Japanese artist Teiji Hayama translates Hollywood glamour and Western pop culture in his studies of fame. In a world run by social media influencers and defined by our online identity, his work forces us to confront the anxieties feeding the perfectionism of our public image. We sit down with Hayama as he discusses “society’s obsession with the two-dimensional image over any three-dimensional reality.”
Having grown up in Kumamoto, Japan; studied at Saint Martin’s College in London, UK; and now find yourself living and working in Switzerland, how do these cultures (Japanese, Swiss and British) inform the person and the artist you are today?
Living in diverse environments has helped me to be more creative and broadened my worldview. I would say that I’m an amalgamation of these contrasting cultures. These experiences are very different and are reflected in what I create and have become part of what my art is today.
The influence of vintage photography on your work is striking. Your choice of subject matter and use of greyscale presents a kind of warped homage to 1950s glamour shots. Who are your icons of this age?
Marylin Monroe, Elisabeth Taylor and Cleopatra are women I often paint. They represent some of the most iconic celebrities that any generation can immediately recognize. This intensity of personality is something that I try to recreate through my work.
Teiji Hayama Metalmagazine 6.jpg
Can you tell us about your design process? Do you employ different strategies of composition for more expressionistic works like Hulk Marilyn and Lady Grace as opposed to more traditional studies like Goldie and Double Bowie?
According to what I feel to express, the creative approach is different. With Hulk Marylin, I wanted to create a particularly strong piece standing out among other works. Like on social media, the landscape is crowded. While this presents benefits, like the ability to get [your work] in front of the masses, it also presents a somewhat larger obstacle: [making] your presence pop in a sea of people. In this context, I tried to recreate the climate on social media by making some ‘traditional pieces’ in order to make other pieces stand out.
What is it about classic Hollywood that appeals to you as an artist? Why is this era particularly relevant today?
I have been fixated on these Hollywood-famous figures for some time. I find the process by which a celebrity becomes stratospherically famous extremely interesting. It appears to be a mixture of hard work and meticulous social maintenance. They are like vintage influencers! In this age of quick communication, the word celebrity has been redefined. It’s no longer reserved for actors, singers, etc. Celebrity on the most basic level simply means ‘being known’ among a group of people and having a certain opinion that others look up to. Social media has allowed a common person to become the superstar they’ve always looked up to.
While we’re on the topic of social media influencers, let’s talk about Fame. Your 2020 solo exhibition provides a poignant reminder of the human conditions of fatigue and anxiety that haunt the perfectionism of our online personas. Can you tell us more about your thought process behind the works in this collection?
I wanted to make some strong pieces depicting the digital age we are living in. People tend towards presenting a socially desirable, positive self-view to others when online. In turn, this gives individuals an increase in self-esteem but a decrease in self-control. Individuals can choose the information that they post, and keeping up a certain online identity can mask their true personas.
For the narcissist, this feeds into their need to be admired, and the more reception a post receives, the more is fed into this type of behaviour. For the anxious, online interactions can translate into real-life interaction, and can feed that anxious feeling of questioning whether people like them or not, which corresponds with what kind of reception online posts receive.
Teiji Hayama Metalmagazine 7.jpg
On a similar note, in creating works that concern themselves with the mythology of celebrity status, it could be argued that you, the artist, actively participate in the act of mythicising your subject. How do you respond to this?
The work I create is an open dialogue with the viewer; I’m just relating the environment we live in. In that way, I don’t feel I’m mythicising the subject matter.
A lot of your most recent pieces feature bold, Warhol-esque blocks of colour. What is it about pop art techniques that you find so interesting?
I feel that using blocks of colour starkly emphasize the disembodied quality of the figures, and an inherent tension between a constantly disintegrated physicality and a desperation to maintain a veil of performance and glamour.
While your medium of choice is oil on canvas and your primary focus is on aesthetics and beauty, there are unmistakable graphic influences rooted in advertising culture that disrupts conventional labelling of your work as fine art. Do you consider yourself a fine artist or a graphic designer?
Images on social media are becoming more and more filtered, digitally manipulated, flawless. I try to depict this trend, so with this in mind, my work has to look as if it was digitally manipulated – but there is only traditional oil in it.
Teiji Hayama Metalmagazine 4.jpg
Similarly, what is it about oils that you think is so relevant to communicating the dark themes of your portraits?
Ironically, I’m using traditional oil in a traditional way to make my work look like as if it were digitally manipulated. With my portraits, I depict the overuse of effects and filters in the most honest and simple traditional way.
One of the most fascinating features of your artistic process is how you layer oil paint to create those disembodied, phantom visions of pop culture icons. How do you personally define the technique that underpins works such as Rainbow Jane, Liz II and Double Twiggy?
With the effect of multiple, layered, translucent images, I try to emphasize the ephemeral nature of what ‘celebrity’ can be. The flicker of a camera shutter or the rapid, oversaturated, succession of images on a social media feed can be read through the illusion of multiple, layered, translucent images. The effect is a kaleidoscopic portrait that doesn’t hide its inability to memorialize itself but is still hypnotic in effect, demonstrating society’s obsession with the two-dimensional image over any three-dimensional reality.
With the rise of telecommuting due to Covid-19 restrictions and a global reliance on digital communication and networking now more prevalent than ever, will your future work concern itself with these further pressures of the digital age?
I was lucky because I finished my solo show just before the lockdown hit. The pandemic has closed museums, galleries, art spaces and cancelled exhibitions, plunging many cultural institutions into uncertainty and immediate financial loss, while also threatening a long-term effect on the arts.
On the other hand, social media has been a great way for individuals and communities to stay connected even while physically separated. Before the Covid-19 crisis, the digital age had already impacted art by making it very accessible to many people all over the world. There are no more geographical boundaries preventing people from consuming art.
Teiji Hayama Metalmagazine 8.jpg
Teiji Hayama Metalmagazine 3.jpg