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Vivienne Sato at Lapnet Ship

by Monty DiPietro

Early evening thundershowers have raised humidity in Harajuku's Lapnet Ship Gallery to a near-sauna level, but despite the sticky discomfort the tiny room is packed on this Saturday night. It's the much-anticipated opening party for Vivienne Sato's exhibition "Wig Wig Wig," and by following a Marge Simpson-like beehive of fluorescent green feathers floating above the sweaty heads one can mark the progress of the self-described "Artistic Drag Queen," as Sato, always in perfect composure (well, almost always) shmoozes through the crush of kooky and curious friends and fans, smiling, air-kissing, accepting bouquets.

The walls are chock a block with watercolor drawings and neon signs; editioned T-shirts and a new line of personal toiletry products; and Sato's trademark wigs. The feel-good show is bright and bold and beautiful, a triumph for Japan's most outrageous transvestite artist.

The thirtysomething Sato (he does not divulge his age) is a part-time carpenter who spent several years working in the office of Arata Isozaki, arguably Japan's most accomplished living architect. Then an architecture student himself, Sato began using internal trusses to prop up the wigs he was wearing out at night, and soon transparent plastic globes were added to the exterior of the towering hairpieces, these often filled with colorful feathers. Eventually, other details came to adorn the increasingly elaborate constructions, and Tokyo's nightclubbers had found a fantastic new hero.

The main attraction in the Lapnet show is, of course, the wigs, and there are hundreds of them, displayed behind a curved glass partition running the length of the gallery. Sato says he has no further use for his older wigs, and these are strewn gracelessly on the floor, awaiting a trip to a shrine after the show, where they will be burned.

The pride of the collection are 10 new wigs, one of these being a Sato classic high-rise green version while the others are mostly dark-colored and done in feathers and fake hair, with harnesses and accessories too numerous to list. A couple are about a meter tall. These are mounted on the glass wall, facing off in the opposite direction of the viewer, empty like shadows.

"People ask me about my wig fetish," explains Sato, "but for me these are not only wigs but also a sort of architecture. If you take an x-ray you will see the structure inside, like the bones in a human body. I'm very interested in things like high heels and corsets, which extend or reduce the shape and size of the human body, and so my wigs do this."

At roughly the same time he first began turning heads with his big wigs, a series of Sato's ink-on-paper drawings caught the attention of the Tokyo art community and made it clear that he was more than a flashy disco queen. In the pictures, which first appeared in local publications such as S&M Sniper and then quickly became collectable, Sato took sexual deviants as his subjects, describing whip-toting dominatrixes and bound amputees. The composition and draftsmanship in the works is outstanding. Sato, like a postmodern Aubrey Beardsley, succeeded in both intriguing and disturbing with the works, 12 of which have been silk-screened onto T-shirts and are on sale at the current show.

Like other hot contemporary art spaces in the Harajuku / Shibuya area (Rocket, Parco), Lapnet attracts a mostly-young crowd, and so focuses on selling not the unique works of art on display in its shows, but rather multiples by the artist. This time, along with the T-shirts, Lapnet is offering pictures, matchbooks, face blotters, and toilet paper, all carrying the new Vivienne Sato logo, which looks like one of his wigs. They are relatively cheap, and most Japanese artists will unhesitantly sign these sort of things, so if you catch Sato at the gallery (and believe me, he is really hard to miss) you could always pick up a couple of personalized souvenirs.


Notes: The Vivienne Sato show "Wig Wig Wig" is on to May 27, 2001, at Lapnet Ship in Laforet in Harajuku (5411-3330). Pictured is Vivienne Sato and Wig (2000), color photograph, by Iijima Ai. For a selection of Sato's ink on paper drawings click here. Sato's website is here
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