Interview with Yasuko Toyoshima

The artist’s turning point


In this interview series, leading artists will discuss their careers and turning points to date, as well as their feelings and changes in their work from their youth to the present, along with their current activities. In this issue, we spoke with Yasuko Toyoshima, whose solo exhibition “Yasuko Toyoshima: Origination Method” is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (through March 10, 2024).


Desire for her own expression

Since her debut in 1990, Toyoshima has been presenting works that use a kind of rules and social systems that already exist in the world, such as sharpening pencils, filling out blank answer sheets, buying stocks, and opening bank accounts. What led her creating such works was a book she came across when she was a student.

──You were making paintings when you entered Tokyo University of the Arts. What inspired you to start creating works that incorporate the rules and systems of daily life?

Pencils, 1996
Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo
Photo: Shizune Shiigi

Toyoshima   Koji Enokura, who was teaching at the University of the Arts at the time, asked at a critique session, “Why do you paint on a square canvas?” It was a question not just to me but to all students, but I thought it was true that I had never thought about it. Then, I looked for a book at the university co-op store and happened to come across a book by Takahiko Iimura, a visual artist, titled Eizo jikken no tame ni: Text Concept Performance (lit. For visual experiments: text, concept, and performance)(Seidosha, 1986).
There, he introduced a story about an experimental production that used the squares of manuscript paper as the film’s score. I’ve learned from there that one expression can be replaced by another format, and that the systems and rules that people unconsciously share can also be used for expression. Answer Sheet (1989-90), in which the outside of the entry fields of an answer sheet are filled in, was the first work inspired by this book.

──Was there also a sense of discomfort with the act of “painting”?

Toyoshima   There was. Essentially, I enjoy painting, so when I paint, I focus on it, and I can paint in abstract expressionist style even though I don’t know what I’m doing properly. But viewers would still say, “That’s nice.” I could create an infinite number of paintings like this, but it shouldn’t be such a superlative thing. I had such doubts, and Mr. Iimura’s book showed me that painting is also a conceptual act. I think that is what made me feel comfortable.

──When you were a student, it was a time when neo-expressionism was gaining momentum. On the other hand, I believe the influence of the Mono-ha was still strong within the university, including figures like Mr. Enokura you mentioned earlier. What was the mood of the art scene at that time?

Toyoshima   When I looked around, I could see a lot of works that are kind of neo-expressionistic. They seemed superficial, but there were people who paint such works without thinking much about it. I didn’t understand that. What I wanted to do was to engage in introspection, build upon my knowledge, and develop my own unique expression. During this period, Mr. Iimura’s book served as a guiding light for me in creating my own artistic method. Although the works introduced in the book were created around the time of my birth, I found them remarkably accessible. I felt a disparity in the “depth of understanding” between the words and things that were happening around me and the insights from slightly earlier time that I sought out myself. When I realized this, I began creating works based on the knowledge I gained myself as a compass for my journey.

──I understand  that attending Sunday school at church when you were a young child played a pivotal part of your life. Did you choose to attend church voluntarily?

Toyoshima   When I was the final year of nursery school, I came to realize that there were adults who lived their lives with a sense of morality slightly purer than everyday values, although it might be an exaggeration to call it “righteousness.” Witnessing frequent heated arguments between adults, whether it was between my parents or things that happened at my father’s workplace, filled me with apprehension. Trying to distance myself from such conflicts, I sought solace in a place free of such tension. I continued attending Sunday school until around the time I entered high school.

──How has that experience influenced you?

Toyoshima    It might be instilled in me as a sense of righteousness. In the Gospel of Matthew, it says “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek.” Even as a child, there was in that phrase something that convinced me somehow, the way of doing things back in a less direct manner. I think I have been quite conscious of that kind of attitude.

Questioning the neutrality of everyday tools and mechanisms

In her early career, she created works employing common tools like pencils and rulers. In September 1990, as a senior in university, she participated in the group exhibition “ART TODAY 1990” at the Takanawa Museum (now the Sezon Museum of Modern Art).

Ruler, 1996-1999
Collection of the artist
Photo: Yuichiro Ohmura
Installation view from “Yasuko Toyoshima: Origination Method” Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (2023-24)
Answer Sheet, 1989-1990 Collection of the artist Photo: Kenji Morita

Toyoshima   After creating the Answer Sheet piece, I thought I shouldn’t repeat it. So, feeling somewhat daunted, I challenged myself to approach familiar objects from a new perspective. I continued searching for the next object to explore. I aimed to uncover the paradoxical nature of objects that are commonplace to me, such as stationery–objects that pose no threat, that are neutral and innocent, or rather, that appear harmless to humans and animals.

