Interview with Shigeo Toya

The artist’s turning point


In this interview series, leading artists will talk about “turning points in their careers” from their youth to the present, including their feelings and changes in their works, along with their current activities. This issue features sculptor Shigeo Toya, whose solo exhibition “Shigeo Toya : Sculpture” (February 25-May 14, 2023) was held at the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama.


Front: Death of the Kiln of the Elephant of the Woods, 1989, wood, ash, acrylic, 230×560×62cm, Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo
Back: Woods IX, 2008, wood, ash, acrylic, 220×31×31cm each (30 pieces), Collection of the Musée Bernard Buffet

Transition of contemporary art experienced in turbulent times

The “Shigeo Toya: Sculpture” exhibition was jointly held by two prefectural museums in Nagano where Toya was born, and in Saitama where he is currently based. The exhibition at the Saitama venue consisted of three parts, tracing the artist’s journey over half a century, from the sculpture of human body he created as a university student to the POMPEII ... 79 Part 1 presented at his first solo exhibition, his representative “Woods” series, and his latest Body of the Gaze series.

──You have exhibited your graduation works and other works from your university days. How do you feel when you see them now?

Toya   I have mixed feelings. I did figurative art for four years in university and moved to abstract art in graduate school, but the idea of transitioning towards contemporary art had been brewing since my undergraduate days, and I was experimenting with it alongside figurative art.
The sculptures from my student days remind me of the historical context of that time. During my university years, the Vietnam War was nearing its end, and there was intense student activism due to the 1970 Anpo Protests, often resulting in clashes with riot police on campus. In such a charged atmosphere, students were forced to grapple with their ideological stances and determine their course of action. The sculptures from my student days serve as self-portraits reflecting that period in my life.

──In 1970, the exhibition “Between Man and Matter (The 10th International Art Exhibition of Japan)” was held, in which many Mono-ha artists also participated.

Toya   I went to see it. I was shocked to discover this new way of thinking about art. However, I also encountered resistance. Most of works critiqued modern art and aimed to deconstruct classical forms. While materiality was evident in the pieces, I found few that explored the concepts of “carving” or “engraving.”
In essence, we seemed to lose the “language of sculpture” that emerges from the interplay of matter and form. For paintings, there’s a distinct “language of painting” created through the relationship between color and brushstroke. I questioned whether we could remove those emotions and sensations entirely. Losing the language of sculpture would mean losing the essence of what sculpture should be, which I found somewhat regrettable.

POMPEII‥79 Part 1, 1974/1987, concrete, board, 45×45×170cm each (4 pieces), 15×60×60cm, Collection of the artist

Understanding of gaze structure

From the mid-1970s to the 1980s, he presented a series of works such as POMPEII ... 79 Part 1, inspired by the method of reconstructing the traces of victims of the ancient city of Pompeii, “From Composition” which randomly combined rafters and rebar, and “Woods” which carved numerous irregularities on the surface of wood with a chainsaw. Moreover, he has also conducted performances Bamboo Grove II where he visualized the trajectory of the viewer's gaze by stretching strings through a bamboo grove, and “The summer grasses/Of brave soldiers’ dreams” and “How still it is here/Stinging into the stones/The locust’s trill" where he burned part of the work “From Composition.”

──In 1974, you exhibited POMPEII ... 79 Part 1. What was your awareness when you created this work?

Toya   When I transitioned from figurative sculpture to contemporary art, I questioned where to find a foundation and realized the need to reassess the relationship between concept and material. During that period, there was a trend in contemporary art towards a resurgence of Japanese influence. Some painters sought to revive Japanese painting by drawing from the flatness of Yamato-e, while the Mono-ha movement appeared to strive for a Japanese or East Asian ambience, criticizing Western artistic thought. Sculptor Nobuo Sekine referred to this as a means of “dusting off the dust of concepts attached to objects.” In addition, although he denies it, Lee Ufan’s work seems to reflect ideas from karesansui (dry landscape garden) and Higashiyama culture in the arrangement of stones and their relationships.
However, I felt the need to explore the opposite direction, contemplating how concepts are formed and evolve over time. For instance, in the Stone Age, someone injured by a sharp stone on the ground discovered its cutting properties, leading to the birth of the concept of an “axe” by affixing a wooden handle to the stone. I thought it crucial to reconsider such primal  ideas and objects. Rather than confining ourselves within the confines of Japanese culture norms, I aimed for a universal mode of expression, transcending cultural boundaries.

