Jesse Kanda’s films are a mindfucking trip through the subconscious in which images of dancing dead babies and victims of alien car crashes contort then distort, lost in purgatory. The self–taught, Dalston-based artist’s world is pained yet playful, and apparently untainted by boundaries. Nothing seems impossible.
In person, the Japanese-born, Canadian-raised 26-year-old is a tall, gangly, wizard–like figure, with a warm, welcoming aura and a gentle manner that seems at odds with his extraordinary art’s macabre, frantic deconstructions and dystopian soundtracks. He lives with Venezuelan-born producer Arca, his best friend and closest creative ally. They met online when Kanda was 15 and Arca was 13, while living on separate continents. Seven years later they met in real life, after talking daily about art and music. When we turn up at their flat for Kanda’s first major interview, Arca is the more nervous of the pair. “Don’t say anything stupid!” he jokes.
Together, they’re currently creating TRAUMA, a film project in seven parts that’s premiering at galleries such as MoMA PS1. The exclusive images Kanda created here were inspired by the evolving project. Will these visionaries turn out to be this generation’s Aphex and Cunningham? One thing’s for sure: whether it’s his surreal promos for FKA twigs or his personal art projects, there’s no one else making videos like Kanda right now. He insists that his artistic vision is automatic. Concepts come later, nothing is planned and mistakes often turn into his best work. For him, it’s pure child’s play.
What is the most exciting part of the creative process?
I love that first spark. When you’re a kid, you have an endless imagination. When I come up with that first spark for an idea, it reminds me of playing with toys. When you’re a kid you have this whole universe in your room – you can voice-act all your different toys like they’re characters. I was always afraid of growing up. Other kids would say they want to become adults and do whatever, but I always wanted to stay in that world. It was so much fun to make things up, and that’s still what I try to do every day.
So your childhood is a big influence on you?
Yeah. What’s fascinating to me is the pure intelligence you have in childhood – you say and do everything as soon as you see it. It’s the age when you’re closest to your subconscious too, because you’re not yet affected by the adult world. The subconscious filters into everything we do, every day. It’s part of everything: it’s where all the secrets come from, where art comes from, where anything fascinating or interesting is. If somebody sees something that is undeniably brilliant, it’s probably something that came from a spark within the subconscious. Kids are so honest, too. I gravitate towards people who are boldly themselves. What’s the point if it’s not truthful? People are at their most interesting when they’re being honest
There’s a lot of infancy imagery in your work.
To tell you the truth, that just comes out. While I’m working I don’t think about deep conceptual meanings at all. It’s just the kid in me going, ‘Do this, do that!’ People often have such conceptual deep meanings behind their work. I’ve been searching for that myself, but to be honest with you, I just do what comes naturally to me. I’m a doer, not a thinker.
“When you’re a kid, you have an endless imagination. I was always afraid of growing up – It was so much fun to make things up, and that’s still what I try to do every day”
Do you find freedom in not committing to a concrete conceptual vision?
Yeah, because you’re more gaseous and fluid rather than putting yourself into a box. I was sort of afraid of that with this interview. If I say something, am I gonna have to live by that, or am I gonna be seen as some sort of hypocrite or something? But two seconds later I was like, ‘Pshh, that’s stupid.’ Everyone’s a hypocrite. You can do what the fuck you want. You can say what you want and you can do what you want, even if it’s totally the opposite.
How important are mistakes to your creative process?
Mistakes are my favourite part because they’re surprises. Sometimes you’re looking at the same thing for weeks and you’re just fucking bored out of your mind, you know? And then you make a beautiful mistake and everything clicks together when before it wasn’t quite working. It’s the best feeling in the world. Technical limitations and frustrations can be a weapon – sometimes I might just press a button that takes me somewhere else.
There seems to be a natural symbiosis between you, Arca and FKA twigs. The aesthetics align perfectly. How does it all work?
Arca and I have been best friends for over ten years, so we’ve talked and worked together every day. Our personal work is completely in unison, I guess. As much as I love and respect twigs, she’s a new entity. I did those videos because I love the music and I love her, but it was Arca's introduction, because they work together.
It’s so lucky to find an artist to work with who trusts you implicitly.
