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LOS ANGELES — While museum biennials can generally feel like lofty affairs, the Giant Robot Biennale 4 at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) takes a more populist approach to its roster of visual artists and illustrators, presenting sketchbooks and zines as well as paintings and sculptures. The exhibit shows complete and ongoing works by a wide range of artists, from comic book artist Jim Lee, whose illustrations for Marvel and DC comics are on display, to husband-and-wife illustrator team Kozyndan, who contribute a wall-to-wall mural to the gallery entryway.
The path to hosting a museum exhibition once seemed like an unlikely turn for the former pop culture magazine, which began as a humble Xerox-copy zine in 1994. Over 13 years, the magazine grew from a punk-inspired, staple-folded zine to a full-color, bimonthly magazine presenting diverse representations of Asians and Asian Americans. Its ethos encompassed Hong Kong cinema, alternative music, skate culture, and other interests running counter to stereotypes of Asian Americans as success-minded squares. The later years of the magazine also focused on the visual and illustrative arts, featuring artists like Takashi Murakami and Adrian Tomine.
Although the magazine printed its last issue in 2007, Giant Robot still operates as a gallery and retail store in the west Los Angeles neighborhood of Sawtelle. On the eve of the biennale’s opening, I spoke to co-founder and curator Eric Nakamura about museums, zine culture, and Giant Robot’s history.
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Abe Ahn: This is the fourth year of the biennale. How did you come up with the idea of a biennial event?
Eric Nakamura: It didn’t start off that way. It started off as a single art show. We were kind of joking about it, with the name. It just kind of stuck. It was meant to be a one-time show. I think it’s been pretty good for [the JANM]. When we first did it, it was very different. You can tell the museum has changed.
AA: Do you mean the museum has gone beyond just a historical or educational mission by reaching out to younger audiences?
EN: I think so. They’ve done things in the past that were for youth culture, but it’s gotten to be a little more now. I mean, they did a Hello Kitty show that was a blockbuster. When they’re doing something like that, they’re really making changes. The personnel has changed. The times have changed. Every museum out there is changing, trying to get younger audiences. Just being able to do a museum show is something you dream about. For it to be able to happen is a great opportunity, but it’s weird. Who gives you the keys to their museum? That doesn’t happen. It’s hard, you know? The museums have to want to do it.
AA: A lot of artists featured in Giant Robot straddle the line between fine art and pop culture. I’m thinking of how there’s the world of fine art schools and museums, and there’s the world of street artists, illustrators, and comic artists represented by Giant Robot. Given how there’s a lot of crossover these days, is there a meaningful difference between the two sides anymore?
EN: Artists with an education matter to me. I respect that a lot. I’m not trying to fight against it or anything. I work with a lot of artists who work in both worlds. There are those who are involved in the old, established art world, and still do stuff with me. I’ve worked with the Worcester Art Museum, Honolulu Museum of Art, and Oakland Museum. These institutions are coming from a whole different world.
AA: Yes, I’m especially thinking of one of the artists represented in this year’s biennale, Shizu Saldamando. She’s someone who’s involved in both the traditional art world as well as the alternative cultures she documents through her portraits.
EN: That’s the exact person I had in mind. She works both ways. Maybe that’s where Giant Robot lies. I like to think it’s somewhere in the middle. I respect the museum system a lot. Getting to understand it has been a really fun education for me. The museums are working with me because we are doing something different. I hope it’s an honor and Giant Robot is not just a sideshow, you know?
AA: It doesn’t seem like an adversarial relationship at all.
EN: But it could be. I do hear about it from others. I mean, it’s a love and hate relationship. These institutions will work with some artists that are edgy and different and say it’s very difficult working with these people. What we do is similar in a lot of ways, but our histories are different. I think I have a similar viewpoint on curation and on how art fits into society. These kinds of things are similar to what these institutions believe in, but I just have different packaging, I guess. [laughs]
AA: When you first started Giant Robot as a zine in the nineties, comic books and Asian pop culture were still a niche that required insider knowledge. Now it’s easier than ever to discover things through the internet. Yet zine culture is as big as ever. Why do you think it has endured over time?
EN: Isn’t that funny? Zines right now are bigger than ever. Maybe people are realizing that you can’t get the sense of feel [from digital sources]. Even if it’s a bad reproduction, like a photocopy. Even if you lose a lot of detail and it’s just on paper, there’s something about it that you can’t ever get rid of. The human touch will never go away.
There was a zine scene around ‘99 or 2000 that was kind of big, but now it’s four or five times bigger. It’s based more on visuals now than writing. Zines to me are now more visual than ever. It’s funny how a blog or website will get a million views, but a zine might get maybe 200 people looking at it. But that has a bigger value to a lot of people. I think the creators are also finding a lot of enjoyment from finding a small audience and getting feedback directly from somebody live instead of getting a comment or “Like” online.
