Simon Fujiwara

Interview by
Kevin Killian
Photography by
Georg Rohlfing


I met Simon Fujiwara last November in San Francisco at 'The Air We Breathe', an exhibition at the SFMoMA that brought together poets and visual artists to ruminate on the topic of same-sex rights. Not only is Simon supercute and supersmart, he's also a devoted BF, has a degree in architecture from Cambridge, and is a classically-trained musician (regular readers will recall his art rock band, Asia Today, from the BUTT Bias mixtape). I picked Simon up in the bar of the St. Regis hotel and offered him a lift to the airport in my '87 Dodge Aries K-Car.

Simon: So Kevin, you are something of an expert on Kylie. Is she your muse?
Kevin: Yes. Since 1999.
I wanted to tell you the story of how Kylie killed my hamster.
She did?
As a kid, I watched every episode of ‘Neighbours’, the Australian soap in which Kylie was sort of the prize cow.
She played Charlene, the tomboy mechanic, and Jason Donovan played her boyfriend Scott.
Just before their wedding episode, I got a hamster called Truffles. I had opened Truffles’ cage, and Truffles and my cat Kettle started to sniff each other. I thought they were becoming friends. I was being very attentive until I heard the theme tune of ‘Neighbours’, and ran downstairs to watch. Halfway through the show, as Charlene and Scott were getting married, I heard a squeal. I ran upstairs, in tears from the wedding, and saw my hamster dead. I ended up burying it in a Tupperware box in the garden.
How could you look at the cat in the same way?
It was hard. But I acknowledge that it was largely my fault.
I’ve never heard anybody heterosexual tell the story of watching Charlene and Scott’s wedding. Your parents must have known right then and there that little Simon was going to be gay.
Well, my mum told me she knew I was gay when I was three-years-old. One day, she sat on the toilet, and it just went bang in her head. That’s what she tells people.
Do you have brothers and sisters?
I have an older brother and a younger sister. My sister’s actually a half-sister because my father re-married to a Japanese woman, but so obsessed are my parents with their time in Spain, that my father called his Japanese daughter Maria.
It must have been a beautiful time.
For them, it was a golden age. They loved it, and they talk about it all the time whenever we are together.
I missed the beginning of your performance, ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’, last night. In the show, you have the realization of being gay while looking at an abstract expressionist  painting by Patrick Heron. What was it about the painting that gave you such a hard-on?
‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ is a theatrical version of a supposed biographical event of my life. Getting my first erection at a modern art museum didn’t actually happen to me, but it was a theory I wanted to posit. St. Ives, where the story takes place, is where I grew up. In Britain, the implication of the Tate St. Ives — a global multimillion pound institution landing in a fishing town — is a story that everybody is sick to death of hearing: The Bilbao Effect. But in my piece, it becomes the best thing that ever happened to me. They exhibit a Patrick Heron picture, my erection helps me achieve my own sexuality. The piece is almost like an advertising campaign for a museum, which is something that an artist can’t and shouldn’t really do, at least in terms of taste.
Did you train as an actor?
I studied as an architect. My process of making these performances came out of the language of presentation in architecture school, where you would be presenting half-finished, fictive ideas for buildings. You’ve got this crappy model, and you’re trying to explain why this is going to save the racial demographic in East London because it has polished African marble which will make it welcome to the local African communities — ‘Oh, and it’s wheelchair friendly’! It’s about your ability to take people through a series of narratives, and to back it up with props.
In my performances, I take that kind of rhetoric, and apply a whistle-blowing technique. When the piece becomes fiction, I tell you it’s fiction. In ‘Welcome to the Hotel Munbar’, I tell the audience that it’s true my parents owned a bar in Spain in the 1970s, and that they saw the fall of Franco, but I also reveal that I create fictions about it. In this case, I made my dad a gay protagonist. When it comes to devising my works, and acting in them, it always comes down to how much we are acting in everyday life.
So you’re acting out a fictitious version of your own life that retains many true things about it?
Exactly. Say you’re upset. Your father dies — or your hamster dies — and you start to cry. Even as a kid, I was always questioning: ‘Who am I crying for? Who’s my audience? Do I really feel sad?’ It would always stop me in the middle of my sadness, and make me feel silly and absurd. It made me question what are emotions? Do they exist, or do they arise from a set of social obligations we believe to have in reality?
With that kind of consciousness as a child, it must have been a relief to reach puberty. For me, the physical existence of my erection was a manifestation of something tangible.
There is always that moment, particularly with masturbation, when you release. There’s a split second of self-consciousness where you masquerade yourself into an eroticized world — a hard, dirty world — that leads you to the point of orgasm. And when the moment of release happens, I always feel so many opposing feelings: I’m an idiot, and I’m very excited, and I loved it, and it was silly… Sometimes you have to laugh at yourself, at the silly sort of animal that’s just spent two hours watching porn to get to this point. Or vice versa, where it happens very quickly, and it’s almost like a cold water spray.
I read the piece you submitted to ‘Straight to Hell’, purportedly written by your father, in which he confesses that he loved being brutalized by one of Franco’s secret police. What does he think of you portraying him as a gay ‘Francophile’ in your performance?
Just before the first performance, my mother asked me why I was doing it, and I gave her a long spiel about how this was a dictatorship and how important it is to unleash the history of oppression. And she said, ‘Oh gosh, that’s true, isn’t it? It was a dictatorship’. It had never really affected them because he was Japanese and she was English. Perhaps because of the fact that they turned a blind eye to all of this, I felt it was an urgent thing to do. After the performance, she came up to me with a grave face and said, ‘Why on earth did you show that awful photo of me with that terrible hairdo?’
I was so confused, and intrigued. This story reminded me of my own attraction to my own father, and my attempts to connect my sexuality to his own.
But you don’t come out of the performance thinking, ‘Oh my god, Simon’s dad is a massive bender…’ In the art world, people instantly read everything you create as autobiographical in a way that filmmakers or fiction writers have a slight escape from. When I came to the art world I discovered that I will never escape my biography, and unless I make biography one of the parts of my practice, people will write about me in a way I don’t like.
And they still will. Would you ever hire a ghostwriter to write for you?
It’s something I’ve never considered. But after you telling me about how you hired a ghostwriter to write up your fantasies about your father, it’s triggered something in me.

