An interview with Takeshi Ishiguro

We invited artist and designer Takeshi Ishiguro to present at a LISA salon but he was unable to travel here from Japan that month, so he kindly answered our questions via email instead.

Were you interested in art or engineering as a child? I know many children dream of inventing magical devices, before they are aware of what is and is not possible, and that same sense of wonder and invention seems to persist here.

Yes, I think because my grandfather was an inventor. I liked to visit his lab, play and daydream of new devices when I was a kid. At that time I was unaware of art, but I think I was always aware of the future, and of the possibility of creating beauty myself in the future.

Who were your early teachers?

I had three teachers who greatly influenced my thinking. One was my grandfather whom I mentioned, another is my father who taught me who to use tools and how to make things well. He is a university professor who conducted many experiments himself. Lastly, my mother, a choreographer, who taught me about the beauty of human music, movement and creativity.

There sometimes seems to be a divide between engineers who work with computers and software, and those who work with materials and mechanical devices. Does your work require much programming, or are you more interested in the hands-on experience of building a piece?

Although I do like to make tangible things with my own hands, I do also use programming to transform a tangible experience into what I call a phenomenon. The great thing about the hands-on experience of things is that is is analog. A digital experience can convey everything  but it is lacking in essence. All analog experiences must have an essence, so it is difficult to cheat expression.

In the past you have said that you don’t want to create “things”, but phenomena. I know that in an interview with CRUMB, curator Yukiko Shikata has talked about this in relation to Japanese new media artwork, and the documentation artworks. Do you feel that online videos and documentation of your more ephemeral works accurately capture the experience of seeing the pieces, or does one need to see them in person?

I would say something tangible always has a multisensory aspect. So it might be difficult to actually experience all the sensory aspects of a piece, at least with the media we have now. But it might be possible for certain people, because we have a great ability to imagine how an experience might be even though the media is not perfect.

Emotional Trees, Installation view

What did you learn from observing the emotional trees (an installation with sensors that changed color according to the tree’s “emotional response” to a viewer)?

Trees are so quiet and have reserved minds. They seem to know something very important, which we have already forgotten.

Can you talk about the theme of flight in your work?

Yes, I am always thinking about flight. I think the most obvious difference between an object and a phenomena is lightness: whether or not it can float against gravity. Therefore I always try to make my objects fly.

Can you talk more about the weightless dance piece? You said in an interview it was originally meant to take place on the International Space Station.

We actually did it last June 2009, with support from JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency). The performance was held at the International Space Station. We sent all the equipment — costumes, stage sets, props — into space by space shuttle, to make a theater environment, and it was performed by Japanese astronauts. I think it was the first time anyone set up a stage, and performed a dance, in space.

It was very difficult to ‘direct’ the piece on the Space Station from Earth, so all the direction was done before the astronauts took off. We did rehearse the piece in an airplane which can reproduce a weightless condition for 20 seconds while diving.

I think my biggest discovery from this was piece  how wonderful it is to have a gravity in our lives — but it was so beautiful  to see people under zero gravity.

Much of your work seems to involve almost alchemical procedures of transformation – whether it is a book transforming into a light, a house burning away to ash, mercury becoming a fountain or air that dancers move through as though it were water. What role does technology play in transformation for you? Where some artists foreground the technology used in transformations, it seems you prefer to conceal the strings (as in the weightless dance piece) to create an illusion of magic. Would you say that is true?

Yes, as you mentioned I like transformation. I was always wondering why man-made objects can’t transform into other states, as most beautiful things in this world can (e.g. flowers, animals, seasons). I suppose the reason I want to add elements of transformation into objects is that the most of the beautiful natural things can always transform. They can change shape, they can move, they can reproduce. My secrets may be beautiful, but they are not as beautiful as the secrets found in nature.

Thank you to Takeshi Ishiguro and Fujiko Suda. For more on Takeshi Ishiguro’s work, please visit