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Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008

Digital, rough and maybe deadly

Young Japanese artists curate an exhibition in Yokohama in response to the triennale

Staff writer

Zaim is dirty. The floor is scuffed, the windows old, the building a strange maze of rooms with low ceilings. Compared to the slick show on a couple blocks away at this year's Yokohama Triennale, the exhibition space that used to be a government office building is beat-up and ready for trouble.

Taro Izumi
Self refelctive: The installation by Taro Izumi shows a video of the artist creating a work that can be found on the opposite wall of the same room. DONALD EUBANK

Currently Zaim is housing "The Echo," an exhibition of 21 Japanese creators in their 30s to 40s that runs till Oct. 5. Organized by the artists Kengo Kito, Satoru Aoyama, Ichiro Isobe and Daisuke Ohba, as well as Haruka Ito of the gallery magical, ARTROOM in Ebisu, the exhibition is a response to the lineup for this year's triennale.

"As soon as I saw the big-name international curators selected for the Yokohama Triennale, I knew there was no chance for Japanese artists to show our generations' art to the audience," Aoyama said Tuesday night.

"So we organized this artists' initiative," added magical's Ito. One of the founders of the Art Studies and Cultural Productions graduate program at Kyoto University of Art and Design, the gallerist is actively trying to cultivate platforms for homegrown contemporary Japanese art.

"The artists showing at 'Echo' are very influenced by the Internet, TV screens and computer monitors," said Ito. "Their method of describing life is very different. They, like others in their generation, understand life through digital images."

Luckily for viewers, this fascination with digital media is not something that they explore like an otaku (geek), obsessing over the new supremacy of pixilated culture. Rather it is a natural methodology for producing engaging works that deal with issues other than the technology that generates digital images. (This should not be surprising given that Japan is a source of — and hence the first to absorb and take for granted — so many of modern technologies.)

For example, Ohba's glimmering paintings are inspired by the liquidlike surfaces of computer monitors. Kohei Nawa regularly turns ordinary objects — animals, shoes, sashimi — into pixilated versions with bubbly surfaces. Takeshi Masada does paintings that replicate the appearance of images on digital screens. But all these works have an alive, rough-hewn, human touch to them.

Satoshi Ohno
Strange worlds: Satoshi Ohno's sprawling installation at "The Echo" exhibition in Yokohama

"Conceptual art such as what is being shown at the triennale, looks like it was made following a list of instructions. And in general it points toward death," said Aoyama. "The 'Echo' artists are very positive and want to create lively images that bring pleasure. And they don't farm out the production of their works — they are very hands-on.

"Japanese artists know about conceptual art, but they want to show the rough edges, they want to point toward life. And they want to do paintings, because they still think that is a good way to show what is important to them."

"It's still the best way to show ideas directly," said Ito. Though these artists are inspired by the technologies they have grown up with, the technologies don't take over the works. Rather, she said, "in their art, such images mix in with their dreams and their memory."

Some futurologist once predicted that when all labor-based tasks were made unnecessary, then we would turn our attention — once we became bored with entertainment — to bettering ourselves and expressing ourselves creatively. Perhaps Japan, of all modern developed countries, is the best testing ground for that theory and — in the freedom of its former isolation — has often been during the greatest times in its history.

But there is a dark side that also characterizes art from this generation.

"Japan is a Utopia," said Aoyama. "But on a deeper level, there are lots of problems. The line between the two is very fragile."

"Violence is much closer to our lives," said Ito after she and Aoyama mention the June knifing attack in Akihabara by a young frustrated part-time worker. "Ordinary people in Japan can break very easily. There is always the possibility of things turning bad."

Despite the beauty of Ohba's ethereal white paintings, his choice subject is bleak — the famous Jukai forest where many have committed suicide. His themes are the beauty of fear — and scarcity of beauty — in our lives.

Ito and Aoyama also pointed to one of the best rooms at "The Echo," an installation by Taro Izumi. Izumi's videos, drawings and arranged props and artist supplies show the great sense of humor that typifies the works of similar young Japanese artists such as Koki Tanaka and Ichiro Tanaka. But the two Echo-organizers said that works such as Izumi's contain the possibility that the line between what is socially acceptable and what is not is easy to cross. The artist performs a number of clever, amusing actions that reveal unexpected connections within the pieces in the space, but the most hidden is a video of the viewer themselves. Stepping into a kitchen adjoining the room, visitors see themselves on a TV screen with a drying rack covering it like jail bars — the viewers have become prisoners of the work.

Now there is an image. A country of people raised on digital visions, in many ways prisoners of them, and at risk — though unlikely — to crack because of it. What if the Yokohama Triennale had taken a risk and let this new generation go to work on such themes in world class spaces with a generous budget? Not only would the triennale have offered something new, something that told us about Japan — rather than what's happening everywhere — it would have helped to ignite what is already an energetic local scene.

"The attitude of the triennale hasn't advanced, because it still respects European and American artists too much," Gu Zhenqing, editor of China's bilingual (Chinese and English) art magazine Visual Productions, told me at a symposium on Monday night. "The Japanese artists aren't treated as important as those Western artists. That's why in Asia we always import international curators and big-name artists. But we should change this. We should celebrate more local perspectives.

"If we invest more money in providing opportunities for local artists, and inspire them to develop their own ideas and conceptions and to realize their projects, that is much better for their education."

While there are great works at "The Echo" — Aoyama's, Izumi's, an ambitious, sprawling room of paintings and more by Satoshi Ohno (featuring multiple, garish images of a naked witch with a penis) and Kei Takemura's ruminations on memory — the show could have been more. Given support, Japan could see its younger artists quickly rise to international standards and levels of respect and recognition. In many ways, the works at the Yokohama Triennale are fighting the battles of the 20th century — historical, curatorial, art world. Wouldn't it have been great to see instead an indication of what the future may hold?

"The Echo" runs till Oct. 5 at Zaim in Yokohama; nearest stations: Kannai Station (JR Negishi Line) and Nihon Odori Station (Minatomirai Line); open 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; admission ¥500; For more information call (045) 222-7030 or visit za-im.jp

Other arts this week

'Nobuko Watabiki'


'Masaki Ogihara'


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