Ryoichi Majima at the Mizuma Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

‘Bento’ lunch boxes, burgers, potato chips and ‘ramen’ noodles - the standard fare of a typical Japanese ‘konbini’ [convenience store]. All of this and a whole lot more are stacked on the the steel shelves of ‘Majimart’ - Tokyo artist Ryoichi Majima’s parody of the 24-hour stores, now showing at the Mizuma Art Gallery in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.

Complete with generic background music and gallery staff playing smiling clerks in vivid red aprons emblazoned with the ‘Majimart’ smiling chicken logo, the brightly-lit installation toys with the contradiction inherent in showing Pop Art at hallowed galleries and museums.

"I wanted to show in an actual convenience store," explains the 52 year-old artist at his well-attended opening party, "but you can’t just walk in and rent one of them, so this was the next-best thing."

True to the theme, the 135ml cans of beer at the opening party are neatly arranged on a table - and on sale for 100 yen each. All the works are labeled and priced as they were in a real ‘konbini’ - about the only thing missing are the bar-codes, which would have been a nice touch.

"Lots of galleries are very high-society and difficult to get into, but a convenience store is easy to enter, - and that’s important," says the smiley artist, casual in cotton trousers, nylon bomber jacket and black leather baseball hat.

Reflecting the high start-up costs associated with any new enterprise, Majima’s art is a fair bit more pricey than the products it is modeled after. A 16 x 17 x 7cm ‘Kentucky Lunch Box’ [1989], featuring a tiny Col. Sanders doll and spring-loaded chicken atop a bed of plastic coleslaw, is available for 30,000 yen - while ‘Pai Noodle’ [1996], a 28 x 24cm bowl of ramen which contains two plastic-molded female breasts, will set you back 70,000 yen. Surely when ‘Majimarts’ dot the Japanese landscape and mass-production and streamlined distribution is established, these prices will fall.

Many of the roughly 70 fiber-reinforced plastic, ceramic and mixed-media pieces at the gallery are take-offs on products found in convenience stores, but the show also includes other work, including several of Majima’s wonderful, larger-than-life plaster crows, first exhibited as part of "Art Scene 90-96" at Art Tower Mito in Ibaraki earlier this year. The show helped push the artist to the front of this country’s Neo-Pop movement.

Some of the pieces in ‘Majimart’ recall Warhol’s penchant for taking everyday objects, making them big, and making them art. Hence ‘Omusubi’ [rice balls], as the ‘Brillo Boxes’ of the 1990s, Japanese-style.

But there is something more to ‘Majimart’ - a hint of social critique recurs around the concept of animal rights, played out in a cutely contemporary way in pieces such as ‘Mermaid Lure’ [1997]. In a text accompanying photodocumentation of the 1.3 meter fishing lure’s open-water testing, the artist insists sportsmen "not trifle with the feelings of fish." The artist also contends that "Humans are selfish creatures...they usually have no hesitation in eating other animal’s hearts..." It would be interesting to see Majima further develop this aspect of his work.

A highlight of the show is the delightful, bilingual exhibition catalogue. In it, Kumamoto Gakuen University associate professor and art writer Robert J. Fouser argues that "[The ‘konbini’] has in less than a decade altered the neighborly relationship between sellers and customers that goes back hundreds of years. What was once an exercise in diplomacy, complete with ceremonial greetings and an exchange of neighborhood gossip, has become an exchange of money for goods between anonymous actors. This change has affected more Japanese people than the spread of the personal computer or mobile phone..."

Founded just over 20 years ago, Seven-Eleven Japan now has about 6,000 stores, and annual revenues of more than 200 billion yen.

"The ‘konbini’ is very Japanese, different from convenience stores in other countries," says Majima, "Our culture always thinks about good-quality, compact goods and when I make them big, they acquire a different meaning and people think about them - and that’s important."

If ‘Majimart’ is missing something, it is repetition - a presentation of the artist’s work in multiples would add a sense of the stream of products that characterizes a consumption-fueled society like Japan. But there is enough humor to fill in the blanks at ‘Majimart.’ Details such as ‘Mr. Repairman,’ an action in which Majima shows up at the gallery twice a week to accept visitors’ "unfinished work, useless articles or any treasure that you want to make into an artwork" and for a small fee, develops it into a kind of collaborative piece which he then returns to his ‘customer,’ serve as a welcome demystification of contemporary art.

There is a lot of good fun at ‘Majimart’ - a rare and refreshing bit of social parody from a very funny artist and a skilled craftsman.

Too bad the gallery isn’t open 24 hours.

notes: until Jan 24, 1998 (3499-0226).
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