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Koji Sekimoto at Ota Fine Arts

by Monty DiPietro

I used to dismiss cuteness as kid's stuff. But I found such a sophisticated cuteness aesthetic here in Japan that I was forced to reconsider. Take, for example, the plush toy: Few Westerners over age 10 would be seen in public with a stuffed Hello Kitty doll, but here I've seen the soft little cuties lovingly arranged on the dashboards of gangstered-up Mercedes Benzes. In Japan, it seems, cuteness can mean power. Consider how Western financial institutions use symbols such as talon-baring eagles or towering Doric columns to suggest strength, and compare this to the logo of the mighty Asahi bank: A bunny rabbit, in a pink smock, walking along with five baby ducks.

And so it should come as no surprise that cuteness also reigns on the Japanese contemporary art scene. The two most importation museum solo exhibitions this year, Takashi Murakami at MoT and Yoshitomo Nara at Yokohama, were so dripping with cartoonish cuteness that they looked like they had been made, in the words of a local curator who would strangle me if I attributed this quote, "for the totally clueless adolescent."

Which brings me to the show at hand, Koji Sekimoto at Ota Fine Arts in Shibuya. This is an exhibition that, if it were presented anywhere else on earth, would most likely be dismissed as overly cute, as kid's stuff.

The last time I checked in with Sekimoto was about a year back, when the 31 year-old artist brought his "Hush Hush Days" exhibition to the Ota. The show told little stories, using original, diary-like texts, and photographs of elaborately posed Barbie doll knock-offs which Sekimoto had picked up from second hand shops and flea markets. By elaborately posed I mean that Sekimoto had constructed little sets, like the inside on an airplane cabin, and dressed his dolls up as characters in the mostly sentimental dramas he created around them. I wrote at the time that the show was merely "charming," but promised to check in next time to see if the artist, who is based in Cologne, might find a way to marry the conceptualism of his adopted home with the cuteness of his native land.

He has, to a certain degree, succeeded in doing this with the new show, "Charm Melody."

Near the center of the gallery sits a low, two-seat wooden bench, painted white and flanked by a couple of white speakers. Viewers are invited to sit there and watch a slide show on the wall, which consists of about 20 minutes worth of images of dolls and city scenes, accompanied by what Sekimoto describes as an "inner monologue" soundtrack.

There are two voices in the soundtrack, Sekimoto's and a female assistant's. Their conversation is slow, dreamy, and personal, and explores Sekimoto's thoughts on art and life over the last five years. It is, of course, in Japanese, as are the texts that appear on the screen, but the always-helpful Ota staff will help out those who can't understand by providing a printed translation of some of the nicely poetic dialogue.

Also in the show are a collage of some 20 snapshot-aesthetic photographs, these a mix of non-descript interior shots, moody landscapes and street scenes; a pretty little organza blouse made by the artist; and two large, well-crafted photographs of posed dolls. Elsewhere in the gallery are a number of delicate touches -- a flower on the floor, a lonely photograph tacked to the wall, and so on.

In terms of presentation, this is the logical and good evolution of Sekimoto's previous efforts. The pieces use classical compositions, challenging us to see contemporary figures, emotions, and relationships not through brushstrokes, but Barbie dolls.

While one wants to find the message under the veneer of cuteness, how to avoid the question of why a grown man would use little dolls as a vehicle for introspection? Which brings us back to the Japanese cuteness aesthetic. Like Murakami's anime-style character "Mr DOB," which is meant to lampoon the naiveté in Japanese society, Sekimoto's wispy "Charm Melody," seen through western eyes, seems something of a parody of itself.

Notes: Koji Sekimoto's "Charm Melody" is at Ota Fine Arts in Shibuya (3870-0911) until November 24 2001
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