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Saturday, June 22, 2002

Meet Mama, in the name of art

Special to The Japan Times

Tatsumi Orimoto has a theory about his recent popularity. "After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, so many people wanted art that was warm and funny," he says as he shows me around an exhibition of his graphic art and objects at his hometown art venue, the Kawasaki City Museum.

News photo
News photo
"5 Person + 16 Drum Can" (top) and "14 Person + 16 Drum Can" by Tatsumi Orimoto PHOTOS COURTESY OF TATSUMI ORIMOTO

Although it is not clear how Orimoto's work can serve as an antidote to terrorism, it is definitely cheerful and even life-affirming. After starting out as a conceptual artist in the late '60s, the 56-year-old finally made his name in the early '90s as a performance artist, traveling the world with bundles of bread tied to his face, delighting people not as Orimoto, but as "Breadman."

The various adventures of his crusty alter ego are captured in a series of posters and postcards, including one showing Breadman joining a bread line for street people in New York City. Such escapades in the name of art naturally provoked some hostility, but for Orimoto, even home is not free of negative responses to his work. "In Tokyo, they don't like my performance," he says a little sadly. "They give me dirty looks. Some ladies say to their children, 'Hey, don't touch him,' like I'm crazy. Also, people's faces never laugh. They're tight and serious."

Nevertheless Orimoto's art is an export success. Last year he was the only Japanese artist featured at the Venice Biennale, while next month he will be in the United Kingdom for an exhibition of his work at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Newcastle, which might go on tour if Arts Council funding comes through.

"So many people in Europe are interested in 'Art Mama,' " he beams proudly, referring to another string to his bow, the pictures he takes of his frail, deaf, elderly mother who suffers from Alzheimer's. Because of her hard life and her illness, her face is fixed in what might be described as a stoic scowl. Her role is similar to the straight man in a comedy duo, balancing her son's sometimes zany humor to create amusing but also poignant images.

"At the Biennale, there was so much computer and video art," Orimoto says. "Many people said those artists only have technique, so when they saw my 'Art Mama' photography they felt it was warm and human."

Using props, he engages his mother in various poses and activities. In "Art Mama (Small Mama + Big Shoes)," his mother is made to pose in some oversize papier-ma^che shoes. Sometimes an element of cruelty shows itself. In "Tire Tube Communication," Art Mama and some elderly neighbors are photographed with old rubber tires around their necks. At last year's Biennale, Orimoto suggested that the piece was making a point about the way society treats old people like rubbish.

The essence of Orimoto's art, however, is the need to break through barriers and communicate. While Breadman clearly broke the ice around the world, helping Orimoto to communicate across cultural and linguistic barriers, 'Art Mama' is about communicating across the barriers thrown up by old age and illness.

"I sometimes get criticized for 'Art Mama,' " he admits, "but I just show Mama and she says, 'Oh, I'm famous around the world.' It's good medicine for her."

His latest 'Art Mama' project is a series of large photos showing Orimoto and his mother, with various friends, standing to attention in 16 large, empty oil drums. The people change positions in each picture, rather like the moles popping up and down in a whack-a-mole arcade game. All except Art Mama, who stays stuck in the same drum like a broken mole that can't escape the hammer.

Art Mama's cute and grumpy face is much better known than Orimoto's own, but this is something the artist is pleased about. "For me, my Mama is Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo," he says. "I think she is beautiful."

"Tatsumi Orimoto -- Graphic Arts + Objects" runs till Sept. 1 at the Kawasaki City Museum, 1-2 Todoroki, Nakahara-ku, Kawasaki City, tel: (044) 754-4500, a 10-min. bus ride from Musashi Kosugi Station (JR, Nanboku, Tokyu Toyoko and Toei Mita lines). Open 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Closed Mon. Admission is 500 yen for adults, 300 yen for students, free for children under 15 and adults over 65.

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