The sportsman and performance artist Yuki Kobayashi on gender, identity and being naked
How free do you think your mind actually is? Are you entirely absent of race and gender stereotypes? Do you reject society’s standards of what beautiful means? Yuki Kobayashi’s art will force you to confront the depth of your own convictions.
Using sport as a platform for his uninhibited performance art, the 27-year-old Tokyo-native employs his body and his clothes to explore the neutrality of gender, challenge racial stereotypes and raise questions of the self. Kobayashi’s work is pretty unique in the world of sport: an arena where people are endlessly categorised, stereotypes are usually deeply ingrained and matters of gender, race and sexuality are thrown into sharp relief. “I started to be naked to show this isn't dangerous; this isn't dirty; this isn't negative,” Kobayashi explains when we meet. “Let's just see it as a real body – this is what you’re hiding under the clothes you choose. It's a body and you can't choose how you're born. That's your original skin.”
Kobayashi, who trained as a professional tennis player, is brave. Almost unnervingly so. He dismisses the idea of fear – he likes performing too much. “Or maybe I’m too stupid to feel afraid?” he ponders. That’s a trick question. Kobayashi is not stupid. A fine art graduate of both Central St. Martins and the Royal College of Art, Kobayashi challenges preconceptions intelligently. He’s not aggressive or dogmatic – he simply opens doors for people to explore ideas in a safe space, be it in an art gallery or through a picture.
In this day and age, we idolise the image of the body and strict, sometimes invisible, rules govern our thoughts and discourse. But when Kobayashi confronts us with the real thing, we have to ask questions about our received cultural ideas. Dazed spoke with the artist ahead of his upcoming performance at the Yokohama Paratriennale in October to find out more about norm-defying work and why he refuses to compromise.
“Let's just see it as a real body – this is what you’re hiding under the clothes you choose. It's a body and you can't choose how you're born. That's your original skin.”
Why do you combine sport and performance art?
Yuki Kobayashi: For me, sport and performance work are very close. The aspect of using the perception of physicality, following your intuition before you think something and how you occupy space and time are similar. Maybe the difference is that in the performance there is no opponent, no winner or loser and, while there are some rules, you can expand or reduce them by yourself and create by yourself. In the performance, action and emotion become very significant materials for making the work.
What are you trying to do with your work?
Yuki Kobayashi: When I went to Florida to play tennis there weren't many Asian guys and I didn't see many black guys either. I felt a little bit weird in that situation and when my friends and I tried to join in socially, there weren't a lot of acceptable situations for us to be involved in. I was a teenager at the time so I didn’t take it too seriously but now I look back it was a little bit weird.
I want to change people's prejudices. Humanity and biological stuff won't change – people’s physicality is really different and it depends on how you're born, but it's about changing the way people think and breaking those boundaries. I don't like using the word discrimination but it’s about how you think about everyone else and how you think about yourself – it’s more like self-discrimination. For example, ‘I’m Asian so I can't really win in sports against stronger people’. I want people to break down those kinds of boundaries and I want to say: ‘No, don't think like that, you can do it!’ I think you just have to win. If you win everyone in the audience is going to think, ‘If this Asian guy can win, I can too’. Winning is the proof and evidence that you can do it. It’s a good way of opening up people's minds and changing their negative thinking into a positive mental attitude.
What took you from painting on a canvas to making yourself the art?
Yuki Kobayashi: I wanted to show how to make artwork that didn't have to be painting or installations; it can also be only your body. Performance is better for communicating because it’s more direct. It’s one on one and eyes to eyes so you can feel things from the audience and it’s the most direct way of expressing yourself to someone in that moment. When I’m performing I can see every single person in the audience's face – that's why it's more comfortable for me to do that. I like performing or otherwise why would I do it? I also feel a duty and a responsibility to try and bring about changes. I may be wrong, but I do believe that.
Why do you wear what might be considered typically female costumes?
Yuki Kobayashi: I want to experience what people are feeling and understand how people are looking at sexism and racism – that’s why I wear those costumes. I want to totally change my body's identity. It’s not about my body needing to be female; I know myself that I have the body of a man. The question is how can you look more neutral? The idea of clothes as an identity and that what you wear is down to your preference is common, but in sports, you have to wear a certain costume. So women have to wear a skirt in tennis and at Wimbledon the players have to wear all white clothes. Those kinds of traditions and rules are pushing people's identities in one direction. That was what gave me the first idea of starting to wear female clothes and playing sports in gallery spaces.
Did you ever feel like you were having an identity pushed onto you in the world of sport?
Yuki Kobayashi: I would never be pushed by anyone to wear anything I didn’t want to so I’ve never felt bad. But I’ve seen it happen to other people – that's why I started doing this. People are really fascinated with clothes. For example, female tennis players are expected to wear sports bras, but some don't and you can see their nipples and people comment on it. Those kinds of issues make me feel really strange like, why are people going crazy about that? It made me think about stadiums almost changing into strip clubs and that made me feel really, really weird. Why are people looking at athletes like that? It's a sport. I don’t like the sexualisation and the sexism. I want there to be more respect and for people to see the sports. It’s just about winning and losing.
Why did you choose a cheerleader’s outfit for one of your performances?
Yuki Kobayashi: I played sports but I had never tried cheerleading before. When I choose clothes there are a few things I look for: first is whether I like it and I want to wear it. The second is how does it fit on my body? More like a modelling mentality. Then I think about the ideas, the culture and concept of those clothes and the message you send when you put them on your body. Finally, I think about how it works with the concept of neutrality.
“Cheerleaders are in a really weird position. They’re performing in the same stadium and on the same stage as the players, but somehow people don't think they're athletes”
That's why cheerleader’s outfits are nice. Cheerleaders are in a really weird position. They’re performing in the same stadium and on the same stage as the players, but somehow people don't think they're athletes. They’re always there in the gaps or in the break time when the teams are taking a rest and they have to get up and perform. It's an ironic situation to be in. Sometimes the players are kind of tacky – they’re too excited and full of testosterone, but the boys cheerleading with the girls seem much more gentle. I feel like the male cheerleaders are always there, supporting the women, throwing and catching them. They're still strong but they’re kind gentlemen. I really like that idea.
Do you ever feel vulnerable when you’re performing?
Yuki Kobayashi: In Asian countries, they always think that nudity isn’t good to show and that it’s not really art. For me, it's not good to compromise an artist’s work. I want to break the walls of the limits of showing artwork in a gallery space and that's why I started to use more nudity. I don't think my body is dirty – it's good to show your body as a sculpture and as a piece of art. I don't feel vulnerable when I’m performing. I don't really care. I don't ever feel anything negative from the audience. Whatever the situation is, it’s about just making your work. My work doesn’t change depending on the situation because I never want to compromise myself. I just do the maximum I can in that moment. I wish I could talk to every single person and tell them to be free and that you can be whatever you want to be.