Kenzo Minami is here to save the world from mediocrity and irony. He worked with Reebok, Raf Simons and Flaunt Magazine. His most recent NY exhibition was officially opened by Chloë Sevigny and his most recent interview was officially conducted by KNOTORYUS.
Quote: Knotoryus: The biggest cliché/misconception about Japan is… Kenzo: That we are all polite. People have no idea.
Knotoryus: Which philosopher taught you most about how to live life.
Kenzo Minami: Pretty much all the philosophers taught me how not to live life when I look back on them. After all the great writings and big ideas, I came to live by simple things – like this quote by Woody Allen which goes “You can live to be hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.”
Knotoryus: From what I read in the interviews you seem really calm and collected. Do you stress out sometimes or is it more ‘what will be will be’?
Kenzo: I can be stressed pretty much only when it comes to work. I can be a maniac and a monster when I am in the work-mode, but other than that, I think I am pretty calm. Not a lot of things bother me much at this point.
Knotoryus: When was the last time you felt really proud of yourself?
Kenzo: My last show in New York. It was a show consisting of 3 artists – Andy Warhol, Robert Longo, and I. And it was hosted by Chloë Sevingy. They were the best company any artists could ever hope for to have a show with. It was organized by Mercedes-Benz, and when they contacted me and told me what they are planning – having artists from past to present, and me representing the present, and all that - I almost didn’t believe them in the beginning. And if I am too cool and modest to feel proud of myself for that, that is just too sad.
Knotoryus: Could you tell us a bit about your childhood & family? What was it like?
Kenzo: I grew up in complete blue-collar environment. Most memories I have from childhood are from my father’s small die-cast metal factory. Most of the men in my family are factory workers dealing with metal, and everyone works in the factory for their entire lives with little break or vacation. I remember not seeing my father much when I was little, since he left home early for the factory before I wake up, and came home late after I went to sleep. He had 3 days off a year or so, pretty much only around new year's day. He worked the whole weekend through as well – though on the weekends, he took my brother and I to the factory to hang out since they didn’t really have time to take us to anywhere and my mother also helped him out at the factory. (She also took care of a lot of the business side of things. All the women in my family are strong driving forces, if not the true drive behind it - since all men in my family tend to be also childlike, as much as they are real men with liberal minds.) So since I pretty much only saw my father at his factory on the weekend, our relationship was more one of friends, or a much older brother. And we somehow remained the same even now. And also this environment put me in the situation that I had to invent my own toys, since we weren’t given many toys. And coming from where I came from (not having much money and no one went to college except my mother back then), I somehow knew that I am going to need skills to survive – so I picked up paper, pen, scrap of metal and wood or any material I can get my hands on to make things out of as weapons of choice. And I also studied a lot since I figured that the brain is the one thing you can train by simply having determination and a strong will which essentially cost you nothing. And I went on to study western philosophy and eventually industrial design at university.
My grandfathers also worked in the factories. The one from my father's side of family was an orphan, so he started working in very early age, and still works in the factory – and he is 89 now. And he pretty much has been working in the same way as my father has whole his life, without any break. He must have been working in the factory close to 75 years straight by now. Knowing his background, he must have had a tough life, but you would never guess it – he is the gentlest person you could ever meet, always quietly smiling. Among all the strong men in my family, I think I learnt the real strength of a man from him.
My grandfather from my mother's side was also a worker, but he finally retired recently. He was a cool guy who played violin and piano, was good at martial arts, and rode a motorcycle. Even though he was just a worker, he educated himself and taught himself all these arts, and left a strong impression on me when I was young. He was quite strict with manners in an old fashion sense (almost like those turn of the century English Gentlemen), and taught me all manners in every aspect in life. I remember my mother telling me that you do not learn manners just because you are in a class that requires those manners (table manners, etc), but those with manners will someday find themselves to be in that sort of class. And as I’ve seen so many places and met so many people through my life, money indeed does not necessarily buy you class for sure. This grandfather also did not have his father (because of very complicated family history from back then), so he basically raised all his brothers and sisters since he was the eldest. So he too started working when he was young.
Even though I came so far from where I started and ended up having a completely different type of life from the people who raised me, I became more and more proud of coming from this league of men and women as I got older. It really makes me want to do my best to live up to them. And it’s bit hard for me to complain about anything when I think of them. There is this one incident I think of when I want to whine or feel like complaining about all the tedious things. One day when I was around 10, my father lost one of his fingers in press machine in the evening. He went to a doctor that evening, came home, and went back to work with a missing finger right the next day. And really, how on earth can I complain that I have too many things I have to design by tomorrow or someone made my coffee too weak when I think of that?
