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Koji Sekimoto at Ota Fine Arts

by Monty DiPietro

This exhibition looks, at first glance, altogether too saccharine. What we have here are soft-focus shots of sweet young girls, with the hint of a romantic liaison to be had here and there, the subjects for the photographs a collection of Barbie dolls and Barbie knock-offs gathered by the artist from flea market bins and second hand stores. We've been here before, with Mika Kato's careful paintings of her beloved ceramic dolls, with Mike Kelly's resurrection of cast-off children's plush toys. It's a sentimental world, a place where style smothers substance.

About 20 new photographs by Koji Sekimoto make up "Hush-Hush Days." The exhibition is now in at Ota Fine Arts, a Tokyo contemporary art space far larger in stature than its 50 square meters of exhibition space would suggest. The Ota has featured the work of unusual and important artists such as Japan's avant-garde maven Yayoi Kusama; the country's only political feminist artist, Yoshiko Shimada; and, most recently, that romping trio of sex trade workers turned art stars known as The Biters.

The gallery's impressive track record encourages one to look a little further into Sekimoto's pictures, and, sure enough, there is a conceptual subtext to the work albeit a fairly thin one.

The Cologne-based Sekimoto, 31, poses his miniature mannequins in a variety of settings, environments he builds himself. One doll is seen peering into her closet in the piece "Choosing Clothes for My Journey." Transport is a recurring theme, there are pedestrians and train travelers here, as well as a number of dolls that seem to be gliding along in the most wondrous of vehicles, love. Many of the tableaus have attendant texts such as this excerpt from a work that finds a tired and pensive wooden doll gazing out the window of an airplane:

"10,000 meters up in the sky. Digital symbols for speed, time, air pressure, temperature, humidity and a world map with an arrow to show the place where the jet is located alternately appearing on the screen. Even though the inner clock is already moving toward the morning it has to face the evening again."

The writing (texts are provided in Japanese, German, and English), enhance the pictures, bringing a host of human emotions to the inanimate subjects. These scenarios, actually, are the most interesting aspect of Sekimoto's work, the artist has an uncanny knack for creating believable moments for his dolls to inhabit.

"I sometimes have an image of a scenario and go out looking for a doll that will fit that," says Sekimoto, "and other times I get the idea from the doll itself and build the set to develop the image. I think the most effective pieces happen when the doll's apparent feelings evolve at the same time as the story I am writing does."

Besides building tiny sets, Sekimoto also makes his dolls up and dresses them to further build a mood. The make-up in particular is something to look at, interesting for the artist's use of clashing daubs of color that look fine from a distance but garish, almost frightful when viewed up close.

Unfortunately, while the scenarios and texts elevate this show above what might otherwise be dismissed as an exercise in posing Barbies, the treatment is not enough to really bring these pictures up to the mark. If Sekimoto could address issues of identity or gender or something a little harder with his art, that is, give the dolls a little more to say, this might add a much-needed dimension to the work. As it is, the commentary seems fixed on the fey, and more often than not the work fails to go take us anywhere worthwhile.

There is so much cute and feckless art being created in Japan these days much too much, I would say. "Hush-Hush Days" takes a step in the right direction but lacking the capacity to move far enough away from the merely charming, it finds itself mired in a rapidly-filling treacle well.

Notes: "Hush-Hush Days" is at Ota Fine Arts in Shibuya (3780-0911) until December 20.
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