Kaori Yamashita

Studio Sessions

Kaori Yamashita

By Vivian Sming November 7, 2017

Studio Sessions offers behind-the-scenes access to artists, writers, curators, and creative individuals through a variety of tête-à-tête conversations that consider the how, and what, and where of making art. Studio Sessions are presented as interviews, profiles, and studio visits through text, photo essays, and videos.


For the last several months, I have been fixated over a rock in Kaori Yamashita’s exhibition Remote Ancestors, on view earlier this summer at Bass & Reiner. This rock is exceptional, if only for the fact that it is covered in white slivers of hair. The rock is displayed on an unprimed wooden pedestal next to its skeletal counterpart: a sculptural outline of the rock formed from thin lines of white ceramic blocks hinged together with gold. Yamashita’s process of joining ceramic pieces in gold follows the 400-year-old art of mending broken pottery in Japan, known as kintsugi.

Kaori Yamashita’s studio in Santa Clara, CA. Courtesy of the Artist.

Fractures and rifts are typically signs of bodies pressing together or moving apart—in geological activity or in inter-human relationships. Yet, Yamashita’s delineations of breaks and cracks exhibit neither pushing nor pulling. Instead, her ceramic sculptures contain pieces and fragments that were never supposed to fit together in the first place, created separately as individual parts over many years and later joined to construct something new. This act is both architectural and semiotic.

In one piece (none of her works are titled individually), the fragments create a tower that houses a dangling string of rubble found at Teufelsberg, an artificial hill in Berlin created from World War II debris. In the piece paired with the rock, the ceramic fragments trace the outline of the rock’s form, serving as a three-dimensional contour drawing that then becomes a signifier of the rock. Each ceramic block functions much like words and letters—constructed and assembled to create meaning. The golden seams between the fragments reveal that the process of mean-making is always wobbly, filled with gaps and imperfections.

Among some of the other pieces in Remote Ancestors were large vessels made from plaster and mortar. The works are the skeletal remains of a simple vessel of the kind typically found in prehistoric Japan. Yamashita created the structure by cutting pieces out of Styrofoam and forming plaster seams between them. She meticulously constructs forms that function as signs of something broken. This process was further complicated, however, when these vessels, which she made in Berlin and shipped to the U.S., arrived smashed in bits and pieces. For her show at Bass & Reiner, Yamashita methodically mended the fragmented parts back together—this time, without highlighting the cracks. In this accidental moment, the sign is no longer the signifier. The vessels become a broken representation of the broken.

When I finally visit Yamashita in the fall, much of the same work in Remote Ancestors is now housed in a garage in Santa Clara that doubles as a nonprofit art space, tmoro projects, run by Yamashita’s partner, Takeshi Moro. Moro joins our conversation as a translator for Yamashita, who was born in Japan and moved to the Bay Area a few years ago after living in Berlin. In the studio, the works are displayed in an arrangement that differs from the exhibition. Yamashita explains that the works go through various iterations—what she calls “exercises.” Fabric strips, for instance, now create a backdrop for the tower of rubble. Yamashita further explains that she often displays the same work in various exhibitions, but in a position that is never repeated again. It is clear that works are given a slow pace and time to fully form. The pieces thus have a longevity, developing a life and history of their own.

Kaori Yamashita. Remote Ancestors (2017); mortar, wood, plaster, ceramic with kintsugi, stone, tiles, fabric, etc; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist.

It’s not before long I bring up the hairy rock, which causes Moro and I to deliberate about its organic or inorganic qualities. I’m convinced that the hair on the rock is a type of moss, but Moro thinks otherwise and proposes several theories. Yamashita found the rock in a forest in Finland, located near a paper mill. Moro briefly considers the possibility of the hair being paper, before leaning toward the idea that the hair fused with the rock after dropping from a once-living animal—perhaps from moose, which are abundant in the region. While Moro and I try to solve the perplexing nature of the rock, Yamashita seems absolutely content that it is shrouded in mystery.

The rock is indeed perplexing, and I see it offering a source of constant inspiration for Yamashita. It represents something that is potentially both organic and inorganic; something that has been passed through time; something that cannot deliver an answer to what it might be; but at the same time, something that carries the weight of its own history.

Kaori Yamashita’s studio in Santa Clara, CA. Courtesy of the Artist.

When I think upon the happenchance discoveries of the human and natural worlds, I have to wonder how Yamashita feels about living in Santa Clara, a largely technological and industrial landscape at the heart of Silicon Valley. I ask this question, having grown up in the area myself with the understanding that the sterile, corporate environment offers a lack of inspiration. She responds simply by saying that her work doesn’t fit the weather here. The subtle, nuanced quality of Yamashita’s works embodies the passing of time, history, and change. While they implore us to think upon our remote ancestors, her sculptures are not archaeological finds that are mended and displayed in a permanent vitrine. They are meant to live with us and pass through time with us. They continue to weather, they continue to be broken, and they continue to be mended.

In Santa Clara’s temperate meteorological climate, the changes in the season are not perceptibly felt. The light that shines remains constant throughout the year. In its cultural climate, the area is keen on looking ahead and not to the past. Little attention is given to archeological fragments or remnants. Traces of the prehistoric—namely, the Ohlone people, who inhabited this region up to 10,000 years ago—have been largely erased, their ancestral lands covered by freeways, houses, industry, and corporate buildings. Accidental discovery requires a different form of digging here, and part of me hopes Yamashita gives it a chance.

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