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David Steets at Room Space

by Monty DiPietro

You'd never suspect it to look at the polite 27 year-old German photographer, but a survey of David Steets' work can lead to no other conclusion: Here is a man who loves to live on the edge.

Steets' photodocumentation work over the last few years has taken him to Chernobyl (where he was arrested but, on the positive side, had all his film developed for free by government censors); to mostly-deserted towns in the demarcation zone of Cyprus (where he was frequently arrested on suspicion of spying); and, most recently to a sun-drenched expanse of Australian desert and a pretty little red house.

If this last location seems out of character for Steets, it wasn't, exactly. You see, the pretty little red house was built so it could be blown to smithereens in a controlled explosion designed to study, one would assume, just exactly how houses blow up.

Steets' weird and wonderful "The Red House" (1999), joins nine other pictures in "Slaughterhouse 5," an exhibition of the artist's recent work now on at Shinjuku's Room-Space Gallery.

The structure in "The Red House" was built by a group of Dutch companies, using all Dutch materials -- from the bathroom fixtures to the exterior paint. It sat for a few weeks, more than a little surreally, in the hot and empty Woomera Rocket Range's Explosives Testing Area, before it was reduced to rubble. It through this window of opportunity that Steets immortalized the pretty little house before it met its fate. There was even, Steets laughs, a family of dummies installed in the structure when it went boom -- the better to study, one would assume, just exactly how people blow up.

Steets' oeuvre is not all violence, in spite of the locations in which he works. There are a couple of portraits here, warm and human. In these pictures Steets finds young people doing their best to find a way to live under inherited circumstances. One especially engaging work from the Cyprus series features a young man sitting in a big old armchair. The man looks peaceful, but one is left to wonder whether this indicates an informed acceptance of his lot in life, or a exhausted resignation to it. Places on the edge, Steets' work suggests, can create people on the edge. And a life on the edge can cut a person down.

If there is a Tokyo art gallery sufficiently "on the edge" to do a Steets show justice, it has to be the funky little six-month-old, six-tatami-mat-sized Room-Space, a free gallery perched above a tiny bar in the tangle of yakitori joints that choke Shinjuku station's northwestern flank. City officials call the area "Omoide Yokocho," but locals have another name for the miasmatic mess, a phrase we can't print in this newspaper. For Kristian Haggblom and Warren Filthie, the boys behind Room-Space, the smelliest place in Asia is home to a new kind of artistic activity, a sort of spontaneous and international creative scene that Tokyo desperately needs.

Haggblom and Filthie met at art school in Melbourne. They, like most art people who come to Japan, bemoaned the lack of exhibition space for emerging artists in Tokyo. While boozing it up one night, they met a fellow named Yasu Yoshida, manager of the Albatross Bar. Seems Yoshida had an upstairs room he wasn't using and offered it up. The Melbourne boys put on their coveralls and went to work transforming the space into a gallery, and had their first show there this spring.

"We want to make a scene that doesn't exist in Tokyo" says Haggblom. "We want it to be a place where artists can meet and show, and we also want Room-Space to become a sort of base from which artists can do off-site projects like performances."

Sometimes commercial photographer Steets (whom Haggblom and Filthie met while drinking notice a trend here?) has brought Room-Space its best show yet with "Slaughterhouse 5." The provocative and technically-perfect work puts this fledgling gallery well on its way to becoming a respected spot on the Tokyo art map. Soon, no doubt, even Johnnie Walker will find the place.

Notes: The David Steets show "Slaughterhouse 5" runs to Sep 17 at Room-Space (1-2-11 Nishi Shinjuku)

Pictured is "The Red House" (1999), color photograph by David Steets.

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