Tets Ohnari: „Japonec nikdy neříká ne.”

„Japonec nikdy neříká ne,“ tak zněla odpověď na otázku, zdali chce náš japonský host ještě přidat porci oběda na návštěvě naší rodiny před několika lety. Tets Ohnari je japonský sochař působící v Česku, kterého znám již dlouhou dobu. Podnítil můj zájem o Japonsko, ale že by on sám byl typickým Japoncem se říci nedá. Jeho čeština je sice na mnohem vyšší úrovni než moje znalost japonštiny, ale přesto jsme se domluvili, že rozhovor raději povedeme v angličtině. Protože by se při překladu mohl ztratit originální význam odpovědí, text byl ponechán v anglickém jazyce.

Skleněný úplněk nad Českým Krumlovem v Egon Schiele Art Centru. Foto: Tets Ohnari

Do you still have the same studio? If not, did you manage to get a new one?

Unfortunately not. I lost it. I got a new one but it isn’t as great as the old one. If you remember, the space of my studio was pretty big and no one minded me making a lot of noise and dust. I could make any sculptures there. Sadly the contract of the studio finished right after the corona started. I lost many opportunities for exhibitions and also a chance to return to Japan. A lot of things stopped. Since I had no studio I tried to look for a new one in Prague and around surrounding areas, but I couldn’t find any with a good price or that would fulfill my needs. Finally I got a normal small apartment, where I now do mainly PC work and only small sculptures. But let’s stay optimistic.

Since corona, war and all of that bad stuff happened, people stopped caring about objects and art that much. So I asked myself, what is the meaning of making the same thing over and over again like I did before? I also want to change. I should change. During corona time I turned 40 years old and so I counted my past exhibitions and saw that I have done over 100 of them, and that’s a lot. I also made, let’s say, over 300 sculptures, so okay, but what is the point? I make a sculpture and you keep it or you go and see it on exhibition and then it’s put somewhere else. That doesn’t make sense. It’s good to have a change so I’m okay in the small studio now.

Why did you settle in the Czech Republic?

Now I always say that because I have a Czech wife. This marriage, having a wife or family (including my dog), changed a lot of things. It feels like almost a second life. In Czechia it’s my life and in Tokyo it’s my home. But before marriage I came here to study first. After a year and half of studies I returned to Tokyo but kept missing the Czech Republic, all the friends I made there and myself in a foreign country. I was trying to find a way to return back. I managed to get a foundation, went to study in Ústí nad Labem and got a Ph.D. That’s how I settled here.

Since you got a Ph.D. do you feel like „doctor of art?”

Not in the slightest. A Ph.D. stands for doctor of philosophy and I’m not that. I don’t feel like I am a doctor of art. I wanted to achieve it just for me, not for the title. Also students can study in Czechia for free, right? In Japan it’s pretty expensive. So of course if it’s free I’ll get it. 

You often spend time in Český Krumlov. Why? What do you find interesting about that place?

I think everybody loves Krumlov. Through the mayor of Hluboká nad Vltavou I got the opportunity to make a sculpture outside of Egon Schiele centrum. Yet I couldn’t finish it. I got appendicitis and was taken to hospital in Krumlov. It was a little bit funny. I didn’t know the word in Czech or English and my doctor spoke only German and Czech. I was told, I was going to have surgery and I was like what, why? They took me to surgery and after I woke up, I felt terrible. My stomach hurt and I didn’t know what they did to me. Lately my Taiwanese friend came and told me what an Appendix is in Taiwanese. This word sounds in Taiwanese similarly as in Japanese, so thanks to her I got to know what they operated on me.

Next year I returned to Krumlov and finished the sculpture. At that time the director of Egon Shiele centrum asked me if I will have Artist in residence there in the future which made me happy because it was a reason to return to Czechia. That’s how my relationship with Krumlov started and I had my first big exhibition in Egon Schiele centrum. The exhibition was going on three years instead of one due to corona.

Have you encountered racism in the Czech Republic?

Of course I have encountered it. Right now we live in a society, where you can’t say words like China, gay, or fat and everybody knows this but ten years ago people didn’t care as much. People pointed at me and were like „China!“ which is really bad in a way. First thing, I’m not China at least I’m Chinese, okay? Not China. Also you know, Corona came from China so people were pointing at me saying „corona“. They were trying to avoid me and were covering their mouths with their hands. Well I have lived in Czechia for many years and I’m not Chinese but Japanese, but that is hard to tell from the first glance. So yes I had these experiences. But it really doesn’t matter, because I am a foreigner and some people are just more friendly and some are less. There is always this complexity. For example you are not racist to me but there are still these barriers between us like language and culture and that is great on one hand but on the other it’s sad. So yeah those are my racist memories. But it’s okay, no problem.

The lifestyle of art students can be labelled as Bohemian. Does this also apply in Japan?

Let’s say yes but in a way not. It often depends on personality and also on nationality. For example Czech art students don’t work on the weekend. For Japanese students, the difference between a school day and the weekend isn’t that big then how it is for Europeans. You could say that a European’s life is for joy. Japanese life is for training. Especially in martial arts and for monks. You are working on sharpening yourself and are putting a great effort into your work. So this joy and training makes a big difference. It’s true that Japanese students spend more time studying or working. That’s for sure. We can see a lot of things from not just Japan and Europe but even from other countries and we can compare them and be inspired. That’s important. 

