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Command N's Sukima

by Monty DiPietro

            One of the biggest problems with Tokyo's avant-garde art scene is finding it. In most Western cities, the painters and poets and anarchists and dreamers move in to disused buildings in run-down neighborhoods and a community of cafés with big bulletin boards (Rolfing sessions, zither lessons…), and small, artist-run galleries gradually grows up around them. But there are few bohemian neighborhoods in Tokyo, and the high-rent Ginza Strip, home to most of the city's galleries, is almost completely devoid of alternative art spaces.

            And so the few manifestations of avant-garde culture here have materialized along a wide arc that circumnavigates the city center -- Kanagawa's social revolutionary Candy Factory; Tachikawa's Studio Shokudo (now in hibernation); Saitama's Hiropon Factory (headquarters for Takashi Murakami's Superflat gang); and Sumida's Contemporary Art Factory being the best examples.

            The exception to this is Command N. The brainchild of Masato Nakamura, the "can-do" artist who somehow convinced the McDonalds fast food chain to let him use their golden arches for his installation piece at the Venice Biennale, Command N conducts its operations from a four story building in the center of the neon-bathed mecca of commodity fetishism, Akihabara.

            Command N's latest project is "Sukima." The title refers to the gaps that exist in contemporary environments, especially but not exclusively the gaps between buildings. Some 40 artists and artists groups are participating, from Nakamura himself to UK artist-turned-critic-turned artist Peter Bellars, to transculturalist Chaco Kato and something called "The Super-Absorbent Polymer Ballet."

            Jun Makime and Yuka Megoro kicked off "Sukima" last Saturday with a dance performance at Command N. He in a tuxedo and she in a tutu, the pair stumbled and tripped their way through a thoroughly enjoyable parody of highbrow culture. When local art maven Johnnie Walker's dog Sir Elton got loose and ran up to gobble up the gumdrops Makime and Megoro had been tossing about, the pair quickly incorporated the homely pooch into the delirium, which, I think, amounted to about the most entertaining improvised performance in Tokyo this year.

            Many of the participating artists have installed their pieces in the spaces between buildings in the Akihabara/Kanda district. Melbourne-based Kato's elegant, blown-glass teardrops are etched with the words "air' and "water" in a number of different languages. The palm-sized creations hang in a dirty space between two apartment building just around the corner from the CASA gallery in Yanaka.

At CASA, and also on the Command N website, visitors can navigate a three dimensional overview of the area which maps out not the buildings, but rather the spaces between them.

            Bellars' work focuses on the social schism of "honne" (heartfelt) and "tatemae" (superficial). His postcards, featuring opposing kanji characters describing the two concepts, solicit personal anecdotes about lying to save face. "What," people are invited to explain, "did you say at the time, and what did you really want to say?" People are invited to submit these accounts to a website (www.commandn.net/honnesuruto/).

            "Though most of us consider ourselves to be honest," says Bellars, "we all engaged in these niceties and mistruths spoken in the belief that protecting others from our true feelings is of prime importance. This tendency to say what we think the other would want to hear over what we would really like to say -- the triumph of Tatemae over the Honne -- presents itself as one of the great "sukima" in the workings of our society."

            Barely three years old, Command N has already established itself as one of Japan's most adventurous artists' collectives ever. Characteristic of their activities was "Akihabara TV," for which Nakamura (he really has the gift of persuasion, this guy) convinced scores of electronics stores in the area to let him broadcast artists' videos on the stacks of televisions in their display windows. For a couple of weeks, at least, passers-by did not see the NHK news or an afternoon cooking show, but short video works by 32 artists from 12 different countries.

"Sukima" is, in a way, the opposite of Akihabara TV, in that many of the works are tucked away this time. This is, of course, the whole idea -- event coverage in Bijutsu Techo, Japan's leading contemporary art magazine, is printed on the extreme inside of the pages, up against the spine, where it will be missed by skimmers. So, if you find yourself in the area, slow down and look between buildings, you never know what you might find there.

Notes: "Sukima" runs to October at a variety of locations in and around Command N (1-7-1-1F, Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, 03-5297-3506). For more information visit the Command N website: http://www.commandn.net/
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