Atsuhiro Ito at the Komaba Kunstraum

by Monty DiPietro

Creativity can be contagious.

When the Komaba Kunstraum, a student-run "gallery of resistance" was inaugurated as a ploy to keep the wrecker’s ball from Tokyo University’s Komaba Dormitory, it was the one of the few places in the city showing gritty, underground art. Nine months later, there are still over one hundred people living defiantly in the dilapidated dormitory, which is now also home to an eclectic performance scene, three distinct guerrilla gallery spaces, and an all-night cabaret/bar.

The Komaba Kunstraum’s current exhibition is "Altervision," a one-room installation in paint, steel, plexiglass and plenty of florescent lights, by Atsuhiro Ito.

Ito, 32, is a scraggly, goat of a man. Dressed in black cap, paint-splattered black jeans and oversized green corduroy jacket, and sporting a mop of hair and untrimmed beard, he exemplifies the bohemian image favored by the artists, intellectuals, and activists that call Komaba home. Originally a painter, several years ago Ito began mounting color photocopies of his work in light-boxes a la Jeff Wall. A growing fascination with light led Ito to work almost exclusively with light as his medium, while still moonlighting as a painter - Ito did the illustrations for Tokyo Disneyland’s "Jungle Cruise" attraction.

"I wanted to make a very clean room here," explains the artist as he gestures down a cluttered hallway, "to contrast with the rest of this building."

"Altervision" consists of an 8x8m room freshly whitewashed from floor to ceiling, in which the artist has placed 36 white florescent tubes on floor and walls in an unsettling juxtaposition with six sheets of plexiglass. An object consisting of a half-dozen lights sheathed in translucent tubes of red, green and blue holds the center of the installation.

The whole room vibrates with rapidly undulating light, a dizzying effect Ito accomplished by bypassing the dormitory’s power grid and making his own electricity with a gasoline-powered generator stashed in the rear of the building. The sputtering generator constantly surges and subsides, explains Ito, creating a perfect metaphor for the Komaba residents’ long-running struggle to stay the university administration’s demolition plans.

There has been a lot going on at the dormitory over the last nine months.

First-floor gallery and performance space Obscure has featured live painting with noise-band accompaniment, new music and butoh dance, and a number of events that, well, defy easy categorization. Twenty oil and watercolor paintings and pastel drawings by Yasuhiro Yamane, 23, are now up at Obscure. The work is solid - the plaster-framed pictures united by themes of isolation, internal struggle, and personal identity.

Obscure deserves to be taken seriously as a showcase of new art in Tokyo. However, with the exception of a short piece in weekly listings magazine Pia, which ran after Tokyo Journal and the Asahi Evening News first covered the Komaba art scene, the big goings-on at Obscure have been largely ignored by Tokyo art critics.

The dormitory’s Zero Bar has a more checkered past. Last summer it was host to all-night Go-Go dancing, frequent spontaneous performances, and wild bang-the-saucepan percussion jams. But a drunken brawl last Fall (according to witnesses, fists began to fly after several butoh dancers disagreed about who could drink better) resulted in the bar and its adjacent cabaret space being, according to Komaba organizers, "closed for a little while."

Churio 11S Gallery, on the second floor, is a more sedate, gallery-like space. While young art-team "Sawa and Kani" pack up their innovative photography-on-tile and newspaper-sealed-in-polyester exhibition, a friend of the artists’ stands against a wall, transfixed. I walk over and ask her if she’s ok, and she turns around slowly, extending a tiny palm that cradles a dead beetle.

What are you doing with that, I ask.

"I don’t know yet, but I like it so I’m thinking of doing something with it..." replies Genjima, who may well be the next artist to show at one of the Komaba’s experimental art spaces.

At the Kunstraum, Ito has created a fascinating visual environment with "Altervision." He will augment the light with live sound performances every Saturday afternoon from 4:00pm. The open-minded might want to make a day of it, as there is plenty of raw talent to experience in the never-say-die Meguro Ward dormitory.

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