San Francisco

“Against Nature”

“Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties” attempts the impossible task of encapsulating a distant art scene using the works of 10 artists (nine individuals plus the Dumb Type performance group). The show is a collaboration between two American curators, Kathy Halbreich and Thomas Sokolowski, and two Japanese, Fumio Nanjo and Shinji Kohmoto. Unfortunately, the selection of work seems both too sparse and too ill-focused to make convincing any inferences about Japanese art in the ’80s.

The show and its catalogue argue that the most vital, independent current in recent Japanese art is one that rejects nature-centered esthetics and embraces the commercial artifice of the Japanese urban environment. Trouble is, most of the art marshaled to illustrate this argument is unremarkable to Western eyes and does not begin to evoke the sensory overload that foreign visitors (arid apparently residents as well) experience in Tokyo. Only Dumb Type’s performance environment and accompanying videotapes (Playback: Reconstruction of the elements from the performance “Pleasure Life,” 1985–89) capture the dizzying texture of the Japanese urban setting. The environment is a grid of square metal tables on long legs, each holding a circular fluorescent light and a phonograph turntable on which a transparent record spins soundlessly. In place of the tone arm on each turntable is a plastic missile. A computer program keeps the fluorescent lights turning on and off in sequences that appear random, unless you watch them for some minutes. The videotapes show the Dumb Type group performing in this setting, fitting shrill vocalizations and stylized mimicries of mundane routine to a hypnotic musical soundtrack.

The most conservative works in the show are the carved wood figures by Katsura Funakoshi. These painted wood busts with marble eyes recall the tradition of realistic Japanese Buddhist sculpture that peaked in the late 13th century. But with their modern garb and epicene, impassive air, Funakoshi’s figures resemble more the work of British sculptor John Davies, itself a backward-looking exercise in low-key figural spookiness. In this context, the affinity of Funakoshi’s figures to antique Japanese sculpture looks merely academic.

Much of the work here recalls postwar Western art. For example, Shinro Ohtake’s assemblages, choked with old snapshots and flanked with driftwood, bring to mind the early constructions of Edward Kienholz and Robert Rauschenberg. The work that stands out either makes a theme of the cultural distance of Japan from Europe and America, as in the startling painted photographs of Yasumasa Morimura, or has a kind of international stylistic neutrality, like the stark electronics of Tatsuo Miyajima.

The centerpiece of “Against Nature” is Morimura’s Portrait (Twin), 1988, which recreates photographically Edouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863, with Morimura himself posing as both the shameless courtesan and her black maid. The naked Morimura, who appears about lifesize in the work, wears a blond wig, and looks no less male or Japanese for it. In doing so, he makes references to Marcel Duchamp’s transvestite alter ego, to Gilbert and George’s “Living Sculpture,” and to the Kabuki tradition of men portraying women, while creating something new and disturbing. Noboru Tsubaki, who gave the show its title, rouses curiosity with his single huge piece, Fresh Gasoline, 1989. This sculpture—if that is the word for it—is a bright yellow lump of a thing encrusted with shells, pods, and scales: it looks something like a monstrous, oversized heart. Yellow branches stretch upward from its surface like frozen tentacles. As a display of distaste for the “natural,” it is hard to top.

Kenneth Baker