Robbie Short

Aki Sasamoto has the kind of easy charisma to which we all aspire, as warm as her signature email signoff — “sincere cappuccino” — would have you believe. (Down-to-earth and wickedly funny, it’s little surprise to learn that she moonlights as a stand-up comedian.) Like the artist herself, Sasamoto’s œuvre — a mix of performance, installation, sculpture and dance — is in a state of constant evolution, thoughtful without ever taking anything too seriously.

Drawing on childhood memories, Sasamoto’s latest piece — her first solo exhibition in a U.S. museum — showcases the “interdisciplinary” approach for which she’s known. Part choreographed happening, part standalone installation, the work, entitled “Delicate Cycle,” will remain on view at SculptureCenter in Long Island City, New York through January of next year. In between studio visits — and all in less time than it takes to run a load of laundry — Sasamoto gave Weekend the scoop on art, life and online dating.

Q: You currently have a work, “Delicate Cycle,” up at SculptureCenter in Long Island City. Could you tell us a little bit about the performance, and the exhibition?

A: So I make performance slash installation, and this is an exhibition that goes on for several months. And I perform six times, peppered around, a few weeks in between, and that’s important to me. This show, “Delicate Cycle,” happens almost as often as I wash laundry, once in a while. And also, installation should function without performative elements, as a show just centered around the objects. When I perform, I come in with a kind of choreography of flow patterns that make sense with this idea of “Delicate Cycle.” I start by taking in sheets that are on a clothing line, and I put them in a laundry machine, run a cycle, and I do a performance for the duration of that washing cycle. And I go around the basement of the SculptureCenter, which has a very peculiar floor pattern, and I utilize that to go around to different circular movements, or rolling a ball — a lot of elements that I deal with in movement, in sculpture, is cyclic. And at the end I will pick up that laundry that’s done and I will hang it on the clothing line again, and that is the performance. And in it I will talk about other things … about dung beetles, and a kind of stain I want to get rid of from a childhood memory, and things that I still don’t know how to place in the world. Like, there was a character in my childhood town that I didn’t know how to place, in a role, in a society or in “my picture,” and I find that interesting, that moment of sensing that something’s a sensitive issue — what is that moment when you know you shouldn’t cross a certain line. So I will kind of link those things together in the performance, in a storytelling fashion.

Q: How does “Delicate Cycle” fit within your larger body of work? Do you often make pieces of this nature?

A: Once a year or two, I make this kind of piece. But I also make theater pieces, or just one-off performance work. And I also make sometimes, if the setting allows, a sculpture show or installation show without performance. For me, to hit on this spectrum, it’s important. When I spot the chance to do performance-installation in this manner, it’s a bonus, because I could have that spectrum in one piece. Over time, I want to have both lives, it’s just fun when it’s overlapping, on top of each other. But objects as well as concepts have longer lives than that show, so for me I’m always working with these “multifunctions.”

Q: In your work, it seems like you’re exploring a lot of different media, and sometimes even pushing or eroding the boundaries between them. Many sources, though, don’t seem to refer to you as a “multimedia” artist — is that deliberate?

A: For some reason, “multimedia” sounds like there is still an emphasis on media, that still points you to somewhat video. It sounds like it’s somehow digital … and everything else. So I just say that I do performance and sculpture, and that, to me, makes more sense. And maybe because the dance was more separate — like, “performing arts,” that involves dance — seemed more separate than visual arts. So at the time I was writing my resume, it made sense to say that. And people call me multimedia, it’s not wrong, so I’m okay with it, but I didn’t call it myself. The art school curriculum is made that way — most art schools ask you to go through different mediums, so in that way, everybody is multimedia. Maybe [this distinction] is less relevant now. Another thing, though, is “interdisciplinary.” I find myself very much at ease with that term. I like the irresponsibility of that term, because you don’t belong anywhere if you’re “inter.” “Inter” is good, it’s deflating the responsibility. “Multi” sounds hard, because it’s like, you’re the master of all. I believe in responsibility, but the self-claimed responsibility is annoying. By “irresponsible,” I just mean deflating that expectation.

Q: Speaking of expectations: It often feels like there’s this pressure on female artists, or artists of color, to make work that’s specifically about that aspect of their lived experience. Have you found that to play out in critics’ perception/reception of your work?

A: Last year, the piece I was talking about today at the lecture was so much about dating males, which was not so common in my history. So that felt like I was genuinely making a piece about gender in a way, but it wasn’t conscious of feminism. And of course, me being a female, I did get asked whether I were a feminist or not. … I owe a lot to the people before me, there was enough fight, enough chewing on the concept before me, that I was given a choice to relate to feminism or not. Already in questioning, there was a choice of “no,” whereas maybe a while ago, there wasn’t. I’m in the lucky situation of where I am aware of certain things that might have a legacy, and I’m free to draw on the tradition of feminist work, but there’s a choice. [Besides] nowadays, it feels like it’s required to be smart, on top of being female, to be a feminist artist — and I haven’t done the homework or something. [Laughs] And there are incidents when I get pulled into a show because I am Japanese, or female, and I just take it as “hey, lucky!” or “that would be interesting, let me think about that subject for this moment, for this exhibition.” But I also don’t have to say “no” with too much as a statement.

