Yuree Kensaku is a celebrated Japanese-Thai artist whose exuberant candy-coloured works of virtuoso surrealism draw on pop iconography, contemporary Thai politics, and her own allergies and anxieties. They seem at times nightmares dressed up as kitsch, or a kind of sugar-coated horror show of contemporary culture. In interview Yuree Kensaku is calm, articulate and unprepossessing, giving explanations of her work in simple, almost guileless phrases that suddenly snap into hard focus. Her creations, like her, can catch you off-guard. They are deceptively simple – almost throwaway because of the flat, cartoon style she adopts – but there is an insidiousness in the detail. There are jarring acts of violence, lascivious tongues, dead-looking eyes, and a cast of sinister characters. She lifts the lid in unsettling glimpses, or picks away at the scab to show something raw and tender beneath – things that, in the real world, are glossed over, not mentioned, or denied.
Her methods are accomplished and innovative, and her impressive range of techniques – which result from a restless need to experiment – are used to equally good effect. She has produced collage, murals, video installations, animation, music, and sculpture. For her most recent exhibition in Bangkok, Atmosfear, she turned her personal fears and anxieties into vivid wall-to-wall cartoon murals steeped in her particular brand of faux-kitsch humour. At Hong Kong’s 2015 Art Basel, she exhibited the powerful When the Elephants Fight, the Grass Gets Trampled, an allegorical piece she has described as portraying the pernicious effects of the political rift in Thailand. Two powerful elephants with red eyes clash under a lurid orange sky while an Hieronymous Bosch-like nightmare of animal violence takes place in the background with weak animals crushed and buffaloes burning on the horizon. It is a tour-de-force – perhaps her best, certainly most serious, work so far.
Despite only being in her mid-thirties Yuree Kensaku has exhibited widely and has work in the collections of the Singapore Art Museum, the Mori Art Museum, and the Yokohama Museum of Art. She is represented in Bangkok by the 100 Tonson Gallery.
BKKLIT: What was the first thing you remember making that you would call “art”?
YK: When I was young I liked to play with coloured pencils. It was one of the things I really liked to do and when I grew older I always chose subjects that related to art at school like interior design or music and eventually I decided to pursue a degree in visual arts at university. There was a piece I did in painting class where we were asked to paint a still life – mine wasn’t proportionally correct plus I used high-contrast colours to create the form. We were taught to paint realistically; I felt like that piece was the first time I was making something different.
BKKLIT: Who were your inspirations when you first started working as an artist?
YK: I don’t want to name names but I have several artists whom I admired. I like to look at works from all media – painting, sculpture, and animation as well as design works.
BKKLIT: What are you working on at the moment?
YK: I am currently working on a project for the first Thailand Biennale, which will be held in Krabi – also a couple of small projects.
BKKLIT: Your work is notoriously bright and colourful at first glance, but there is usually something unpleasant or shocking going on. Can you say more about what you have called the ‘uncomfortable’ in your work?
YK: I have always drawn inspiration from things that affected me the most such as my own illness – I have a severe allergic reaction towards seafood which is somewhat difficult to avoid in Thailand and I have suffered from that many times. Or the illnesses of people around me, the loss of loved ones, the fear or violence in society, as well as the depletion of natural resources which has led to disasters. I have often turned these negative images into something more cheerful in the hope of coping with unpleasant or shocking situations, or I have turned it into something else entirely.
BKKLIT: You reference pop culture in your work – from My Little Pony to manga or even Radiohead – but they are often presented in unexpected ways. Can you say something about the influence of popular culture on you as an artist?
YK: I see pop culture as something that is well liked by the public. I usually do things that feel right to me or something I personally resonate with. I very rarely appropriate images from famous manga or well known characters in order to say something about it. I don’t think my work aims to focus on appropriation of popular cultures that much.
BKKLIT: You have said that the murals in your 2016 exhibition Atmosfear show your own personal fears – for example your allergies to shellfish. Is your personal narrative more important than social commentary in your work, or is social commentary equally important to you?
YK: I often include both personal narratives and social commentary in my work. It is basically the same thing since both have to be filtered through my own lens. Therefore, to answer your question, I think both are equally important, so I choose from things that are appropriate for the work.
BKKLIT: It’s well know that one of your parents is Japanese. Do you feel this has had a very specific influence on your work?
YK: It is obvious that my work comes from my environment, memories and experiences from the day I was born until now.
BKKLIT: Does your work have a big following outside of Thailand? Is the way your art is received abroad different from how it is received in Thailand?
YK: I have both supporters from Thailand as well as overseas.
BKKLIT: Do you feel that contemporary Thai art shares similar concerns with international art, or do you think it is unique?
YK: Contemporary art in both Thailand and elsewhere often shares similar issues and concerns and at the same time each place has its own unique focus and their own responses based on the personal experience of the artists.
BKKLIT: I have read that you use computer programs to help select colours for your paintings. You also use animation and music in your work. Could you tell us something about these processes and how you choose the particular media and materials for your work.
YK: Seven to eight years ago I began to work with large scale projects, so I started to incorporate computers as a tool for making sketches in order to minimise the time when it came to adjusting things or selecting colours. As for the animations, I just wanted to explore another media and looked for possibilities other than painting, which I do every day – and it’s the same when it comes to choosing unconventional materials in my paintings. I like to experiment with different kinds of materials and to look for something different within a traditional medium like painting.