The Junk Junkies

guest post by: Rico Trout

Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.

Pablo Picasso

There’s a corner of Tokyo that was born in Spain, standing out between the houses, between cultures, on a journey.


It’s down a narrow street, across the road from the Kishibo temple and with an imposing red flag boasting a large, white Z, it’s a difficult place to miss; a dated, two storey building, formally a shop selling ornamental owls. Behind those glass doors now is a different world altogether, here you enter the land of Fumico Azuma and Tim Can.

They first met and started working together more than a decade ago in Barcelona, since then they have produced literally thousands of items, from things that had already existed.

For many, rubbish is purely rubbish.

For these two creators rubbish is something else entirely. We’re talking about art scavengers, not scavenging for art but re-using, re-cycling and  re-creating from the debris of this disposable society we all seem to be a part of.

Sometimes the end results are functional, they’re usually peculiar and depending on your taste, even decorative. Much of the work is box art, that is to say, three dimensional, encased behind glass. Mixed-media compositions of torn photographs.  Sheets of rusted metal.  An old kitchen knife.  Dead insects, broken scissors, a child’s toy, barbed wire.  It feels as if they could be illustrations from a grim story or a cruel dream.  They are not pretty, though sometimes the sinister or unattractive can be well lit.  There’s a toilet seat illumination, a lamp made from a bath tap, others made from tin buckets and diving goggles.  A triangular array of medicine bottles, each individually lit from within. They cast an eerie light of theatre and coloured shadows around this already atmospheric space. A CCTV security camera, it’s electrical innards hanging out, no longer doing what it did, now playing a clockwork tune from a music box.

There are global concerns behind their work, the history and hazards of nuclear energy are on ongoing theme. It’s a topic covered in the news at this very moment and also in the laboratory.  Albert Einstein’s face appears with solar driven, spiralling eyes.  Atomic bomb blasts, Madam Curie looks through between encyclopaedic images of mankind and that kitchen knife.

The environmental message shows through in some pieces more than others but there’s more to it than that.  Even if the subject matter has no connection with green issues, the actual physical existence of the work communicates.

Their method of working is a message, the environment provides them with the materials.  It’s the same pattern wherever they are, whether in Barcelona, Bali, London or Tokyo.  Their creations have left a trail across the globe, they live, make and move on. In one sense another message is written, why use money unnecessarily?  The economical benefits of utilizing waste was probably one of the first steps they took.  This is a labour of love, it’s not a big earner and understanding that started early.

Tim explained that as a child, money was not there to be wasted on the extravagancies of new toys. A new toy was something that you made yourself from whatever was in the ’bits bag’.  This, quite literally was a bag of bits, bottle tops, old pens, used paper cups, stuff.  It was a utilitarian upbringing, maybe it didn’t seem so good at the time but it was a piece in the educational life-puzzle that stayed around far after long lost long-division and the happily forgotten possessive pronouns.  Don’t discard what you can still use, it is a waste, pure and simple.

It’s not possible to be perfect but think for a moment. Over the last week how many things have you used just one time and then thrown away? A plastic bag or bottle? In a year, how many things have you got rid of purely because you have something else of a similar nature that looks or does something better? It almost seems inconceivable that we lived without the aid of cell phones and the internet, but we did and it wasn’t a long time ago.

Technological advances race forward at a frightening pace, obsolescence occurs almost in an instant. That can only mean an accumulation of the unwanted, it’s a poison we pump into the system on a daily basis and we are the system, we poison ourselves.  Fumico and Tim are not fighting a war against technology, they’ll agree that the wheel has proved to be quite useful over the years, but that doesn’t mean that what went before it is somehow redundant, void of use. But do we have to live at this rate of speed if it means throwing off yesterdays trinkets left, right and centre?  It works in some areas, we still use books and bicycles, we still have candle lit dinners.

So what’s the problem?