As far as I know you studied in Czechia thanks to various scholarships. Can you tell me more about it? 

Art is counted as a cultural activity because of its history. I noticed that what I am doing is part of it so I have a right to apply for scholarships or foundations. I really studied how to get one. That‘s the strategy. I made a list with hundreds of possibilities where I can apply for foundation. Mainly Japanese ones, but even few from Czechia. Private companies, governments or ministries of culture etc. Foundations are nice because then I can care just about my work and finding inspiration.

Your Japanese assistants were often helping you at work. Could your relationship with them be characterized as „European“ boss and subordinate/junior colleague or in the Japanese meaning, master and his apprentice?

It depends on who they are and how our relationship goes but usually it isn’t like that. It’s not about hierarchy. Half of them came to me because they wanted to help me and it made them happy. Also since they have only 4 work days they can spend time discovering this foreign country or working on what they need. Another half of the assistants are usually people who want to find inspiration.

So you are like an inspiration for them?

Yes, inspiration. They’ll watch how I make money, how I behave in Europe, make relationships and get jobs. They are more of researchers, than this master relationship, where they say yes to everything.

So no one has ever called you Sensei? (Sensei means teacher in Japanese)

No, no. Impossible. They would never.

Do you live and behave like a Czech during your stay in Czechia or do you preserve Japanese culture?

That’s always a question. Yes and no. Depends on the situation. Sometimes I show more Japanese politeness and sometimes I act like an impolite Japanese Czech guy. (Laugh). But basically I’m still acting super Japanese. For example it’s still hard for me to say no. I still think in the Japanese language, watch Japanese YouTube and talk mainly with Japanese people. My wife also speaks Japanese really well, but the thing is that it doesn’t matter how I behave. Even if I act European, people will still consider me Japanese since I’m natively from Japan.

So you and your wife speak Japanese at home?

Yes. She studies Japanology and is very good at speaking Japanese. Sometimes she even knows words I don’t. Crazy.

You often work with glass. Czechs consider glass as their dominant art material. Do you consider yourself a glass artist or an artist who, among other things, works with glass? 

The latter. I work with many materials but the level of Czech glass work is too high. I can never reach the point where I can claim I’m a glass artist. Glass works are usually categorized as hot and cold glass. Hot glass is like blowing and casting in an oven. I don’t have the equipment for that and it’s pretty expensive. To make it worth it you have to really devote yourself to it.  Cold glass is glass cutting and stuff like that. That’s what I do. If I would do both I could probably call myself a glass artist but I didn’t even study glass works. I studied sculpture.

In the Czech Republic there are several high schools focused on glass processing. How is it in Japan?

It surprised me how many high schools in the Czech Republic have specialization. If there are 40 % of specialized high schools in Czechia, there are 3 % in Japan. Which is super small. There are art schools in Japan, but not specialized specifically like in Czechia. It might be because in Japan there are way more people, than in the Czech Republic. There is also a pretty small amount of students in Czech class. For example in glass high school there’s about 10-20 students in one year? The sad thing is, that these students in Czechia after university, very often lose their passion for glass. Lately it is hard to make a living with it.

Artists, if they do not pander to the tastes of the customers, often find recognition and success only after death. If they achieved success in their lifetime, they must have good marketing. You can make a living with your art so how is it with you?

First thing is that for every person, success is something different. Even for me, success five years ago was something different than it is now. That’s natural. As you said, marketing or promotion is important but more important is if you enjoy what you do. There are two types of artists. One is someone who since childhood enjoyed something and even while growing still had this one passion so they kept doing it and became an artist. The other type, for example, before going to university, sees the work of another artist and thinks „Wow, that’s pretty, I want to be an artist just like them.“ That’s a huge difference. When you say, I can make living with art, that’s also a question. Sometimes it’s pretty hard to make money only by art and if you don’t are you no longer considered to be an artist? It is hard to define who is an artist. You can say artists are just people in the contemporary art industry. Since I’m also in this field I can be called an artist as well. 

Do you do more freelance art or commissions?

Mostly I just do things I want. I’m not doing it for you or others but for myself and for the world. Of course people sometimes ask me, if I can make this and that for the commissions I created a way of sponsorship. These sponsors give me materials and then, I make some sculptures for them. I want them to be happy with it and I’m trying to put a piece of them in it. Either a material they gave me or some thought that characterizes them. 

Naturally you get inspiration from people and the world around you. You can never truly tell if you make what you really want to make. Maybe, you made something, that someone else had an influence on. I think that this can also be counted as a sort of commission.

What is the social status of an artist in Japan?

Most people in Czechia will look at art and say: „oh that’s so beautiful!“ even when art is not their interest. In Japan there are more people, that if they see art they say „it’s nice but don’t talk to me about it.“ Maybe they don’t understand the meaning of it? And because of that they don’t want to have anything in common with it. I think it’s not possible to not understand what art means. It’s hard to define what it is, but that isn’t the point. Almost anything can be called art. Just don’t be afraid to have an opinion on it. It doesn’t matter, it’s just about your feelings.

What do you miss from Japan in Czechia and what on the contrary are you glad that isn‘t here?

I miss my parents since we are pretty far away. Also seafood. What I’m glad that isn’t here is not that much chemical food. In Japan, when you enter a food shop, everything is filled with chemicals. In Czechia you have more organic and natural food and that’s what I like. Also in Japan I always miss being in a different country, but at the same time it makes me sad being a foreigner.