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Fieldworks at the Contemporary Art Factory

by Monty DiPietro

Until last week, I thought there were basically three types of factories: oily old clunkers where maybe the beaten-down workers strike and a gritty hero emerges who is played by Jeff Bridges in the made-for-television movie; gleaming, robot-dominated technological wonders; and pathetic third-world sweatshops.

But here in Japan there is another breed -- the family factory, which enjoys an almost century-long history. There are about 5,000 active factories in Tokyo's time-warp Sumida Ward, and some 90% of them are family factories. Often staffed by as few as three people, these mom and pop operations continue to turn out everything from toys to textiles to disc brakes.

Four years ago, Sumida resident Takaaki Soga inherited the 80-year-old family business, a 100 square meter, high-ceilinged rubber factory. With no interest in producing floppy white boots, the art history graduate gutted the building and opened one of Tokyo's most unique showcases for avant-garde culture – The Contemporary Art Factory.

There have been a number of very good, international exhibitions at CAF. For the latest show, Soga sent five artists out into Sumida with instructions to focus on the neighborhood's people, places, and, of course, its many family factories.

The result is "Fieldworks," an up close and personal show featuring photography, video, and installation.

Katrin Paul's photographs fill the walls of the CAF's main exhibition room. Paul takes Sumida's female laborers as subjects, and particularly good are the four-print serial portrait of an weathered fruit and vegetable stand worker, and the two head and hands pictures of also elderly textile factory workers.

A scaffold in the center of the room has tatami mats for visitors to sit on, and is hung with scores of photographs and texts documenting Titus Spree's "Moving Micro Office" project. Spree built his mobile one-tatami-mat-sized internet-equipped office (which is likely to be parked out front of the CAF building) from a metal frame and sheets of industrial plastic. He finished the functional interior with details such as compact but practical shelving. A row of potted plants sits in one of the windows.

Spree took to the streets of Sumida, rolling his office to a different location each day to undertake his work, which consisted of digital camera and diary observations on his surroundings, these uploaded in real time to the project website (www.movingmicrooffice.cjb.net). Spree has done a fine job of capturing the reactions of local residents to the sight of his roaming office, the photographs and bilingual texts are quite amusing. From the day he spent under the Tokyo expressway, which runs along the Sumida River, an excerpt:

"(The area) has the big advantage of being dry, even in rainy weather. For this and other reasons, the homeless build their houses there…They offered me sake and biscuits."

Jean-Louis Rivard, Maki Shinohara and Takayuki Osamura, a collective known as "a-works," have brought a couple of excellent videos to the exhibition. "Tricycle," a 12 minute loop showing on a television monitor, is a vertical triptych filmed from a tricycle riding through Sumida. The same route was photographed three times, from ground level, from a height of about one meter, and from a height of about two meters. The tapes were synchronized such that the viewer sees corresponding sections of the same storefronts and factory facades in the three frames, but slices of the different daily pedestrian and bicycle traffic. The second a-works piece, "Waking Dream," is a video projection showing in a separate viewing room. Here a similar triptych method is used to study the faces of train commuters. The inside of a train travelling at 80 kph, notes Rivard, is one of the only places in Tokyo where nobody is moving.

With a good mixture of media and styles, "Fieldworks" is a well-balanced group show that brings the Contemporary Art Factory full circle in contemplation of the old family factories of Sumida Ward.

Says Katrin Paul, "I live on the west side of Tokyo, and I found Sumida to be a dying place. There are many old people, and probably their children are not going to take over the factories. But I think that there is not always a need for the next generation to keep on doing the same thing their parents did."

Wouldn't it be something if more young Sumida residents followed Takaaki Soga's lead and converted their family factories into art galleries?

Notes: The exhibition "Fieldworks" is on to June 30, 2001 at the Contemporary Art Factory in Sumida Ward (5630-3216; CAF Website). Pictured is Untitled (2001), color photograph, by Katrin Paul
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