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Ken Ikeda at SCAI The Bathhouse

by Monty DiPietro

The meandering video and haunted music of perennial outsider Ken Ikeda, 35, make up the latest exhibition at SCAI The Bathhouse, that enduring home for Japanese avant-garde culture located out on the edge of the Yanaka cemetery in Tokyo's Taito Ward. "Behind the Scenes" seems a rather uncomplicated multimedia installation -- that is, until one takes a look behind the scenes and at Ikeda himself.

It was almost 10 years ago that the Tokyo contemporary art community got a glimpse of what some of us imagined might signal the start of an exciting new way of presenting emerging artists. Many had bemoaned the prices charged artists by the rental galleries in the world's most expensive metropolis, but Ikeda, a young, self-described "nonprofessional art producer," did something about it.

Borrowing the idea from New York critic Alan Jones, who used a variety of temporarily vacant spaces to mount short-term art exhibitions under his successful Invisible Gallery series, Ikeda set up the Floating Gallery.

There were two sightings: the first in a Shinagawa warehouse; the second in a between-tenants Shibuya space offered up for a week by department-store chain Tokyu.

For a while at least, the Floating Gallery was all the rage. Both shows were big on talent, featuring artists such as Yuji Kitagawa, Jon Kessler and Yuichi Higashionna, and both spaces were larger than most of the long-running, high-rent Ginza galleries.

But scores of uninterested landlords rebuffed Ikeda's requests for accommodating locations; the rejection letters totaled more than 100.

In late 1993, as quickly as the Floating Gallery had appeared, the ambitious project sank, and would-be curator Ikeda, with no love lost for Tokyo's establishment art scene, returned to his first love, composing music.

The Berklee College of Music graduate kept busy in the ensuing years, but never lost touch with the visual art world. He composed the soundtracks for exhibitions by the likes of Tadanori Yokoo and David Lynch, and, most recently, for the elaborate installations of New York-based art superstar Mariko Mori, with whom Ikeda is close.

"Behind the Scenes" combines Ikeda's recent musical compositions, developed by sampling soundtracks from old Japanese films by well-known directors such as Yasujiro Ozu, with video projections of edited snippets from these same films.

The videos are slowed down and, while it is sometimes difficult to recognize them, usually depict figures moving from side to side across the screen. The projections are tinged with a lonely blue hue, and the piece sits in a curtained-off room in the rear of the SCAI.

It is unfortunate Ikeda didn't better exploit the high ceilings of this wonderful converted bathhouse, but he has still managed to build atmosphere here.

There are three photographic works in the front room, stills from the films, and these are mounted in 36 Þ 48 cm light boxes. Again, there are figures in the shots who have been reframed so that only parts of their faces are recognizable, and these are also grainy and out-of-focus, bringing a gloomy impression that seems appropriate in a gallery in a cemetery in February.

Ikeda says the title "Behind the Scenes" refers to what is between the apparent and the unseen, the gray area between white and black, and it is here that the show is mired. Although this may well have been Ikeda's intention, the work comes across as altogether too tentative, something one sees a lot of in Japanese contemporary art.

Ikeda is relocating to New York next month, and so "Behind the Scenes" may be the artist's Tokyo swan song. The indication is that he will not miss the local art scene all that much.

"You're from The Japan Times?" he asks at the SCAI opening party. "Good, I like that paper because the critics write what they honestly think about the art, unlike in the Japanese-language media!"

If he likes blunt honesty, he'll love it in New York.

"Behind the Scenes," until March 10, 2001 at SCAI The Bathhouse, (03) 3821-1144.

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