Japanese artist Makoto Sasaki, a.k.a. SASAKI (he goes by his last name only, in all caps) has perfected repetition in art. He's been drawing the same motif for sixteen years — the heartbeat. For the first ten years, he drew only his own. Since then, he's branched out a bit, and now creates installation artworks that superimpose participants' heartbeats on top of each other.

Each work he makes contains many similar vacillating lines in his signature, slightly pinkish red — yet each line is slightly different, and corresponds to the individual rhythm of a person's heartbeat. Often, they appear to glow with energy, and the simple lines create a strikingly beautiful light- and color-filled field.

SASAKI was in town this weekend for the annual Dwell on Design conference, held at the L.A. Convention Center. Though he's been based in L.A. for almost a year now, most of his installation projects have been exhibited in Japan and London, and he is still working on learning English. He had just flown back from Venice, where he had created an installation at the Biennale, which will be on display until November.

He showed up at Dwell on Design in his signature “art technician” look — silver shoes, silver pants and a t-shirt with a red heart stitched on it. His self-effacing attitude is that of an art technician as well (his edgy silver glasses and greying temples don't hurt, either).

Unlike the artist, the process is arrestingly dramatic. His installation drew a lot of attention from visitors, with its DJ booth and bright red walls. Zipping up into a silver hoodie, SASAKI hooked up volunteers to a finger heartbeat monitor. A low, rhythmic thumping played back through the speakers. Sometimes, it speeded up as volunteers became nervous on hearing their heartbeat. SASAKI jumped up onto a rig and drew quickly, adding a slinking, red line to the many that were already on the wall, and modulating it according to the beat playing back at him. While he was on a break, LA Weekly sat down to talk to him about his work.

Spinning beats for Sasaki; Credit: Sophie Duvernoy

Spinning beats for Sasaki; Credit: Sophie Duvernoy

How did you come up with the idea?

I was thinking about how I visualize modern life. In 1994, I took a trip to Shanghai. China was changing rapidly then. Many people were staying in Shanghai, maybe 20 million. I don't know how, but I imagined a heartbeat, and I started drawing it. Soon after, I thought: If I use a heartbeat, everybody can understand what this is. It means that my artwork — a heartbeat drawing — can communicate with everyone.

You've been drawing the same motif since then. Don't you ever want to do something different?

For about ten years, I was only drawing my own heartbeat. But about four years ago, I started to draw the heartbeats of other people.

What's the strangest thing that has ever happened when you've been drawing someone's heartbeat?

Once, a very small child told me that he remembered this sound. It's probably what he heard in the mother's womb, and he remembered it.

Do you have a trademark color? If Yves Klein had International Klein Blue, do you have Heartbeat Red?

Yes, I say Heartbeat Red. Usually I use red, because it's a warm color. Sometimes I use silver, but silver means something different and represents a different concept. I had an exhibition in London where I used silver. To me, it signifies the Zero Hour.

Why do you wear an all-silver outfit?

Silver isn't a color, it's just a reflection. If I draw a heartbeat, my mind is almost like a zero, because I have to concentrate on the sound. And I like silver. I love silver. Silver is my concept color.

Hooking a participant up to the heartbeat monitor; Credit: Sophie Duvernoy

Hooking a participant up to the heartbeat monitor; Credit: Sophie Duvernoy

When you listen to heartbeats, you're always waiting for a breaking point. Is there an element of trauma to your work?

I think that some people don't like listening to it. We think of dying and death — some people get a little scared.

Among 20th century artists, who inspires you?

I like minimal art. Twelve years ago, I was an artist in residence at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where I saw Donald Judd's box sculptures. I like Barnett Newman. I like color field paintings. [Gestures to the installation.] This drawing is like a color field. And it's a monochrome painting, very minimal. But the waves are all different from each other. It's both minimal and not minimal.

Can you talk about your installation at the Venice Biennale?

I drew 299 people, each person for 3 minutes. I drew 299 heartbeats, and left one silver plate hanging on the wall. When you come into the space, you hear the sound of heartbeats. The empty plate represents the possibility of the 300th drawing.

What is your next project?

Now, I'm thinking more about special heartbeats. For example, runner's or dancer's heartbeats. I want to make a more individual heartbeat painting. For example, I could draw for only you. I would listen to your story, and hear about your life — how your childhood was, who your boyfriend is. I would memorize your history. And then I can make a more original painting.

So you would listen to someone's life story and create a work as you imagine what their heartbeat would sound like.

Yes. My inspiration would come from you, for example. My next show will probably be in New York, but I can't describe it — it's secret for now.

Can you tell us more about yourself?

Myself? Nothing. I'm just drawing heartbeats.

LA Weekly