Knotoryus: Between the age of 10-14, what was your favourite spare-time occupation?
Kenzo: Doodling. Though things haven’t changed much since.
Knotoryus: Was it a conscious decision to leave Japan?
Kenzo: Yes absolutely. Though not exactly leaving Japan as a place, but leaving the environment I grew up in. As much as I was raised by loving parents and great people, it was not exactly the environment where I could do what I wanted to do with my life. Knotoryus: You’re a big Woody Allen-fan. Have you experienced any Woody Allen-moments in your life? Kenzo: Everyday. As matter of fact, I particularly remember this one time when a girlfriend I had in college told me “Being with you is like being in a Woody Allen film” quite casually, over just sitting around having coffee in East Village. (Though when you really think about it, such a sentence could leave enormous consequences to my emotional state permanently. There shouldn’t be anything casual about it.) I still don’t quite know if it is a good thing or what. She did tell me that she was happy being in one though.
Knotoryus: Your Belgian friends must have been asking you to come visit us for ages now. How do they try to lure you in?
Kenzo: There were a few things I guess. Years ago my friends told me that they would just buy me a ticket to fly me there. And I somehow ended up not leaving the city (quite idiotically). And my friend Gabi and I have been trying to do some more projects together (KM did the artwork on Gabriel Rios' second album 'Angelhead') , so I will have a good excuse to come over – even thoughthat I don't need any excuse to come over (I really want to come to Belgium). Gabi seems to know me by now that I would finally come if it were for work. It’s sad but it has indeed been the case – though I am finally starting to see the other side of life and beginning to want to enjoy life apart from work. And of course those classic “All the girls in Belgium are hot, you really have to come over” lines I hear from everyone. (And I truly believe them on that subject.) Though funny thing is that, before I ended up making it to Belgium to see my friends, I am meeting up with my Belgian friends An and Ingrid in Tokyo in July. And after that trip to Japan, I am definitely coming to Belgium. (Just to make sure that my friends were right on that one particular subject.)
Knotoryus: Could you name your Belgian friends and give us 1 thing you admire him/her for.
Kenzo: An Oost for her sincerity. Delphine Bafort for her positivity. Mathieu Van Damme for his sweetness. Gabriel Rios for his down to earth nature.
Knotoryus: What are you most curious about (seeing in Belgium)?
enzo: Anything that is older than half a century . I've been living in New York City for so long, I really miss things that have a history. (And 300 years or so is considered “recent” where I come from. It does not even count as a history.)
Knotoryus: How would you describe New York to someone that’s never been there.
Kenzo: It will be better than you ever imagined, and it will be worse than you thought.
Knotoryus: If you had to give someone a tour of New York consisting only of 5 stops that would give them an experience of NYC the way you like it... What would those be?
1st step -Bad people.
2nd step -Bad coffee.
3rd step -Bad climate and bad traffic.
4th step -More bad people (with optional bad attitude).
-And as for 5th stop, once you start loving being here badly and masochistically for all reasons above, you truly are New Yorker.
Knotoryus: Which New York Phenomenon do you still fail to understand?
Kenzo: The phenomenon of inhabitation. The fact that we still live here.
Knotoryus: You were talking about a friend who owns a shop in Belgium. Who is he/she? And what would you like to do together?
Kenzo: My friend Mathieu has a store called “Toykyo” in Gent and I am planning on Releasing “Gent exclusive version” limited edition prints there. ( UPDATE: KENZO MINAMI DOESN'T MAKE FALSE PROMISES)
Knotoryus: Are your t-shirts for sale in Belgium?
Kenzo: Not officially at this moment. Only people who have them are pretty much all my friends, I think. (Or I guess people who bought them in North America, Japan, or some other places where I sell my products.)
KENZO MINAMI TOP3
Top 3 Books:
“The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams.
“Getting Even / Side Effects / Without Feathers” by Woody Allen
Those Jeeves books by P. G. Wodehouse.
Top 3 movies:
“8 ½” by Federico Fellini
“Stardust Memories” by Woody Allen
“Dr. Strangelove or : How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” by Stanley Kubrick
Favourite Party Drink: Whiskey and Stella.
Best party you’ve ever been to: Summer of 99’ was one big continuous party.
Could you please fill out these sentences: The thing everybody should know about Kenzo before meeting him for the first time is…. That I am actually quite shy. And I am not saying this to be cute, I really am. And despite all the things I say, I have tremendous love for New York.
The biggest cliché/misconception about Japan is… That we are all polite. People have no idea.
Kenzo Minami is here to save the world from… Mediocrity and irony. All images: copyright Kenzo Minami.