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January 3rd, 2006
Tue, Jan. 3rd, 2006 12:44 pm

As part of its review of art world trends in 2005, ArtForum magazine ran a survey of the Tokyo art scene by art critic Midori Matsui. You can read it here, right after Matt Saunders' very eloquent report on Berlin (free registration required, and worthwhile). "There is life after Superflat," Midori concludes, identifying "a tendency toward individualism, even hermeticism". Midori sees a new generation of mostly 1970s-born artists reacting against Superflat's slick and showy pomo imagery. "Privileging emotion and subjective perception, they use inexpensive materials and minimal techniques in a manner that bespeaks a culture of reduced expectations." Midori detects two groups, a group of figurative painters indebted to Yoshitomo Nara, and a group of conceptualists and video-makers indebted to Tsuyoshi Ozawa. Today I want to give you a little introduction to the second group.

Fresh and exciting in 2000, by 2005 Superflat had become formulaic and doctrinal, Takashi's relentless work ethic being rewarded with amazing art world success (acquisition by major museums in the West) and a kind of all-saturating populist embrace too. The Murakami-curated Little Boy show at the Japan Center in New York last summer felt like the end of Superflat; the point at which Murakami's movement just claimed too big a role for itself and collapsed into meaningless hugeness, becoming the zappy zenith and poppy apogee of all Japanese postmodernism, all post-war popular culture, all otaku perviness, all neo-nationalism, as well as the mannerist wallpaper of choice for rich Tokyo property developers like Minoru Mori or fashion companies like Louis Vuitton. It's not failure that ends art movements, but success.

I described the last Geisai show I saw in Tokyo (Geisai is Takashi Murakami's young art fair) as an attempt by Mr Superflat himself to "curate by influence", but, in the same 2004 Click Opera entry, thought that "the best contemporary art to be seen in Tokyo just now is the fantastic, playful, inventive and exhaustive Answer with Yes and No, the Tsuyoshi Ozawa show at the Mori Art Museum atop the Roppongi Hills building." (The vegetable machinegun is Ozawa's work.)

In Midori Matsui's account, the new generation, reacting against Murakami's big and brash pop art statements, are taking refuge in "highly subjective expressions of the zeitgeist that seem to emerge from obscure cocoons of private thought and desire." The post-Ozawa school seem like a bunch of hikikomori (socially inept kids barricaded away in their bedrooms) and furitas (part-time job kids with no particular ambition). Figures like Taro Izumi, Yuki Okumura and Koki Tanaka emphasize the trivial, the idiotically comical, the throwaway, the yuck. They mostly make video art, shading into installation and performance. They work without money or ambition, shooting pigeons, balloons, combinis, making what sometimes seem like private jokes for their friends. There's a strategic unshowiness about their work.

I met Yuki Okumura in New York in 2001, when his videos of himself collecting his saliva, lip skin, fingernails and other bodily disjecta (and making pretty girls eat them) struck me as the most interesting thing in “First Steps: Emerging Artists from Japan” at the Grey Art Gallery of New York University on Washington Square. You can see some of this body art-related work (which won him the Grand Prix in the Philip Morris Asian Art Awards in 2000) online in his film A Day in the Life of Spitting (the way I kill 'em) (2000), which shows Okumura, then a student at Queensland's Griffith University College of Art, collecting and cooking his own spit. There's something goofy and yucky about this project (later developed into making chapsticks of his own lip skin for girls to rub against their lips), which resembles some of the more tabloid things you see on Japanese TV (just last night I saw pretty girls being forced to eat insects on a show called Sekai Odoroki Ningen Grand Prix). Yuki, currently artist in residence at New York's Location One, has become a sort of curator and essayist for this new movement, which, for want of a better title, we might call Supereveryday, since it focuses on the bathos of quiddity and the quotidian. Yuki lists another of his interests as "the development of connections between the banality of every day life and quantum theories, supernova explosions and the sublime".

