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Tom Sachs at the Tomio Koyama

by Monty DiPietro

There are a couple of things that we don’t see much of here on the Tokyo contemporary art scene. Firstly, we rarely get a look at installations, mostly because there are so few big gallery spaces. Also, we seldom see rough or raw work, as the prevailing opinion among the city’s gallerists and collectors is that works of art should look perfect. So, with all the highly-refined pieces we have filling our big city’s little galleries, it was a real nice surprise to find, last weekend, American artist Tom Sachs’ show at the almost-always interesting Tomio Koyama Gallery: An installation that features a busy scrawl of a schematic diagram on one wall, and a big leaky homemade urinal on the other.

What’s that? You say the urinal-as-art thing has been done already? Well, with apologies to Monsieur Duchamp—not in Tokyo it hasn’t. Anyway, Sachs’ urinal is different, because everything Sachs does is a little different, a little warped. The hot New York bricolage artist’s creations, which can appear at first glance to be what Duchamp called "readymades," are in fact Sachs’ hand-made, actual-size models.

The star of the show is Sachs’ "Test Module Five (Urinal)," a 133x135x44cm mixed-media construction that turns clear Evian water into (fake) urine before sucking it away and into a steel "piss bucket." Gallery owner Tomio Koyama, has been designated by Sachs as "Piss Bucket Boy," and charged with the task of regularly emptying the vessel.

"The idea behind this is that different cultures deal with their bodily wastes in different ways," explains the artist. "Essentially we’re all the same, we all eat and urinate and defecate, but it interested me to see how different cultures deal with waste issues. This is my personal representation of some of those ideas."

Sachs then invites me to try the urinal out myself, but he is kidding, I think. Anyway, I haven’t drunk enough beer yet, so I decline.

Among the other mock-ups Sachs, 33, has built in the last few years are entire airplane restroom interiors and an atomic bomb (Fat Man, the explosive device dropped on the city of Nagasaki, done up with a capsule hotel-style interior and emblazoned with the Sony logo on the shell outside). With regards to this latter piece, entitled "Sony Outsider (Gaijin)," and Sachs’ published comments to the effect that war today involves not bombs blowing up things but rather cultural annihilation (The biggest weapon? The videocassette player), I ask Sachs whether he doesn’t consider the work and his comments a little insensitive.

"Well, I hate to use the "W" word, but whatever. I said that and I mean it, the effects of war, such as cultural domination, are accomplished now through economics. But I’m not trying to say that killing people is better or worse that making them drink Coke through advertising, that’s not interesting to me, I don’t want to go there."

Sachs hasn’t seemed to mind going to lengths to stir up scandals while cultivating his image as a social dissident. He is responsible for a "Kill All Artists" campaign, and his use of live ammunition in a show at Mary Boone’s New York gallery landed the city’s leading art star-maker in jail for a night.

Back at the opening party, a while later, when local art schmoozer Johnnie Walker proposes testing Sachs’ urinal with a plastic cup filled with real urine, his offer is politely refused. Which is interesting, because it shows that, with all the things we don’t get to see here in Tokyo, there are also moments when we catch a glimpse of something unique. I mean the way this city can cut the cultural moorings and throw visiting artists off their bad-boy posturing. Another example: As the party ends, there is Sachs, exhausted, sitting in the corner with a silver-haired woman’s arm draped around his neck. It’s been a long day, and she is sheltering him, comforting him. She is his mother.

For a moment, the art world’s latest rebel looks vulnerable, like a nerd, like a human being.

It would never play in New York.

Notes: Until May 13, 2000 at the Tomio Koyama (3630-2205).
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