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Interview with San Francisco-based Mitsu Okubo

Juxtapoz // Tuesday, 12 Jul 2011


Anything from a handshake to a shit-eating grin taps into the vast, often unquestioned vocabulary of the human body. SF-based Mitsu Okubo’s detail-rich renderings of the body morph its flesh into a jigsaw of body parts, creating a language entirely new, yet disturbingly familiar. The recent SFAI grad’s collages, drawings, and large-scale prints undercut our assumptions about the human anatomy and the language we so often take for granted, with no shortage of genitalia and bodily fluids. Dicks for hands, anyone?

Inteview by Tyler Curtis / juxtapoz magazine

There’s a very sexual thread running through your work.  Is there a hint of fetish there?  Are you speaking to any larger, societal fetishes we might have?


The images that you see aren’t so much about fetish or deviancy, they’re more of an honest portrayal of people’s insecurities, desires and needs.  I can see how they can be considered fetishes, and I guess they are to some degree, but it’s not so much a fetish as it is a focus.  You can learn a whole lot more about a person by looking at one specific thing that they like or that they’re into, than you can by creating a broad generalization of an individual.  Everything is made of small details, but sometimes it’s that one small little detail that tells the rest of the story.  In that sense, I guess they are fetishized, but it’s more about focusing on one smaller thing to create a larger one.



What about the use of pornography in your collages?


Obviously, porn is something that people get drawn to or cant help but notice, and clearly I do utilize pornography.  But I don’t think pornography is pornographic.  Its not different from anything you find in a Marie Claire or Better Homes and Gardens, it’s just something that people like to look at, there’s nothing pornographic about that.  And if you can find the humor in these things well then that’s a good place to start.


Humor plays a big role in your work, too. I get a kick out of how you play on our assumptions of how the body should be portrayed, and then in an ironic twist, you present it contorted, segmented and fused in any number of grotesque and absurd ways. What do you find most humorous?


I think the most humorous stuff is what comes from inside jokes, it’s more of a nostalgic thing for me.  I know it sounds a little sentimental, but that’s the truth.  I’d say about 10% of my drawings are directly drawn from things that have happened to me.  I mean it’s a very personal way to go about it, and I can never predict what I’m going to find funny. I’m pretty open to most things, so my opinions are constantly changing.  I never want to be sure of one set thing, because then I start limiting myself as a person, my ability to grow as a person, in terms of my ideas and opinions.  So I never stay too concrete on one thing, because then you start becoming a boring, predictable person.  Not to say that I’m not, but I’m just saying it’s hard to say what I find funny.  I guess things that are slightly off cusp and taboo I find really hilarious. But you know I can never tell, no one ever really knows what they find funny until they come across it.  I can never predict it, and it’s better that way.  It’s more interesting.  You don’t want to be tied down by too many things.



Making 100 of anything could take quite a while.  In your book, 100 Drawings, was each thought out extensively, or was it a stream-of-conscious thing?

Truth be told, it’s just a part of a series.  I’m actually at about 700 right now, and I’ve published three of those books.  I just keep going.  In terms of the project, the initial inspiration behind it started when I got to grad school.  I started making these large screen prints, just huge.  These amorphous blobs of flesh and limbs, huge screen prints that were very much about what I am now, consuming and creating, and those two things not being very different from one another.  But I’d do these huge screen prints that were very material-based, very scale-based, and this one piece, the very last one I did, was massive, like 25x30 feet tall.  It was huge.  Once I finished, I didn’t know how I could go any further with these types of works without them becoming boring and repetitive.  So I sat down and thought about the best way to do something completely different, but still in line with everything else.  I realized that the biggest obstacle was the materials, so I started from there, and decided to remove all the material, all of the scale, and break it down to very simple terms.  The drawings came out as a result of that, and the drawings are just a deconstruction of all of these big things that I did.  That’s really how it got started.  The huge pieces have their own narrative, only it’s really hard to tell.  So I decided to take them apart, piece-by-piece.  They just became another part of my practice.


I read that a lot of your work deals with consumption.  Your piece, “Golden Flower,” uses the image of the girl born with eight limbs, and I thought about the explosive media circus surrounding her birth.  Is your appropriation of her image creating a narrative about media and information consumption as well, with a tinge of dark humor?


There’s definitely a part of it about consuming information, but “Golden Flower” is a part of a body of work I’ve playing around with that’s actually more about perception.  It’s about how we re-contextualize the supernatural, or at least how our society currently does.  I’m more interested in the idea of how there are no longer things that are supernatural.  Everything that is supernatural is either diseased or victimized.  In the case of “Golden Flower,” in the village where that girl was born, a lot of the villagers thought she was a deity. They literally thought she was a goddess reincarnated.  But once the media got word of this child being around, she immediately became a victim and someone that needed to be helped, and like you said, that was that media circus revolving around that.  I think it’s unfortunate that there are no longer things that are really supernatural.  And if it is supernatural, it’s immediately commodified or turned into something sad, weak or inferior.  I don’t like that.  There are still things out there that are so unbelievably strange.