──What prompted you to participate in “ART TODAY 1990”?

Toyoshima   In June 1990, the early summer of my senior year, I rented a gallery space called Tamura Gallery in Kanda and organized my first solo exhibition, using my own savings which I had saved from my part-time job. The exhibition showed pieces I had been diligently working on for a year. Etsuko Sugiyama, then curator at the Takanawa Museum of Art happened to see the exhibition and invited me to participate in the exhibitions she was curating.

──From the mid-1990s, your material transitioned from familiar tools to social system itself. In Mini Investment (1996), you purchased stocks and documented and disclosed their fluctuations, and in Open Bank Account (1996), you opened accounts at different banks. Transfer to My Account (1996) is where you continually transferred money into your bank accounts from ATMs and had “transfer cards” issued.

Toyoshima   The early 1990s was the time when my production methodology was being organized. I thought that using only familiar materials would restrict the scope of my work, and I was eager to challenge myself by exploring subjects that were distant from my personal experience. Consequently, I decided to engage with subjects that surrounded me and may affect me but that I usually don’t pay attention to. Initially, I had no interest in investing, nor did I still possess much knowledge about it. My perception of investing was mostly negative, which piqued my curiosity and motivated me to experiment with it.

Installation view from “Yasuko Toyoshima: Origination Method” Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (2023-24)
On the wall Mini Investment 1996-
Open Bank Account, 1996-
Collection of the artist
Photo: Ken Kato

──Opening accounts and making investments as a “work of art” seems like a very solitary process, not intended to be shown to anyone. What motivated you during this process?

Toyoshima   The idea of incorporating stocks into my artwork began in 1996 when I saw the MINAMATA exhibition in Tokyo with my mother, an event organized by a nonprofit organization addressing Minamata disease. It was there that I learned about the “one share movement,” where victims of Minamata disease purchase shares in the offending company, becoming shareholders, and voicing their concerns at the general shareholders’ meeting. I thought it might be possible to incorporate this action in the form of art. I perceived parallels between leveraging an opponent’s system and destabilizing its equilibrium, akin to the conceptual art movements in the 1960s, which coincided with the emergence of the one share movement. When I explained this concept to my mother, who wasn’t familiar with art, she expressed understanding, which encouraged me to pursue this unconventional artistic endeavor.

The long turning zone and the awakening to sumo

Despite debuting at a young age, the opportunities to show in exhibitions or to be involved in major programs dwindled afterward, leading to a challenging period. Although she persevered in her work, she faced a lack of exhibition or residency opportunities and found herself perplexed by the movements of those around her.

──Have there been any events since the 2000s that have become a turning point in your practice?

Toyoshima   The 2000s could be characterized by the absence of clear turning points, which in itself defines the period. a pivotal moment. Following my debut, I participated in an exhibition organized by art critic Akihiko Takami and others in 1994, expecting more opportunities to show my work soon after. However, this expectation did not come to pass. In 1995, I gave up my independent living and returned to my parents’ home in Saitama, and so the 2000's went on while I was confused.
I learned that peers slightly older than me venturing abroad, prompting me to explore alternative paths. However, works like Mini Investment and Open Bank Account were rooted in the Japanese system, which requires explanation for its complicated context. Amidst my uncertainty, the number of commercial galleries increased, and it became common for younger artists to be affiliated with them. I found myself caught between generations, feeling disheartened and wondering why my effort weren’t producing results. Rather than experiencing distinct turning points, the period from around 2000 to 2007 was marked by prolonged impatience, akin to traversing through a “turning zone.” It was a time of significant turmoil and introspection. It was not a "turning point," but rather a "turning zone," a period of long-term impatience that lasted from about 2000 to 2007.

──How did you get through that prolonged period of difficulty?

Toyoshima   It was around 2007 when I grew tired of the situation and expended so much energy that I became completely exhausted, to the point where I didn’t even understand why I was sulking. Just around that time, there was a peculiar period when I strangely found myself intensely focused on watching sumo wrestling. It was during this time that I would say the “poison was purged,” or rather, that the path gradually began to open.

──What drew you to sumo?