Well, that’s where the word ‘purity’ comes back in, doesn’t it? The music is purely them, and then the video is purely me, at least for twigs’ ‘How’s That’. And with ‘Water Me’, she came up with the initial idea of having a tear come down her face, then the rest is me. So it’s still very, very pure. The purity of the music and the purity of the imagery, that’s what makes it powerful. No dumbing down, no middlemen. We did the front cover for her album in my room, with my shitty lights, and no people running around. I have the most control when I do everything myself. I’m not a director that knows how to get people together and tell them exactly what to do. That’s not what I’ve been doing for the last ten years. What I’ve been doing is honing my craft by myself.
Who else would you love to work with?
Someone like Björk would be amazing. I’m sure she’s one of the most stimulating people you could possibly talk to. And she’s one of these people who has retained a super-high level of child-like purity. She’s the epitome of that.
You and Arca just put out the second scene of TRAUMA. Where did the name come from?
At first I thought TRAUMA just had this impact. What a good title! And then I realised that ‘traum’ is ‘dream’ in German, and the whole film has a very dreamlike feel. The whole thing is a reflection of my subconscious, right? So I thought, ‘That’s perfect!’ A trauma is something that you remember forever. Something that hits you – you don’t forget it.
Parts of TRAUMA Scene 2 reminded me of vaginas and oral sex. Are you realising sexual desire in your work?
I’m more interested in what’s perceived to be repulsive when there really is no reason for it. The inside of our body is much more beautiful than the skin that coats it, yet we’re afraid of it. When you see blood or organs you sense pain and danger. And I know there’s a good scientific reason for that – it’s part of our survival mechanism. For example, I always wondered why I hated it so much when I pulled long hair out of the shower drain, when in fact it’s totally normal! Hence the disfigured faces and bodies of the babies in TRAUMA Scene 1 and the inside of my mouth and down my throat in Scene 2. Part of my goal is to present ‘disgusting’ things as something beautiful, to question what is okay to call disgusting or ugly. It’s confrontation on a personal level.
“I’m more interested in what’s perceived to be repulsive when there really is no reason for it. The inside of our body is much more beautiful than the skin that coats it, yet we’re afraid of it” – Jesse Kanda
Have you finished it yet?
It’s ongoing. I’ve done quite a bit already, but as new music is created, I do a new video to it, and hopefully it all works together. It has so far. There isn’t a linear narrative, unless you say a dream has a narrative, which maybe it does. In TRAUMA sometimes the character is a disfigured body, or one of them I like to think of as a spirit of a person that got run over in the previous scene. So their bodies are really deformed and you can see flesh spilling out of them but they’re alive and kicking and doing crazy dance moves. It’s not like anything is totally consistent – sometimes a scene will bleed into the next, and that tells a story.
Has the internet been important to your progression?
Yeah. It’s pretty much the only way that I’ve ever shown my work. I guess a lot of people see it really small. That’s a problem. With video, compression is really annoying for the artists. You work on this thing for ages, trying to make every pixel beautiful, and then you upload it and it looks like shit. How people perceive the work when they see it online is automatically ingrained in how I make things. I want every still to be beautiful. Wherever you pause it on the video, I want it to be beautiful. If you were just doing a video installation in a museum, you probably wouldn’t think of that. You’d think more about the time, the pacing, of having a lot more patience that you can use. That’s why doing TRAUMA at MoMA was so amazing.
What was it like?
It was a completely immersive experience. We had this massive dome, a huge projection of a section of TRAUMA, and then we had lights, and smoke, and live music, and a choir. Watching tons of people looking at the film and being in that environment and listening to music was such an eye opener, because it was like a new element to the work, you know? It was such a kick because people actually come up to you in real life and tell you they really like it. Their eyes are sparkling, and they’re like ‘Wow, that’s so amazing.’ And so ever since then I’ve been really excited by the prospect of doing more real-life shows. I used to look down on exhibitions.
In what way?
I got a message from a friend because I’d told her that I saw this Richard Mosse exhibition. He’s an artist who went to the eastern Congo and shot what was going on there with infrared camera. She was like: ‘I remember when you used to pooh-pooh exhibitions. You’d rather stay in and watch YouTube videos.’ It goes back to what I was saying about really appreciating how an artwork is perceived, and the next step is distancing myself more and more. I mean, keeping the online thing, but concentrating on being able to show work in real life. Exactly how I want to; how we want to.