I Was a Little Unruly
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Kōji Kamoji before an exhibition at the Foksal Gallery, 2004. Photo by Adam Tuchliński / REPORTER
Experiences

I Was a Little Unruly

The Life of Kōji Kamoji
Zbigniew Libera
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Kōji Kamoji was born in Tokyo in 1935, but after graduating from the Musashino Art School he came to Poland, where he started to produce his art. It’s also the country where he exhibited a work that caused a scandal.

The story of the Japanese man who became a Polish artist begins onboard a ship travelling from Yokohama to Marseille. In 1922, his mother’s brother – a 23-year-old student of Zen buddhism – Ryōchū Umeda was on that boat, heading to Berlin to study philosophy with the help of a scholarship from the Buddhist University of Tokyo.

On that journey, he met Stanisław Michowski, the son of a Polish official working on the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway and the Chinese Eastern railway (also known as the South Manchuria line), and later a wing-commander and participant in World War II. Michowski, who had lived in Shanghai since 1920, spoke Japanese. During the trip he entertained Umeda, who was a year older than him, with information about his country, even though he only knew it from stories, hardly any more than his companion did. It must have been a very evocative account, however, because Umeda decided to postpone his trip to Berlin and visit the homeland of Frédéric Chopin. He stayed there until September 1939.

Quo Vadis, Japan?

Thus Ryōchū Umeda became the first Japanese-language lector in Poland at the University of Warsaw, and between 1926 and 1939 he occupied a similar position at Warsaw’s Eastern Institute. He also translated literature, producing, among others, a Japanese translation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis.

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Some call him the only avant-garde artist in Japan. Although fascinated with Picasso, he didn’t reject tradition, but did the opposite. He discovered the ‘original Japan’ for his compatriots: prehistoric art. Who was the creator of the Tower of the Sun, Tarō Okamoto? “Art is explosion!” Tarō Okamoto shouted in a TV commercial after striking a bell of his own design. Originally he had created it for a Buddhist temple. Each of the horns on the spiky bell bowl produced a different sound. Nowadays nobody remembers anymore what Okamoto was advertising, but Japanese people still associate him with this catchphrase.

“Art is explosion!” In fact, few artists would agree with these words, not to mention living and creating in accordance with it. Constant explosions are very difficult and exhausting for an artist. But each time I encounter Okamoto’s art, I have a feeling that some kind of eruption has just taken place. And as a result, new forms of life appear, which cannot be inscribed into any type of standing biological classification. When I look at them, they also show interest and assess with their eyes. Pretty much all of Okamoto’s sculptures – even though it would be difficult to call them figures – have faces, masks, sometimes even more than one.

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