Serving Looks: an Interview with Yuki Kobayashi
Ditching the strictures of sports in favor of going pro in performance art, Yuki Kobayashi adopts athletics as a lens to reveal our reductive assumptions about sexuality and gender.
Spike: Tell us a bit about your transition from tennis to visual arts. What prompted that?
Yuki Kobayashi: When I was in high school, I played tennis, aiming to be a professional. At the same time, I really liked art and thought of becoming an artist as well in high school. My coach used to live in Hawaii, so I moved there to go to college because I could also study art. So I was studying English and drawing and painting, and also playing tennis outside of school.
S: Did it feel like those were separate parts of yourself? Or could you see any connection between tennis and art?
YK: At that time, I didn’t really feel the connection at all. I really liked Hawaii but I was kind of stuck there. Making art made me feel like I was expressing my distress. One of the classes for English majors was really focused on racism and inequality. That made me think, why am I living? Why am I just playing tennis – to win?
I entered my BA at Central Saint Martins and then I started creating more artwork. But I couldn’t satisfy myself just creating two-dimensional work. For one of my classes, we had to stage a collaboration between a performance student and a finance student. That was kind of my first performance. Around that time, 2012, I started my own performance series named “New Gender Bending Strawberry”. I feel like performance is pure and honest about my body as an art form.
I wanted to make something between performance art and a trained body. It’s about moving my body as trained, but I want to search for something unexpected, something more fluid.
After graduating, when I went to the RCA, I started to focus even more on performance art. That’s when I began performing to explore the body as subject. Performance was my identity, and I didn’t know my identity itself at that time. Because I was a minority as Japan-born Asian and I didn’t know about my sexuality, I thought any of these sexual categories didn’t fit me in that time, and I was seeking my position in society. I started to think, how can I minimize or simplify my body? How can I be more flexible and fluid, more naked? I started to think about costumes and cross-dressing.
Sports felt really close to performance art, but at the same time different, because if you’re playing sports, the purpose is, like, you want to be the top player, for the health or just for fun. There’s a particular goal that you have to achieve. When I perform in a gallery or museum, the context is totally changed. Sports involve training your body every day. For example, dancers or choreographers, they train their body, there’s a typical movement or gesture. They can deconstruct those movements or create new concepts. But for performance art, there’s no such training. It comes from the body as material. I wanted to make something between performance art and a trained body. It’s about moving my body as trained, but I want to search for something unexpected, something more fluid.
When I was in my teens, I was a really big fan of Maria Sharapova, the Russian tennis player. One time, she was in this argument about her grunting on the court, this beautiful woman being aggressive. I really liked her attitude. I started to think about femininity and masculinity. I explored it with my own body through cross-dressing. I wanted to be less masculine, less macho.
S: Were gender roless something you thought about as an athlete, or were you mostly thinking about the sexism female athletes faced?
YK: No, I didn’t realise so many things when I was playing tennis. Especially when I went to Florida for tennis camp, there weren’t many Asian guys at the time, and maybe some people were looking at me differently but I didn’t know the reasons at that time. I thought maybe I should become stronger; I had to win. Thinking back now, it might have been about people mocking me, about being Asian, not speaking English.
S: Do you think there’s an inverse? You talked about the sexism that Maria Sharapova faced, but do you think the pressure of being masculine is also destructive?
YK: Audiences have a different gaze to athletes. One of my works is about the strangeness of the cheerleader. People don’t really think of cheerleaders as athletes. They think of them more as entertains, more like dancers. Or there’s the way that audiences look at women athletes. There’s a different gaze even towards cheerleaders and athletes performing in the same stadium. And also Serena Williams, sometimes she’s portrayed as really masculine, like a beast. I really don’t like that gaze.
S: Why do sports offer such a good lens to think about gender, race, and sexuality?
YK: I think it’s because sports have such a strong influence over people. If you’re a sports star, people will follow you. I’m not an athlete anymore, I cannot be a top player and change society through sports. That’s why I want to keep making these works as an artist, giving people those opportunities to think about how we can change those gender and sexuality norms.
S: Will you tell us about the work you made for Spike? What was your thinking?
YK: Yeah, this new work, Ice Cream Torch. Since I started the project about Sports, I wanted to make new work especially for the Olympics but I didn’t have the idea nailed down. However The Olympics were postponed last year because of COVID-19, and I felt like the government was still focusing on how they could open the Olympics rather than focusing on decreasing COVID-19. It was a trade-off between human life and a commercialised sports festival for the economics. And recently, with [ex-Tokyo Olympics Chief Yoshiro Mori’s] sexist remarks.
When I faced this moment and imagined this news will spread all over the world, I was very embarrassed at first, as a person who was born and raised in Japan. Then I felt a big sense of duty as an artist who has been working on this field to consider the meaning of “sports for peace”, approaching it from the authoritative framework of masculine competition. That’s why, in Ice Cream Torch, this Olympic symbol, the flame is frozen. It becomes like ice cream. This frozen torch forms a Japanese flag. And the mouth that is licking an ice cream cone is gradually covered red, like with lipstick. The process of licking the ice cream so it doesn’t drip reminds me of the Olympic torch relay.
When I came back to Japan, I felt like, “I am quite a man”. When I’m here, I have the huge responsibility of being a man, and I don’t really like my masculinity. I started to think that more people have to change to challenge sexism, not only women or LGBTQ people. So maybe I can create more options through my artwork.
An image contribution by YUKI KOBAYASHI appears in Spike # 66: Sports. You can buy the magazine in our online shop.
Kobayashi's Ice Cream Torch / Ceremony is on view at Tokyo Real Underground through 15 August, 2021.
ALEXANDRA GERMER is an editor emeritus at Spike. ADINA GLICKSTEIN is Spike’s Digital Editor. Editorial support by MIKAYLA UBER.