Raita Ishikawa at the Komaba Kunstraum

by Monty DiPietro

If Japan is a country of conformists, then somebody must have forgotten to tell the kids over at Komaba Kunstraum.

"We are art terrorists!" shouts "Kuzushi" [not his real name], a self-described "Mystery Man," as he trips over one of four skinned, suppurating ox’s heads that form the core of Raita Ishikawa’s exhibition, "Discommunication." "This is patriot art!" insists Kuzashi as he readjusts his sun-glasses and helps the artist hoist a 80cm square plexiglass cover over one of the sickly-grinning ox heads in preparation for the show’s opening party.

"Discommunication" is an installation of texts on steel, board and glass and four steel-bolt-impaled ox heads, now on at Komaba Kunstraum, a new, student-run "gallery of resistance" at Tokyo University’s Komaba dormitory in Tokyo’s Meguro-ku.

The university’s plan to demolish Komaba dormitory has provoked fierce opposition from the dilapidated building’s 100 residents, who pay about 5,000 yen rent per month each. Constructed in 1936, a policy of neglect has reduced the long, narrow wooden dormitory to a sorry state - rain pelts the warped floors through shattered windows, and holes in the walls are stuffed with corrugated cardboard. There is an uncanny similarity to a western 1970s artist’s co-op evident in the unkept corridors and pell-mell rooms. Bad hippy-murals splash across walls, and strains of jazz and rock eddy in smelly stairways. The sweet scent of hashish smoke is conspicuous in its absence.

Last January, a group of students and residents formed Komaba Kunstraum [German for Komaba Art Laboratory], with the intention of spotlighting their struggle through an unending series of art exhibitions. The reasoning is that if Komaba gains credibility through the shows, the university will rethink its demolition agenda. Now uniting a score of artists and activists from Tokyo University and Tama Art University, along with other volunteers, Komaba Kunstraum launched "Discommunication," its inaugural exhibition, on May 25th.

As a peace offering, Tokyo University has offered to build a new art gallery on the site after tearing down the dormitory, but Kunstraum is inexorable. "We don’t believe them for a minute!" says group member Yoshito Maeoka.

In a damp, 60 square-meter room, overhead lights brown-out as about 25 opening party guests mill around the cans of beer, bottles of wine, bags of chips and bowls of candy arranged ridiculously atop the gruesome displays. The floors are blood-stained and the room is cluttered, but Maeoka explains "It was a lot worse before we cleaned it up, it used to be knee deep with garbage."

The thin, long haired 31 year-old Ishikawa smiles as he explains his piece. "Like the case of these ox, who were killed far away from the perceptions of the people who will consume their carcasses, the government uses the death penalty to kill out of the public eye." The names of four Japanese Red Army members currently on death row are printed in front of the ox heads. "The government conducts the death penalty process in secret. A prisoner is never told when he will be executed, so he can spend years not knowing if the noose will come next month, next week, the next day...or if the hangman is walking to his cell at that very moment. People need to become aware of what is happening behind the scenes, so they can change it," explains the wiry artist beneath a hanging sign stenciled "Inner Organization and Terrorism. We want to kill......We get ready to kill by legal whenever we like."

The installation confronts visitors with an analogy between ignorance and separation - and the detached cruelty of back-room decisions.

Tokyo University has a history of confrontation. In 1970 student radicals Zen Gakurin took over the school’s Ochanomizu campus and battled it out with the police in Japan’s last explosion of student militancy. As the shrinking number of 1990s student protest-groups turn increasingly to electronic media to disseminate their views, "Discommunication" throttles visitors back to the era of direct-action art; Ishikawa and Komaba Kunstraum have mounted a raw, social-protest exhibition - something few have the time or inclination to attempt in the land of milk and money.

"We are the minority who reject restrictive Japanese pop-art," says Ishikawa, "We want to show people what they don’t want to see!"

notes: Until June 25, 1997 (0423-89-1281)
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