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Tetsuya Nakamura at the Rice Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

A scant six months since it opened and Tokyo's Rice Gallery is looking less like a contemporary art space and more like a fantasy car showroom. The man responsible is "Speed King" Tetsuya Nakamura, whose sleek and shiny rocket-powered single-passenger vehicles are to spend this month arrayed in tight formation in the middle of the big Koto Ward gallery. But appearances can be deceiving -- although they look like they are ready to challenge a zero to whatever acceleration record, closer inspection of Nakamura's constructions reveals that the things have neither wheels nor engines. And they don't even have cockpits. For these are not racers, but sculptures -- designed to sit, immobile, in an art gallery. Intended to reify speed.

Speed is a thrill, speed is a drug. Speed freaks need speed, and speed kills. Speed can be elusive, speed can get expensive, but speed is also democratic, universal. Brave New World author Aldous Huxley called speed "the one genuinely modern pleasure."

For the jeep-driving Nakamura, 33, speed has always held a special appeal. In school, he was a javelin thrower, as keen on throwing with a "cool form" as he was on throwing for distance. Nakamura might have inherited some of his fascinations from his father, whom he describes as a "speed maniac who bought a new sports car every year."

Shortly after graduating from Geidai (the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music), Nakamura co-founded the exciting artist's collective Studio Shokudo, in Tachikawa, where he first started experimenting with the pseudo-speedsters that have evolved into his current work. While he may be obsessed with speed, Nakamura carries himself in a slow, assured manner. At the opening, he is surrounded by a circle of not boys, but young girls. It is apparent that this is one cool guy on the Tokyo youth culture scene. With paint caked on his hands, he steps over a couple of checkered flags emblazoned on the gallery floor, to talk about his work.

"When you see a fast car, like a Lamborghini or a Ferrari, it looks fast even when it isn't moving," says Nakamura. "What I set out to do was make art where the form of the object alone would evoke the sensation of speed. The theme is speed, but the form is the most important thing."

There are four of what Nakamura terms "replica customs" in the Rice show. The curvy fiber-reinforced plastic pieces are quite well crafted, with clean seams and smooth paint work. Each stands about a meter and a half tall and stretches some five meters from pointy snout to tail fin. Closest to the gallery entrance are a shiny Celtic-themed model and a more restrained work colored in gradient tomes of purple, green and gray. Farther toward the rear of the space is "Replica Custom Evolution" (2000), which with its flaming red, silver, black paint scheme is the most "hot rod" of the lot. This particular work was painted by Bonzai Painting, a local artists' supplies company, and was for a long while used in a Shibuya department display promoting Bonzai's products.

Farthest from the door is the relatively restrained "Replica Custom GT," a solid mustard yellow work that is the largest work in the show, featuring not three but five "engines." This is also the newest, finished just hours before the opening party.

For some, these phallic custom replicas may appear as little more than products of a testosterone-driven speed fetishism. Although there are probably gender issues here, it is too easy to stop an assessment of Nakamura's work by ascribing it to the small world of otaku obsessions. More interesting is reflecting on how and why the artist's simulacra can bring us to imagine a rush of wind and a blur of scenery, the roar of engines and the push of G-forces. Finding where these sensations are coming from and what they signify brings us to the personal issue of transport -- not as in conveyance from place to place, but as in vehement emotion and our memories thereof. If not in space, then in time, Nakamura's hollow machines can take us somewhere after all.

Notes: Tetsuya Nakamura's Speed King is on to June 30, 2001, at the Rice Gallery (5245-5522). Pictured is "Replica Custom Evolution" (2000), by Tetsuya Nakamura

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