Game Over at the Watari-Um

by Monty DiPietro

It resembles, at first glance, a cultured person’s playground – a four-floor-free-for-all of art and things artsy. It is the Watari-Um Museum of Contemporary Art’s new show, "Game Over," which brings a dozen artists and art groups to the big private museum in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward for a five-month extravaganza that will include video, performance, lectures, installation, photography, painting and sculpture.

"Game Over," as one might guess, is a reference to the rolling-over of the odometer of time which will mark the end of the 20thC. And although the fact will probably be overlooked amid all the Y2K hoopla, the coming year will also mark the Watari-Um’s tenth anniversary. For contemporary art-lovers, the family-owned, Mario Botta-designed Watari-Um has been a dream come true – 225 square meters of high-ceilinged exhibition space, the city’s best art book shop, and a curatorial policy that improbably favors the avant-garde over the commercially-viable.

"Game Over" makes full use of the Watari-Um’s space and layout. A mini-theater has been constructed on the second floor, complete with some twenty seats, a stage, and a large video screen. Programs will rotate over the course of the show’s run – the first video presentation being a selection of works by Kyoto performance and video group Kyupi Kyupi, which, unfortunately, is of the new and puerile flash video genre threatening to become hip in Japan. Virtually indistinguishable from the work of Tokyo’s The Biters (who will show here in February), the Kyupi stuff is all cheap beat box and mono synth soundtrack, steel bowls-brassiere and ray-gun futuresque posing visuals, and art school editing. The exercise occasionally bumps up against consumerism with observations such: Pizzerias use sexy chicks and their suggestive winks to sell their products (no, really?), but most of the time this is nothing more than video that is all about nothing at all – too silly to be serious, and, embarrassingly, too serious to be silly.

Better to make one’s way up to the top floor, where Sadaharu Horio (b. 1939) will be holding court. Again, installations (all of them Horio’s) will change in this room, with the first being a curious and tactile art library laid out on a walk-on, liquid-filled flat rubber cell. There are scores of Horio’s homemade books here documenting the artist’s work over the years, as well as a selection of art magazines, many of which have been ripped up, scratched into, or charred. At an opening party performance, Horio hammered spikes through copies of Artforum magazine. Also at the opening, a giant fatty slab of meat rotated on a spit under the carving knife of "Doner Man," who stuffed the shavings into pita bread for hungry guests.

Mindful of Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul’s Cocktail Bar and Ramen Stall installations at the Watari-Um, and Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s work-in-progress Sodan (consultation) Art Café, which occupies the third floor of "Game Over," I ask exhibition organizer Koichi Watari where his museum’s food and beverage bent comes from.

"Food is quite a good element to use to introduce contemporary art," says Watari. "We have a history here of the ‘daily life’ method in art. Not only looking and seeing but experiences such as eating and drinking are also ways to appreciate art."

Consistent with the Watari-Um’s emphasis on direct experience and the revolution of everyday life, "Game Over" will also a number of participatory events such as a used-clothing exchange, and the continuing evolution of Ozawa’s café, which will be redesigned every two weeks to reflect suggestions made by visitors on a special feedback questionnaire distributed by wait staff.

Swedish installation artists Bigert and Bergström and American performance artist John Duncan will also be dropping in for what promises to be an exciting parade of art at one of Japan’s most adventurous museums. That the quality of work may be uneven will be more than made up for by the diversity of goings-on at "Game Over," where the fun has just begun.

Notes: Until Apr 2, 1,000 yen buys an unlimited admission ticket (3402-3001)
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