"First Steps: Emerging Artists from Japan," Jan. 29-Mar. 20, 1999, at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 100 Washington Square East, New York, N.Y. 10013.
This exhibition of new Japanese art at NYU's Grey Art Gallery is a little like a space shot. Lots and lots of effort on the ground, then the launch, with some guys in the capsule circling the earth a few times before falling back to the terra firma. Houston, we have lift-off!
So what did it take to send these seven young artists into orbit here, New York City, the center of the global art world? Their journey began as part of a highly hyped, Philip Morris-sponsored art competition designed to identify new art in Japan. From a sea of 1,420 entries, a group of Japanese judges selected 100 finalists. These works were put on view at the Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho last summer, drawing 17,000 visitors during an 11-day run. Then, an international bevy of high-profile curators chose the top seven prize winners, who each received a cash award of 2,000,000 yen (about $15,000) and a place in this show.
After all this, how's the view? In short, Japanese traditions with Western influences. Kenji Sugiyama gives us the Institute of Intimate Museums, a bunch of long corridors made out of used spaghetti and cracker boxes and filled with a miniature museum of photographs of his own architecturally based installation work. Looking down these endless cardboard hallways is like visiting galleries in a Kafka or Borges story. The tiny scale, the imaginary edifice, the self-promotion and diaristic kitsch make for a winsome and surreal trip that recalls Cornell and Duchamp.
Shunsuke Sawaguchi specializes in small-scale gestures in the piece Essay, which consists of approximately 500 layered sheets of Japanese manuscript paper (white paper covered with a sepia-colored grid and used for school compositions) pinned to the wall in a grid. Each square of the grid is composed of a small pile of papers, which can be flipped through like a book. On each sheet of paper are fragmentary, abstracted designs done in ball point pen and watercolor. Little patches of whirling ink bubbles resemble poodle fur, and small fields of spilling watercolor look like patches of sand dunes. Opaquely narrative, this work suggests that in obsession lies discreet pleasures -- within the rigid grids are organic, boundless explosions of ink and watercolor.
"Kawaii" is the Japanese word meaning "quintessentially cute," a quality traditionally associated with women and apparently much prized by Japanese teens. Personified by the rabbit, "kawaii" is explored in this show by artist Kaoru Motomiya. He includes a scroll painting of rabbits done in traditional 19th-century style, a pair of real rabbit ears embalmed in silicone and Hairball, an animated ball of fur encased in a Plexiglas box. For Babywalk, the artist has mechanically activated a miniature baby carriage so it moves in a drunken, swerving pattern, as if to show a kinship between the adorable and the abject.
Man-Machine, a collaborative artist team consisting of Kazuhiko Hachiya and Akihito Onohara, present Seeing is Believing, based on an internet diary project with text provided by online participants. Hanging in the darkened gallery space are electronic sign boards, whose LED dot patterns turn into legible diary excerpts only when viewed through Victorian-looking boxes with lenses sensitive to infra-red light. This act of translation is more mysterious and intriguing than the rather prosaic comments of the diarists. Another work is a video about building a flying machine.
With the help of a computer, Yoshio Itagaki superimposes images of tourists and 19th-century newlyweds onto photographs of moonscapes. The Earth looms in the background of each picture, suggesting that technology, travel and photography are key elements in the construction of a united, "international style" -- and that perhaps it is a small world after all.
Using motor oil as her medium, Arika Someya paints woozy patterns that resemble wall paper and oriental rugs. Appropriately enough, the large "wall paper" piece is on wood panels mounted on the wall, and the "carpet" piece, called Soak, is on paper towels arrayed on the floor.
The quickly disappearing Japanese communal bath is documented by Toshihiro Yashiro. In what has become a too familiar conceptual device, he splices and assembles mirror images of men's and women's baths, giving the spaces a vast perspective. The emptiness of the spaces and their false grandeur suggests that the baths have become fantasy spaces, relegated to the realm of memory.
Considering the pomp with which Philip Morris handled the competition, the results were rather modest. Perhaps in Japan, as elsewhere, it may not be the moment for grand statements by young artists, but rather for a quirky personalism that, with luck, takes on a cumulative force.
JOHN MENDELSOHN is a New York artist who writes on art.