Q: Is there anyone among those “people before you” whom you consider a particular inspiration? Or are there contemporary artists whose work you admire?

A: I’m excited that Matt Mullican is doing a performance at The Kitchen. And then there is a choreographer I dance for, Yvonne Meier, from Switzerland. Switzerland and Japan are both pretty OCD. [Laughs] And she left the country; I left the country, and she’s female. So I really relate to her. Other works I was very interested in, was more the experimental music world: Alvin Lucier — his work is beautiful—and Max Neuhaus.

Q: How did you get started?

A: I came to this country for undergrad, thinking I was going to be a mathematician, and then ended up studying dance and sculpture and music. Maybe I didn’t [start off] studying that solely because I didn’t know that that was possible? I knew that it existed, and I always liked singing and whatnot, but I never thought about it as things you could major in …so [it was all] downhill from there. [Laughs]

Q: Has anything changed since then? Do you ever feel jaded, or nostalgic for this phase, of having just “discovered” this world of art?

A: I have friends in music, other fields. I stay close to my older friends, who are not in [the] arts. It’s important to keep that outside conversation. Maybe subconsciously I’m being strategic about it, so I don’t get pulled into art only. The subject matter of my art is not necessarily art itself; my subject matter requires me to live my life. My subject pushes me to be in touch with other parts [of life], I think — I hope. And in general, I like my hobbies, and those things are important.

Q: What are a few of those hobbies?

A: Boxing, fishing. Stand-up comedy — right now. But the thing is, I don’t have patience, so no worry that I’ll get jaded, because I cannot stay in the same place! [Laughs] Fishing is good, I went last week with my boyfriend. He’s a fisherman …so there’s a big reason why I dated the guy. [Laughs] But it’s fun, it’s those things that end up bringing me metaphors. I don’t think the fishing becomes my work, or directly a subject matter of the artwork, because my life is not research but, rather, the artwork is a byproduct of my life. So with that stance, I might get jaded about life — which is really worrisome — but it’s hard to get jaded about art, because that’s not the main goal. It’s about catching the better fish, you know? [Laughs]

Q: In addition to your work and your hobbies, you also teach. What is one piece of advice you like to give your students? Is there anything you think might help recent (or soon-to-be) MFAs navigate the art world?

A: Dating is important, I think, when you’re young. You learn a lot from it. One of the assignments I gave to a graduate seminar once was to go on OkCupid, and go on a date. And one of your classmates witnessed that date, and reported on it, judged how well it went. To me, if you can survive the first date well, you’ll be fine in the art world. [Laughs] There’s something about using the other field as a model for or, like, a metaphor for, what art does. And then certainly it makes sense, because most of the points where people get stuck … it’s because you haven’t looked at it from different perspectives. So the advice [I give] is usually like, “look up” or “look elsewhere.”

Q: Besides yours, what’s a show we shouldn’t miss? Who is making really exciting work right now?

A: You know, this season I didn’t really go yet, but I am going to the Matt Mullican thing I mentioned. Right now, I just go to the minimum, which is my friends’ shows. [Laughs] Maybe I’m a type of artist who doesn’t go see much stuff! But when three people tell me I should go see this show, I will go see it. This is kind of the way I function. I would rather ask you! [Laughs]

Q: Now for a few non-serious questions. Do you have a favorite art (or life) experience? An anecdote you like to share, or a story you tell at cocktail parties?

A: Hmmm… Well, my Chinese friend, who I met in the States, is now dating my Japanese friend I grew up with in junior high school. They met kind of by chance, in a super coincidental way. I like that, that kind of moment, when like, “What?! You and you are dating?!” That’s just weird, and I find that funny. That’s the kind of thing I go for. Even in art. Like, I just wrote a piece for a book that’s coming out from the SculptureCenter [the “Delicate Cycle” exhibition catalogue], and it’s about how sometimes I hate somebody, and I hate an artwork — and then I find out later that that person made that work! [Laughs] Those sixth-sense moments, when these “random” events start to make sense, that’s the time I enjoy the most.

Q: Among the editors, there was so much buzz about “sincere cappuccino” — your email signoff — so I have to ask: why a cappuccino? Do you always close your communication this way?

A: Yes, I always write “cappuccino,” or [an]other food. It’s because I was embarrassed to write “love.” And also kissing and hugging. I don’t do that, so I thought, “Why do I have to conform to that culture?” And I thought of that equivalent in my life experience, and tried to recreate what I thought Americans were doing, to find something that is, like, formal, but friendship, the deepest kind of friendship. And, I didn’t want to be yours [Laughs] … Taking the world very literally is fun. Like, “holy shit!” was a real shit in my head. And that was fun I had just because I learned English as a second language! I wanted to keep that fun going.

Q: Wow. And I think it goes both ways — that is, from other languages into English, too. For example, in French, “to stand someone up” is “poser un lapin” (“to put on a rabbit”). To translate that literally into English makes for some funny exchanges.

A: And there’s so much truth for that metaphor! In different languages, if the objects are shared, it works nonetheless. Like, rabbits’ behavior is similar in most cultures, so if you know that, you can access that, and you understand. With food, there is a certain atmosphere a cappuccino gives, so that’s important.