In Conversation with Sachiko Osawa (1)

Over the winter months, Exotero is partnering with YAMI-ICHI to present Traversing Borders: an exciting digital programme of participatory events, digital content and a non-monetary art auction.

We sat down with Sachi, the founder of YAMI-ICHI, on a cosy Sunday evening to bring you this exclusive interview. This is Part 1 of our conversation, in which we follow the journey of YAMI-ICHI, from a budding idea in Sachi’s mind to an international art event!

Screenshot: Two-by-Three tiled screen of Charlotte, Isabel, Miki, Sabrina, Sachi smiling while in conversation with each other.


Sabrina: For people who don’t know YAMI-ICHI, could you tell us a little bit about YAMI-ICHI and how the project started ?

Sachi: YAMI-ICHI means “black market” in Japanese. It’s an international art project that mimics an art auction and employs non-monetary trade offs and exchanges. The target is emerging artists, businesses, and people who do not normally engage with art. I started YAMI-ICHI to challenge the perception of art as a commodity in this capitalistic art market and to encourage artists to rethink and communicate their own distinctive values. I set out to create an alternative to the established art auction to provoke people’s curiosity, to talk more openly about how we value artwork and to explore this together with artists as well as audiences.  

Sabrina: So when did you start YAMI-ICHI ?

Sachi: It originally started as my final year project at my MA course – Narrative Environments at Central Saint Martins. I started doing all the research back in 2016 and within a year we organised three events in Tokyo and London. 

Sabrina: It was quite an intense period then, from inception to realisation. How did you develop the idea in such a short space of time?

Sachi: It was madness! My initial attempt was to do a debut event in Tokyo (Japan), but I soon realised that this model could be applied to anywhere; it’s a universal topic so I ended up doing the same thing in London. I started first with desk research and then I moved on to more activity-based research. Some of the comments I got back were: How do you make sure that [the auction is] playful for both bidders and artists? How do you make sure that the artists are comfortable enough to say no to an offer? By constantly testing my ideas and collecting feedback from people, I could crystallise my ideas in a short period of time. 

Sabrina: How does a non-monetary art auction look like? 

Sachi: In general, participating artists carry out three- to four- day mini residencies where they also exhibit their work to the public.  Visitors can meet artists and understand what, how and why they are making. In the actual auction, on the last day, each artist  presents their artwork, practice and future ambitions. In place of money, bidders offer services, skills, goods and almost anything which can be used as a means of exchange. If there is a bid the artist likes, the artist and the bidder will sign the contract and exchange their contact information so they can keep in touch. The exchanges and the stories are archived [by team YAMI-ICHI]. 

Sabrina: I am quite curious about people’s responses to trading with services and skills or just non-monetary forms of currency. It’s such an experimental idea; when I first heard about it, I thought: How is that going to work?

Sachi: Anywhere we go, the reactions are exactly the same. The bidders get confused because they are so used to using money as a means of exchange for goods or services. That’s the beautiful thing about this event. Audiences [have to] listen carefully to what the artist has to say and think creatively about what they can offer. There was an artist who had just graduated from an art university in Japan and wanted to continue studying in Berlin. There also happened to be a bidder who was about to move to Berlin and offered to help [the artist] with her first exhibition and provide free accomodation in Berlin. It was so valuable to [the artist]. 

Sabrina: We’ve talked about the similarity of how the whole world appears to be run by money, but were there any differences across different auctions in different countries and how people responded to this concept?

Sachi: I think one thing we need to understand is that in this context of art, it can be quite an elitist and exclusive world. If you’re not used to being in this environment where people are really enjoying and talking about art, it is quite an unusual thing to do. When I started this project, I wanted to make sure this was an open platform for people who are not necessarily experts in art. […B]ecause it’s an open platform, people can freely express what they think are valuable things to exchange for amazing artworks. That thought process was the same no matter where I did this auction.

