Art in an Idiot Box

by Satoru Nagoya

In this series of essays, I have often warned Japanese art people against being blinded by cheap, flashy art trends, especially those from overseas. Three noticeable art events reflecting superficial art fashion came to Tokyo in March - which I didn’t want to overlook. All of them took up television or video as the basis or medium of art, in line with the recent worldwide trend of dematerializing art and transforming it into audio-visual information.

"Akihabara TV" started late last month in a district also popular among foreign visitors to Tokyo: Akihabara "Electric Town." On TV monitors for sale at 20-odd electric appliance stores scattered all over the district, some 25 artists from Japan and abroad showed - with the stores' permission - their respective video works.
Event organizers stated that "Akihabara TV," putting artistic software into hardware in Akihabara, would vitalize the town to become the world’ s most exciting place. Artist Masato Nakamura, who led the event, is known for such works as replicas of signboards of major convenience store chains and of McDonald’s logotypes. It is natural to suppose that such works (and the Akihabara event itself) involved tough negotiations beforehand with companies skeptical about the use of their trademarks or store fronts, and with Nakamura (and his staff) persuading the companies that his art would do no harm to their business. However, how can art that has been adjusted to get along with industry or society be exciting or radical? In fact, my impression after browsing some of the art in Akihabara was that the works, in terms of both definition and impact, were no rivals at all to ordinary TV images with news or sports content on the surrounding TV monitors.

According to the press release, "ART in Living Room" is a three-day event which was held from March 20-22 at the Contemporary Art Factory, a nonprofit alternative gallery in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward. It featured the latest works of video art from Europe: art by some 30 well-known artists including Ilya Kabakov, Douglas Gordon and Christian Boltanski. Each video segment lasted up to three minutes and was shown on TV monitors.
The gallery was decorated to look like a European-style living room, so that visitors could enjoy the short video works as if watching - whether raptly or absent-mindedly - TV commercial films at home. The biggest pride of the event (which was the brainchild of energetic independent curator Emiko Kato) turned out to be that the works were selected by a charismatic young European curator called Hans-Ulrich Obrist, who is the object of inexplicable adoration among many Japanese art promoters these days.

"Spiral TV" proved to be a really tawdry event. Gathering plenty of eye-catching stuff at Spiral Garden in Omotesando between March 10 and March 28, it centered on what organizers described as a temporary "TV station". This concept drew attention in Europe two years ago, when Fabrice Hybert, a French artist, turned his country’s pavillion at the 1997 Venice Biennale into a mock TV station, which subsequently won him the country prize. Hybert is now the "producer" of "Spiral TV," which "broadcast" programs to TV monitors in the Spiral building. "Spiral TV" leaflets advertised an open photo session with noted photographer Nobuyoshi Araki shooting semi-nude young women at the event’s opening.

It may be true that one of the latest and most conspicuous trends in art around the world is turning towards transitory images in cathode-ray tubes or on liquid-crystal screens, which wise people once termed "the idiot box." However, real curators and art promoters of insight should know that the most radical, progressive things often appear in an obscure, old-fashioned form. In the meantime, it is expected that the person who masterminded the "Spiral TV" project, renowned art coordinator Fumio Nanjo (interviewed in the February issue of PLANT) will become one of the directors of a Japan Foundation-sponsored large-scale international contemporary art exhibition scheduled for the year 2001. Thereafter, it might turn into a triennial event. If so, judging from the nature of "Spiral TV," at least part of the 2001 exhibition will be so spectacular that some visitors might be tempted to give it an unforgettable name: "Idiotriennale".

Satoru Nagoya is a free-lance art journalist living in Tokyo.
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