Inside the mind of iconic artist, Shohei Otomo, and his latest sculpture, an AI achieving enlightenment

By Frankey


With his latest exhibition, Reiwa, Shohei Otomo showcases his ability to speculate on the future of humanity in his increasingly iconic and elegant style.


Reiwa

22 November – 8 December 2019

SHDW Pop-up Gallery
112 Flinders Lane
Melbourne


Photography: Tom Lamb

Japanese Interpreting: Stephanie Chung

Interview courtesy of SHDW Gallery, Shohei Otomo, and Alexander Mitchell


www.shoheiotomo.com

Shohei Otomo, Reiwa
SHDW Gallery, 112 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Photography: Tom Lamb

Instead of looking back at all the violence that’s happened before, I want the future to be more about good, about opportunity, about how it can be more peaceful.

Shohei Otomo speaks in deep contemplative pauses. He’s prone to closing his eyes in thought, but never feigning offence. He makes you feel like every question you ask of him is deserving enough of a most considered response. In this way, Shohei’s art is the perfect embodiment of himself: a profound artist, possessing an innate talent for seeing and depicting the world at the scale of fine detail. Shohei is also the epitomy of humble coolness. Walking into the gallery, Shohei’s hair is freshly cut. Clean and short along the sides, a thin river of hair flows backwards down the middle, culminating in a braided tail, reminiscent of a majestic horse. It’s just really cool. But Shohei is about more than just being cool.

Melbourne is fortunate enough to be only the second city now to host Reiwa, Shohei’s latest exhibition after Ora Ora in 2016. That latter exhibition was especially provocative. In retrospect, it portrayed a violence of the Heisei era (8 January 1989 – 30 April 2019) that Shohei now actively pushes against with Reiwa. This exhibition is the deliberate evolution of his art into the future. “Instead of looking back at all the violence that’s happened before, I want the future to be more about good, about opportunity, about how it can be more peaceful.” What Reiwa ultimately demonstrates is Shohei’s ability to speculate on the future of humanity and do so in his increasingly iconic and elegant style.


A Transcendent Algorithm towards enlightenment


While Reiwa opened in Hong Kong earlier this year (25 October – 9 November 2019), it’s in Melbourne (22 November – 8 December 2019) that Shohei has chosen to first exhibit his latest sculpture, Transcendent Algorithm. In many ways, Transcendent Algorithm feels like the ultimate culmination of Shohei’s works to date, encapsulating the enormous potential of the Reiwa era and his vision for the future of sentience.

Transcendent Algorithm, Shohei Otomo
SHDW Gallery
Photography: Tom Lamb

In this piece, I’m talking about humans and questioning how they’re going to evolve alongside how robots are going to change and evolve.

Staring at Transcendent Algorithm, I’m taken to a place that feels equal parts discomforting and exciting. The infinite vastness is confronting. Indeed, the future of humanity and whatever we consider to be reality is something particularly difficult to comprehend. “I made this with Reiwa in mind, of course thinking that from now on a lot of things are going to change,” Shohei says. “In this piece, I’m talking about humans and questioning how they’re going to evolve alongside how robots are going to change and evolve.” It’s an important concept that Shohei elevates elegantly. “I’m also considering AI and understanding how it will all interact. Are they going to be more human-like?”

Shohei’s considerations extend further into the ethereal. “Are they going to be just as spiritual as humans? Or will they diverge into their own form of spirituality?”

The beauty of Shohei’s sculpture is that these conversations converge. The piece is remarkably human-like, with its relatable seated pose, fingers, and toes (because why would a future robot even need fingers and toes?). And yet, where we might genuinely expect the most relatable element of a human, the face, Shohei offers instead a cosmic vista through to whatever future you want. Infinite possibilities lie beyond the event horizon.

“It’s a commentary on how humans, robots and artificial intelligence might evolve together.” For Shohei, that evolution should converge towards a better path.

Left to right: Stephanie Chung (translator)
Frankey Chung (writer/interviewer)
Shohei Otomo (artist)
SHDW Gallery, 112 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Photography: Tom Lamb

Shohei takes a moment to describe what he sees as a list of current perils within modern society. Among them, the chase towards relentlessly unsatisfying gains in the capitalist economy and our over-reliance on unsustainable ways of living. “People are starting to realise that’s not sustainable. They’re starting to realise it’s really bad for the earth. It’s making plastic waste everywhere. And there are more people saying we shouldn’t eat meat because that’s hurting us more.” To this end, Transcendent Algorithm strives for that better future. One that is further entwined with our spirituality. “It’s a slow kind of link going from that capitalist thinking to a more spiritual thinking where it’s more about sustainability.” This link is not immediately apparent from the work, but it’s a crucial element to the piece.

