A man of many talents, Keiichi Tahara is about to be propelled on to centre stage with a lighting scheme for Battersea Power Station. Sarah Balmond talks to him about his fascination with illumination
For someone who left his home in Gion, the most ancient of Kyoto’s Geisha districts, to follow his friend to Paris and set up a travelling music theatre group during the 1970s, Keiichi Tahara has landed himself a pretty major job.
Parkview International has charged the Tokyo and Paris-based artist with creating the epic lighting masterplan for Battersea Power Station’s 15ha site. If the project goes ahead, Tahara’s UK debut could place him in the celebrity designer stratosphere. Remembering how he was inspired by the iconic image on Pink Floyd’s Animals album to first visit Battersea, he laughs at the irony of landing the job, and you get the feeling Tahara still can’t quite believe his luck.
His career has been diverse so far, with his role as a lighting consultant just the latest incarnation in a long line of creative professions, from directing films through to fashion photography. The one common denominator has always been the recurring theme of light, something Tahara has been fascinated with ever since his grandfather, the famous Japanese photographer Yoshitaro Miyagawa, handed him his first Asahi Pentax in 1965. It is the medium of light itself – as a prism, a spectrum or as a reflection – which most fascinates Tahara and influences his work.
With Battersea, Tahara wants to re-imagine the site according to a Yin and Yang lighting concept, based on the Chinese five elements of fire, earth, metal, water and wood. He will build installations that blend into the landscape and use the manipulation of reflections to play with perspective and alter the sense of place. He treats light delicately, considering it within a philosophical and spiritual sphere, as a forgotten illuminator of culture and a metaphor for language.
‘It is the origin of everything – the sun, moon and sky. It is all about energy. Culturally, across Asia, Europe, America and Australia, the quality of light and the different ways we see it creates an individual way of thinking, unique to each person,’ he says.
This numinous concept is pointedly executed in his work. Tahara has just lit the Gaston Defferre library in Marseilles, using a permanent installation of undulating white curves and colour blots, placing a seeping red light at the building’s centre – something he calls, with a touch of sentimentality, ‘its heart’. He pays homage to the region’s physical characteristics, referencing its ‘waves, the movement of clouds in the sky, the wind from Africa’ through the design, dramatically titling the project Ode to the Mediterranean.
While other corporate lighting consultancies may laugh, smugly, at Tahara’s enthused artistic gesture, it is exactly this type of subtle, slightly mystical approach that is winning him fans. In a recent pitch, Tahara’s response to a brief to design an installation of a blue sky for the city of Toronto was to submit a lighting scheme based on the full rainbow colour spectrum. ‘This is the only visible projection of light. It is always about the new thought,’ he says confidently. Tahara is also involved in a pitch to create a lighting installation for shipping company CMA-CGM’s new headquarters, a glass tower designed by Zaha Hadid, also in Marseilles.
Not that Tahara wants to be pigeon-holed. Like so many others, he vehemently resists any kind of categorising title. As if to prove it, he is embarking on his first full architectural project. This involves conceiving the build, lighting and landscaping of a new retail and entertainment spa complex, Ginza 888, which will open on Tokyo’s Chuodori street. He is also flexing his green fingers, busy drawing up a scheme to design his own private garden at a new seafront family home in Kashima. ‘The garden is the complete form of expression. You need that space, as a gap between us and nature,’ says Tahara, adding that he would like to do more landscape design. In fact, it is hard to predict what he will turn to next, but light is certain to be on the agenda.