November 13th, 2006



Tabaimo (the nickname means "little sister of Tabata") is a 31 year-old Japanese artist. Her real name is Ayako Tabata. I first saw her work five years ago, when her installation "Japanese Commuter Train" stood halfway down the huge red brick dockside building housing the Yokohama Triennale. It was a dark, intriguing space, putting the viewer right in the middle of a train carriage in which odd things are happening; a schoolboy hangs himself from a handstrap, a pile of severed hands accumulates in a corner, and a commuter bound to a big block of rice becomes a piece of human sushi -- all to the utter indifference of the other passengers, who remain wrapped up in their mangas.

Manga and anime clearly inspire Tabaimo's work (which you can see until February 4th at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, her first European solo show), but it's also video installation, theatre and narrative, social commentary and commercial illustration. Her drawing style reminds me of 1970s book jacket illustration, or perhaps Julie Verhoeven. But whereas in the West we still tend to segregate commercial from high art, letting our gallery art fall too easily into minimalism, academicism and self-fetishization, Tabaimo mixes everything up and isn't afraid to blend a friendly narrative tone with a dark macabre humour close to that of the great Toshio Saeki.

Her style, says Kateigaho magazine, combines traditional stamps and computer technology (some of the pieces are interactive): "In The Bathhouse, for example, she conjures the world of the traditional Japanese bathhouse, including the boxes where patrons leave their shoes and a wall mural reproduction of Hokusai's Red Fuji to give the viewer the sense of having actually entered a real bathhouse. She then adds fantastic and disturbing touches that suggest the problems involved in maintaining Japanese identity in the contemporary world. The bathhouse patrons are shown not only undressing, but also unzipping their skin, suggesting that out in the "real world" they may be hiding their true identities. An official-looking notice appears, remarking on the increase of trash in the streets. Immediately, the viewer sees garbage dumped into the bath, suggesting that even traditional Japanese culture is being polluted by the modern world. At the end of the piece, when the drain plug is pulled, the bathhouse disappears."

You can see the installations better in this trailer for Yasushi Kishimoto's documentary about Tabaimo's work. There are more images at the site of James Cohan, her New York gallery.

Oh, and if you're in New York, check out the Music is a Better Noise show at PS1. Such a great poster!

(Japanese women artists and Eno. I know, I know... how stereotypically Clickoperesque!)