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Friday, Feb. 27, 2009

Linking video games to their visual history

Special to The Japan Times

Think of post-World War II popular culture in Japan as it relates to contemporary art, and you invariably arrive at Murakami Takashi and his Kaikai Kiki company/studio. But a new generation that draws from Japanese pop culture — and yet has no close connections to Murakami's art stable — has emerged in recent years, and the eponymous exhibition of works by Ryuta Ohtake (b. 1976), currently showing at Osaka's Taro Nasu Gallery, is fairly representative.

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At your command: A video-game-inspired painting by Ryuta Ohtake, showing at Osaka's Taro Nasu Gallery till March 14 © RYUTA OHTAKE/TARO NASU/YASUSHI ICHIKAWA

Raised in a world enamored of role play and virtual reality, Ohtake's present work explores the conventions of video games, posing the question: Which is the more realistic, the fictional world of the game or the one that surrounds us? It is a provocative enough query, dealing as it does with misgivings about the effects that an entertainment form saturated with sex and violence has on the young — particularly boys — and how the vices of games could cross over into actions in real life.

In his canvases, however, Ohtake deals with much less explosive issues. The artist sees video games as metaphors for society, as they too are controlled by rules and feature ideologies, social constructs and choices. In both worlds, there are struggles between people, antagonistic relations between individuals and society and the desire to interpret unwritten rules. (One major difference: The indiscriminate killings that are the common resolution to such conflicts in video-game narratives are received with horror and disbelief in the real world.)

In Ohtake's present exhibition, there are four portraits, one major landscape and four smaller ones, in addition to "Untitled" (2008), a small work made of plastic star-shapes conjoined into a geometrical body with four legs. The painter has drawn directly on the canvas without the aid of preliminary sketches, elaborating on his ideas during a production process that typically results in 10 or so complementary works. While Ohtake takes video games as his inspiration, his current works are not based on real games.

The idea behind the show is to replicate the choices and things one might encounter in a game, such as: the process of selecting a character with certain skills and a particular appearance; the secret mountain fortress to be infiltrated; narrative plot points such as a nighttime search; landscapes and forking paths; and a final foe to be overcome. This kind of narrative structure will not be understood the same way by all people, as a player's — or, within this exhibition, the viewer's — experience and preferences allow for divergent outcomes. Or, more specific to the gallery, the artist creates a space in which multiple fragments are linked by the participation of the spectator.

That individual works explicitly address the viewer is most apparent in Ohtake's portraits. Portraiture implies the presence of a viewer before it to gaze back. In "10_1" (2008), a girl with an eye patch is giving an open-handed salute over her chest. The spectator is supposed to stand before such a heavily armed, militarily garbed girl, and then become the object of her adoring stare.

Ohtake's big-eyed faces no doubt aim for flattery, winning favor for obeisance and appearance — to salute and be cute. Implicit here is the process of selecting a character who will do your biding, a choice that reveals something about ourselves. This, then, is the power play: the subordination of the girls via the spectator's viewing of the passive subject.

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The virtual made real: An installation view of Ryuta Ohtake's exhibition

Portraiture conventionally conveys some kind of expression of the inner psychic life of the sitter, but here the girls are mostly without personality; if they have any, it is what the viewer fills in rather than what is made manifest by the artist. What we are given is a repetitive format of full-frontal shots with little physical variation in body shape, essentially the same girl in different outfits with a change of hair color and accessories.

Putting the visual and narrative conventions of video games on to a canvas shows just how inextricably these digital images follow Western traditions of painting. How the images are presented to the viewer, the creation of the identity of the character and the construction of narrative from visual fragments are all the historical province of painting. Video games, like paintings before them, offer up facsimiles of possible worlds. Hence, while the subject matter is entirely contemporary, in Ohtake's work there is a sense of receiving something old in the guise of the new. In doing this, computer-generated images lose their potency, as well as the deeper connections that they hold for contemporary society.

"Ryuta Ohtake" is at Taro Nasu Gallery in Osaka till March 14; open Thurs.-Sat. 12 noon-7 p.m. For more information, call (06) 4256-8846 or visit www.taronasugallery.com

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