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Akira Yamaguchi at Nadiff

by Monty DiPietro

Wars are fought by armies of men, but equipment has always been critical to their ability to perform in battle. Now, imagine a time machine which could outfit Genghis Khan with rocket launchers; or Napoleon with a division of Panzer tanks -- that would change human history, wouldn't it? Tokyo artist Akira Yamaguchi explores the idea from a Japanese perspective with the hallucinogenic history lesson that is his new exhibition, "Japan/China and Japan/Russia Fantasy War Drawings."

Yamaguchi, 33, has long been working with the juxtaposition of different historical eras in his expertly-crafted and finely-detailed ink on paper drawings and acrylic and oil on canvas paintings. There is a real sophistication to his process -- the artist does not simply drop a salaryman into a Tokugawa pastoral scene, rather he seamlessly integrates different and disparate period moods, clues, and symbols, and does this so cleverly that it is often not apparent until one closely inspects the pictures. For example, a man in a yukata, sitting on zabuton in an old izakaya, with the mama-san hovering over him holding a tray of not sake, but milk. Other examples, such as the Russian cavalry man riding a half-horse, half-motorcycle, juxtapose in a way that is not as subtle but no less well-integrated.

Now in at Nadiff, an art bookshop and gallery just off the fashionable Omotesando strip in Tokyo's youth culture Mecca of Shibuya, "Japan/China and Japan/Russia Fantasy War Drawings" comprises some 60 postcard-size color Xerox ink on paper drawings. All of the drawings were done this year. They are mounted in groups of three or more each in a set of 17 wooden frames, and weave the story of a couple of brothers, Yoshifuru and Saneyuki Akiyama, this set against the backdrop of Japan's military activities in the period following the establishment of the Meiji Restoration in 1867 and through the early part of the 20th century.

Yamaguchi also fuses different artistic styles in his drawings -- we see the lack of perspective characteristic of early Yamato-e paintings; and we also see treatments in the style of contemporary media such as manga, and the virtual imagery found in anime and video games.

Yamaguchi says his work is meant to be humorous, but also aims to criticize the wholesale embracing of Western ideas that took place during the Meiji Era, to the detriment of traditional Japanese culture. He smiles and shakes his head when I ask him if he is a "u-yoku" (right wing ultranationalist) who spends his days driving around in a big black bus spewing ear-splitting anti-foreigner rhetoric out of a battery of loudspeakers. Indeed, Yamaguchi, like fellow Mizuma Gallery artist Makoto Aida (who has painted pictures of Japanese Zero fighter planes, flying in a figure eight formation over a fire-engulfed New York City), seems less attracted to the Japanese nationalist program than to the jarring aesthetic possibilities it provides.

Indeed, artists like Aida and Yamaguchi may well be the next big Japanese contemporary culture export, as their multi-leveled work makes the mostly saccharine stylings of this country's current art stars seem feeble, feckless. This year Yamaguchi did the cover art for acid jazz musical group United Future Organization's latest CD, "V." With an artistic approach well-suited to scrutiny and interpretation, it is a safe bet that we'll be seeing a lot more from this talented artist in the near future.

There are, however, a couple of problems with the Nadiff show. Although it is an excellent bookshop -- one of Tokyo's best for sure -- Nadiff's on-site gallery does not have the space to show large works, and so this exhibition is a bit light. While it does not provide anything like an accurate introduction or overview of Yamaguchi's work, it will be of interest to those who already follow the artist. Also, the texts that tell the story in "Japan/China and Japan/Russia Fantasy War Drawings" are written in Japanese -- and old, difficult Japanese at that -- and as such will be all-but indecipherable to the kanji-challenged. Further, as the inside word is that there is some sort of copyright dispute simmering between Yamaguchi and the fellow who wrote the texts (which are printed on the actual artworks), it is possible that these texts may soon be whited-out or covered over, and this would seriously detract from the compositional balance in the works.

Akira Yamaguchi's "Japan/China and Japan/Russia Fantasy War Drawings" is showing to September 8 2002 at Nadiff, 4-9-8, B1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; 03-3403-8814. Open 11 a.m to 8 p.m. daily.
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