Ping Cars Vol.11: Osamu Kokufu’s Future Mobility

Artist Osamu Kokufu once told us there’s nothing more evocative of the future than the car. His words made a big impression on us and we had planned a Ping Cars road trip with his help. Our destination was going to be Ogata in Akita Prefecture, where we would take part in an eco car race using one of Kokufu’s unique vehicles. But just before we about to publish an interview with Kokufu about his career, and shortly prior to setting off on the road trip, came the news that the artist had passed away in an accident while preparing for his “Floating Conservatory” exhibition at the Aomori Contemporary Art Centre. PingMag had never experienced anything like this before and we were all very sad for the loss of an artist in his prime.

But after some time the grieving process has to move on and, as Kokufu himself said, look to the future. Kokufu’s work will serve as an inspiration for Ping Cars.

For example, take a look at the picture at the top of the article. It might look like some Photoshopped image but that really is a sail attached to a car. What kind of person could come up with these ideas? And then actually go ahead and realize them? This was Osamu Kokufu. Even more incredibly, all his vehicles, no matter how outlandish, really worked.

kokufu osamu japanese artist Osamu Kokufu, pictured here in Tokyo in March 2014 shortly before his death. Photo: Yuya Shimahara

Publishing our interview with Kokufu now means this article forms both a eulogy to the artist and also an archive of his career’s work, from Kyoto City University of Arts through to his final projects. We could call it “Osamu Kokufu’s vehicle showroom”. You can find everything from trucks to houses. Be sure to watch the videos too.

KOKUFUMOBIL

“KOKUFUMOBIL” is Kokufu’s fictitious brand of vehicles. The name is borrowed from that of the Fuldamobil, a series of small German cars from the 1950′s. KOKUFUMOBIL vehicles include a bicycle that moves forward by propeller and wind power — yes, a bicycle with no pedals — and a block of metal that is the weight of a car reduced in size to a cube-shaped trolley, and the joystick-controlled futuristic “Twin Wheeler GT”, so well made it was actually sold for real when it was first exhibited.

kokufu osamu japanese artist mobility (1) “Propeller Bicycle” (1994) Photo: Mitsutaka Kitamura (2) “1 ton trolley” (1999) (3) “Twin Wheeler GT” (2007)
Photos: Osamu Kokufu

The “Power Assist Helmet” (2000), an internal electric motor and three-wheeled electric car that we were planning to use as the Ping Cars racing car.

Kei Cars

The “Mental Powered Vehicle” visualizes the sensation of driving without touching the steering. It includes a built-in theremin musical instrument in the steering and a propellor on the roof. On the other hand, you could just let the wind take you forward, as in the “Natural Powered Vehicle”, the sail-equipped car also featured in the top banner. Kokufu was thinking about yacht sails just at the time that eco cars began to take off in Japan. He then wondered what it would be like to have a car that travels by wind power — the ultimate eco car! Visually striking, he also recorded a video to show how the car functions.

kokufu osamu japanese artist mental powered vehicle (1) “Mental Powered Vehicle” (2006) Photo: Seiji Toyonaga (2) “Natural Powered Vehicle” (2004) Photo: Seiji Toyonaga

“Car Refrigerator” literally turns a whole car into a fridge, placing passengers into “cold sleep” for long-haul trips. It can take up to two persons and a drive in the car is perhaps the closest thing we can get on Earth to the experience of interstellar travel!

kokufu osamu car refrigerator (3) “Car Refrigerator” (1998) Photo: Seiji Toyonaga (4) “Car Water Tank” (1996) Photo: Osama Kokufu