Does the world suddenly have more money than sense?  Yes, is the blunt answer.  Take a look around and you’ll see a lot, if you are actually looking. Electrical appliances, maybe outdated but they work fine.  Pieces of furniture, a little battered, but not beyond repair.  Everyday trappings, perhaps neglected, but not useless.  There’s also the more personal possessions, photograph albums and CD’s, letters and postcards.  Things that maybe even meant something to someone at some point in time.  For whatever reason, no longer required.  When objects from the street are not brought in, things can work just as well outside.  From time to time a location is chosen, fairly casually, the last station on a metro line is a common one.  They’ll go there, find whatever rubbish there is and make mini installations in whatever space allows.  It’s improvisation, no prior knowledge of any kind beyond knowing where they’re going.  Photographs will be taken and then they go, they’ve never returned to any place twice.

The entrance to the laboratory is the show space, upstairs is the studio, the centre of operations.  Odds and ends, on shelves, in corners, waiting to be used.  A shop dummy gazes out the window, there’s wigs, hair dryers, a box of broken sunglasses, skeletons of abandoned umbrellas. Even in this setting of semi disarray with some of it fresh from the street, these things are already transformed.  As soon as anything enters it becomes part of the larger picture, the whole space can appear as one piece of work. One point that’s not to be overlooked is the dual nationality, Fumico from Tokyo, Tim from London.  In actual fact, Fumico was born and brought up in the house next door.  There’s no line of meridian here but this is the point where East and West really meet.  The respective influences are evident. As well as everything else, you can find minimal, you can find abstract anarchy, there’s Buddhist prayers and modernism.

As I look, hear and think about it, the ZUZUSHII activities are like tentacles, stretching out, exploring.  Collective skills touch and have touched many areas.  Photography, all manner of design work, painting and drawing and also the teaching of art.  But wait, there’s something else.  The music. As the art deals with the visual side of collage, ZUZUSHIIMONKEY is the audible. It’s not easy to pin down in words, beyond that of experimental, it’s something you have to hear.  As for the instruments they play, if it makes a noise, then it’s an instrument.  They do have keyboards and a slightly industrial looking guitar, but there convention stops.  There are other guitars, if that’s what you want to call them, made from biscuit tins and boxes.  They use a small, plastic record player, but not like any DJ you’ve heard. Tape recorders, big glasses of water, children’s toys, typewriters, radios, practically anything you can hear in one way or another.  As well as all this, they have the Theremins, each uniquely crafted and capable of making those tones that don’t only belong to science fiction.  As well as playing live and producing CD’s, sound tracks have been recorded for documentaries and short films, other collaborations have had them with Butoh dancers and playing thematic music for live radio theatre.  I think it’s fare to say that humour is not neglected, especially if you can see them perform.

As artists who can build and exhibit within their own four walls, they are self-sufficient. In Barcelona they had the Tienda Primera, a forerunner of what they have now, but this has never dissuaded them from having many shows away from home.  Since first being in Spain they’ve had residences in Lapland, Finland, with the Oranki arts group, another residency at the Design Festa Gallery in Tokyo. There’s been many exhibitions, tours and performances throughout Europe, their last in England being at the South London Gallery. The ZUZUSHII ART LABORATORY has also recently given birth to ZAG (Zuzushii Art Guerrilla), a collective of artists, dancers, performers and whoever else comes along.  All are welcome so long ascute or kawaii is not on their agenda.  In October last year they organized a week of art, music and photography in the grounds of the nearby temple.  Other events are currently in the pipeline for 2011.

All of this ZUZUSHII world is a curious blend, there’s darkness and light, there are messages and sometimes there are no apparent messages where you think there should be. They are cynical, they are critical, and some might say a little crazy.  That’s not so much a bad mix, when you have the willingness to laugh as well.  So, what happens next?  Any plans?  Well, they’re currently waiting to hear news about a project in Taiwan and a period in Berlin is being pieced together.  For the time being, Tokyo is home.

Contact info.

The Zuzushii Art Laboratory.

3-14-9 Zoshigaya. Toshima-Ku. Tokyo-To. 171-0032 Japan.


Zuzushii Art Laboratory blog. Search on Google for zuzushii art lab.


Read More about the Zuzushi Art Laboratory or check out Gaysians by Kei in Osaka.