Toyoshima   At the time, there was a rikishi wrestler named Toyonoshima who was just beginning to gain recognition, and I found myself rooting for him because his name resembled my own family name. Prior to this, I had never taken an interest in sumo, and it was actually the first time I felt passionate about something other than art. I made Fixation/Motion (2009), a list of won-and-lost records for a grand sumo tournament, using the back of an exhibition poster while watching sumo. Looking back, I realize that I enjoyed exploring something outside of my usual realm. During this period, I delved even deeper into my personal hobby of pairing sumo videos with music, sharing them on the newly launched YouTube platform, and engaging with sumo fans around the world.

Installation view from “Yasuko Toyoshima: Origination Method” Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (2023-24)
Fixation/Motion (List of won-and-lost records for the 2009 Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament, Makushita wrestlers) (detail) 2009 Private collection

Transformation of social action into art and its concealment

Her fascination with sumo led her to engage in a signature collecting campaign (2011-13). The campaign aimed to urge that the Japan Sumo Association to reinstate Sokokurai, a sumo wrestler from Inner Mongolia who had been advised to retire following match-fixing allegations.

Toyoshima   In 2010, I was awarded a grant to spend six months in New York. Shortly after returning to Japan, the Great East Japan Earthquake plunging the nation into turmoil. Around the same time, the issue of baseball betting during sumo tournaments escalated into allegations of match-fixing scandal, resulting in disciplinary actions against numerous foreign rikishi wrestlers. Like many sumo fans, I felt a strong urge to take action and bring about change. I decided to make the signature collecting campaign itself a personal activity. I started this work as a kind of hypothesis that if what I seriously do can be called a "work of art," then this must be it.

──The concept of transforming social action into a work of art seems to relate to the “one share movement.”

Toyoshima   I had a longing for “righteousness” within myself. I hypothesized that actions intertwined with society, such as civic movements, have more validity than actions confined to the isolated art industry because they have a tangible impact on the world. This sentiment may have been partly influenced by the 3.11 disaster. Engaging in the signature collecting campaign prompted me to actively communicate with individuals whom I had previously avoided.
However, as I continued to collect signatures, I felt conflicted and began to feel the need to abstract the relationship between this social action and my artistic practice. I began questioning the notion of labeling social activities as "personal" endeavors. Sumo exists within its own world, within numerous individuals involved in it. I worried that by incorporating it into my work, I might be exploiting it. Yet, I also felt uneasy about ignoring my genuine interest in sumo .... After much contemplation, I concluded, “Why not conceal it temporarily to fulfill my intentions?” This notion inspired the creation of Cover-up Maneuvering (2012).

Cover-up Maneuvering 20120625, 2012
Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo
Photo: Ichiro Otani

──There’s also discomfort in labeling social activities as one’s own expression and not making them an expression. Then do it while hiding it. Is that what you meant by “abstracting”?

Toyoshima   Yes, it is. I came to think that it is up to me whether to consider my social actions as personal expressions, and it is also my choice to conceal them. Thus, I gained the freedom to both hide and execute them as I see fit. Cover-up Maneuvering consists of two wooden panels that close together like shells, containing numerous retractable parts inside. I had fun experimenting with similar configurations, allowing for various concealment patterns. This resulted in the creation of a series of Panel (2013-2015), in which the elements are further refined and made with a single panel.

──At the exhibition “Image Narratives: Literature in Japanese Contemporary Art” held at the National Art Center, Tokyo (2019), it was displayed in a way that exposed interior parts that had previously been hidden.

Toyoshima   I really wanted to reveal the hidden aspects, so I showed the interior parts as if to expose the key points. What was interesting was that the work at that time resembled Kazimir Malevich, a 20th-century Russian avant-garde painter. Up until then, my interest had been focused on the 1960s at the earliest. But this piece somehow connected me to painters of the early 20th century. It felt like I was suddenly connected with 100 years ago. I’ve always found art history better through my own actions rather than through information. When I materialize what I’ve hypothetically conceived up to the last minute, I gain a different perspective.

Panel #22 , 2014
Collection of the artist
Photo: Kenta Hoshino

Delving into your sensations: Exploring the structure of human relationships

In recent years, she has created a series of works featuring striking circular motifs, exemplified by pieces like The Copernican Theory (2020), where circular panels are arranged in concentric circles.

──How did you get started with circular works?

