The Start Art Fair that is taking place between 21-25 October at the Saatchi Gallery in London seems to be a miraculous exception, when such art fairs as the Frieze and London Art Fair have been cancelled due to Covid-19 this year. If you sum up your courage and visit the fair, make sure not to miss the intriguing experimental works by the Japanese artist Yusuke Akamatsu at the stand of the London-based Shtager Gallery that represents an international pool of contemporary artists. We had a chance to meet with Yusuke himself and discuss his art. As he does not like to talk much, this conversation is precious, for it provides a rare glimpse into his art and thought. You can find the highlights of this conversation in the interview below.

Yusuke Akamatsu (born October 21, 1967 in Ibaraki, Osaka) is a Japanese artist who came into the art world from the film background. His works are striking, his presence enigmatic. His prior work with moving images taught him to combine two seemingly incompatible working modes: an intense, spur-of-the-moment attitude and a contemplative, meticulous gaze that penetrates the essence of the observed phenomena. As a contemporary impressionist, he opts for innovation whilst working with various artistic mediums and keeps off the beaten tracks. He pioneers a new method of drawing with fingers as brushes on the screen of his iPhone, which has become his canvas. Working simultaneously in the techniques of collage, assemblage and montage, Akamatsu combines new media with traditional artistic methods, as he creates his own poetic universe.

Yusuke, when and how did you start working in the film industry?

I started working in the entertainment industry in Japan back in 1985 – so, it has taken me almost twenty years. My parents died early, and I was raised by the people who had professional links with the major film agency. So, by decree of fate, I found myself in this professional milieu quite early. I worked on TV, on the radio, then collaborated with a magazine. I also tried my hand as a screenwriter for comedy productions. There, I learned to "learn by observation" (which is the main method practiced by old Japanese schools), when nobody teaches you verbally. It is believed that one can work independently only after one has learnt to observe people, analyse their emotions and transform them into comedies. I started working independently at the age of 19: I wrote scripts and participated in productions. For over ten years – until I was in my thirties – I worked mainly in the genre of comedy. And what is the comedy’s central point, in any country or culture? The stupidity of man and ambiguity of human existence. And eventually I left Japan – initially, to work on a project: I was going to shoot a film abroad, simply relying on my method of "observation" and "intuition", without learning any native languages. Over the past 23 years, I have switched from cinema to photography, but I still continue to travel the world. In the meantime, the art of observation that I had learned in my youth remained with me through the years when I resided in the South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Great Britain and the USA.

How would you define your artistic method?

A certain "vibration" or even a "scream" are always present in my works. I would say, they are tantamount to a subconscious scream of a person. "Intolerance", "greed", "envy" and "thirst" seem to seep through them. I extract these invisible elements from the surface of the river, the cracks in the wall, advertisements, vague contours of human faces. Formally, my works consist of colour and typographic experiments, but the most important thing about them is the inspiration that the viewers derive while communicating with these works; they find something important for themselves there. In this sense, digital art and the art of the pre-digital era are no different. However, I believe that my works tell the viewer that the world has drastically changed. And this is important.

In which traditional techniques have you worked: drawing, painting? Have you been painting since childhood?

As a child, I wanted to be a manga artist and drew comics to distract myself from loneliness. Sometimes I would turn out fifteen notebooks in a month. I even produced a “fictitious newspaper” with fictional news, drew logos of non-existent companies. Then, when I started scripting and staging TV shows, I drew story boards. And then I switched onto sketching and drawing abstractions in my notebooks. And this is how I still continue today.

What does a smartphone mean to you: a favourite brush, a special palette knife or a universal tool? When did you first attempt to create an artwork with the help of your iPhone? And what was so memorable about your very first work thus produced?

I first started using my smartphone as an artistic medium in Singapore ten years ago. Back then, I only shot films with it, but I have only some fragments and short clips remaining. Much has changed since then, but I am convinced that both the smartphone and the computer are only tools – nothing more. I am against the world where human selection is carried out by means of the data stored on a device the size of a smartphone. The smartphone does not free us, on the contrary, a person gradually becomes enslaved by it. It is also the source of confusion, as one registers the feeling: "It is here that I exist and speak out through this device." One should always remember this. However, like the rest, I extensively use the phone for practical purposes. For me, as a person who does not speak foreign languages, the iPhone is the only way to understand a language. I also jokingly call it “my lungs”, for I breathe the "objects" and my "inspiration" into it and breathe out ready works. Phrased in a different way, it is one of my organs, but it is me myself who makes it animate.

