Rei Naito at the Gallery Koyanagi

by Monty DiPietro

If you have 480,000 yen lying around and want to buy contemporary art that doesn’t take up much space - look no further because Rei Naito is selling her spiritual pillows at just that price. Hiroshima-born, New York-based Naito, 36, is in Tokyo for the one-person gallery show, "Rei Naito - Sculpture." The exhibition consists of a very minimal red-pencil on paper work, and three 60x45x30mm silk organza "Pillows for the Dead." It is now showing at the upscale Gallery Koyanagi on Tokyo’s Ginza gallery strip.

The "Pillows for the Dead" are taken from Naito’s installation "Being Called," recently exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt. For this show, the artist arranged hundreds of the aesthetically unremarkable translucent little creations in an exhibition room, which visitors were only allowed to enter shoeless and alone. Guests were further limited to a maximum of 15 minutes of viewing, and this only after they had spent passed a meditative period in an adjacent waiting room. Such is the sanctity of Naito’s patient process art. The artist spent three years developing her Frankfurt show.

Western critics are rushing to gush over Naito’s work, and part of the reason for the artist’s international success may lie in her, either deliberately or unconsciously, giving people what they want.

When I first met Charles O., a young man from Cote d’Ivoire, he was studying agriculture at a Kanto college and pursuing an interest in acting for the stage. Japan had been good to him - he had fallen in love with a Japanese woman and was planning to marry. I wished him good luck, as did the dozens of other amateur actors we were working with on a local theatrical production. I lost touch with Charles when the play had finished its run, but we bumped into each other about one year later. And the resourceful Charles had found a way to provide for his new family - he had teamed up with a local businessman and was managing a hip hop clothing shop in Harajuku. Decked out in an athletic training suit and big flashy running shoes, sporting a buzzed haircut and wraparound sunglasses - Sidney Poitier had become Snoop Doggy Dog.

Charles explained that after giving up his studies, he had found few employment options that did not require his morphing into what Tokyo expected a black man to be.

A survey of Japanese artists living abroad reveals a similar trend. Naito’s compatriot Hiroshi Sugimoto crafts tranquil seascape photographs that whisper "Zen." On Kawara repeats paintings that simply record the date on which they were made, Taro Chiezo turns out robots that are clean, cute and high tech, while Mariko Mori pulls it all together - spinning out slow and lyrical, spiritually-flavored performances on high definition video while dressed as a cyborg. Like Naito, these four are the toast of their adopted New York City. Like Naito, they have hit at home in large part thanks the critical acclaim they receive overseas while reaffirming foreign audiences’ image of things Japanese.

The opening party guests hovering around Naito’s overnice pillbox-sized pillows seem all smiles and schmooze until I buttonhole a local critic who has ducked outside for a smoke. "She is established now," he sighs, his eyes darting around to make sure nobody is listening, "and that is all that matters."

Yes, the Frankfurt show and "One Place on the Earth" - Naito’s equally ambitious installation at the 47th Venice Biennale last year - have surely established her as one of this country’s rising new artists. Unfortunately for Tokyoites, when the artist’s "Pillows for the Dead" are removed from the greater conceptual context of the "Being Called" installation, they seem sad, alone, and, well, boring. They almost look like lint-filters. Very expensive lint-filters.

And although no Japanese-language-media critics and few in the Tokyo art community will come out and say it - on their own, Naito’s pillows are as hollow as the lint-filters are after the Emperor has washed his new clothes.

Instead, everyone can be expected to praise Naito’s homecoming (this is her first solo show here in three years), and collectors to dutifully scoop up the artist’s offerings. Two of the precious little pillows had already been sold one hour into the opening party.


notes: Until May 30, 1998 (3561-1896).
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