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Sleepwalking in New York:
An encounter with painter Tam Ochiai



The girlish figures in his peculiarly flat paintings have an air of Nouvelle Vague, pop songs and rainy afternoons. With a subtle lightness of touch, Japanese painter Tam Ochiai creates an introverted cosmos that has been enthusiastically received by fans and gallery owners around the world. Cornelius Tittel met the artist in his New York studio.



Tam Ochiai, 2005,
Photo: Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin


Suddenly it’s as hot as the tropics on this icy cold afternoon. Japanese electronic music drips humidly from the loudspeakers and the only lamp in the largest room of the apartment/studio is a floodlight that immediately makes me wish I’d thought to bring sunglasses to New York in February. It’s clear this will not be an interview – even the sound of the tape recorder makes Tam Ochiai nervous. He says he finds it easier to just talk, but after a few minutes, it seems he finds it even easier to simply say nothing at all.

At Team, his gallery in New York, the word was that Ochiai was notoriously quiet, charmingly shy and worked so slowly that it seemed he throttles production. So the gallery is that much happier when he turns up there with new work. But “work” is a word the artist doesn’t much use. On this long, quiet afternoon, which oozes into evening like a sticky thread of honey – taking us from his studio on the Lower East Side to a neighboring bar named the Pink Pony and back – he says he only came to New York because he wouldn’t have to work here. His father was lured from Yokohama to New York in the early 1990s by a job on Wall Street, and Ochiai simply tagged along. With a downward gaze, he says staying in Japan would’ve meant having to work.



Tam Ochiai's studio
Photo: Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin

“I still do the same thing as when I first came to New York,” says Ochiai quietly, in broken English, his eyelids heavy and tired. “I walk and walk and walk.” If this were a casting call for a film about a sleepwalker, director Jim Jarmusch would certainly have already given him the role. “When I walk, I go to a record store here, a book store there, maybe to the cinema, or to a boutique. That goes on endlessly, and only when I’ve walked around enough, when there’s nothing more to do, and I really start to get bored, then I go home and make art – it’s the opposite of a job.”

The fruits of this boredom are what permit him to travel around the world. Ochiai blurs the boundaries between oil painting and drawing in his large-format canvases, in which he gives his delicate child-woman figures – drawn with pencil on canvas – expressive hairdos, which, in their oily flatness, recall the Colourfield paintings of the 1950s. On the paintings’ margins are mysterious combinations of numbers, song and film titles, or deliberate puns – everything that Tam Ochiai collects on his strolls through New York, before the boredom overcomes him. He’s just back from Germany. He’s taking part in a group show at Freiburg’s Kunstverein, and then it’s off to Vienna, Tokyo and later Berlin, to the big anniversary show at the Deutsche Guggenheim marking 25 years of the Deutsche Bank Collection.

Tam Ochiai takes pity – he can no longer fail to see the ever-growing sweat marks on my clothing. He fetches a glass of water and turns the floodlight towards the wall, upon which – now that my eyes are adjusting – I can see a white canvas, empty save the sentence “A girl with a wide open face and curly hair”, written in black letters. “It’s not by me,” says Tam Ochiai, and asks, as casually as if he were suggesting we watch a few DVDs, if I’d like to see some of his pieces.



Car, 2002,
Deutsche Bank Collection, (c) Tam Ociai, Courtesy Arndt & Partner, Berlin


Ochiai spreads out A4 pages on the floors, perhaps 20 of them, painted with pale watercolours and felt markers. A girl, maybe the one from the canvas, pushes a bicycle, plays music and passes out. “Here,” says Ochiai, pointing to the falling girl, “do you see the black and white tail on the margin? That’s a skunk that’s running away, but it’s too late. She’s already passed out because it smelled so bad.” Ochiai fans himself with his left hand and smiles. “It’s like in a film, with everything in it,” he says, pointing out the abstract pages of the series. “Those are close-ups. If you look closely, you’ll see that this pattern is simply a close-up of the girl’s sweater.” What about the plot, the screenplay? He doesn’t seem to know himself. He stares at the pages for a long time, his brow furrowed. “I’m not sure yet,” he says and, half an eternity later, “I guess I am a movie director without a clue.”



Skink, 2004
Deutsche Bank Collection, (c) Tam Ochiai

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