Kei Truck

Kokufu was a big fan of so-called “kei trucks”, the Japanese vehicles that take on many of the more thankless tasks we require of cars. His “CO2 Cube” had the exhaust gases of the vehicle collect in a large balloon in order to measure the fumes. While the truck’s engine displacement is low, it does nonetheless still produce emissions. The “Man-Powered Car” derives its power source from pedals mounted on the flatbed and allows you to experience moving forward in a kei truck only at the speed that a human can produce. The “Ring of Life” continues drawing a circle at a similar speed to the “Man-Powered Car”, while the headlights are also fitted with projectors so that they occasionally show melancholic footage from the past.

kokufu osamu co2 cube man-powered car (1) “CO2 Cube” (2004) Photo: Osamu Kokufu (2) “Man-Powered Car” (1997) Photo: Osamu Kokufu (3) + (4) “Ring of Life” (2012) Photo: Nobutada Omote

Engines

Vehicles have all kinds of mechanical parts. More than anywhere else, the engine has by far the greatest density. “Time in the Earth” is a time capsule in which the artist buried an engine in the soil for 14 years. Air-cooled engines cool down the engine using air and are often used in aircraft. “ROBO Whale”, though, takes that special feature and creates a “whale” that can fly. “Engine in the Water” places a fully water-proofed engine in a tank of water and runs it for a fixed period of time. While there were no problems initially, by the last day oil had started to leak and turn the water gooey. The artwork is an analogy for the mechanisms of nuclear power plants, which were proclaimed as completely safe.

In this way, Kokufu’s works dealt with themes of land, sea and air.

kokufu osamu japanese artist engine whale robo (1) “Engine in the Water” (2012) Photo: Tomas Svab (2) “ROBO Whale” (2008-2009) Photo: Miwa Oba (3) + (4) + (5) “Time in the Earth” (1993-2007) Photo: Osamu Kokufu

Regular Cars

These might be regular cars but far from simply moving forward, the wheels are not even touching the ground!

Take “Launch”, where the car is facing up like a rocket, symbolizing society’s feelings of unease. Meanwhile, “Upside Down Terrace” has cars hanging upside down from the roof like a strange inverted car park, the vehicles almost like terrorists plotting something where no one can see them… “Highland Under the Rainbow” also features an upside down car but this one is a bit different. The inorganic metal frame is incongruously lush with foliage, like an oasis in the desert. Here we see the evolution of the car from a vehicle for mobility to a new kind of device that houses an ecosystem.

kokufu osamu art car japanese (1) “Engine in the Water” (2012) (2) “Upside Down Terrace” (2010) Photo: Miwa Oba (3) “Highland Under the Rainbow” (2008) Photo: Tomas Svab

Homes

Houses and land are known in legalese as “immovable goods” or “real estate”, so we tend to think of them as immobile. But Kokufu mades them move. “Parabolic Garden” is a garden with wheels growing on top of a parabolic dish. “Future Home”, meanwhile, is a glasshouse that moves using caterpillar tracks, suggesting a future where an ecosystem might live within an artificial diorama.

kokufu osamu future home parabolic garden (1) “Parabolic Garden” (2010) Photo: Seiji Toyonaga (2) “Future Home” (2013) Photo: Nobutada Omote

Looking at Kokufu’s artworks is to be constantly surprised by the unlikely combinations of “car” and “house”. He took familiar elements and tied them together, pulling it off probably most of all because the results also actually function. This was the real “mechanism” of his work.

Kokufu told us that he loved mechanics ever since he was a child and his reason for going to art school was because it had facilities for renovating his motorbike! While at college he made his fair share of “artistic” work but what he was really dedicating his time to was tinkering with cars and motorcycles. During this time he was also asked to help with a solar car project. It was when working on this project that he realized that he could turn his interest in mechanics into actual artworks.

The “future” isn’t necessary going to be like science fiction. Through looking at Kokufu’s body of work we can get a fresh bird’s-eye-view of things and make new discoveries about what the future may hold. At Ping Cars we want to keep on searching for other examples of this inspiration.

Top image: “Natural Powered Vehicle” (2004) Photo: Seiji Toyonaga

Special thanks: Chisai Fujita