AA: There’s nothing quite like going to a zine fest and picking up a zine and appreciating the work of someone sitting right in front you.
EN: Yeah, there’s a lot of enthusiasm. It’s so cool. I was at the last two LA zine fests. Giant Robot has a table. It was just so much fun to participate. I just think that it’s not big enough. You have a space that’s bigger than two basketball courts, and it’s full of people. Isn’t that the funniest thing? They need more space. It’s wild that zines have become that strong.
AA: It’s been more than four years since the last issue of the Giant Robot magazine. Is it strange to you that younger fans know Giant Robot as more of a gallery or retail space than a publication?
EN: [laughs] You’re probably right at this point. I think so. A lot of people are surprised when I explain that it was a magazine. I do hear that a bunch. But that’s OK. I like to think that all our lives have more than one act. Being known for a magazine by one group is awesome, but for those that know it as an art gallery or store or even a museum exhibition, that’s still an honor.
AA: How have Giant Robot fans changed over the years? I imagine the early audience was primarily Asian American, but has that expanded over time?
EN: Oh, man. You know, in the very beginning of Giant Robot, we were known mostly by non-Asian folks. That’s the irony of it all. Zines were purchased less by Asian or Asian American people and — you can’t categorize everything, but zines were kind of a white thing. [laughs] That’s how it was. We kind of did our thing within that world. There were ways that we wrote and did things that were in a different mold.
There were other Asian American magazines that had no crossover audience, but for Giant Robot, we always had this audience that was, in the beginning, non-Asian. I think it was because we were inclusive. It was written for everybody, you know? We weren’t focusing on ethnic politics or anything like that. We were doing things that we had fun with. I think that resonates with everybody. We were just interested in culture and there was an audience that was totally into that kind of popular culture.
AA: It seems like Giant Robot was the first of its kind that presented voices that hadn’t been represented in that scene before.
EN: Yeah, that’s probably true, but you know, there were more political zines that were Asian American and also having fun. There’s one that I always cite called Gidra. It was a zine from the Vietnam War-era late sixties and seventies. I look at that and think, wow, these guys are doing something similar in the 1970s. It was all political and you see Asians with long hair. [laughs] It looked very rock ‘n’ roll. I mean, they looked like hippies who were fighting The Man. There were illustrations and comics that were hilarious.
One of the coolest things is that I met one of the guys who worked on many of the issues. He knew Giant Robot and told me, if you were there, you would’ve been with us, working on this. I was just like, oh, my god. [laughs] That was the greatest compliment I’d heard. We weren’t anything as good as those guys were. We were writing about pop culture; they were writing against the war and putting it out there. That was really powerful.
AA: You’ve been referred to as the unofficial mayor of Sawtelle Japantown. When I walk around that neighborhood, I do get a sense that the official visual culture of the area is centered around Giant Robot, which has two brick-and-mortar spaces. What function do you think Giant Robot serves for the Sawtelle community or the LA arts community at large?
EN: None of that is intentional. We just kind of do what we do. Part of it is that we’ve been there a long time. Our first store’s been there almost 14 years. Maybe it’s that longevity. I’m trying to do things that I think are different, interesting, and hopefully cool. It’s also about serving people who are in the area. I grew up there, so it matters that I’m there. As a kid, I remember going to certain shops that had fun things and seeing them eventually close down. Maybe my shop can become a place where young people can visit and remember as a place that they really liked, growing up in Sawtelle. That’s what I’m really excited about creating.
AA: One of the artists in the biennale, Yumi Sakagawa, said in a recent interview that she had an informal education by reading mini-comics and indie comics at Giant Robot. It seems to have become the kind of place you’re talking about.
EN: Yeah, it was something a little different in our part of town, especially. There was nothing else like it. I like to think that it was a style of store that became a common thing over time. Many have come and gone or are still open. Hopefully, it spawns culture elsewhere, too.
AA: Which artists are you most excited to showcase this year? Are there any whose work you’ve never shown before?
EN: It’s a series. I work with both new artists and ones I’ve worked with before. James Jean is a good example. I’ve done small stuff like a book signing at Comic-Con with him, who’s a personal friend. He’s on another planet. His art is so amazing, it’s great to have him involved in a show like this. He’s showing sketch books — that’s his roots, it’s where it all starts. We have more than ten years of sketchbooks. That to me is more important than showing his latest painting.
Yumi Sakugawa is somebody new that I know through Giant Robot and zines, but to put her in a museum exhibition is something you wouldn’t expect. I like to think that’s how our world’s changed. It’s not just a zine, but an art expression that’s important.
Giant Robot Biennale 4 continues at the Japanese American National Museum (100 N Central Avenue, Los Angeles) through January 24, 2016.
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