We’re very quick to slap “deviant” or “abnormal” onto something that, in other parts of the world, might be revered as something else.  People with schizophrenia, in some cultures, might be honored because they’re seen to have an affinity for certain senses and perceptions of their environment.

Schizophrenics used to be considered oracles, or medicine men and women, because they’re able to speak to so many different voices.  But like you said, it’s no longer supernatural, it’s no longer mysterious.  It’s something to look down upon or help, or both.


You mentioned that you like to work in different mediums, about three at once.  Are the multiple pieces you work on, in those separate mediums, several different translations of the same idea in your head at any given time?  Or are you undergoing different thought processes for each of these pieces?

I think it’s a little bit of both.  My basic interest is the body.  The body itself is such a simple yet massive thing.  I’m really just trying to find as many different ways to expand on my interest in the body and what it means to me in terms of what I experience and what I see on a day-to-day basis.  All of my work is very much about the body, anatomy, and I just try to find as many different ways to explore that. And that’s really what it is, in terms of the parallels.



The other night we were chatted a lot about the über-fucked web culture of videos like Goatse, Mr. Hands, and the BME Pain Olympics, and earlier today, we talked of “body horror” pioneers, like David Cronenberg and at times, John Carpenter.  It seems like you’re constantly drawing from them in your body of work.

Absolutely.  Body mod culture, Cronenberg, and pretty much most horror films in general, along with comic books, are such a huge influence on me.  Things that I think are generally disregarded in terms of being taken seriously, because there’s always something so aggressive.  Media that’s very aggressive, be it comic books, horror movies, cartoons, all that stuff, that’s what I find very interesting.  That’s something that keeps pushing me, that motivates me.  Cronenberg, in particular, because we have so many similar interests.  Not to compare myself to him, but the things that he finds interesting are things that peak my own interests.  When I read Cronenberg on Cronenberg, I fell in love.  Everything that I always thought about and perceived in terms of my practice was pretty much emphasized and expanded upon.  I always sort of felt that to begin with, seeing his movies, but they were confirmed by reading that.  They’re things that I really draw upon.



This is a lovely poster of Freddy Kruger that I picked up when I was in Prague.  Of course I had to buy that, there’s no way I couldn’t buy that.  Freddy’s one of my favorites.



So you were in the Freddy camp when Freddy vs. Jason came out?


Oh absolutely. Jason Voorhees is a badass and everything, but Jason’s literally a commercial product.  I mean, Sean Cunningham will tell you the same thing, they didn’t even have a script for Friday the 13th when they started showing the trailers for it.  But Freddy is just amazing.  Where he comes from, the history behind the creation of Freddy Kruger is so fucking fantastic.  When Wes Craven was growing up, he was bullied by a guy named Fred Krug.  And, in fact, his first film, The Last House on the Left, the main bad guy’s name was Krug.  So Freddy Kruger’s just this childhood tormentor that he managed to turn into an empire.  That’s what I find so fucking amazing, how trauma can lead to an empire.


There’s an honesty in your art that’s also very prevalent in the horror genre.

The honesty in both horror films and the my work isn’t so much about trying to sell an idealized culture, an idealized perception of what the world is supposed to be, or how the world really is.  There are definitely elements of sensationalism and exhibitionism, but for the most part I don’t feel that there’s a lie being sold to you in order to find something that isn’t really there. I’m not a pessimistic person, but I think that for the most part, the world isn’t really an ugly place, but it has a lot of character.  And “character” is just a really nice word for ugly, as far as I’m concerned.  But “ugly” isn’t a four-letter word, it’s just another word, a way to describe things.  And if a person decides to look upon it as a negative thing, then that’s fine, they’re entitled to that opinion.  But I don’t think the world being an ugly place is a bad thing, I think its just another thing that’s out there to really take in and accept, and to celebrate to some degree.


You mentioned restraint.  Is this a continuous theme?  Or just something you’re exploring in this particular series you’re working on?


Restraint in different ways. The drawings are a restraint on myself, not so much a visual restraint, but just on my own capacity to create things. In that sense, they’re about restraint. But as a whole, it’s hard to say.  I don’t really think about that in my current body of work.  In my newer body of works, where I’m still working out the kinks, but these I don’t really try to put too many restrictions on myself when I make these.  I think about narrative.  Narrative, another really overarching theme in my work is trying to find a relationship between narrative and anatomy, I mean that’s a really big one, being able to tell a story just by looking at a person.  I mean its nothing new but its something that’s been prevalent for quite some time and I still find it really interesting and I want to try and find different ways to explore that idea, and what that means to me and what it means to someone else.  Everything from whether you bite your nails or not, the color of your shoes, whether you’re fat small or whatever.  I know that sounds really basic but it’s the most basic things that you can get the most out of.

Mitsu Okubo will be in a group show this coming September, 2011:

Manifest 770
Sept 9 - Oct 8, 2011
Incline Gallery
San Francisco, California


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