Gento Matsumoto at Xp

by Monty DiPietro

When top Canon, Inc. directors and managers finally emerged from an emergency meeting late last month, their decision to censor was clear and final - the camera manufacturer was certainly not going to display artist Gento Matsumotoís two-meter tall, computer-enhanced portraits in the Wonder Museum, the companyís Makuhari headquarters photo gallery. If the artist would not remove the nine offending works, the entire exhibition would be canceled. Canon was forced to play hardball because the photographs were, in the words of Wonder Museum assistant manager Shintaro Abe, simply "too shocking for a gallery that children might visit." A rebuffed Matsumoto bundled up his panels and spirited them out of the gallery.

But what kind of degenerate content could have provoked all this commotion? Kiddy porn? Sexual Violence? Horribly mangled dead bodies? The depiction of a penis?

No, Tokyo gallery and museum-goers of all ages have had opportunity to view all of the above-cited imagery at scores of photo shows over the last six months alone. What Canon had deemed taboo was tattoos. And they arenít even real tattoos!

A dense net of colorful faux-tattoos cover the bodies of Matsumotoís models from head to toe, obscured only by fundoshi (loincloths) or white cotton briefs. Tokyo-based Matsumoto, 37, used photo-shop computer software to apply the swirling centipedes, rising suns, wolfman hair and dot-fields onto the young modelsí faces, chests, arms, and legs. The photographs are printed on back-lighted translucent plexiglass, and each off-white sheet is framed in gold-painted wood. Fortunately, the nine panels, hinged alongside one another such that the whole resembles a traditional Japanese screen, have found a new home at the Xp Gallery in Tokyoís Shibuya Ward, in the exhibition "Fundoshi Fair."

"I think Canon, like most Japanese companies, is very conservative and when it comes to their art gallery, they donít want to present anything that might be controversial," says Matsumotoís Seoul-born camera assistant Youichi Inoue, who raises a glass of champagne to toast the artist at the overflowing opening party. "But the important thing is that we were able to show the pictures here." Matsumoto, sporting a duck-tail hairdo and flowing white kimono, cracks a rotting-tooth smile and adds "Maybe they thought we were Yakuza!"

Japanese gangsters favor tattoos, and it seems that Canon may have feared a backlash if they exhibited work that could be interpreted as satirizing the nine-fingered thugs. While Canon denies this, the company would not comment on why they find tattooed people so "shocking."

Meanwhile, the surrogate gallery has no problem with the pictures. Part art showcase, part restaurant-bar, part live and event space, Xp is a large basement room with a low, silver-foil ceiling. The space can be found, with a little effort, a few blocks off trendy Aoyama Street. It is a favorite meeting point for the cityís young avant-garde, do-it-yourself art movers and shakers. The Matsumoto exhibition was organized in a matter of weeks - in part, it seems - to spite Canon. The latest in a series of collaborations between Xp and Ebisuís cutting-edge P-House Gallery owner Takaki Akita, the show follows one of last yearís best debut exhibitions, Motohiko Odaniís blood-splattered "Phantom-Limb," a P-House show produced with the Rontgen Kunstraumís Yuko Yamamoto last November. Ambitious, self-starting curators, artists, and galleries such as these give Tokyo contemporary art enthusiasts a rare opportunity to feel optimistic about their cityís often stifling and seemingly impenetrable art scene - a feeling that something new is finally happening at a grass-roots level. It is evident from the all the attention that Canonís loss is Xpís gain.

Matsumotoís "Fundoshi Fair" will not seem particularly shocking to the Western viewer. The 1980s American art scene was gripped by censorship debates concerning far more provocative work - imagine the local reaction if Andres Serranoís "Piss Christ" had taken the Japanese Emperor as its subject. While the work here is only about average in concept and execution, the real value of this show lies in its celebration of young artists circumventing a system of unspoken taboos maintained by a paternalistic gallery and museum establishment.

A small step for artistic freedom perhaps, but an encouraging step in the right direction that the establishment art spaces cannot help but notice.

notes: until June 16, 1998 (5458-3359). More on tattoos in Japan.
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