Yoshie Sakai: Immersive and Accessible Video and Installation Art in KOKO’s Neighborhood
through March 23rd
California State University Dominguez Hills Art Gallery, Carson
Written by Genie Davis
At California State University Dominguez Hills Art Gallery through March 23rd, multi-disciplinary artist Yoshie Sakai continues her video project KOKO’s Love, which explores the everyday trials of first-generation families in South Los Angeles.
It would be hard to underestimate the immersive quality of the exhibition, which is the outgrowth of Sakai’s CSUDH PRAXIS residency. It isn’t only the intrinsically involving combination of video and life-size sets that makes the viewer feel that they are truly a part of Sakai’s work, it is her devotion to life itself, to the mundane and the dramatic, the threads of existence that bind us all. KOKO’s Love is an apt title for the overall project, because one can almost feel the rays of the artist’s love for her work, her viewers, and just plain people emanating from it.
In this iteration of her on-going work, Sakai has collaborated with students Israel Perez, Santos Nunez, Christina Laybon, Richelle Caampued, Vanessa Renovales, Sierra Robles, Joe Smith, Jacqueline Mendoza, Andreinna Giron, Danielle Harris, and Brianna Correa, shaping new characters.
The inspiration for this and what Sakai terms all of her work since she was an undergraduate art student is “the quotidian, the everyday anxieties, fears, and joys that come from living. My friends, family, coworkers, students… all their concerns and preoccupations become my obsessions, from subjects about death to personal weight management to my current body of work KOKO’s Love and the soap opera genre. I am fascinated not only for its outrageous characters and scenarios, but also for how it touches upon the most fundamental emotions and at times spews familiar life lessons and moral clichés that are highly accessible, or as my 85-year-old, first generation Japanese mother would say it is ‘what she lives for.’”
Perhaps it’s my own background in having at one point written for daytime television, or devotion to watching Jane the Virgin, but the immediate and palpable connection felt with viewing this exhibition was highly enjoyable. Beyond that, the pure spirit of joy in the creation of art, and the fact that Sakai has so seamlessly merged an accessible narrative form with artistic passion, makes this exhibition both a must-see, and work that one can both easily visually devour while experiencing the transformative nature of art.
In other words, Sakai has succeeded in one of her primary goals for the exhibition. “It is very important to me that art be accessible, and one way to frame the videos and to create an inviting space are these ‘sets,’” she says. These large-scale exhibits are both charming and truly draw the viewer into the content of her ‘program.’
As she puts it “If KOKO’s Love had a huge fan base and someone as a fan wanted to feel like they were on the set of their favorite show, you could be there right now at the CSU Dominguez Hills University Art Gallery.” She adds “Because my hybrid East Asian/Asian American soap opera is loosely autobiographical, the installation components represent actual or real aspects of where I grew up, like the image of the stop sign and street sign intersection of my family home that greets you at the entrance, and inside the exhibition where my child fantasy world of imaginary friends like the alligator, Alligator The Great; tombstone, Tombstone Tammy; and beignet, Mx. Friendly Beignet, come to life.”
Sakai has been shaping and refining her video and installation art experiences since 2007, when she was in graduate school. The work represented a switch from her undergraduate studies in painting and drawing.
“After one semester of graduate school and my one fateful meeting with Lynda Benglis in 2007, I began making videos and installations for them. She had seen one of my collages that I was making and said ‘Hmmm…. I’d like to see one of these as a video.’ It was just that one statement that moved me into video, and since then, my primary medium has been video and installation. That was perhaps the one pivotal breakthrough in my studio practice.”
The result at CSUDH is a richly established work, a continuation of an art project and practice, and a quite fascinating evolution in terms of concept and material. Her work changes with each new exhibition space, but it is the all an outgrowth of work she initially began in 2013, her KOKO’s Love series, which has culminated with KOKO’s Neighborhood. What the viewer sees at the university gallery has been six years in the making.
“Each episode and installation builds upon one another and grows,” she says. “Sometimes I am embarrassed that I am only at Episode 3 after 6 years with a couple of spin-off variety shows, the most recent being KOKO’s House.” That “show” is on exhibit here.
She describes her time-consuming process, as “I start by writing a script, and then I do play all of the characters, with the exception of KOKO’s House, where I collaborated with eleven CSU Dominguez Hills students as part of the PRAXIS Artist in Residence program.”
Because of that collaboration, this time around, Sakai is only the voice of the mother Keiko and the daughter Yuki, and the other voices or characters she lip syncs to other people’s voices, which she says she feels really makes the show.
