Addendum: EVERYDAY LIFE/ANOTHER SPACE Kanagawa Prefectural Residents’ Hall December 16, 2009–January 23, 2010

This was my review of the group show "Everyday Life/Another Space," which we ended up not putting in the new issue.
Please see Kiki's review of the same show in Let Down Vol.3. Out NOWWW!

What once seemed appalling sometimes turns out to be the most meaningful. Just as often, things immediately appealing reveal themselves to be forgetful. In terms of music, bands like Can and Big Star have, for me, very much been the former (and the latter is too numerous and embarrassing to list). “Everyday Life Another Space,” a group show of six Japanese artists currently on exhibit, felt on initial visit like a breath of fresh air. Walking to the Kanagawa Prefectural Residents’ Hall in Yokohama, past buildings in a Western mid-century vernacular style that look, as an American friend put it, “Like they’re from the Midwest,” I stood outside the exhibition space and saw a green East European-looking car hoisted above ground, skewered through its two doors and rapidly spinning.

This was Hironari Kubota’s work, Berlin Hitoritabi (“Traveling Alone in Berlin”) (2008) and I couldn’t stop laughing. The artist, in his satin souvenir jacket and closely cropped hair, looked more like a gear head than an artist returning from a residency in Berlin. He stood as if he was straddling a chopper and looked utterly serious as he twisted the rubber gripped end of a wide set of handlebars and revved the engine, which had been extracted from the chassis and placed on the ground. An enka song, the Japanese equivalent of country and western music–overly produced tunes usually about unrequited love and catering to imaginary tastes of the working “folk”–played in the background.

The appeal of the piece is obvious–it’s surprising to see a car spun around as if it was no heavier than a load of laundry, and funny to watch an apparently pointless use of fuel and mechanical workmanship. It’s definitely a spectacle, but it isn’t really flashy. Though smaller in scale, the way that it’s presented here, Berlin Hitoritabi belongs to a lineage of works, including, say, Cai Guo-Qiang’s fireworks and Olaffur Eliasson’s waterfall installations in New York, that seem intent on wowing viewers.

The show’s introductory text explains that the artists in it use familiar, everyday materials, themes and motifs to create a sense of discomfort, alternative dimension, and a “grand passage of time.” The idea of organizing a show of art that uses familiar, everyday materials, is itself rather familiar. From Impressionism and Dada to Fluxus, Arte Povera, feminist performance and relational aesthetics, and more recent “bad boy/girl”-ish New York hipster art, avant-garde art movements throughout history have championed the everyday. Yet while previous avant-gardes frequently revealed something new about both art and the everyday, the contemporary version too often merely defangs art and presents it in an apolitical, easily digestible package.

Confusingly, much of the material used in this show is actually extraordinary. A Trabant, for example, is quite exotic in Japan; the cost of shipping one to Japan is probably exorbitant. While this aspect of the production adds a level of absurdity to the work, the video document of the piece being performed in Europe suggested that Berlin Hitoritabi is much more interesting experienced outside of Japan. In the video, Kubota is dressed in nothing except a fundoshi (loincloth) and to get the car spinning, he grabs on the rear bumper of the Trabant and uses the weight of his body to get the car going. As the car rocks back and forth, he jumps in when the car is at its highest point and ducks out of the way on its return. The effect is hypnotic, and brings to mind the risks taken by a man rhythmically sticking his hand in and out of a wooden mortar to turn the rice over as his partner pounds it in a Japanese new year’s rice cake-making ceremony. In this version, Berlin Hitoritabi works in a carnivalesque manner, with images of Japanese-ness, triggering an exoticizing impulse in his European audience, but keeping it in check with a serving of the ridiculous. In the end, the piece provides a feeling of celebratory release, caused by the artist’s accomplishment of an apparently meaningless but exhilarating feat.

In Japan, however, the piece fell flat upon repeated viewing. It shed light, unwittingly, on the importance of a work’s site, and on the slip in the English translation of the exhibition title–bachigai means “out of place” rather than “another space.” The difference between the two is critical to the work’s success.