As we delve further into his sculpture, it’s evident from Shohei’s passionate tone that these considerations have culminated in its creation. Indeed, too often we as humans think there’s a mutual exclusivity to the realms we define as ‘humans’ and ‘artificial intelligence’. People tend to consider themselves the sole arbiters of spirituality when “we’re actually doing a lot of calculations and thoughts like robots.”

Shohei draws on the analogy that almost every thought we have can be encapsulated in a series of objectives. Things like what we feel needs to be done to get promoted at work, or be better versions of ourselves. Robots and entities of artificial intelligence start out the same way – simple beings of rudimentary instruction. So what’s to say they can’t get to a place of consciousness humans consider to be their exclusive domain? Something achievable in the Reiwa era perhaps, is Shohei’s contention.


A god portrays the gods: Heisei Mary pregnant with the future of Reiwa


To his core fanbase, Shohei is none other than the God of Ballpoint Pen. But it’s a term he meets with embarrassment. “Personally, I never feel super confident about my work.” Nevertheless for fans, the title is wholly deserving. Shohei’s most iconic works feature an abundance of detail, intention, and Japanese aesthetic. Take, for example, Heisei Mary, a fan-favourite depicting a full body tattooed woman, pregnant with the future of Reiwa. “I wanted to convey all of the things that happened within the Heisei era, within thirty years. All the good things and all the bad things.” Surely, to Shohei’s protestation, only the God of Ballpoint Pen could accomplish such a task.

I also wanted to ensure all of these characters in their own right have the feeling that they’re a God or that they are spiritual…

On closer inspection, Shohei clarifies how he deliberately positioned each of the icons across Heisei Mary’s body. Female characters adorn the left side, while male characters populate her right. Villains or anti-heroes sit across her thighs, distinguished again by their “Western” and “Eastern” origins. Across the central and upper parts of the piece, scattered symbols representing Christianity and Buddhism further elaborate on defining the Heisei era in Japan. Amalgamated, Shohei says the piece symbolises the rapid change and chaos during this time and how Heisei Mary attempts to convey this to her unborn child.

“I also wanted to ensure all of these characters in their own right have the feeling that they’re a God or that they are spiritual, because in my view and in popular culture a lot of people respect and know these figures. So, in a way, they are kind of like our cultural gods.”


The enduring humility of a great artist


I ask Shohei, what is the pen preferred by none other than the God of Ballpoint pen? His answer is reflective of the approach he takes with everything he creates. Shohei is not an artist inclined towards using the finest or most expensive tools. Much like his Seven Swords piece, depicting a series of household items that can be easily manipulable into weapons such as a golf club, Shohei prefers his utensils devoid of fancy. “I just like using regular stationary from the convenience store, which aren’t really used by professional artists. I use things found more often in an office setting.” Shohei proves that the artist is in the art not the brush, or in this case, the pen.

Left to right: Frankey Chung
Shohei Otomo
SHDW Gallery, 112 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Photography: Tom Lamb

Even as we progress into Shohei’s creative routine, he is ceaselessly humble. “It’s probably similar to a lot of artists. I’m always thinking about different things. At any given time, I could have up to 50 different ideas in my head. It’s really when I think about those ideas, I think about what new experiences I want to incorporate. By exploring those new experiences, I can create links between my ideas and what I’ve done and what I’ve seen.” After he layers those ideas over and over again, he’s then able to identify what he wants to portray.

It’s ultimately not a case that Shohei feels he needs to achieve anything particularly ascending with his art. “I guess in terms of achievements, it’s not like I want to be the very best. It’s more about wanting people to understand how I’m experiencing and feeling things. I really want them to feel that connection.”


The future of Shohei Otomo


Unmistakably, Shohei’s work to date feels essentially Japanese. It’s the result of growing up in Japan throughout the Heisei era, immersed in the craziness of Tokyo, seeing and living it first-hand. As he spends more time in Melbourne, he acknowledges the city is having an effect on his work. Both Heisei Mary and Transcendent Algorithm were made in Melbourne. “I can already tell that there’s a little bit of influence, but it will probably continue to have more influence on my future work.”

As with almost every interview, I end with a question that’s future-looking. What’s next? I’m generally hesitant about it, since it’s formulaic. But as we stand among Shohei’s so very future-thinking works in Reiwa, pieces deliberately pondering what’s next, I ask Shohei about his aspirations for his art moving forward. In the most Shohei-like answer, he replies “I’ve tried to think about it, several times now. None of it’s really worked out how I’ve wanted it to so far, so I’m thinking I just won’t think about it anymore and see how it goes.”

Shohei Otomo
SHDW Gallery, 112 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Photography: Tom Lamb

Photography: Tom Lamb

Japanese Interpreting: Stephanie Chung

Interview courtesy of SHDW Gallery, Shohei Otomo, and Alexander Mitchell


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