Toyoshima   Grass cutting (mowing). After 3.11, there was a movement to establish a renewable energy NPO in my hometown, and I joined it. A large group of us invested in a small solar power plant, which required us to mow the grass around the solar panels. So, I bought a Hitachi machine, and as I observed the spinning blade of the mower in action, it gradually became more abstract in my mind.
The grass, growing beneath the solar panels that generate electricity from sunlight, was being cut by a machine manufactured by a company involved in nuclear power generation. This rotating circle, in contact with the ground of the rotating earth. Also, I have long been interested in the circular device (a scale indicating the half-life of radioactive materials) held by Dr. Strangelove in the movie "Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb " (1963), and symbols like the radioactive hazard overlapped with it, which led me to create many circular works. Recently, I’ve even creating pieces that merge The Copernican Theory  with Panel series.

Rotation Left and Right, 2018
Collection of the artist
Photo: Yasuko Toyoshima
The Copernican Theory 2020 Narugae, 2020
Collection of the artist
Photo: Kenta Hoshino

──I felt that you have been developing your own interests step by step over the years, and at the same time, I thought that many artists may encounter the same problems in their careers that you felt in the 2000s. Do you have any advice on how to continue being an artist for a long time?

Toyoshima   I would love to have some advice too (laughs), but if I could say one thing, it would be to follow what you believe is the right direction, even if it’s a temporary arrangement. There’s a subtle sense of “righteousness” that you feel inside you. I believe it’s important to honor that feeling and not just go along with the flow. Nowadays, there’s an abundance of information, but methods change with the times. So, I think your actions and values should be guided by your own standards as much as possible.
I also think it’s wise to avoid excessive conformity. While it’s natural for artists to associate with other artists, excessive group dynamics can lead to compromise. Whether it’s an organization or a social circle, whenever people come together, hierarchies are formed. I hope artists will be mindful not only of the validity of their claims but also of the underlying “structure” of human groups. This way, we can unite when necessary and maintain our individual freedom. I think this principle applies to all aspects of life, including relationships and marriage.

──Please share with us  the highlights of your solo exhibition “Yasuko Toyoshima: Origination Method” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo.

Toyoshima   I plan to arrange works from my early days to the present on the same plane. While the subjects may vary from stationery to investments to circular revolutions, there’s a common thread connecting them. In the past, I could only show fragments of a continuous body of work in solo or group exhibitions. However, this exhibition can reveal the process of creating individual works and the simultaneous creation of multiple pieces. Viewers will have the opportunity to explore the connections between different works–what preceded a certain work, what was created in parallel, and so on. While in my mind, everything is chronologically connected, viewers often only see the work of a certain period. My hope is to bridge this gap and share the invisible line between each piece.

Japanese original text: Tamaki Sugihara (Writer)
Photo: Osamu Kurihara
Translation: Kae Shigeno

Yasuko Toyoshima

Born (1967) and resided in Saitama Prefecture.
Toyoshima completed the Master Course at Tokyo University of the Arts (Tokyo, Japan) and received MFA in 1993. In 1990, her first solo exhibition was held at Gallery Tamura. Since then, her solo shows have taken place at various galleries, including Akiyama Gallery (Tokyo), M-gallery (Ashikaga, Tochigi), Galleria Finarte (Nagoya, Aichi), and Maki Fine Arts (Tokyo). Her recent solo exhibitions include Color Compensation 1, Open Studio Program 27 (2005, Fuchu Art Museum) and The Capital Room: Beyond Three Dimensional Logical Pictures vol. 1 Yasuko TOYOSHIMA (2015, gallery αM). Her works have been presented at many group exhibitions, including ART TODAY 1990 (1990, Takanawa Museum [now Sezon Museum of Modern Art]), Slanting House/ Statements by the Artists in Japan since 9.11 (2002, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo), The Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Visions 2017 Multiple Future (2017, Tokyo Photographic Art Museum), Assembridge NAGOYA 2017 (2017, Former Minato Dormitory of Nagoya Custom), and Image Narratives: Literature in Japanese Contemporary Art (2019, The National Art Center, Tokyo). She is a Professor at Tokyo Zokei University.

Yasuko Toyoshima: Origination Method
Exhibition Period: December 9 (Sat.), 2023-March 10 (Sun.), 2024
Closed: Mondays (except Jan. 8, Feb. 12), Dec. 28-31, Jan 1 and 9, Feb. 13.
Hours: 10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. (Admission available until 30 minutes before closing.)
Admission: Adults 1,400 yen, University and college students, over 65 1,000 yen, High-school and junior high-school students 600 yen, Elementary school students and younger free