“The Age of Anxiety”

Flying fiberglass space-age animal robots, a pink parakeet the size of an elephant, wandering ants that make art, a “fake” money-exchange bureau: all these were found in “The Age of Anxiety,” an exhibition of recent work by young Japanese artists. Curated by Louise Dompierre, the show indicated that these artists are in some sense like other cosmopolitan artists, whether from East or West: they are endeavoring to articulate a language that is as responsive to “indigenous” cultural experiences as it is to the experience of “outside” cultures, even when it is difficult to distinguish between the two.—a transformative process reflected, it seems, elsewhere in Japanese society, from its particular version of technocratic capitalism to its absorption of American pop-cultural forms. If contemporary Japanese artists can be said to suffer from any sort of “anxiety” (as the exhibition title implies), it is most likely that associated with the problems of reinventing visual language: however, this condition may also be the source of their artistic resourcefulness in working in between any number of cultural positions. Many of the artists in this show have produced wonderfully entertaining, and occasionally poetic, hybrid expressions. By exploring the possibilities of invention, they dodge accusations of either capitulating to their own traditions of visual culture or mirroring Western forms.

It appears that the Japanese artists in this show—Teiji Furuhashi (whose gorgeous multimedia installation, Lovers, 1994, a complex visual narrative about the body, identity, sexuality, and romance, was also recently seen in Barbara London’s video-installation show at New York’s MoMA), Taro Chiezo, Yoshiko Shimada, Emiko Kasahara, Yuji Kitagawa, Ideal Copy, Shigeaki Iwai, Yukinori Yanagi, and Noboru Tsubaki—are actively exploiting their own penchant for conceptual and formal processes of incorporation and integration. And, to a certain degree, these artists seem to have moved from mere appropriation to salient transfiguration of cultural forms. For example, Chiezo’s Information Circle, 1995, is a huge mural comprising laser discs affixed to the wall, end-to-end. The effect is dazzling: the screen of iridescent laser disks hovers in front of an architectural wall that has dissolved into an amorphous—or, rather, immaterial—zone of whiteness. This simple gesture is not so much a critique of technological/computer culture but a witty reappropriation of its “everyday” materials for the sake of a new esthetic. In the foreground of the mural, Chiezo placed a number of his hybrid toylike sculptures, such as Flying Calf-Engine, 1994 (a suspended blue synthesis of beast and machine that suggests what might have happened had Franz Marc become involved in science fiction), and Cleaning Deer, 1994, a beautiful, toy-red, Frankensteinian piece cross-referencing deer and vacuum cleaner. Here humor becomes a subversive device in the service of fun while also offering serious reflection on the increasingly confused relationship between nature and culture.

Particularly memorable as well are Tsubaki’s Polly Zeus, 1994, a mixed-media installation featuring colossal, brightly colored fiberglass parakeets sitting on perches, suspended from the ceiling; Channel: Exchange, 1995, Ideal Copy’s poignantly absurd project to exchange all international currency for their own; and Yanagi’s Wandering Position, 1995, and Asia-Pacific Ant Farm, 1995. In the former, the artist followed the wanderings of a single ant across a floor for a week, tracing its movements in red pastel; the process has been documented in a video that complemented the resultant floor drawing (ant does Andre Masson or Jackson Pollock). Asia-Pacific Ant Farm comprises 42 national flags made from colored sand and contained in Plexiglas boxes connected by plastic tubes. Ants that live inside instinctively move from one box to another via the system of tubes, dragging grains of sand from flag to flag, oblivious to the erosion of cultural and political borders they are causing. The piece could easily function as a pendant for the themes of cultural interface and hybridity that circulate throughout this exhibition.

Joshua Decter