INTERVIEW: ArtworldNow speaks with Carlos Runcie Tanaka

by Martin Macdonald

Carlos Runcie Tanaka is one of Peru’s most important artists. He has had numerous solo exhibitions in Latin America, Japan, the US and Italy. Runcie Tanaka has also participated in group shows in Peru and overseas. He has represented his country at various biennials including the 4th and 5th Havana Biennial, the 49th Venice Biennale, the 8th Cuenca Biennial and the 26th São Paulo Biennial.

Portrait, CRT in the Studio, 2012              
Photograph: Jaime Chávez 

How did you become an artist?
In 1977 I dropped Philosophy studies at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and started working as an assistant in a ceramics studio. I was seduced by the potter’s wheel and the magic of hands turning clay to create various forms spontaneously. More than often, chance predominates, especially when the objects created enter the kiln to be fired. I was trapped by the craft of pottery and overwhelmed by the power of fire that transforms the clay almost into stone... as years went by, research led me to conceive ambitious projects in space and to exchange ideas with colleagues coming from academia and art history. My work rather stems from an interest in craft but demands that additional and new questions be raised.

Tiempo Detenido/No Olvidar 
(Time Arrested (Standstill) /Do not Forget), 2006                 
Ceramic, glass, iron, steel cable, text and light. Installation view.
from Sumballein -­ Carlos Runcie Tanaka’s Broken Anthology 1978-­2006
Museo de Arte del Centro Cultural de San Marcos, Lima, Peru
Photograph: Juan Pablo Murrugarra
Collection of Museum of Fine Arts Houston,USA

Progresión Orgánica (Organic Progression), 1989                
Thrown and altered stoneware, 165 x 37 x 33
from Art is Integration: Exhibition Celebrating the 90th Anniversary of
Japanese Immigration to Peru   
Museo de Arte, Lima, Peru   
Photograph: Carlos Velásquez   
Collection of Museum of Fine Arts Houston, USA

Your artistic practice seems to draw inspiration from the Peruvian/Pre-Columbian culture/s as well as from Eastern Aesthetics. How do you merge these two worlds in your work?
It is inevitable for oriental roots to influence my work. I spent almost two years in Japan as an apprentice to a traditional master potter and learned a lot about the spirit and the philosophy of ceramics from the direct source. Upon returning to Peru and after five years of travels in Japan and Italy - discipline, respect for tradition, the natural environment, and the expressive impulse - all combine and merge together with my appreciation for the Pre-Hispanic past and the need to find a place to belong.

Indeed, the landscape of the coast of Peru becomes a very important territory to grasp and to find affinity and reaffirm identity.

  Huayco/Kawa/Río, 2006
  Spheres of ceramic shards, Installation view.
  from Sumballein -­ Carlos Runcie Tanaka's Broken Anthology 1978-­2006      
  Museo de Arte del Centro Cultural de San Marcos, Lima, Peru
  Photograph: Juan Pablo Murrugarra

What roles do rituals and infinity (time passing) play in your work?
I always thought when turning clay in the hands and on the wheel, that there was almost no beginning or end... there is a sense of freedom, of eternal cycles, where time does not matter and extends indefinitely.

A timeless time... sound with no sound…

I tend to repeat movements, to execute personal rituals, rituals of placing objects in space, as in installations. The idea of being in space - within it - and feeling it as part of oneself, as an extension of our hand, mind and heart.

Desierto al Sur de Lima (Desert South of Lima), 1987
Ceramic and sand dune, view of work installed along
Panamerican Highway, Km45, Peru
Galería Trilce, Lima, Peru  
Javier Silva

Where do you draw inspiration for your work?
Mostly in landscape and the environment ... perhaps also in dreams - but awake - but more in the environment and nature that always provides us with surprising textures, shapes, colours, feelings...

Transferencia/Dos (Transference/Two), 2006  
Origami paper crabs, glass and light. Installation view.  
Meyers Gallery, University of Cincinnati/Art Academy, Cincinnati, USA  
Philip Groshong

What do crabs mean to you?
Migration, movement, massive flows... crabs as creatures that move between water and land. The crabs remind me of life and death cycles. I relate them to ongoing migration processes, such as the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to Peru...

They become a metaphor for life and continuity... when I fold crabs with paper - in the origami technique - one repeats very old movements, precise and accurate movements... like the movements of crabs on the sand... the paper is folded over and over again giving way to memory and a special state whereby time stretches and elongates almost indefinitely.

What are you working on lately?
I am working on two projects: one for MAC Lima (the Contemporary Art Museum of Lima). The first one is an aerial intervention in the central patio of the museum, as part of PARC 2013, the contemporary art fair in Lima. The project Vínculos (Bonds) unites the architectural structures through tensions in the air created with fabric in the manner of an old Quipus (talking knots or recording devices historically used in the region of Andean South America) that will be placed in the air, capping a small tree in full growth. It is an encounter between architecture and nature and human action, symbolizing also old rituals of festivity.

