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Kenji Yanobe at the Roentgen Kunstraum

by Monty DiPietro

Just in case you didn't know already: Kenji Yanobe is Back.

At the time of this writing, Yanobe is in with the inaugural show at the Shiseido Corporation's sparkling new Ginza art space; is featured prominently in the Nippon Contemporary Art Fair at the Tokyo International Forum and the "Gift of Hope" group show at MoT; and has just opened at the respected Roentgen Kunstraum Gallery in Aoyama. The one-time art superstar hadn't been heard from much in the last few years -- but this spring in Tokyo, Yanobe is bigger than Anne Daems, even.

It was back in the early 1990s when Yanobe, along with Taro Chiezo and later Mariko Mori, established himself as one of Japan's hottest Futurama artists. While most bubble era art-yen was invested in the work of dead Impressionists, a trickle of funding did make into the contemporary market, and this engendered a brat pack of young art stars.

Those were halcyon days, and there was the will and the means to get just about anything done. It was a time when little rolling robots danced through galleries in pink and white tutus, and sleek cyber ladies reposed in shiny capsules plopped smack in the middle of busy office tower complexes.

Like many of his contemporaries, Yanobe's work was in large part characterized by effective design, execution, and detailing of campy and futuristic objects. Yanobe's shtick was a big bright yellow suit, which looked like a deep sea diver's outfit with 1950s head fins. He would climb inside and walk around in weird environments. He would stop and pose. There were pictures.

These days, the 35 year-old Yanobe is a more mature artist, and although he still revisits old themes, he seems to have squeezed out of the big yellow suit and begun to develop a new body of work.

The Roentgen show is titled "Hair Hair," and the reason is immediately apparent. The centerpiece is a big brass kinetic sculpture of a larger-than-life-sized head. It is a roundish and almost featureless head, reminiscent of the sort found of Yoshitomo Nara's kids but with none of the impish tone. "Hair," or rather scores of thin brass rods, slowly "grow" out of the head in a process that takes about an hour, such that the look changes from infant-like baldness to 70s afro. The big fun noggin is also found on the body of the giant robot Yanobe had in at his Shiseido show. The artist says the Hair Hair piece and his new motif were inspired by the recent birth of his first son, Ryo.

"My child is not me," says Yanobe at his well-attended opening party, "he has an unknown and uncontrollable future. Maybe my style has changed from 'survival' to 'revival'."

Ryo's stylized head in aluminum also forms the base of a custom chess set, which features some of Yanobe's recurring designs as pieces. In the center of the board, four pawns hoist a wallet-sized piece of uranium, and this neatly alludes to Yanobe's earlier work with the big yellow suit (which is loosely based on the early manga "Astro Boy" and Japan's fascination with the power of the atom). In a far corner of the gallery one finds an action figure-sized Yanobe-in-the-suit doll that doubles as a working Geiger counter. Bring it over toward the chess set, and it beeps.

The gallery's back room is an engaging look at Yanobe's artistic development, with scale models of some of his more ambitious 1990 projects such as the post-nuclear "Bunka Bunka" subterranean ark, and a showcase containing a portable reel to reel tape recorder and a collection of other playthings that inspired Yanobe as a child. The show is rounded out by about a dozen studies in clay or on paper.

The Roentgen Kunstraum is one of Tokyo's most sophisticated art spaces, and long-time Yanobe supporters Katsuya Ikeuchi and Yoko Yamamoto have done an excellent job curating this show, which, considering the small size of the gallery and the large scale of Yanobe's work, somehow manages to show both where this talented artist is coming from and where he is going.


Notes: The Kenji Yanobe exhibition "Hair Hair" runs to Apr 28 at the Roentgen Kunstraum (3-14-13-103 Minami Aoyama, Minato Ward, Tokyo, 3401-1466). Pictured is "VIVA RIVA Project - Hair, Hair," (2001), pencil on paper drawing by Kenji Yanobe.
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