Studio Visit With Artist Unit Three

P1230790all photos by kaori sohma © spoon & tamago | click to enlarge

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The smell of burnt rubber pierced the air. And it only intensified as we climbed the steps up to the Japan Society gallery space where three were busy at work. To be clear, three is the name of the art group but it also represents the number of members in the trio. Heat guns hummed, air purifiers roared, and a fan spun as we entered the gallery. “We usually work with the windows open,” explained one of the members, powering down all the motors and removing his face mask. “we’re just not in our normal workspace.”

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555

Indeed, this is the first time three have set foot on American soil, much less New York. Invited by gallery director Miwako Tezuka to participate in Japan Society’s inaugural residency program, three arrived in New York from Fukushima in late June to complete what will be one of their more ambitious pieces using 555 toy figurines – their way of paying homage to New York and its 5 boroughs. “We immediately ran into trouble at customs,” they say, explaining to us that they had been carrying with them a large bulk of their material. “We had a hard time explaining to the customs officers why we were carrying boxes of 500 figurines with us.” (The plan is to purchase the remaining 55 in New York.)

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P1230831a number of American figurines that have been melted down and are waiting to join their Japanese counterparts

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On Group Mentality and Anonymity

The anonymous group is comprised of three individuals in their late 20s with backgrounds in engineering, arts, and advertising. When asked about their anonymous persona, which often becomes associated with counter-culture or protest tendencies, the three glance at each other and chuckle. “It was actually something that was sort of pushed upon us, rather than something we initiated. We’ve always admired the work of industrial design units like Nendo or Tokujin Yoshioka, which are a group of people operating under a single name. It’s common in the design world but not so much in the arts world. So we thought, why not?” And as three learned, people are curious about secrets and tend to pay attention more when there is an implied promise of revelation.

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P1240031a notebook filled with hand-written notes on each figurine

Figurine Meta Data

Watching three at work, it’s clear that each has a task – a purpose, if you will, that feels natural and unforced. Their process involves multiple stations where various tasks are performed, each with a scrupulous attention to detail. It begins, of course, with the same thing we all do when we come into possession of a figurine: we assemble it. But this is where the similarities end. The assembled figurines are then taken to station 2 – often the most time-consuming yet invisible step. The figurines are photographed from various angles. Then the name, make, model and other data are logged on a laptop. This data is often aggregated from multiple sources including their own vast knowledge, manufacturer’s websites and, when all else fails, 3rd party fan blogs.

P1240013All of this meta data is typically displayed as part of the artwork. But for the first time, the group will be generating QR codes for each figurine that will eventually be combined into their work, enabling viewers to scan the code with their cellphone and immediately pull up all the data on each figurine.

P1240023one of the members demonstrating a QR code that will pull up data on each figurine

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Arranging bits and pieces

“This is a ‘bit’,” says one of the members, holding up what is the result of the final station. “It’s the smallest unit of the figurine.”

After their data is logged the figurines move on to the final station where they are sliced into small pieces and melted, but with recognizable features like faces or eyes preserved.

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Surprisingly, the process is entirely an act of non-violence. It’s somewhat of a contradiction, but one that makes complete sense: “we cut the figurines because we like them so much,” explains three. “We want to see them reborn into something new and beautiful.” And watching them at work, each slice is gentle, almost ritualistic. And an important part of the ritual is anime, which is usually streaming on their laptop as they work. There’s a serendipitous moment of joy when a character that they’re cutting appears on screen. “Yea, we just get really happy,” they say, laughing.

What remains is an elongated cubic rectangle, which the artists refer to as a “bit.” Just like the cubic “bit” is the smallest unit, the QR code they produce is also comprised of cubic dots, each representing the smallest unit of information. The weight of all the bits are added up, often manifesting themselves in the title of the work (ie: “7825g” or “14.2kg”).

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In an ideal world

Three often create rectangular panel works based on the dimensions of a TV screen. “The 2D world of TV anime is ideal,” they explain, referring to how anime fans perceive the figurine characters. “If they could, the fans would live inside these 2D worlds. But instead they accept the 3D figurines as the next best thing.” The TV screen represents the final frontier – a monumental, immovable force the separates the 2D and 3D worlds. When you think about it, it’s a fascinating cycle: a 2D character is turned into a 3D figurine, which is then once again reduced into fundamental, raw material. Or, to borrow the words of three, “the smallest unit of information.”

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The Harshest Critics

Despite the often political and cultural critiques embedded in three’s work, their harshest critics have emerged from an unlikely place – an online community of anime fans who view three‘s work as defacing their beloved dolls. When their work began circulating on 2ch, a popular online posting board whose community is often perceived as introverted otaku, the barrage of hate comments were immediate and toxic. “You’re crazy. You’re stupid. You should die. When we used soy sauce containers people commended us for turning garbage into art. But this time they told us that we’re turning art into garbage.”

But as most online scuffles go, the confrontation was limited to the computer screen. “It’s almost as if they [the haters] view these figurines as their own wives. So when they see us cutting them up they are naturally upset. But I would love for them to come to our gallery opening so we could have that talk. I would try to explain to them that I like them so much and that’s why I cut them.”

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There is a certain child-like honesty in the work of three. Watching them assemble, study and then disassemble the figurines is like watching a child work through a puzzle. At times they appear to be in search of a larger answer — in search of their true selves.  And at other times they seem merely focused on the task at hand.

If you happen to be in New York, you can come meet the artists at Japan Society on Saturday, July 27 at noon. Also stay tuned as the group plans to reveal their work in an exhibition slated to run from August 27 – October 13. It will be the first time that America and Japan will come together in a melting pot of figurines.

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As usual, my son Huey had a few questions for Three:

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This post is part of an ongoing series in which we visit NY-based Japanese artists in their studios. The complete collection can be found here.

all quotes have been translated from Japanese to English by the author
(many thanks to Masako and Kaori for making this visit possible)

3 Comments

  1. “I would try to explain to them that I like them so much and that’s why I cut them.” There is something deeply disturbing about this…

  2. Did they really say that what they liked about NY was that… there were a lot of big boobs?

    But yes the $1 pizzas are actually pretty good.

  3. Thank you so much for your excellent documentation of the open studio event!!! I recently moved away from the tristate area and was devastated when I learned I could not make it to this show. So, this post really made me happy when it came up on my RSS feed!
    Great work.

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