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Tatsumi Orimoto
Breadman Takes The Bus


Tatsumi Orimoto

Breadman Takes The Bus


Venice Agendas

Turner Contemporary

Kent CT9 1HG


"When I speak to Orimoto on the phone, he says he will meet me at Kawasaki station, since the directions to his house are rather complicated. "Will you recognise me?" he asks. I pause, trying not to laugh, and wondering if I will recognise him without the bread. I am not sure how seriously Orimoto takes himself, but as soon as we meet, all concern is dispelled. "I'm a very funny guy," he tells me in passing. He has a round, smiling face and flowing grey hair. He has just bought us lunch and is riding a clapped-out old bicycle. As we enter his house, he indicates one of his early works on the doorstep: it's a leafless bonsai in a plant pot, with two old Converse sneakers hanging from its branches. "Shoe-tree," he says.

Orimoto's mother has just woken up from her mid-morning nap, and, as we join her on the electrically heated carpet, Orimoto gets out piles of papers and seemingly endless albums of photographs. "This is my bible," he says, handing me two thick yellow plastic volumes. Inside are postcards he has produced, of each of his performances - a documentary of his life as Bread Man.

When Orimoto finished school in Kawasaki, he tried to get into art college six years in a row and failed: "My teacher said, Tatsumi, you are already an artist, not a student." He emigrated to America, where he met Korean-born artist Nam June Paik, often dubbed the father of video art, and fell in with the Fluxus group in New York - Paik, John Cage, Yoko Ono. Orimoto, then a painter, had never heard of performance art, and though he has fond memories of meeting Joseph Beuys, he wasn't sure he understood it. 'They did very funny things,' he tells me. "They would say, "Come to a party", and I'd bring beer, and there would be a barbecue - but they weren't cooking meat. They were cooking bricks, and serving them on plates!"

"I was looking for my style," Orimoto says, and about 10 years ago he found it. A Christian friend told him that in the Bible "bread means body" and that gave Orimoto an idea. If Marcel Duchamp could call a toilet a fountain, he explains, then 'bread means not food: it is sculpture'.

Seven years ago, Orimoto's father died. His mother's role, until then, had been to look after the patriarch, and at that point she found herself at a loss. Her body packed up, she developed Alzheimer's, and her son had to come back to look after her. He couldn't travel as much, and Bread Man's happenings dwindled. Then one day Orimoto realised: "This, my daily life, is art." He photographed his mother wearing enormous papier-mché shoes ( Small Mama + Big Shoes ), or out on her daily walks around the neighbourhood. As the tag line to one of his shows has it, 'the existence of my Mama is art'.

One piece is a picture of his mother and two of her friends sitting on a sofa at home. They are all wearing huge rubber tyres round their necks. By way of explanation, Orimoto makes a link between the junk people leave in the streets, and his mother's generation, who have been ignored by their children. There is a well-documented problem in Japan: how to care for its legions of elderly people. 'After very hard work,' Orimoto says gnomically, "very broken body." His brother, who lives 10 minutes away, never looks after his mother. "The younger generation, they throw away everything."

I ask how much his mother knows about what he is doing. "My mother has no education - maybe she cannot understand contemporary art," he says, "but she believes in me, and I believe in her." And sometimes, the drowsy person before us proves herself to be very sharp. "When I'm preparing photographs for an exhibition," Orimoto goes on, "she says, "If somebody buys a photograph, you have to give me half the money!"

Tatsumi Orimoto says that "sometimes, I'm very tired from holding my bread on my head", and that he doesn't like performing Bread Man in Japan because people see him as dirty, or dangerous. In fact, he is only just beginning to be recognised in his own country, and many younger artists are hardly aware of his work.- 

Gaby Wood The Observer 2001

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