The second project titled Otros Ríos (Other Rivers) and also in the MAC, is a work that takes the concept of game and combines it with the basic craft of the potter: the act of wedging clay and preparing the material to make small balls. It’s almost like the primal state in which one is constantly preparing for other tasks. In the ball or sphere, primary (and primordial) energy is concentrated resulting afterwards in many other forms and shapes. This time the audience will help me produce the spheres and will also intervene the space that will be constantly changing from day to day.

Desplazamientos (Displacements), 2004  
Video Installation (still from video)  
V Bienal Barro de América, Maracaibo, Venezuela
Courtesy of the artist

As an artist, how do you see the changes in the Peruvian contemporary art market over the past 5 years?
It is indeed a rapid and changing market influenced by globalisation and the profusion of artists and gallerists - something which benefits the local scene - but I also miss the more sedate pace that helped us digest art and helped us remember and keep in our memory what was going on. Art has become almost another form of entertainment that goes along with the market.

How would you compare the contemporary art scene in Lima to that of Santiago or Buenos Aires?
Peru is increasingly well positioned in the international scene. There is a real awakening and most of all we are beginning to value what we produce. This is reflected in the hectic activity of the local scene and the appearance of many talented young artists who are already noticeable and getting recognition in the competitive international market.

Had you not been an artist, what would you have been?
I wanted to be a musician, but I did not have the necessary discipline or the rigour to go on the road. I was lucky to find pottery and I chose this occupation as a way of life. One keeps finding the way and not always things turn out the way you expect.
     36exp/Piscina de Revelado (36exp/Film Processing Pool), 2002  
     Digital photography on acetate, metal, steel wire, water, light. Installation view.  
     from Art Night, Residence of the US Ambassador in Lima, Peru
     Photograph: Herman Schwarz

Which artists – dead or alive – do you most admire and why?
The ancient potters of the Pre-Hispanic cultures, especially Chavin, Moche and Chancay. Master Potters Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada (British and Japanese, respectively). The sculptor Isamu Noguchi, Peruvian artists such as Francisco Laso, Tilsa Tsuchiya, Jorge Eduardo Eielson. USA artists James Turrell, Ann Hamilton .. all great masters and teachers who set an example to follow - all them and many more...

Which are your favourite museums or galleries?
The Peruvian museums that keep our archaeological and cultural heritage.
Whenever I’ve been in New York City I’ve tried to visit the Metropolitan Museum. In the section on Japan there is a stone from which water flows silently - an extraordinary work by Isamu Noguchi. Constant life… permanence.

  Cien Rosas para Cien Esperas
  (One Hundred Roses for One Hundred Waits), 1997
  Ceramic, glass, iron, steel cable, photocopies, dried roses. Installation view.  
  from Contemporary Art of the Americas,
  XXV Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS)  
  Museo de Osma, Lima, Peru  
  Photograph: Herman Schwarz

Many artists say that art they saw in museums as youngsters inspired them to take up art. Is this your case, and if so, can you share your memories with us?
The early visits to archaeological museums always caused impact on me. Amano Museum’s collection of textiles and pottery from Chancay Culture (1,200 and 1,470 A.D.).

The National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History in Pueblo Libre. I remember the extensive tour through the display cabinets and dioramas (models with human and animal figures, representing different ages of civilisation) walking and passing through the cultures of the Peruvian Andes, the Coast and the Amazon area. I will never forget the strong impression caused by the strength of the Tello Obelisk and the lithic sculptures of the Chavin culture (1500 to 300 BC).

An old anecdote from the Natural History Museum in Lima... for many years, in the early 70s, we used to visit this museum with the school and great was our surprise to find the drawers full of rocks and fossils that were virtually free to the spectator’s hand. I think this has already changed... but somehow, at that time, the feeling of touching the past and holding it in the present, gave me a special sense of attachment to the meaning and materiality (physicality, physical weight) of the world we inhabit.

Desplazamientos (Displacements), 1994
Ceramic, iron, steel cable, light. Installation view.
Museo de la Nación, Lima, Peru
Photograph: Carlos Montenegro

What about you would surprise people?
I’ve never done things or exhibitions to surprise people in order to seek their approval. I have just tried to convey situations that I have lived even though some of them may have been extreme situations. Sometimes this has surprised the audience since many of the responses and personal visual actions haven’t had precise parameters to work with or compare with  established language or the trends in art. They have been rather unexpected responses with a very strong personal imprint.

Is there anything you would like to add that hasn’t been touch upon?
Some personal concerns…
How to keep moving on without losing the thread and to keep on discovering new options and possibilities? How to keep alive the initial enthusiasm?
There are no clear answers, only more questions and the constant need to follow the path with honesty, a path that surely holds for us new and challenging surprises...

Catorce No Más (Fourteen No More), 2006  
Ceramic, light. Installation view.  
Galería Enlace Arte Contemporáneo  
Photograph: Miguel Blondet

Espacio Pleno/Espacio Vacío,   
(Empty Space/Clean Space), 1993  
Ceramic, glass, metal, light. Installation view.
Galería L’Imaginaire, Alianza Francesa, Lima, Peru.  
Photograph: Javier Ferrand