Taiyo Kimura’s installation piece, Der Bau (2009), creates a space within a space out of cardboard boxes duct taped together like a child’s improvised fortress or a homeless person’s abode. Inside, where there is only enough room to crawl on your knees, flat-screen monitors played video pieces that are reminiscent of Christian Marclay’s work, except funnier. The artist uses turntables in various ways, sometimes torturing himself with one, as when he attempts to strangle himself by tying some cord around his neck and to a spinning turntable, which slowly tightens the cord around his neck, and at other times torturing the turntable, as when he buries one alive. While Der Bau was amusing, Kimura’s strongest piece was I am the Walrus (2009), which consisted of a large stack of records in their covers leaning against the wall, with naked records sandwiched between them at slightly different positions to make black mounds that looked like giant mold growing on the stack. Like British artist Sara Mackillop’s 10 in 12 (2002) (which is just that, a white-label 10inch placed inside a colored 12inch sleeve), it makes you look at a familiar object in a new way. While Mackillop’s work calls attention to vinyl’s standardized, industrially produced, and nearly perfectly designed format, Kimura’s points to the organic and human dimension of the medium. It draws a connection between the particularly intense humidity in Japan (and the havoc it wreaks on any attempt at archival collection) and the viral, insatiable desire for collecting, which supposedly aims to fill a gap while only ever producing new ones. Something, I am the Walrus seems to say, always escapes and grows, causing more moldy desire.

Ramon Todo’s Chinmoku Katariete/Katarienu (“Silence: Speakable/Unspeakable”) (2009), is perhaps the lightest work in the show despite being made of rocks. These beautiful sculptures offer variations on a simple idea: A piece of smooth glass sandwiched inside a rough rock transforms an ordinary stone into a beautiful one. The most successful are the pieces of the Berlin Wall. The contrast between the neon-colored and spray-painted graffiti, shattered into illegible, abstract gestures, and the cold transparent glass is moving, but the attempt to anchor them back to a message, by way of a sheet of paper on the wall explaining the rocks’ provenance–Auschwitz, Berlin Wall, etc., comes off as somewhat desperate. The idea of the material being silent witnesses to historical events is compelling, but the actual works do not express it. Another part of the piece, a shelf of books, which include copies of Karl Marx’s Capital and Anne Frank’s Diary, with pages replaced by a piece of glass magnifying an image of their authors placed on the inside of the spine, have a similar effect–they try too hard to say too much. Even though the pages were removed, I wished even less was said.

With his video pieces, Taro Izumi, the most established artist of the group, continued his use of vernacular materials to question the idea of art as self-expression. The key pieces here are Ka (“Mosquito”) (2009), comprising three videos, which show a smiling face, a blank face, and an angry face being drawn as the artist weeps, remains silent, and growls, respectively, and Sawarenai Yamabiko no Nagame (2009), a sculpture cum video piece. The latter uses the Russian telegraph technique. Izumi made a sculpture out of trash, asked people on the street what they thought it was and had assistants make additional trash sculptures based on these descriptions. Needless to say, something gets lost along the way, and in this case, there was nothing to begin with, which paradoxically makes the “loss” productive. It’s a poignant, if lighthearted, comment on art works (particularly abstract ones), and viewers’ incessant desires to project familiar, figurative elements onto them. Both poke fun at the idea that the artist’s intent is communicable through his or her work.

The most successful pieces, like I am the Walrus (2009) and Sawarenai Yamabiko no Nagame (2009), were uncanny–they used something familiar to bring what is normally repressed to light. In this sense, one of the most interesting aspects of the show was the space in which it was held and the people working in it. These aspects usually remain hidden from an exhibition. The “bad” institutional space of the Prefectural Hall, complete with dropped ceilings and gray linoleum floors, was the perfect stage for a show like this one. Pity then that most of the artists in the show ignored the space (Izumi and Yosuke Amemiya’s video pieces were exceptions). Keiko Sato’s large-scale installation, Henyo (2009) transformed the space by covering the floor with dirt, foliage, bits of electronics, and tree stumps, from which pieces of white strings stretched from the circumference of the stumps to the ceiling, like spotlights replacing their absent trunks. The effect was dramatic but also precious. It seemed like a commentary on culture’s violation of nature, but a muddled one. The fact that the two are inextricable struck me as I watched a gallery attendant diligently watering the budding plants plopped in the dirt-covered floor. I felt relieved. The piece was grounded back in the trivialities of everyday life.