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
"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.