──The following year, in 1975, you also produced Bamboo Grove II.

Toya   I grew up in a place called Kamiminochi-gun in Nagano, where there were many bamboo groves, and I used to throw stones into them when I was a child. When the stone hits the bamboo, it creates a pleasing sound, but sometimes it misses all the bamboos and just slips away. I attempted to capture the trajectory of the stone as a single line. I would walk toward one bamboo, attach the string to it, and then move toward another bamboo. As I navigated through the bamboo groves and hung the string, it became a record of the path my own gaze had traversed. Some bamboos would only intersect once, while others would intersect five or six times, indicating where my focus lay. The structure of a “multicenter” emerged as multiple centers were formed within the bamboo grove.
Multipolarity is a concept unfamiliar to monotheistic societies like Christianity or Islam but resonates with Japan’s religious and natural sensibilities, a land with myriad gods. I realized that by creating sculptures with this structure, I could depart from the figurative sculptures rooted in Western sculptural tradition. This marked a significant turning point for me.

Bamboo Grove II, 1975, Bamboo grove, plastic tape (Discarded)

What the artist saw at the end of a dead end

──Does the idea of intersecting gazes inform your current production?

Toya   Structurally, little has changed. Bamboo Grove II remains flat because it embodies my experience of navigating through the bamboo grove. However, when viewed from different perspectives–above, below, to the right or to the left–the sculpture engenders a sense of gaze within the space. The concept is to create the sculpture within the line of sight within the space.

──So the gaze becomes the concave of the sculpture, and it appears in three dimensions.

Toya   When carving the human body, I use a chisel to trace the surface, resulting in a smooth appearance. However, when I carve with a chainsaw, the removed areas become concave and negative, while the areas left untouched protrude as convex and positive. When it rains, water flows over the flat ground, and as erosion increases, the ground is scraped away to create valleys, and where it is not scraped away, it remains in the form of mountains. In this way, mountains and valleys are born out of the flat land. The “Woods” series captures this interplay of positive and negative space and marked a significant turning point for me. The work POMPEII...79 Part 1, created a year prior to Bamboo Grove II, sparked my exploration of surface textures and forms. It was also my turning point.

──I heard that POMPEII...79 Part 1 was inspired by the reconstruction of the remains of the victims of Pompeii by casting plaster into the cavities of the volcanic ash deposits.

Toya   Surfaces of matter lack conceptual mass. However, examining the relationship between the mold and the casting reveals that the poured form’s surface is the mold’s interior. As the outer surface of the form repeatedly converges with the inner surface of the mold, it becomes unclear whether the surface represents the object’s exterior or interior.
This concept bears similarity to the structure of a forest: leaves rustle atop the trees, dead leaves blanket the ground, and tree roots extend below. While half of the sun’s rays are deflected, the other half penetrate and reflect through the trees onto the ground, creating a boundary where exterior and interior merge. I believe this surface structure is intricately linked to the cognitive framework of East Asians.

Woods—Ⅰ, 1984, wood, steel, acrylic, 103×39×22cm, Collection of the artist

──Since then, you have participated in various international exhibitions. Was this a turning point in your career?

Toya   Being selected as an exhibiting artist at the Venice Biennale in 1988 opened up numerous opportunities to showcase my work in subsequent years, marking a significant turning point for me on a social level. However, a pivotal moment in terms of personal awareness occurred when I ignited my creation and set it ablaze. This act took place in three locations: Nakatajima Sand Dunes in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka; Hamakurosaki beach in Toyama; and on the banks of the Ganges River in Bangladesh.

──Why did you burn your work?

Toya   As long as I adhere to repetitive conceptual approach to creation, I feel confined, as if I’m merely following predefined patterns. In a sense, I burned them because I felt trapped in this cycle. I would dig a hole in the beach, place the works inside, secure them in place with plaster to prevent them from toppling, and connect them horizontally with sticks. When a fire was ignited in this setup, the flames would spread to the adjacent sticks, creating connections between them as they burned. What rose with the flames was a house built on sand, and it felt as though the concept was delving into an unseen realm beneath the plaster. This concept later inspired the Underground Room series.