So, can one consider this a substitute for the live contact with art and how do you feel about it?

Certainly, it is not a substitute. A museum cannot be contained in a palm-sized object. It is important to explore authentic works of art and engage with artists’ thoughts while standing face to face with their works. Human laziness is perhaps the enemy that the art of the future will have to counter.

Art is about perceiving life directly and immediately, while observing the progress and changes in real space. It is about reflecting, collecting and distributing works – after all, what else, if not art, can lavish such precious gifts upon us?

An essay by curator Dennis Maximov

Yusuke Akamatsu is a very careful aesthetic observer. When he arrives in the city, he makes himself invisible. He blends in with the backdrop of transcultural, transhistorical, displaced environments. Contemporary cities are more than the melting pots of people – they leave their own cultural footprint not only on those who inhabit them, but also on the mere passers-by, who can undergo fundamental changes. As one views the complexity, richness, and the contrasts of the society through the lens of the postmodern reality, one needs to develop agile and transdisciplinary sensitivity.

He is, in a way, a New Age street artist. If Keith Haring had access to iPad and AR (Augmented Reality), he would have certainly opted for creating large, impactful pieces in both physical and imaginary landscapes. Like Haring, Akamatsu blends the expression of his poetic reflections on our world with the medium that defines his time. He dwells in the cities in search for the glimpses and moments that would serve as the door into the poetic space of “here-and-now”. At the same time, he places visual anthropology within the context of art historical heritage and does not dismiss any aesthetic languages that were invented before him. He carefully builds up on the tradition of communication with and about the city. Haring work referencing Brueghel and Bosch, a nightmarish “combinations of science fiction and this strange nuclear aftermath” (Haring on Untitled, 1984) was an example of capturing the feeling of the society and politics in 1980s New York. The anticipation of a catastrophe combined with the unfolding AIDS crisis, the increasing nuclear threat, as the US-Soviet relations continued to escalate, and the growing cost of living, as economic crises were mounting, their significance had not yet been comprehended by pundits. That was the moment when art, with its courage to ask the questions, still remaining unanswered, entered the scene.

In Yesterday and Tomorrow, Akamatsu uses the language of the street to create an abstract collage which captures the anxiety of the big city. The advertised objects from the posters on Parisian streets morph into grenades in the eyes of the viewer. The city bombards us with flashy images of continuous consumption: it is “carpet-bombing” us with sensations, narratives, conflicting stories. There is no “Now” or “Today”: it all is about how “Yesterday” defines “Tomorrow”. The anticipation of the future is based on a well-packaged, constantly reconfigured, oversold nostalgic past. Akamatsu’s paintings capture this anxiety of the city and the breach in the perception of time and space: vivid colours emphasize the impact of the imagery that aggressively shifts our focus away from our numerous cares and upon itself. Ripped off performance bills and advertisements of the upcoming products reveal the layered vision of the modern city that has no present.

Akamatsu’s Flower-Bearing Face seems to capture the reflection of fractured identity shaped in the constant cacophony of cultural voices. There is no mirror that can mimetically reflect our being shaped by the constant scrutiny of transformational processes which define life in a modern city. The image is vague, apparently on purpose: the onlooker can see it as her own reflection in the painting.

His latest project , which will be presented by London’s Shtager Gallery, departs from revisiting Pablo Picasso’s seminal Guernica – a difficult, tormenting work produced by the master in the aftermath of the civil war tragedy that had happened in the eponymous Spanish town. In Akamatsu’s Definition and Principle, the subject takes on a new twist by addressing contemporaneity. Derived from Picasso’s allegorical representation of the circa mid- 20th century abstraction, the work transcends the feelings of awe, horror and, surprisingly, hope – through duality of moods achieved in bright red and blue tones. In the series of works, the artist posits a familiar ser of questions, so characteristic of his whole oeuvre: what have we done to our civilisation, to humanism and ethical principles? Have we really progressed in any direction and has it brought about any significant changes? Are we further away from self-destruction now than where we stood less than a century ago, when Guernica screamed about the atrocities that could be perpetuated by the hand of man?

Akamatsu’s take on this complex subject is ridden with thoughtful contemplation rather than political agenda. Art is not the space for politics, but for thoughtful discourse that can restart the gears of reflection. Yusuke Akamatsu’s body of work, distinctly presented in his new series, charts that space of thoughtful engagement on behalf of the viewer and provides an entry point to our human complexity.