Takao Sakai does food art. To be precise, he uses sticky red beans which he smears digitally on other people’s faces, if not literally on a Darth Vader helmet! One hilariously weird and simply awesome idea of referencing pop culture’s insignia with this very essential and traditional Japanese ingredient! PingMag wants to know all about Takao’s fond love for beans.
Written by Verena
Translated by Kevin Mcgue
Traditional Japanese tengu mask with a surface like a “grotesque swarm of insects.” By Takao Sakai.
First of all, what attracts you to beans?
I have to explain: The beans I use are adzuki beans, which are one of the most popular ingredients in Japanese cooking with a long tradition of being used in sweets, called wagashi in Japanese [which we extensively showed you before]. Adzuki beans are said to bring good luck, that’s why we eat them as sweets. This image of happiness serves not only as a motif for me, I’m also really attracted to their texture and shape.
Is it about their consistency? Or the liquid they are in?
That’s not liquid but a way to make the beans glossy by boiling them first. That glossiness is a means of showing the deliciousness of the beans visually. When working with beans, I form them like papier-mâché and apply some colours with acrylic paints. Though that part is faked, it is just to show their glossiness realistically.
Why is it a pleasure to work with them?
When Japanese look at my works, they immediately recognise them as adzuki beans used in sweets. However, people from outside tend to feel them to be enigmatic and gross. I actually like that kind of misunderstanding. The adzuki make quite abstract forms – to some people this might look deliciously edible, others might imagine a grotesque swarm of insects. Adzuki beans in traditional sweets are a part of traditional Japanese culture, and I want to give that an ironic twist. It is a way to re-examine my identity as Japanese, and to try to make a new image of this place called Japan.
Darth Vader, stickily updated by Takao.
Monster with pancake head! By Takao Sakai.
Since when have you been interested in beans – was there an incident when you were a kid?
Of course I have always liked Japanese sweets, but there is no special memory connected to them. I only started to think of them as sculpting material a few years ago.
… and how come?
An ancient Greek god got a nice sticky wig: Hermes, by Takao Sakai.
I started to use Japanese sweets as motifs in 2003. At that time, I only had a vague idea of what I was doing. But as I continued, their significance gradually became clear. Recently I have been working a lot with adzuki, using them together with other materials. That helps to to create a broader spectrum in my work.
And how on earth did you come up with a bean-covered Batman mask or the Star Wars’ Darth Vader helmet, or a robot covered with beans: Because these are symbols of pop culture? Or as they also relate to your childhood memories?
No, I am just referencing symbols of pop culture. They are easy to express as symbols, as they are understood around the world. And that is the reason I chose them. But since I am using these universally known characters, each small difference of my work becomes a gap between my art and that well-known character. I enjoy that this also generates a kind of misunderstanding.
The red bean beard portrait series #56, by Takao Sakai.
The red bean beard portrait series #34, by Takao Sakai.
What is your ongoing bean beard portrait project about?
For this, I created a fictitious story about a recent trend among young Japanese to make adzuki bean beards: Much like tattoos or earrings before, they were first used as good luck charms or talismans to ward off evil. But then they gave birth to adzuki bean idols, and because of their influence it went so far to become a casual fashion worn in everyday life. Then foreign media began introducing the fad to people overseas as an extension of otaku and anime youth culture, thus spreading adzuki fashion around the world. Now, I am making these portraits to illustrate that fictional story. If some media outside of Japan would mistakenly think that this is really fashion and would report it as news, then I would have succeeded.
A nice twist to minimalist art: Takao Sakai’s reinterpretation of Kasimir Malevitch’s black square, bean style. From his gallery.
And what about your relationship with pancakes: Why a giant pancake hat?
No, no! Those aren’t pancakes, but another kind of Japanese sweets called “dora-yaki.” They are so ordinary, you can buy them in any convenience store. And that projects a somewhat different image than traditional sweets. The effects of consumerism can be seen even in traditional wagashi. I wanted to express that by creating a work stacking up dora-yaki.
Your earlier approach with wagashi, Japanese sweets, was delicious – what inspired you to do that?
I was born and raised in the city, so I grew up in a culture that said we must continue old traditions and, at the same time, said we should create something new. People in my generation who grew up in those circumstances sought out new forms of happiness. In my early works, I tried to express a new form of happiness for contemporary Japan that references Japanese sweets as a form of cultural heritage, but puts them in a totally new setting. The same is true of my current works.
Finally, what’s your favourite bean dish?
Of course I love wagashi with adzuki beans. However, I’m not necessarily interested in any other bean dishes apart from sweets. Occasionally green beans and black beans are also used for that. You know, these sweets are indeed sweet, but also healthy. Okay, I’m not making my art just to advertise Japanese sweets! (Laughs)
Red bean table tennis, by Takao.