Rising sons and daughters of Japan

August 6, 2005

The Times
August 6, 2005

Chopsticks, a Titian Kitty and Mr Mop will show Edinburgh that Japanese culture goes beyond karaoke, says Ruth Hedges

Ken Kageyama spills out an array of chopsticks on to the table. Their paper wrappings come in pinks, blues, greens — some with flowers on, some with swirling patterns; a few are of the more decorative, lavish variety. But Kageyama is not best pleased. The Edinburgh gallery director Calum Buchanan has ordered 100,000 of the wrong kind — bamboo, which is not very pliable, apparently. Cedar, pine or cherry might have been better. Still, the calm artist reassures us: “It’s OK.” He’ll make it work.

Kageyama is one of 14 Japanese artists taking part in Iimawashi: Contemporary Art from Japan, a group show at the Merz Gallery during the Edinburgh Art Festival. One of the aims of the exhibition, co-curated by Aeneas Wilder, is to show audiences the breadth of cultural experience and artistic practice in Japan today. When most people think of Japanese culture they think of sushi, karaoke, manga. But there is so much more subtlety, depth and ambiguity in the country, and in the art that comes from it.

Kageyama’s piece will be a massive construction made from the binding of chopsticks into the strong forms of mini pyramids. Thin rubber bands wind in a blur as (with mesmerising sleight of hand) he demonstrates how to join the bamboo sticks together. As he tosses the shape on to a table on which incense is burning slowly, it all feels rather magical.

The plan is that Kageyama, with the help of anyone who cares to bind chopsticks into pyramids, will build a sculpture outside the premises of the auctioneers Lyon and Turnbull, just around the corner from Merz.

“It’s not just an object, it’s an experience and a process,” he says. Each of his works has the same title — Here Upon — to emphasise the key theme of his work: working in the moment, while simultaneously marking the passing of time. He has planted chopsticks of many colours and varieties into sand, soil, grass and rice-fields across the world, stretching for one second of latitude. A line petered into the sea off the coast of Japan to reappear, blinking and drying in Californian sunshine, at exactly the same number of degrees North. He says it is all to do with a Japanese concept called “Ma” — a connection within yourself that links to space and time, a feeling of being wholly absorbed in the moment. “So now we are talking and listening — and looking eye to eye,” Kageyama says. “This is Ma. But communication by e-mail and internet is not. I don’t like this — I hate it. But now the young generation is very confused — what is Ma?”

It’s this sort of challenge that Wilder is looking to present with the exhibition as a whole. “I felt that it should be possible to present a different perspective on Japan, through visual art that has not yet been co-opted into the global art scene,” he says. “I hoped to use Japanese visual art to open up a dialogue about what it is that we think we know about another culture.”

Tomoko Nagao, for example, plays with one of the Japanese images and commodities the West has bought into. The piece she is showing in Edinburgh is a portrait of Hello Kitty after Titian’s Venus of Urbino.

For Nagao, Hello Kitty — a cute cartoon kitten that has become a worldwide kitsch icon — symbolises an important part of her experience of growing up in Japan. “It has no reality, it’s kind of peaceful and makes me relax, calm down,” she says. “So, Hello Kitty was a hero in my childhood, but it makes us spoilt, as if it says: ‘No problem, do not worry, every thing is fine’.”

A kind of palliative, then — pink, cute, simple, innocent? “Yes, I think that the face (especially eyes) is important. This means that the face does not give any meaning. People do not need to think, because there’s no reality in its face — it is like an innocent baby’s face.” But, like Kageyama, Nagao is hoping to inspire viewers to question their experiences of the everyday. In morphing Kitty into Titian’s Venus, she challenges that passivity, but also links it to a larger artistic tradition. “I was interested in exploring the same way in which the woman and Kitty are looking at the viewer,” she says.

There is more game-playing from the performance artist Isozaki Michiyoshi, who — in a series of videos — plays out a set of adventures dressed up as a mop. “I think a mop’s life and that of a human are very close to each other,” he explains. “A mop, which is white and bright in the beginning, will be soiled by soaking up many things and give off a bad smell. Sometimes, it is hated more than rubbish and is thrown away. I found this process and that of a human’s growth very much alike.”

There are also stone-carvers, stained-glass artists and photographers. Kumi Yamashita makes work that uses light and shadow to hint at what we might be inside, or in the dark. The silhouette of a figure scatters what look like grey numerical fridge magnets behind her, as if vaporising in numerical codes, while in a work by Motoko Ohinata, a woman with rabbit ears and a white painted face sits still on a grand staircase next to an Arab man who looks as if he’s enjoying a good joke.

Nibbling on a carrot-like vegetable, the woman stares out into the distance. Ohinata says the work is a portrait of her subconscious life.

Takayuki Yamamoto’s work, meanwhile, attempts to break out of the rules. He has encouraged people to smoke where it’s forbidden and drive when they do not own a car or driving licence. The video he is showing in Edinburgh is of a series of workshops at which participants are given the chance to practise deception — bending the neck of a spoon, à la Uri Gellar.

There is much vital, mischievous, illuminating work on show here — if you want to see beyond the conveyer belt of sushi, manga and saké, it’s a good place to start. But remember, if you ever decide to make a chopstick sculpture, don’t use bamboo.

Iimawashi: Contemporary Art from Japan, Merz Gallery, 87 Broughton Street, Edinburgh, Aug 7-Sep 4 (www.merzart.com 0131-558 8778)

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