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Minako Saitoh at Viewing Room

by Monty DiPietro

            From Parisian alcoholist Maurice Utrillo to our own polka dot diva Yayoi Kusama, I would guess that the list of artists who have actually lived in mental institutions is just about as long as the list of painters (Picasso, Dubuffet) who regularly hung around "insane asylums" looking for inspiration, looking for a new way of seeing.

            In a sense, Minako Saitoh has reversed the perspective with the new work from her "Memory Series," now in at the Viewing Room in Tokyo's Yotsuya. The show does not look into a mental institute, rather it uses the institution as a place from which to view the outside world, or little pieces of it, at least.

            Three large back-lighted transparent photographs and a mass of mangled mattress make up the room-filling installation that Saitoh has brought to the gallery. The pictures were shot in an Ibaraki mental hospital, in patients' rooms and the cafeteria, and capture views through the thick panels of dense translucent plastic that serve as windows.

            Because the plastic used in the window frames is not clear, the gray buildings outside appear blurry, as if they were floating in another, far-away world. Although there is really not much to look at in these pictures, one searches for what details one may find, which is a debilitating experience. There is something immensely sad about a little lousy view, especially if it is one the viewer is stuck with.

It was clever of Saitoh to exhibit only three pictures, the desire to see more helps put the viewer in the position of one of the institutionalized. What you see is what you get. On one of the photographs, there is a grid in the foreground, a dark lattice of iron bars that further brings the viewer around to the inmate's point of view.

            And inmates is what they are, for the most part. It is remarkably easy to commit someone against their will in Japan. While a majority of mental hospital patients in the West are seeking help voluntarily, in Japan the reverse is true. According to the Association of Art, Culture, and People with Disabilities, Japan, the treatment in mental hospitals in this country is often short on therapy and big on drugs. Commented one insider: "Doctors here treat people as if they were machines that are broken and need to be fixed."

            A number of recent cases involving mistreatment of patients in private mental hospitals (80% of Japanese mental hospitals are private, and as such very loosely regulated) has brought media attention to the plight of those in institutions. The government has formed a study group to look into this, but their report is not due for three years.

            Saitoh, 39, is a unassuming and articulate woman. She speaks, in English, with a level of self-assuredness which bespeaks satisfaction with what she is doing. She says she has been interested in mental institutions since she was an outpatient at one during her teens.

            "After you have visited a mental institution, you are marked, in a sense, and it is very difficult to be able to live a normal life. Japanese people have very definite feelings about mental institutions, the places are not regarded as a part of society, they are seen as being outside."

            Joining the photographs here are the remnants of a couple of blood-stained and badly-tattered mattresses. These were retrieved from a hospital disposal site and are truly disgusting. Now they lay on the floor, twisted, grounding the big pictures, sucking the viewer deeper into the misery. (Where does it say that good art has to make you feel good?)

            Saitoh says that while she is troubled by the current conditions in Japanese mental institutions, what she really wants to do with her art is raise awareness about the state of the human spirit in all parts of society. As difficult as it is to do this, Saitoh has succeeded in making an exhibition that very quietly makes a powerful social comment.

Notes: Minako Saitoh's exhibition is at Viewing Space (5360-3461) to October 6 2001.
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