Asked to put together a group show for Workstation Gallery in Beijing, Yuki proposed "Theory of Everything: Video art from Tokyo", including his friends Taro Izumi and Koki Tanaka. Click Opera readers have already met Taro Izumi. In July 2004 I included him in my Tokyo People, saying "Taro Izumi is a new artist whose videos are being featured in the Project Room downstairs at Koyama Gallery. They feature Taro and a friend making disgusting recipes with two randomly-chosen ingredients, then forcing each other to eat them, to much hilarity and gurning." The link with Yuki Okumura was immediately apparent.

Midori Matsui describes Taro Izumi's work: "Izumi, in his solo exhibition at Hiromi Yoshii Five last spring, improvised simple yet obsessive actions—trying to unlock a door with a "key" drawn in pen on his hand, attempting to cut a piece of paper by making a scissoring motion with two fingers, etc.—within the gallery during the show, documenting his daily activities on video. Each of these performances conveyed a sense of suppressed anger, as if the artist were subtly annoyed by the tedium of his life and had invented these strange diversions in order to cope with impending despair."

Taro is from Nara, in Kansai. The video piece I saw at the Koyama Project Room was probably 2002's "Magumodo", in which two people impersonating fast food avatars Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders fed each other their merchandise. The same year he made "Working Sleep", a semi-documentary piece about the strange and comical Japanese capacity to work and sleep at the same time (the consequences are less comical when train drivers do it). Typical Taro pieces mix video and installation, with TV monitors set in messy rooms. But he also does guided tours; in 2004 he gave Walkman Discmen to his audience and took them to a combini near the gallery. The audio soundtrack contained "grumbling and truth", as Taro interviewed the furitas working at the convenience store. Another piece, "Panazoid MX-2000", showed a typical Japanese "cockpit living" space (bed or kotatsu table, abandoned snacks, remocons for TV and DVD, game handset) dominated by a Star Wars-type game. The video showed Taro staring into the cockpit, repeating a mantra of self-containment: "myself in myself". In "Control Hour" Taro took the game metaphor to the street, following an old lady around, pretending to control her with a handset as she stopped to chat with friends. The obachan didn't seem to notice that she was being "controlled" and videoed, but the film raises the possibility that she might be as much in control of Taro as he is of her.

The third of our "everyday" videomakers is Koki Tanaka. "Tanaka's cosmos: sad 'n' sob, hoity-toity, and merry haha," says Tokyo ArtBeat (rather enigmatically). In fact, Tanaka's work is also about absurdist collisions with the everyday. In the 2004 video "Salad Bowl Meets Waterfall" a bowl of salad is "tossed" by being flung over a waterfall. (The link to Ozawa's vegetable machineguns is clear.) Innovative cookery also features in From Tortilla Chips to a Pancake; in his New York apartment (he was also recipient of a Location One residency in 2004) Tanaka grinds up and fries tortilla chips, then throws the resulting pancake out of the window. "Fly Me To The Moon" is just a video of a piece of toilet paper fluttering through the air, but "it twirls with a touch of wind-blown elegance, like foot-steps of ball-room dancers," apparently. "Bad Plan" features the paper people crumple when bad ideas are written down. Crumpled paper also featured in All About the Nights, a collaborative installation with the older artist Makoto Aida (famous for his scenes of perverse eroticism) at Mizuma Gallery in 2002. "Plastic Bags, Beer, Caviar to Pigeons, etc." pretty much sums up Tanaka's universe in a single title -- you can watch the pigeons pecking at the caviar here. "All about All the Nights" is just a picture of trash fluttering in the wind. But there's a kind of poetry in the banality, a kind of transformative magic. "Everything in this world has the possibility of transforming itself into a completely different thing," Tanaka explains. "To change "regular" into "irregular". I try to let this change happen. Then, unrelated things start to connect to one another simultaneously".

In the world of post-Superflat Japanese art, minor is the new major and nothing special the new special. Roll up, folks, for the supereveryday generation!

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