BUTT - Sf_phallusies_web
Simon Fujiwara, 'Phallusies (An Arabian Mystery)', 2010. Video 15:16 min. Mixed Media, dimensions variable. Photograph courtesy of Gallery Gió Marconi and Neue Alte Brücke

Artists are well known for hiring fabricators. You didn’t make that four ton penis in your ‘Phallusies’ exhibition by carving it yourself.
No, but writing and acting, or even the designing of installations is not something I like to outsource. I like to write. The process is crucial to my work, and when I do outsource something like the four ton penis to fabricators — well, the four meter penis. It’s actually very light.
How heavy is it? It looks enormous.
It’s about two hundred kilos. It takes four men to lift it. The story of ‘Phallusies’ comes from these four men who had been working for a museum in the Middle East as fabricators. They saw an ancient phallus being unearthed from the museum’s foundations, but nobody took photos, and nobody documented it. Initially, I thought it was a complete joke.
So what happened to the cock?
I interviewed these four men who had seen it, and they all had different stories. One said the cock disappeared, another said it was destroyed. The project managers claimed that actually it wasn’t interesting enough to show in the museum, and yet another one said it wasn’t a cock, it was a column. Everyone’s memories about how big it was were completely different. They all remembered the story differently, and added their own political content.
Back in real life you’re dating Ingar Dragset, one half of art duo Elmgreen and Dragset, and maybe he’s a bit more famous than you. Are you ever jealous of him?
No, we’re at different places in our careers. Increasingly, we’ve appeared in the same exhibitions and the same biennials. But you know, the art world is very status-led, and there are slightly better hotels for one set of artists than others. Mostly, exhibitors like when we’re both in a show because that way they only have to pay for one hotel room. Ingar also has a working partner, Michael, and they have a kind of ‘marriage’, ­especially to their public. I really like that, because of where it leaves me.
Say I went out with you and your friends. How would you entertain me?
Well, we have a little game. Perhaps you’ve played your own version of it. It’s called ‘Cock or Balls?’.
Don’t know it.
Try it when you’re out with your friends. Each of you makes a little hole near the crotch of your trousers, up high on the inseam. Not a large hole, just enough you could poke your finger through. Then you reach through and pull out a little pinch of skin. The challenge for your friends is to guess if it’s your cock or your balls.
I’m catching on.
It teaches you a lot about your friends. About their hygiene, about who shaves their balls, who’s got underwear on, who’s got a shaved shaft… I’ve ruined more pairs of trousers playing it.

This weekend’s your last chance to catch Simon’s solo exhibition at Tate St. Ives before it closes on 7 May. He’s also being represented by his gallerist Giò Marconi at the first ever Frieze New York which runs 4 – 7 May.

Published on 04 May 2012