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Saturday, March 17, 2001


Taking the Watanabe optional tour

Few of us can understand why the Taliban in Afghanistan is destroying the awe-inspiring giant Buddhist statues at Bamiyan instead of turning them into profitable tourist sites generating millions of dollars in T-shirt and other souvenir sales. Someone who might, however, is Satoshi Watanabe, whose own iconoclastic exhibition of art, currently on show at the Mitaka City Arts Center in western Tokyo, takes aim at idol-worshipping of a different kind.

From the top: "Sphinx" (2000), "Bode Museum" (1996), "Kelin" (1999)

Watanabe creates his signature works using a painstaking masking method. After applying thousands of tiny white circular stickers to a canvas in a grid pattern, he paints a picture over it, usually of a famous sightseeing spot, such as Loch Ness or Machu Picchu. He then removes the dots, creating a softening effect, like a weakly printed image.

Sometimes the dots are reassembled on a new canvas to create an additional work. Both types of works, however, end up with a texture that seems artificial while it is in fact highly hand-crafted.

An excellent example of this is his "Taj Mahal" (2000). The image reconstructed from the dots has been assembled in a freer way so that it seems to fold and undulate like a piece of printed cloth, as if it were a souvenir T-shirt. Watanabe admits that his intent is ironic, referring to the way these sites are viewed as "image consumption."

He spent three years studying at Glasgow's prestigious School of Art, and slotted right into its earthy milieu. "I live in Osaka. People there tend to be a little bit like Glaswegians. One day, I saw some families on Sauchiehall Street. A guy shouted 'Get your f**king arse in the car.' It sounded beautiful to me."

But living in Britain made him aware of the way postindustrial countries come to rely on their heritage for tourism.

"My own existence as a student abroad seemed a little surreal," the 33-year-old artist confesses. "Studying art at art school was like an optional tour. In the London area, there were schools with programs set up especially for Japanese students and it seemed to me that studying abroad was becoming another form of consumption."

So, in a sense, Watanabe's work serves as the antidote to the caricature of the camera-toting Japanese tourist. Instead of clomping around the world, guidebook in hand, making appreciative noises at each world heritage site or famous building, Watanabe stays at home and uses photographs to paint his irreverent images. Nothing makes this more clear than his triptych "Wrecked/ Pissed/Stoned" (1999), in which the latter two slang words are left to stand out from the dotted surface of pictures representing Niagara Falls and Egypt's Pyramids. This seems to suggest that sightseeing is just another way of getting high.

Using a simpler masking technique, his message is equally clear in the awkwardly titled "Healing Journey to Nepal -- Search for Himalayan Power -- 129,000-198,000" (2000), in which the title, taken from a travel advertisement, is scrawled, graffitilike, against the background of the Himalayas.

In "Untitled Landscape Painting" (1999) the title practically blots out the landscape itself so that it is not only anonymous but also unrecognizable. These works, which consume a lot less time than his dot pictures, are, however, less artistically successful. The conceptual element dominates and the artist's intent is all too obvious.

A good artistic concept is like electricity. By itself it is merely capable of a momentary shock. Combined with other artistic elements, however, it powers the machine. This is why Watanabe's dot art works are the strongest ones in this exhibition. Showing confident brushstrokes and masterly composition and tones, works like "Matterhorn" (2000) or "Beamed in and Beamed out" (1999), a set of two paintings depicting the famous facade of the British Museum, oscillate between texture and visual paradigm, creating a surreal but beautiful effect.

Watanabe is aware of the final irony of his work. All that he has succeeded in doing is to refresh and repackage these definitive images.

"My style must be just a new design for consumption -- products for sale," he explains. Now if only the iconoclasm of the Taliban were so harmless.

"Satoru Watanabe -- Hidden Scenery" runs until March 25 at the Mitaka City Arts Center, (0422) 47-5122, near JR Mitaka Station. Open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Closed Monday. Admission free.

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