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Collaborative Place-Makers Creating Mind-Bending Art Installations


Oriana Leckert | Tod Seelie | February 14, 2018
Dirby Luongo and Takao Shiraishi have traveled around the world constructing highly unusual, habitable pieces of art, from a shipwreck in Iceland to a Japanese forest.

Dirby Luongo and Takao Shiraishi, at first glance, seem to be unlikely collaborators. Dirby is a dapper, punkish Brooklynite and Takao is a Japanese construction worker, and they both came to art-making via unusual paths. But they have a lot in common, from an affinity for working with recycled and reused materials to a shared rough-and-tumble aesthetic in their work. They’re also both highly skilled builders, and together they’ve traveled around the world constructing wild environments: a saloon in an old bunker in Normandy, a huge moon-shaped library high above an arts center in Rio, a massive wooden sphere bursting with light deep in a Japanese forest.

Talking with the two of them, it’s clear that they value one another deeply as collaborators and fellow artists. Here they discuss their practice, as Takao puts it, of “using many small pieces to make one bigger form,” some of the crazy places they’ve found themselves making art together, and their future plans to bring together an artistic community while building habitable art installations up in the trees.

What are each of your artistic backgrounds?

Dirby: I moved to New York when I was 17 and started working for a set designer who was really involved in Burning Man. My introduction to the city was the A Cavallo carousel project; I knew I wanted to live here and make art like that, and I’ve been figuring it out since then. The big turning point was the Night Heron in 2013 with Nathan Austin, Ida Benedetto, and Myric Lehner. That was the first project I did where we were fully immersed for a long time: two and a half months building and developing this thing, spending long nights there, incredible teamwork. That was a really rewarding and really educational experience.

Takao: I went into construction work after junior high: wall finishing, making residential buildings. But I got stuck, I couldn’t make a future as a construction worker. Then I started to think that painting walls is good, so maybe painting paintings is okay too. I started meeting painters and other artists and, I don’t know, somehow I started a little gallery in Japan. I met many artists and became more open-minded. So I have no background in art, but when I worked construction, maybe I was preparing to join art. Anyway, then [French street artist] JR came to Japan. We wheat-pasted a big image of a fisherman’s eye together on this huge container ship. It’s a monument — everyone prays at it. Many Japanese artists had tried to do something on the boat, but it was too monumental, untouchable. JR brought me to the next level.

Dirby: JR invited that whole crew to come to his studio in Soho whenever they wanted. When he got back to New York, they were standing on his doorstep waiting for him.

Takao: Why not? He said to come. I thought, You have this chance, you have to go.

Each of your artistic practices seem very informed by your histories. How does that come across when you collaborate?

Takao: We’re very different: I have skills, I know how to cut something, how to fix something, but I don’t know how to create something. He does.

Dirby: Everything we do feels very collaborative, which is nice. It’s a back-and-forth. There’s also the Japanese versus American dynamic. He’ll take forever to do one thing, whereas my American side just goes for fast and dirty. I come in with power tools, and Takao has hand tools. It’s a great balance.

How did you begin to work together?

Dirby: We met in Stykkishólmur, Iceland, during the winter of 2014. We were part of a team working on an immersive event for a group of 50 people who got flown in from all over the world. We had two weeks to build a big saloon on this 100-year-old fishing boat that had been shipwrecked for, like, 30 years. It was freezing — there was a big blizzard the entire time — and there were only three hours of sunlight a day.

Takao: I hate the cold. It was so, so, so cold.

Dirby: The boat was tilted horribly, and then when the tide came in, we’d be surrounded by water.

Takao: But it was a good experience. In Japan, I’d never have had that experience.

Dirby: Takao and I had already been working on similar things and had a similar aesthetic, so they paired us up and it worked, even though he didn’t speak any English yet.

What was the next project you did together?

Dirby: We worked on a much bigger project on a boat in Staten Island. That was the biggest project I think we’ll ever work on. We were on a team of about 10 people, including Beau Burrows, Gabe Liberty, and Dave Rife, and we designed and built the whole infrastructure — a full dining hall, all the tables, a café made out of doors, a water tower that was a lounge, lots of bars, this giant interactive dance floor that had LEDs in miter Plexiglass cuts programmed to shoot light all through it. We spent two or three months building everything. And there were artist installations throughout the whole boat, from Swoon to Jose Parla. A lot of it was immersive. It was incredibly beautiful.