How still it is here/Stinging into the stones/The locust’s trill, 1983, Lumber, plaster, nails, fire (Discarded)

Hone both of your eyes

Toya has dedicated 27 years, until 2018, to mentoring younger generations at Musashino Art University. It’s intriguing to consider his perspective on the current environment, which differs from his own student days, and his thoughts on the emerging young artists navigating this environment.

──When did you decide to become a sculptor?

Toya   After graduating from high school, I moved to Tokyo and entered the workforce, spending about a year and a half there. However, my passion for sculpture was ignited during my time in junior high school when I joined an art club. I became deeply interested in sculpting and longed to live a life dedicated to creating works. Money became less of a priority for me; as long as I could afford to eat, I was content. With that determination,  I made the bold decision to leave my job. Once I committed to this path, I never looked back or entertained thoughts of quitting as an artist.

──What is the driving force behind your creations?

Toya   I’m not entirely sure. Once I complete a piece and send it off to the exhibition venue, it’s already behind me, and I no longer feel attached to it (laughs). My mind immediately shifts to what I need to create next. Perhaps the driving force behind my work is a kind of obsession, or maybe it’s a sense of duty. Without creating, I feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety and lose sight of my purpose. If only my ideas would effortlessly flow out of me, life would be much simpler, but because they don’t, I struggle. Though I may not always know what I want to create, there’s a latent desire with me. It’s as if by digging a small well, I hope to uncover water – I’m simply searching for that source of inspiration.

Front: Double Reflected BodyⅡ, 2001, wood, ash, acrylic, 84×73×850cm, Collection of Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art
Back: Cave Ⅲ, 2010, wood, ash, acrylic, 199×131×70cm, 199×131×59cm, 199×131×68cm, 199×131×68cm, Collection of the artist

──Please share your message for young artists, if you have one.

Toya   I think they face challenging times. In my youth, our generation had clear causes to rebel against, ranging from political conflicts between East and West to ideological clashes between the right and left wings. However, I’m uncertain how today’s youth construct their own ideology.
It seems they navigate their world through subtle interactions and nuances experiences, which often manifest in their works. While it’s commendable to be attuned to issues of communication and social discrimination, I observe that certain political agendas are sometimes overtly expressed in their works.
Until around the time of Manet, artists worked within Christian constraints, often taking commissions from figures such as kings, churches, and nobles. For instance, in Russia, the era of socialist realism during the Soviet period mandated that all art convey a political message, making freedom from such political messages crucial for artistic expression.
The messages of today differ from those ordered by authority, as they arise from grassroots movements. I don’t deny their significance. However, alongside the gaze toward social issues, it’s also important to have an eye for the objects that exist in front of us. The wonder, beauty, and amazement of what is happening there. The joy of vision that emerges when conceptualized sensations are removed from an object. If our sensitivity to form were to weaken, it would be a sad thing, I think. I hope that when young, people play a lot and  hone both of their eyes.
(Interviewed on March 14, 2023 at the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama)

Japanese original text: Yuki Sugise
Photo: Osamu Kurihara
Translation: Kae Shigeno

Shigeo Toya

Born in Nagano, Japan in 1947. He completed the sculpture major at Aichi University of the Arts graduate school in 1975. Since his first solo exhibition, “POMPEII‥79” (1974), he has attempted to reconstruct sculpture as a genre, as it had been deconstructed amidst trends in contemporary art, and presents pieces which question the fundamental origins and structures of sculpture. His Woods series, which he began producing in 1984, has received high acclaim. Major solo exhibitions have included “TOYA SHIGEO Forest of Visions” (Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995), “Shigeo Toya: Folds, Gazes and Anima of the Woods” (Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, 2003), “Shigeo Toya: Memories in the Cave” (Vangi Sculpture Garden Museum, 2011-2012), and “Shigeo Toya – Sculpture to Emerge” (Musashino Art University Museum & Library, 2017). He has participated in many international exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale (1988) and the Gwangju Biennale (2000/Asia Prize winner). He received the Medal with Purple Ribbon by the Government of Japan. He is a professor emeritus of sculpture at Musashino Art University.

Toya Shigeo: Sculpture
Period: February 25 (Sat.)-May 14 (Sun.), 2023
Closed: Mondays (except May 1)
Hours: 10:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Last admission at 5:00 p.m.)
Admission: Adults 1,200 yen, University and high school students 960 yen, junior high school students and younger free of charge.