Koji Okamoto (MFA 1989) has what he calls a Master of Fake Art.
Okamoto spent his post-UW career developing “fakey” tools and musical instruments that seem to promise a level of functionality but don’t perform in the expected way.
An automatic rosary beads counter, a silent shaman drum, a stethoscope violin – he calls some of them “Psuedo Articles” and others simply “noise-making sculptures.”
Okamoto has fond memories of his graduate career at UW, thanks to fellow students, faculty and especially Professor George Cramer. Cramer gave Okamoto the flexibility to explore a range of ideas, even in the ramshackle Bernard Court studio and Quonset Hut foundry, he said.
“George unleashed me – actually, he unleashed anybody, and let his students do whatever they wanted,” he said. “Imagine a student let loose in those kind of remote and separated places and what she or he would become in the future... what a wonderful experience for an art student!”
Okamoto settled back in Japan after his post-grad school travels to more than 30 countries, where he found inspiration for his work.
“While in Madison and shortly after finishing school, I snuck into Bhutan and Tibet, which inspired me to make my fake Tibetan tools, namely, ‘Electric Prayer Wheel,’ ‘Automatic Rosary Beads Counter,’ ‘Prostrating Figurine’ and so on,” he said. “Ever since, I have made a series of ‘functioning tools without practicality’.”
Okamoto continues to travel, both physically and mentally, and creates “foreign objects” from his imagination. His sculptures, “Evenki Electric/Silent Shaman Drum” and “Baidarka Tonkori” are based on shamanic instruments from “the far-away lands of Siberia and Hokkaido,” he said.
“I have been dealing with fakey, tangible-kinetic-interactive sculptures. One day, I thought ‘Hey, what's the difference between my fake stuff and a musical instrument?’,” he said. “Musical instruments are functioning tools and they have no practicality other than playing notes. And if I – no musician by any means – play them, the sound of music will be turned into a mere horrible noise.”
Okamoto practices playing his hybrid instruments alone and delights in the contradiction that playing them poorly reduces them to noise-making sculptures. Playing them well makes them practical in a way that defeats the intention behind creating the piece, he said.
“I think, if a self-taught player performs on his self-made instrument, playing Bach or something, the whole thing will be a fakery,” he said. “Recently, I began practicing in order to play my sculptures ‘well’ because it dawned on me that the combination of the fake instrument and made-up player like me would make a nice fakery.”