Fundamentally, this is such a new idea that everyone will get confused, but will also really enjoy. There are more similarities than differences.

Photo of artist Tatsushi Takizawa holding a microphone in one hand and presenting his artwork in the other. Beside him stands two auctioneers, also smiling, and looking expectantly at the art work. In the foreground are the audience members.
To create a playful atmosphere in the YAMI-ICHI auction, Sachi employed three comedians as auctioneers in the Tokyo event. Their lively commentary helped artists feel more comfortable and for members of the public to be adventurous enough to make daring offers. Here, we see artist Tatsushi Takizawa presenting his artwork “Face”.


Sabrina: We’d now like to get to know you, Sachi, as a person. You have so many insightful comments and experiences working with people and communities so we’d love to dig a little deeper. I’m going to let Isabel start off this conversation.

Isabel: Let’s find out about the root of it all: how you became interested in art and the art world itself and where it all really began.

Sachi: In my case, the idea of YAMI-ICHI was mostly linked to a sense of discomfort and unease that I had always felt in my life. I always loved experimenting with materials, getting my hands dirty and creating something. Those were the only times I could really forget about time. But then I quickly lost interest when I was told to draw or paint in a particular way or style – or behave in a certain way in museums. I felt like there was this invisible wall between whatever I was seeing in that space and myself. Gradually, without being told, I began to think that many art museums and events are a high society thing. 

I wanted to do something about it, but I didn’t really know how to. Eventually, I found these small organisations in Japan that would support artists in their own way and that gave me a lot of hope. For example, there was an owner of a small sake company who opened up his factory for artist residencies and exhibitions. You don’t need to be an established organisation to make local and personal contributions. That hope became an ambition for me to do something with all artists around me who struggle to make a living or find exhibition opportunities.

In order to fulfill my ambition, I quit my job in Japan and pursued a new career and an MA course in London. The Narrative Environments course at CSM was a great combination of practice and theory. It taught me how to do action research (not just desk research) – to do something challenging and then make it real. That’s how YAMI-ICHI evolved. 

Isabel: So your MA gave you the space to start realising these projects. You’ve always been a creator and look to empower everyone around you, breaking down this wall you talk about. 

Let’s return to the research process of your project. We’d love to hear more about some of your field studies and how you took this anti-system performance from research to realisation, and made it a space where you can essentially be anyone you want to be.

Sachi: I started looking at different art auctions, like Sotheby’s and Christie’s. I actually participated in a few of them too, as a bidder. There’s a hilarious photo of me pretending to be one of those wealthy bidders that go to these auctions. I dressed up like these personas, created stories around me, and joined the art auction – as if I was used to being in that kind of atmosphere. How I was guided by the staff was quite memorable. It was very different to the experience I had when I was dressed like a student. I suddenly got this warm welcome. I could sense that they were expecting me to have enough money to purchase expensive artworks, which I didn’t. 

I carefully looked at how people behaved, not only the bidders, but also the auctioneers and staff members. I sketched out all the materials – the paddle, the gavel, the hammer. And then I just enjoyed the experience. I was mesmerised by the fact that within thirty seconds, hundreds of millions of pounds were moving. I realised how exclusive and eliminating it is. I kept asking myself: where is the artist? All these people were talking about an artwork without the artist being there. That’s when I thought the art auction was a great format to mimic, somewhere to provoke all these kinds of discussions. 

Hand carved gavel, hammer and auction paddle embossed with the YAMI-ICHI logo, all laid inside a wooden box with a ruby satin lining.
An artist through and through, Sachi handmade every aspect of the auction — hand carving the hammer and gavel as well the embossing the YAMI-ICHI logo on the back of the auction paddle. She was inspired by the mass produced advertising and branding in all Sotheby’s auctions and wanted to play with the feeling of exclusivity and prestige that came along with it.

Read Part 2 here where Exotero and Sachi speak more about  mobilising communities, resources for artists and YAMI-ICHI’s commentary on the art world. 

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