“I film myself in my garage studio, which I have painted green and have laid out green mats so that I can film myself from all angles with green all around so that I can edit myself into whatever environment for whatever scene. For most scenes, I sort of have a sense of how it should look, and then either find a location that fits what I envision or create it myself,” she explains. This includes the Commentator’s Lair of KOKO’s House, which she developed as a 6.5” cube miniature that she placed her characters in.
“Then I add in the audio/sound FX/soundtrack once I pretty much have the final edit done, and add the credits. Filming and editing take the longest time. It’s really hard to say how long it all took,” she says, ruminating on the creation of her current work. “It took a good 3-4 months, full time, including the concept and creation of the installation.” The length of the project was consuming, she says, with very little time for visiting friends or attending art exhibitions. She essentially becomes a part of her own world for the duration.
“For each installation, I do create a scale maquette of the space, from which I can visually and spatially begin to see the environment develop.”
But the part of this particular exhibition that she says was “super fun and exciting,” was the collaborative experience, something she’s never done before for the KOKO’s Love series.
She says the students she worked with were instrumental from the very beginning, even in the creation of the script.
“They were my script consultants in a big way. They were all very knowledgeable about KOKO’s Love, and had watched all the videos, so I spent two full days interviewing each of them, and asked them where they saw themselves in terms of the character and storyline.”
Before she got to this point, however, she’d decided she was creating KOKO’s House, a reality show similar to Netflix’s Terrace House, a Japanese Real World where three women and three men, twentysomethings, “live together in a gorgeous house and the cameras watch what happens, totally unscripted.”
However, for KOKO’s House, she describes what unfolds as “instead of living with young beautiful people, there are three members who had to live with my dysfunctional Japanese American family, the members being the students. But there are 11 of them, so I thought this reality show format would work as sometimes a character would leave and would need to be replaced in the house, but since they all were so great and had watched all the shows, they definitely had thoughts on who they could be in the show. So, I took all that into consideration and wrote a script accordingly.”
Specifically, she says “One student, Richelle, wanted to be a mean girl, so I wrote in two mean girls, because I already had one mean girl character named Renee. Some students felt that they would be friends of the kidnapped Yuki character, so now the existing child characters had more friends helping them search for Yuki and started the ‘Youth for Yuki’ group.” And so, the script evolved for Sakai, as did her depiction of the characters. “Other students wanted to stand up to the patriarch of the family Hiroshi, so I wrote them in as members of the house. But none of this would have happened without their input and enthusiasm for KOKO’s Love,” she attests. “I then had one week to film all their characters, so I set up a green screen in one of the school’s studios and filmed them there. It was really exciting and thrilling to have eleven new characters,” the artist enthuses, adding that this is how KOKO’s Love became KOKO’s Neighborhood, “with a new show, KOKO’s House, to boot!”
Although she doesn’t say so herself, one of the most appealing aspects of the video work, and the seriously charming and beautifully detailed ‘sets,’ is the fact that she’s created intensely entertaining material that couches its cultural purview within a context that just about anyone can enjoy. From a blue-walled bedroom with Spiderman and Star Wars figures on the walls to “KOKO’s Love Theater” with its ribbons of glittery strand walls and cushy bean-bag chairs, the ‘sets’ are vivid and filled with color. Phrases that describe characters appear over video monitors; her witty figures, like Alligator the Great, are charming constructs.
This time around, she says that what she most wants viewers to know about the exhibition is its collaborative aspect, and that it “really is a celebration about the imperfections of life, that what is painfully average and every day can be humorous and fun and hopefully somewhat special.”
Under her seemingly effortless hand, all of this could not be more true. The immersive quality of the work puts viewers “there,” in the moment, a part of the program, fans of the program, experiencers of its world.
She says that it makes her feel happy to find that viewers feel completely brought into the experience. “I really do want to feel like you are inside my brain exploring all its quirks and ruminations and paths. So, I am so relieved and happy that you feel that you were ‘there,’” she stresses. “I want to get the viewer outside of feeling like they are in a gallery, so if I make you forget, and believe that you are not in a gallery but on KOKO’s set, that’s awesome! That’s the best feeling.”
It’s also the best feeling for the viewer: to understand the work, to enjoy it, one truly has to “be there.” And being there is both an art experience and an intensely human one; the faux program Sakai has created, it’s surprising, lively, and quite lovely sets; the shared environment she draws one into, all of this is just as accessible as she desires it to be, and just as wonderful as art can be.