And then after that you went to Rio with JR?

Dirby: Yeah. We’ve been there a few times, but we went to do this project at Providencia, a nonprofit arts and community center in one of the favelas. This was right before the Olympics. We did the exterior of the house, which is a root system, first. Then one night we were standing around talking, and JR mentioned that he wanted to build a big moon.

Takao: Because he had a dream.

Dirby: Yeah. The topography of the favela is reproduced in wood on the outside. There’s no financing behind that project; we made it to help bring in funding for the arts center and the programs they do.

photo by Marc Azoulay

And then from there, you headed to the Japanese forest. That must have been such a sharp contrast.

Dirby: Yeah, complete opposite. Takao had bought land there; he worked construction in Japan for several months to raise the bulk of the money for that project.

Takao: Buying the land was a good choice — we could do whatever we wanted with it. So I work at a construction company, make money, and then do an art project. It’s not easy to get money as an artist, and the kind of projects we do are not small.

Dirby: We didn’t have a plan, so we just went to the forest and walked all through it, looking at the landscape, the shapes. Ultimately we came up with this idea of the spirit of the forest. The piece is made from harvested cedar trees suspended by a cable running across this big ravine. Takao’s neighbor there is an arborist, and he was instrumental. A lot of the trees are alive, too; he helped us cut some of the roots and affix them to the piece. He expressed how excited he was to watch it grow over time, because now the roots are going to grow around it. And there are big lights inside. The plan is to set up a solar system so it can turn itself on at night. It’s not super accessible, so we’re not sure if anyone is going to see it.

Takao: But it doesn’t matter, it’s not for show. I just create; I don’t do it to show someone.

photo by Kosuke Arakawa

It seems that you are intentionally creating things that are totally ephemeral. What motivates you to do that?

Takao: I don’t know. What motivates me? Good question!

Dirby: I think some of it is a sense of completion, making something that’s going to be there for at least a little bit, and also working together and having a sense of accomplishment with somebody.

Takao: Construction work is making, but not creating. It doesn’t use imagination. But I’ve developed my imagination now, and I like to use it. I try to follow my imagination to get motivated. I’m not a naturalist, I’m not only trying to make art in forests. For now, I get the imagination more in nature, but I enjoy this changing life.

photo by Kosuke Arakawa

How do you see yourselves as artists, in terms of the art world?

Dirby: I think a lot of our work could be considered place-making, but for the purpose of getting groups of people together to really interact with each other. You put people in these strange and beautiful setups and they have deep conversation that really influence them.

Takao: These are not posh experiences, like in an academy or something. We sit on something and share the moment, that’s the way we work. We go somewhere and explore and have conversations. That’s how we get imagination. For me, art people follow the system too much. They have to put their art in a gallery or a museum, that’s all they know. I’m not from that. My education is wrong. That’s why we try to do things a different way.

photo by Marc Azoulay

What’s your next big project?

Dirby: We’re working on buying property upstate to make a business building artist-designed tree houses and cabins. The goal is to constantly be making new structures and then renting them out to finance the whole thing. We want to bring in other artists to build their own structures: art installations that are habitable. They’d be continuously part of the business because they would make a percentage each time their cabin gets rented.

Takao: Many talented artists make no money, so we have to make a better situation. There are art hotels already, but artists just get a small budget to make the art. That’s maybe good business, but it isn’t good for the community. Our way is less simple but is a better exchange and is better for the artists. If it works — many customers, more exchange, everybody wins.

Dirby: We want to build a community, but we also want to make sure we’re setting up a business that’s sustainable and can grow over time.

Takao: I want to skip being poor. I’m not trying to be a starving artist. We want there to be more options for artists, and more opportunities for us.

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Oriana Leckert is a writer, editor, cultural hipstorian [sic], and the author of Brooklyn Spaces: 50 Hubs of Culture & Creativity. Her writing has appeared on Slate, Atlas Obscura, New York Post, Matador, Hyperallergic, Gothamist, Curbed, Brooklyn Magazine, Brooklyn Based, and more.

Tod Seelie is a professional photographer who has photographed in more than 25 countries on five continents. He spent almost two decades chronicling the underground nightlife in NYC, which is contained in his book BRIGHT NIGHTS: Photographs of Another New York. He continues to travel and photograph, highlighting the unique and unknown people and places he finds.


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