New York

Kazumi Tanaka

Kent Gallery

As if to allay doubts concerning its status as art, kinetic sculpture tends, rather too predictably, either to eschew functionality entirely or to produce some “quirky” effect. Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York, bouncing and shaking itself to pieces on a stage at MoMA in 1960, is the Modernist patriarch of a whimsically Luddite line of sculptures—Rebecca Horn’s allegorical contraptions and the war machine that mangled the right hand of its creator, Marc Pauline, number among its many direct descendants.

The work of Kazumi Tanaka, a young Japanese sculptor, is on the whole no exception. However, what most immediately distinguishes it from other “art-gadgets” is a serene tastefulness. With their smooth blond woods, Tanaka’s devices add an Ikea touch to their rather typical Rube Goldbergian mechanisms. While several of the sculptures were fashionably interactive, they were also, anachronistically, hand-crafted by the artist herself. Consisting of wooden cogs, chutes, and cylinders, Sound Maker (all works 1995) resembled the innards of a barrel organ. Turning the handle caused a box on the opposite side to drop a dried nut into a chute; the nut struck something and created a musical sound. Pleasant (and precious) enough—and apparently reminiscent of water-activated musical devices common to Japanese gardens.

More ambitious and clearly a blend of Tanaka’s own memories of childhood was The Chocolate Boot, a work comprising three separate, free-standing pieces. The first of these, a clockwork made of wood supported by a tall, narrow frame, drew its rhythmic movement from the tension created by a stone suspended on a length of wire. This time-piece was intended to take us back to Tanaka’s earliest experiences. A dresser, based on one owned by Tanaka’s parents during her childhood, was outfitted with harmonicas at the back of the drawers, a setup used in Japan to dissuade children from snooping. This impulse to re-create her past was echoed in the third object—a wooden highchair whose seat was marked with the footprints of a child.

Childhood temporality, boredom, curiosity, taboos—Tanaka was attempting to expose their mechanisms, or analogues, while maintaining, through artisanal devotion and preciosity, that these mechanisms are magical or, at the very least, charmed and charming. But the atmosphere of lyrical cuteness always threatened to suffocate the cleverness and finish of her works. The less interactive the work, the less this was the case. The pieces that foreswore such tricks altogether were most memorable. In their provocative simplicity, Maze and Tile—a pair of small wall pieces, their chessboard patterns composed of a delicate fungal growth—obliquely recalled Sherrie Levine’s plywood work. In Day to Day—a wooden bathtub whose cartoonlike showerhead dripped water onto a stone held aloft by fishing line woven across the bathtub’s rim—water dripped onto the stone and the stone grew imperceptibly smoother, lighter. It didn’t say much, but these gestures seemed the most respectful ones that could be made toward the obdurate mysteries of time so clearly preoccupying Tanaka in this show.

Thad Ziolkowski