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Tadanori Yokoo at MoT

by Monty DiPietro

The very idea of a comprehensive retrospective of Tadanori Yokoo's work is a daunting one. How to bring together an oeuvre that spans almost a half century and is, in turn, strident, nationalistic, homoerotic, funny and cosmic; that is both representational and abstract; that comprises posters, photographs, paintings, sculpture, installation, and thousands of vintage picture postcards of waterfalls?

Somehow the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MoT) has succeeded swimmingly, with "All Things in the Universe."

More than any other Japanese contemporary artist of his generation, Yokoo, 67, is possessed of a constant need to change. He does not evolve his work, rather he plays it out, abandons it and then comes up with something that is completely different. He is a curator's nightmare, but to his followers (I say "followers," because Yokoo is somewhat of an international cult figure) he is geyser of creative energy. Yokoo was one of the world's most accomplished poster makers in the '60s and '70s before abandoning that medium in favor of painting, which he did for awhile using only the color red. Then he really started to innovate. He is soft spoken, although he has claimed that he was once visited and abducted by aliens. That's right -- in the fine old tradition of the eccentric artist, Yokoo is, in a word: weird.

Truly weird. So much so that if "All Things in the Universe" were a group show, I would have to say that the work lacked a unifying theme. Because it is a one-man show, Yokoo is the unifying theme. This exhibition is, more than anything else, the story of a man.

At the opening party, Nobuyoshi Araki squeezes himself into a photo portrait of museum curators and friends of Yokoo and his wife, Yasue. Yokoo affords the lubricous lensman only a perfunctory smile, but does so graciously. Meanwhile, the schmoozers swirling in the adjacent reception area are outnumbered by the people upstairs actually looking at the art -- a rare thing at MoT openings. And horror -- by the time I finish winding my way through the exhibition, the bar has closed. So I sneak back into the show for another look. A long while later, when I am the last one remaining, a trio of staff members comes by to politely kick me out.

I said before that is a show about a man, and a singular man, but, perhaps more accurately, this is a show that provides one with the map to a man -- following clues that lead to the real Yokoo is the adventure here.

For instance -- are the early, psychedelic works drug-induced? Are the portraits of Yukio Mishima born of an admiration for the novelist and purported homosexual and ultranationalist's work, or of a fascination with the reaction it provoked? Why did Yokoo collect so many waterfall postcards, and use the waterfall motif as a recurring theme in so much of his work? Are the recreations of Rousseau's "Sleeping Gypsy" (in which the lion has eaten the gypsy and only a pile of bones remains) really intended as an 'homage' to the French outsider artist, or as an indictment of his Polynesian period? And why are some of Yokoo's works so painstakingly crafted, while others look like they were thrown together in a matter of hours?

I have neither the space nor the inclination to delve into these questions. For me, to paraphrase an old Hindu/hippy philosophy -- understanding Yokoo is not in finding him, but in looking for him.

Appropriately, visitors are put through more than a few processes in the viewing of this exhibition. One must step through a hole in the wall shaped like a vagina to proceed from one of the first rooms (the inspiration for the orifice is pictured in a painting encountered later); and remove one's shoes to pass through a room with a smooth reflective floor, the walls and ceilings of which are completely covered with waterfall postcards. And there is a dark room filled with Yokoo's "technamations," which are motorized and back lighted constructions built on a low-tech device that creates the illusion of, again, waterfalls.

Most all of Yokoo's many fields of exploration are represented here, including pieces from the series of disjointed Japanese street intersection paintings which premiered at Tokyo's Hara Museum of Contemporary Art late last year.

Exploiting its position as one of the largest museums in Asia, MoT has spread this exhibition over a large amount of space on both of its main exhibition areas. So if you visit, plan on spending a good long while. If a trio of staff members arrive to politely kick you out at the end of the day, you'll know you have begun to understand this fascinating artist.

Tadanori Yokoo's "All Things in the Universe" is showing to Oct 27 2002 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Kiba Park, 4-1-1 Miyoshi, Koto-ku, Tokyo; 03-5245-4111. Open 10 a.m. till 6 p.m. (till 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday), closed Monday. Regular admission is 1,000 yen
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