As a part of the GEISAI∞infinity project curated by Takashi Murakami, James Jean recently held a solo show at Kaikai Kiki’s Hidari Zingaro in Tokyo. His new collection of work, titled Zugzwang, is a series of fantastical imagery rendered in blue, red, and pink, filled with demigods and cross-cultural characters. We spoke to James about his new work, living in Asia, and recent inspirations.
Neocha: Being born in Taiwan and growing up in the U.S., do you identify strongly with this part of the world? What’s different about having a show in Japan, or in other parts of Asia?
James: I’m an alien wherever I go. Though I grew up in the U.S., I’ve never truly felt at home there, and since my ability to read and speak Chinese is non-existent, I’ll never truly feel at home in Asia either. Perhaps it’s this sense of isolation that has driven me into making art in the first place. I actually spent most of this past year living in Japan, and I love the attention to detail and the shokunin spirit that’s pervasive throughout many aspects of society. But sometimes I think I’m re-enacting the trauma of my youth by living in places where I’ll always be an outsider and an observer.
Neocha: Where do you like to go when you travel? What were some of your favorite places or experiences during the process of putting up this particular show in Tokyo?
James: The most inspiring places I’ve been to of late have been in the hot, undeveloped regions of Asia. I lived in Southeast Asia for a year in 2013, and I recently returned from a week in Cambodia courtesy of the Igloo Hong Foundation. The lack of resources forces the people to improvise and assemble their lives in a way that creates a landscape full of texture and chaos. In contrast, Tokyo is a city of amazing infrastructure and thoughtful planning. My show was treated with great attention and care by Takashi Murakami’s staff, which allowed me the freedom to create a large triptych on-site in only couple of days before the show opened.
Neocha: 你通常喜欢去哪里旅行 ？你这次在东京办展的过程中自己最喜欢的地方和经历是什么？
James: 近期最能激发我灵感的地方是在亚洲那些气候炎热且不发达的地区。2013年时，我在东南亚生活了一年，最近我也承蒙Igloo Hong Foundation之邀再次回到柬埔寨待了一周时间 。资源的短缺迫使这里的人们为了生存而临时打造或组装出一些建筑与融合在交错凌乱的周身环境中 。相比之下，东京则是一个经过深思熟虑且规划缜密的神奇之地。在村上隆团队的大力帮助下，让我可以自由地在展前的几天现场完成了一个巨大的三联画作品。
Neocha: What is Zugzwang? There’s a lot of animals, birds, fantasy, and almost deity-like figures in the work – what are some of the themes in these pieces from the show?
James: Zugzwang began as a series of drawings in my sketchbook. I had no preconceived notions of what I was doing, but the imagery began to resemble demigods and characters that contained elements and narratives from many disparate sources –mutants of culture. The series culminates in a piece called Pagoda II, which depicts a creature of ultimate decadence and doom.
Neocha: Zugzwang表示什么？这次的作品中许多动物、鸟，幻想中的和几近神化的人物， 这个展中有许多这类的主题究竟是想要传达什么？
James: Zugzwang起初只是我在素描本上的一个系列画作。之前我也没有设想过自己要准备拿它干嘛，但脑内已有了各种半仙和神秘符号及故事的臆想——变异的文化。这个系列的巅峰之作是一幅名为Pagoda II的作品，它描绘了终极末日的生灵。
Neocha: Tell us about your work process. Do you plan meticulously when you draw, or is your process more freeform? Why did you choose to only use a very selective number of colors for these pieces?
James: I was looking for a way to keep the series consistent, as if they all breathed and lived in the same atmosphere. I tend to go into work without forethought and decipher meaning afterwards. As soon as I combine imagery, a narrative is formed. Narrative is a mysterious force that occurs spontaneously between distinct elements, as one idea sparks a series of ideas that eventually resolve in a final image. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, for me to conceive of something all at once before starting. And it always changes along the way.
Neocha: 关于你的创作流程，你在创作时是否会精心计划 ，还是说你通常都自由发挥？为何你的作品中只选择使用几种固定的颜色？
James: 我试图找寻一种能统一整个系列的方式，让它们看似在同一氛围存在且相互关联着。我不喜欢在创作前预先设想或在完成后再诠释其含义，一旦我将这些画面完成 ，故事也就成型了。故事是由截然不同的元素之间自然而然所产生的神秘力量贯穿，因一个灵感激发了一系列的创意最终将其呈现在完稿之中。如果要我在开始创作前就将所有一切构思好也是几乎不可能的，而且很多东西都会在过程中逐渐浮现的。
Neocha: How has your work process changed from now back to when you were doing comic covers and more commercial work?
James: When I was doing commercial work, I was still making personal work at the same time. So the process hasn’t changed that much. If anything, working on the computer so much instilled a sense of fear when I painted. There’s no commitment in working digitally, which is a curse. So it did take a little while before I could regain my original confidence after retiring from commercial work.
Neocha: Is there a particular image or idea you’re obsessed with?
James: There are motifs that recur frequently, such as foliage, spaghetti, veins, wedges of stratified land / cake. These elements form the landscape of my subconscious and constantly assert themselves in my compositions.
Neocha: What ideas are you really into currently?
James: There’s this one writer I’ve been listening to who speaks about resume virtues versus eulogy virtues, and the changing values among the generations. It mirrors the changes I face as I get older and navigate the world – living in L.A., the resume virtues of accomplishment and ambition reign supreme, but the eulogy virtues of humility, self-sacrifice, and compassion are set aside as everyone struggles for survival in an extremely competitive world.
James: 我曾听这么一位作家谈论简历技能和悼词美德，以及每一代人价值观的转变。行走于世，随着年岁渐长，他所说的也正映射着我所面对的世界变化: 在洛杉矶，所谓简历技能，那些满纸成就和抱负，往往至高无上；而悼词美德，那些人性中的谦恭虚己、自我牺牲与同情怜悯，却被搁置一旁，只因人人在这个不是鱼死就是网破的世界中为生存苦苦挣扎。
Neocha: Physically and mentally, how does the process of painting and drawing / illustration differ for you? Can you hole up for an entire day, or days just painting? Is it a full-body experience? Do you listen to music or do anything else ritualistically to enable your work?
James: I can very easily isolate myself for days working on a piece. I usually listen to podcasts or have documentaries playing. I’m addicted to new information, even though I retain very little. The voices allow me to become less self aware about what it is I’m doing, which makes for a better picture and allows the process to surprise me along the way.
James: 我很容易为了完成一幅作品而将自己隔离起来。我通常会听线上音乐或将纪录片 播放在那。我对新资讯很着迷，尽管记在心里的甚少。这些声音会减少我对自己在做的事情的关注，这样反而能促成一幅更好的画作，并能让我在创作过程中不断遇到惊喜。
Neocha: What’s next on the horizon for you?
James: I’m working on another show for late 2016 and also more publications. I’m also building a new studio and we hope to finish it in a few months.
Neocha: If your superpower was that anything you draw can instantly become a 3D living breathing piece of reality, what would you create?
James: A pegasus.