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Thursday, Dec. 14, 2006
Plentitudes to show
Special to The Japan Times
'The thing that has been consistently with me is the notion of creating something today that didn't exist yesterday; to make things for me is a kind of curiosity," says the prolific 55-year-old artist Shinro Ohtake.
This unassuming inquisitiveness, as well as his obsession with pasting random fragments of print and trash in dense juxtaposition to create "garbage art," were what first brought Ohtake popularity in the 1980s. His career has been a constant evolution, though, in which he has produced unparalleled amounts of work and explored diverse genres. In doing so, he has acted as a vanguard for contemporary art with a rebelliousness and disorder that the arts scene in general seems to lack.
The first major retrospective exhibition ever devoted to the painter and his massive output, "Shinro Ohtake Zen-kei: Retrospective 1955-2006" is currently showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MOT).
Starting with his childhood experimentations and extending to neon signs made specifically for the show, the size of the exhibition is unprecedented for a Japanese artist. Ohtake's works have overtaken the entire museum, spilling out to the lobby and filling every floor with everything from the Dada collages and assemblages he is best known for to sculptural works that regularly reside in places as distant as Naoshima Island in the Inland Sea, to his dabblings as a noise musician in punk group Puzzle Punks.
Ohtake was born in 1955 in Tokyo's Meguro and graduated from Musashino Art University's painting department in 1980. He had his first solo show at Watari-um in Tokyo in 1982, and since then has exhibited at the likes of London's Institute of Contemporary Art (1985), Tokyo's Sagacho Exhibit Space (1987), Seibu Art Forum (1988) and Tokyo's Parco gallery (1999) and BASE gallery (2002).
Ohtake has done album cover art for Beat poet William Burroughs, musician Ryuchi Sakamoto, singer/songwriter Kirsten Hirsch, formerly of Throwing Muses and Belly, and many others. He has as well been acclaimed for his art books, which combine sketches, etchings, collages and reproductions of his scrapbooks. His children's book, "Monsieur Jarry," won the 43rd Shogakukan Publications Art Prize in 1994 and received a Gold Trophy at the Children's Book Illustrations Biennale in Bratislava in 1995. Ohtake was also one of only five contemporary world artists selected for the Cultural Olympiad Artist book project for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games.
Almost dizzying in its quantity, a good few hours at the MOT is needed to fathom the creative energy of this virtuoso, who is said to have produced about 30,000 works.
From the start, with his first collage, "Black Shidenkai" (1964), it is apparent that Ohtake likes to heavily layer materials in his works, as he appears to have a natural instinct to paste things on to other things, regardless of color or composition. He even takes this into the third dimension with "Dub-hei and New Channel" (1999), a stage made for a remote-controlled band constructed with an arbitrary jumble of materials that bear no relation to each other.
Where does his liking for garbage come from?
"I wonder, it's not like I have a concept to use something like that. It's just the moment that I see it, it becomes a part of me," Ohtake says. "So I guess it's that it stimulates my creativity."
A room with glass shelves filled with his never previously shown scrapbooks perhaps best shows this tendency. Ohtake has kept the scrapbooks since 1977, and they are chock full of random clippings, cuttings from manga and newspapers, tickets, photos and other products of modern society infused with popular culture. Stating a dislike for conceptual art, he says there is "no motivation or goal, to say that the scrapbooks are 'for something.' It's not like I'm really that conscious about it, it's not like I'm looking to go for a particular style."
The pop influence frequently reoccurs in his work though, in imagery borrowed from comics, musical icons and other modern touchstones, such as the supremely kitschy "Megami no Jiyuu" (2006), a parody of the "Statue of Liberty" that towers on the bottom floor.
"When I was growing up, America's pop culture, with people such as Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka and Dell Shannon, dominated the world, and the Japanese would aspire to that. The lyrics would be translated into Japanese so that Japanese signers could sing them," Ohtake says. "So, in my case, with the preparation of my works, often it's influenced by American pop."
The show also presents his many other approaches, including illustrations, landscapes and graphic art, while on one floor titled "Tabi (journey)" is a display of sketches influenced by travels to places such as Morocco, Bali and Prague.
Asked if he's ever not creating, Ohtake says, "Yes, often, I read books. I like the guitar, so I play the guitar." He lives out of the fast lane in Shikoku, in the city of Uwajima in Ehime Prefecture, where he says, "I'm not really all that aware of the state of things, I'm not really aware of the world's situation either."
Ohtake's irrepressible energy, coupled with his boundary-pushing attitude toward contemporary art, has won him a solid fan base overseas and influenced such prominent creators as artist Takahashi Murakami, writer William Borroughs and composer Takemitsu Toru. Not one to propound obtuse concepts, his works are born out of a simple passion to create and experiment with various forms, all executed with poetic skill and a trademark density. The "Zen-kei" exhibition is a testament to a life devoted to such exploration and to a visceral talent for producing art that exhilarates.
"Shinro Ohtake Zen-kei: Retrospective 1955-2006" shows till Dec. 24 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, 4-1-1 Miyoshi, Koto-ku. For more information, call (03) 5245-4111 or visit www.mot-art-museum.jp