receiving a diploma in 1966. His works, characterised by minimalism and purity of abstract, geometric form, are often compared to haiku poetry. Water and air — elements which the artist experienced in all their intensity during his ship voyage to Poland, often return in his works. The artist also refers to tragic events he was part of (the death of a friend by suicide in the Sasaki’s Moon series, or those that are the traumatic experience of humanity (The Auschwitz Stone and Hiroshima installations).

He has shown his works many times at the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, as well as in individual exhibitions in the Muzeum Sztuki Łódź (1990), the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle (1997, 2003), the Upper Silesian Museum in Bytom (1998) and the Kunstmuseum Kloster Unser Lieben Frauen in Magdeburg (2013). He received the Cyprian Kamil Norwids Critics Award (1975) and the Jan Cybis Award (2015).

Monika Kamoji-Czapińska — a trained psychologist, director of a trading company, mother of two sons.

Janusz Czapiński — social psychologist, prorector at the University of Finance and Management in Warsaw, author of the ‘Onion Theory of Happiness’.

Maria Brewińska — exhibition curator in Zachęta.