Golden Week. Exploring Osaka with my camera I stopped by Hozenji, Namba, and found a jazz band setting up inside the temple and, nest to the band, an artist arranging drawing paper and coloured pens on a table.
Hozenji is a tiny temple tucked away among the eateries and drinkeries of Namba to the east of Midosuji. The temple and the adjacent streets figure prominently in Sakunosuke Oda’s earthy tales of Osaka life, written in the thirties and forties. These days, the streets immediately adjacent to the temple preserve something of the old Edo atmosphere. In the centre of the temple, a Buddhist icon, shaggy with an extravagant coating of moss kept fresh with water thrown by worshippers. And today, that jazz band and artist.
The music-art event was a fundraiser for Tohoku and the work created by the artist, one-minute pieces drawn to the rhythm of the music, were on sale, all proceeds to the disaster funds.
The artist was evidently a person of some note, an established artist: slightly older, backed up with a staff of helpers and his work illustrated the menu of at least one of the adjacent bars.
I watched in fascination as he pushed his pastels round the paper, in a very individual motion. Each composition was apparently unrehearsed and quite spontaneous and although there were definite motifs, each work remained individual. The line was distinctive — perhaps because of his unusual pushing style — and the sense composition was offbeat and quirky. The pictures featured flowers, birds, doves with branches of peace; all containing whimsy and humour; simple and striking colours and clearly, a great deal of humanity and love for his activity.
I eventually bought one of the pictures: a purple dove holding a flower in its beak, a simple line drawing with an off-kilt construction and the lines inside the wings finger-smudged to soften them and return the focus to the bird’s face: brilliant; fun.
The artist was Seitaro Kuroda and I was intrigued to discover that he was the painter of the big, black bird-man mural in Amerika-mura by the Apple Store, a long-time landmark of the area. Clearly the man is an Osaka institution. More than that, his career spans decades and he has lived in New York, where he has regular exhibitions; he has worked across Europe, Asia, and even in isolated Pyongyang.
His art over the years has ranged from the small, cute and whimsical to large, complex and even scary. We see characters that might not be out of place in commercial merchandising but we also see large abstract works. All the pieces possess the otherworldly atmosphere of a very active imagination.
We arranged an interview, which took me to another of his events, this time in Hirakata, an apartment complex where he was to be painting benches and sculptures in a garden with an enormous number of very small children.
Painting as a performance and a communal activity characterises his work. Most frequently he seems to perform with musicians and has done a lot of work with John Zorn, experimental, avant-garde and jazz composer and performer. In Potsdam, he created a show on a commuter train.
Today: no musicians, but lots of children and sunshine. The purpose of the event: to encourage togetherness and communication and connection through the shared activity of creating. And in the process, turn this communal suburban garden into an outdoor art gallery.
When we arrived, Kuroda was flat on his back on the ground relaxing before the event started but was happy to greet us and start chatting right away. Before I could begin on my carefully composed list of questions, Kuroda was off, telling us about his life and art and eschewing the nice garden bench to get back to the casual comfort of the ground.
He was born in 1939, and his earliest years in Osaka and Kobe were dominated by the war, the austerity it imposed and by the US occupation, all experiences that have conditioned his world view, his approach to and the content of his art.
“The war was futile for Japan,” he says. Images of peace are constant in his work and the occasional presence of violence: in his Amerika-mura mural, the nightmarish bird-man creature walks through the words ‘Peace on Earth’; doves predominated in the Tohoku images. I later asked him about the recurrent images of peace, and he replied cryptically, “they are very important to me, but I don’t like to talk about them.”
His work took him all over the world. “I realised there was no difference between people. People the world over are the same. There is no difference between westerners and Asian people.” These observations launched one of the main themes of his conversation: difference is an illusion. Differences between places, races, nationalities, age, gender, they are all perceptions; artificial.
“The world should be without borders. Art has no borders; music has no borders. Red is red wherever you go; do re mi is the same everywhere. The sky is blue in Pyongyang just as it is everywhere else.” And so the arts are a language, a medium that goes to the essence of being alive.
To work. He is here to paint: wood panels and the concrete benches, with the help of all the kids of course. He punctuates his activities with little talks for the benefit of his audience: “To be born is a miracle; just be happy!” Fine sentiments but whether they sunk in with the primary school kids is not clear. But they were happy, clad in plastic covers to keep the flying paint off their clothes, they daubed and splashed the concrete and the wood and eventually got their hands in too, creating an effect to put the ‘riot’ in ‘colour’.
Kuroda was down on his hands and knees among the kids painting with them and then having his work obliterated by their busy brushes. He also did some solo designs and he showed the same spontaneous, intuitive approach I saw at Hozenji. “I don’t think,” he later told me, “I just do whatever comes to mind. Otherwise it doesn’t work.”
“Life was very tight after the war. Art was an escape from tightness, from social restrictions.” And clearly it has been ever since.
I asked why he was attracted to action art, rather than studio work. “I just like to be outside, with the wind and the earth. I once did an event in the middle of a typhoon in Okinawa.”
Kuroda liked the image of the wind. It is always on the move, like him. Although born in Osaka, he points out he has lived many places (currently Kitakyushu) and doesn’t consider himself from anywhere in particular. Of his almost itinerant lifestyle he said, “I’ll go anywhere if I’m invited. I’ll go like a dog when it’s called,” and laughed. “I don’t like things to stay the same. Things should always be changing.” When he says this, he is also talking about art; art should always be dynamic. When I asked him about his famous mural in Amerika-mura, painted in 1983, he clearly didn’t want to talk about it: “It’s too old. I didn’t intend it to be there so long. One year was enough.” Move on.
To the future? He will be going to New Zealand soon to paint on a mountain with Maori people. Before that, he’s going to Tohoku.
Clearly, Kuroda is a man who likes to live and work without restraint or constraint on lifestyle or imagination, always on the move, communing with people and nature through art: a man without borders.
There are a number of videos on YouTube of Seitaro Kuroda working — just search on his name spelled in alphabet.
This story was first published in 2011 in the now-defunct Kansai Scene