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Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011

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Iron city: Made from gouged and shaped machine parts, Chu Enoki's "RPM-1200" (2006-2011) depicts a dark futuristic landscape. PRIVATE COLLECTION

Chu Enoki's sculptural landscapes, cast from an iron will


Special to The Japan Times

Chu Enoki got his start as a painter after hospitalizing an elderly man in an accident when he and friends were racing their motorcycles in Kobe. While in the hospital, he was told by the victim of the accident that he should do more of what he wanted to do. So in 1965, he began showing paintings in the Kobe-based Niki-kai exhibitions. He continued to display his work there until 1970, from when he began to have doubts about exhibiting in group shows.

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A shot at war: Thousands of spent cartridges are scattered across the base of Chu Enoki's "Cartridge" (1991-2011).

It was in that year that he unveiled a new artistic direction — happenings. On Aug. 2, coinciding with the opening day of the so-called "pedestrian paradise" of the 1970 Osaka Expo, he took a stroll through the streets of Tokyo's flash Ginza district clad only in a loincloth and with the Expo symbol printed on his stomach. He was arrested. Half-naked again in September that year, Chu held a public art performance staged as a "funeral for the Japanese archipelago."

One of Chu's most important artistic debts is to the French-born artistic provocateur Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), who famously attempted to have a urinal displayed as a work of art at the American Society of Independent Artists in 1917. The influence is visible, when in 1972, Chu took inspiration from Duchamp's "Chocolate Grinder" and had visitors hand over nostalgic objects that they wanted to forget so he could grind them up in an iron crusher. The mash was then hardened into paraffin bullets and loaded into a canon that blew them apart.

Duchamp is there again in Chu's penchant for word play, found most obviously in "Went to Hungary with HANGARI," (1977). The word "hangari" in Japanese means "half-shaved" — over a period of four years Chu shaved the right half of his body for one year, followed by a shaved head and face for another year, after which he let his hair grow out for the next year and a half, and then finally shaved the right side of his body. All the while, he photographed the results and also managed to hold down a regular company job the entire time.

In Chu's drag alter ego, Rose Chu, Duchamp rises yet again. Chu dresses provocatively in wig, bra and tights and poses seductively, though with a handlebar moustache. Duchamp, too, had established his own drag alter ego with the name Rrose Selavy, a pun with at least two meanings significant for Chu. In its French spoken form it sounds suggestively of "eros, is life," or perhaps "to make a toast to life" in the playful imagery and reverie apparent in Chu's approach to art.

Rose makes a comeback in the present exhibition in photographs documenting Chu's drag performance and also in the sticker found in the back of the catalog, which bears an image of a naked, winged female riding a male phallus.

Chu's often militaristic style from the last 20 years first surfaced in 1972 when he started producing canons. That led to him being investigated by the police. Such work is the feature of "Enoki Chu: Unleashing the Museum"' at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, in which the overwhelming concerns are with weaponry and metal.

On entering the exhibition, there are dozens of sand-mold-cast machine guns lined along the wall for "AK47/AR-15" (2000). Chu first used guns as a theme for a 2000 exhibition at the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art in Aichi Prefecture titled "Vacant Lot." Artists were asked to create a work inspired by the title of the exhibition, and Chu envisioned playing war games as a child. He grew up living close to an army base and he decided he wanted his own guns and that they were part of everyday life. In the present exhibition they are related to his concept "stay alive by protecting yourself."

In addition to the massive canons he has sculpted out of pipes and fittings, such as "Falcon C2H2" (2007), there is also the artist's use of shell casings as a sculptural material, as in "Cartridge" (1991-2011) in which thousands of these casings that were produced to kill are amassed in a giant installation.

Elsewhere, molten metal has been allowed to flow and pool into nasty-looking shapes, their cue coming from the molten water pipes that Chu collected from the Nagata area that was engulfed in fire during the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, while working as a scrap-metal processor. In other works such as "Guillotine Shear" (1994-2011), he used a giant iron-cutter to slice huge chunks of metal into jagged, dangerous-looking sculptural forms that express the powerful nature of his chosen material.

The premier work in the exhibition, "RPM-1200" (2006-2011) is again a tribute to iron, which the artist has been exploiting in recent decades. A futuristic cityscape made entirely of machine parts erected upright on a large bench and spotlit in a darkened room, the work's pieces were stuck in Chu's lathe, and turned at 1,200 revolutions per minute while being gouged and shaped. This time, however, rather than being a material of death and destruction, iron, more optimistically, is portrayed as supporting human dwelling.

"Enoki Chu: Unleashing the Museum" at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art runs till Nov. 27; admission ¥1,200; open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri., Sat. till 8 p.m.). For more information, visit www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp.

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