Art-Domestic at the Setagaya Art Museum

by Monty DiPietro

In search of the art of creating rock ‘n roll music, Shinro Ohtake has taken a decidedly retro approach. Instead of samplers or synthesizers, the 43 year-old Ehime Prefecture-based artist’s room-installation "Dub-hei and New Channel" features "Joodee" and "Guyatone" guitars and Marshall amps. The stage the "Puzzle Punks," play on is constructed from tin plates and wood, while a mess of jetsam that includes scrap from a fishing boat lies scattered about. About the only modern aspect of the "Puzzule Punks," as the band is known, is that they are a bunch of robots.

Loud robots. The Setagaya Art Museum has never been noisier that it is for "Art/Domestic – Temperature of the Time," an exhibition of some 85 works from seven Japanese artists which, according to a museum press release, "expresses the heat, that is to say the temperature of the time."

I’ll have to check with my music critic buddies, but it seems to me that the heat went out of punk music almost twenty years ago. Besides the music-style nostalgia, there is also a technology gap here – Ohtake’s machine band is powered by an old fan motor and belts and pulleys. Likewise, Hiroyuki Ohki’s grainy 16mm film projections look almost ancient in a this age of digital video and plasma displays. There is a problem when established museums try to be contemporary – by the time an artist has become respected enough to show, they are likely to be in their forties at least, which is the case for all but one of the seven participating artists. It might have been better to title the show "Temperature of the Recent Past."

But Art/Domestic manages to be an exciting exhibition in spite of the time-warp because there is simply so much variety, color, light, and sound filling the museum. The curatorial emphasis was on artists inspired by the environment they live in whose creations are made from materials and objects used in everyday life – in other words, things Japanese. The domestic focus is very welcome in a country where many contemporary artists are locked into a pale and passionless imitation of western Conceptualism. This is homemade art.

An eerie spin on the cuteness in contemporary Japan is found in Yoshimoto Nara’s 50 fiber-reinforced plastic "Little Pilgrims." The gnome-like, colorful, big-headed dolls stand about 70cm tall and wear either impish grins or hints of that forthcoming and miserable frown that society works into urbanite’s faces. The pilgrims are installed at various locations throughout the museum, and this unifies the show rather well. Breaking from convention, the Setagaya has also interspersed other artists’ works to advantage.

Exhibition highlights include Yuichi Higashionna’s light boxes and wonderful Op-art curtain, and the chaotic garage-sale-of-a-room built by self-described "special manga artist" Takashi Nemoto. The very animated and very scraggly Nemoto says he wanted to built a sort of anti-museum space, and the large cut-outs of wrestlers and pile of trash in the center of the room accomplish the objective. Nemoto has also created an untitled, 100 page sexually-explicit comic book for this show, which, it is certain, will be removed from display the moment it is spotted by police.

Opening parties at the Setagaya generally involve guests taking a perfunctory stroll through the show before settling into the museum’s restaurant to schmooze and booze. This time around, the young visitors are sticking around in the exhibition rooms, while the restaurant is almost empty, and this simple fact may be the best testimony to the appeal of the show – it’s a happening.

It could be that the fun, "work-in-progress" atmosphere of this exhibition results from a freedom the artists found in the adventure of creating art that was unapologeticly contemporary and Japanese. For whatever reason, this show has little of the irritating meticulousness that is stifling much of the art being made in the country these days, and the Setagaya almost seems to be vibrating with the energy of "Art/Domestic – Temperature of the Time." Actually, it is vibrating – Ohtake’s Puzzule Punks are gigging again.

notes: "Art/Domestic – Temperature of the Time" is on at the Setagaya Art Museum until March 22, 1999 (3415-6011).

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