PRINT Summer 1998


When Tomoko Takahashi won the £5,000 ($8,300) first prize in the annual EAST International show last year, the British press responded with characteristic outrage. “Artist Cleans Up with Pile of Junk” announced The Daily Mirror, while its main competitor, The London Times, declared Takahashi’s work to be a “Highly Prized Pile of Rubbish.” Both papers were at least partially on the money. The artist’s installation at the Norwich School of Art and Design was just that: one space was crammed full of detritus that had been cleared away by the school; the other contained refuse generated by exhibition technicians as well as the artist herself.

Dispersement of debris may be all the rage in contemporary art, but Takahashi’s obsessive sorting and arrangement of trash into intricate systems and relationships set her work apart from the scatter heritage of Barry Le Va and the more recent hyperbolic clutteramas of Jason Rhoades or Karen Kilimnik. And unlike Fischli/Weiss’ simulated studios and storerooms, where the junk shows up as lovingly refabricated, carved, and painted polyurethane, Takahashi’s rubbish is the real thing, and any playfulness amid Japan’s consumer boom (she came to England in 1990, to study art at Goldsmith’s College), her practice is more involved with process than product.

At Beaconsfield Gallery in London the existence of thirty-five power outlets set into the floor inspired a whirring, humming appliance fest, where radios, TVs, videos, and projectors borrowed from Takahashi’s friends were corralled into squared-off sections and Takahashi’s arrangements of mountains of stacked furniture or clusters of her own cigarette butts yield unexpected. even bizarre narratives. ensnared in tangled masses of snaking cable. For a marketing company’s headquarters (Company Deal, 1997), she engulfed the pristine offices in six weeks’ worth of accumulated rubbish, but in three rooms each image and piece of text was meticulously obliterated from every document. And for Info Only, 1998, at London’s Tablet Gallery, Takahashi spent months retrieving the materials discarded by construction workers, which she then reintroduced into the brand-new space.

So what may at first seem random about Takahashi’s debris is carefully considered. Her arrangements of mountains of stacked furniture or clusters of her own cigarette butts yield unexpected, even bizarre narratives. Amid epic masses of garbage she zeroes in on certain objects, which are delicately manipulated to assume new guises. Turned on its side, an orange traffic cone in Info Only becomes a megaphone, conjuring the cacophony of construction work via a fan of wall-mounted black plastic ties. The zoned groupings of electronic gadgets in the Beaconsfield show took on the appearance of city neighborhoods seen from the air or a giant circuit board with a mind of its own. What emerges is not so much a serendipitous conglomeration of refuse as an exuberant celebration of the people who created it. “All my works are based on and influenced by the venue,” she says. “The intention is to encapsulate the activity of those who inhabit that space, often through the objects left behind. Each place has its own natural music which is pre-composed by those inhabitants.”

Yet like the Indian sitar music that Takahashi has learned to play, improvisation is underpinned by rigorous discipline and control. She describes her installations as “visual music,” and she’s taken up gamelan music because she feels its complex combination of instrumental components is close to what she is trying to achieve. “Many simple elements have to be mastered to make up a complex figure. You have to experience each percussion element to take a single part.” It is this sense of orchestration in her work that allows inanimate objects to take on personalities without falling prey to a purely whimsical anthropomorphism—dishes, if you like, are prevented from running away with spoons.

Each installation is governed by Takahashi’s relationship to a location. She lives on site if possible, and it sometimes literally shows. For Info Only, her fold-up bed and sleeping bag were incorporated into the elaborate arrangement; at Beaconsfield, her wall-mounted alarm clock, with its painted halo of cartoonish “ringing-bell” zigzags, was testament to three weeks of sleeping—and waking—on location. With no preconceived plans, just bags of rubbish, the often frenetic improvisation gives her work its energy and edge. “I don’t make drawings beforehand,” she says. “They come at the end, to record what I’ve done. There’s always a kind of story—I set up a basic kind of background and then start imagining things.”

Before she had a space to show in, Takahashi would come into friends’ homes and rearrange their property into tableaux that reflected her relationships with them. The orderly office of a librarian was transformed into a landscape of opened books in various languages, while canvases in a painter friend’s studio were propped up among a deluge of personal possessions and professional materials. She called this series Organised Crime, 1993-94, and its powerful psychological charge continues to reverberate into the later, larger pieces, such as Authorised for Removal, 1997, in which Takahashi redeployed the obsolete contents of a disused police station with virtuoso flamboyance and exacting delicacy. Here the sense of violation that is essential to any crime scene was spliced with the precision of a forensics lab—conclusive evidence that chaos can be creatively choreographed.

Louisa Buck’s Moving Targets: A User’s Guide to British Art Now was recently published by the Tate Gallery.