New Plymouth

“Mediarena”

Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Since the ’90s successes of Mariko Mori’s flawless digital fantasies of technofemininity and Takashi Murakami’s anime-derived subjects, the Japanese art most widely exhibited abroad has conformed to two easily generalized types: high-tech and neo-Pop. Carefully weighted against the expectations produced by this export history, “Mediarena: Contemporary Art from Japan,” a survey of current practice from the Kanto and Kansai regions (centered on Tokyo and Osaka), energetically displayed a more complex spectrum of media and artistic modes, partly by locating recent work in a lineage of action-based art. Thus curators Fumio Nanjo (deputy director of the Mori Art Museum), Roger McDonald (deputy director of Arts Initiative Tokyo), and Gregory Burke (director of Govett-Brewster) included Yayoi Kusama as an established reference point alongside Tatsuo Miyajima’s equally iconic digital counting pieces.

Kusama’s relentlessly personal, ritualistic practice and Miyajima’s Zen interests resonate with work like Tadasu Takamine’s God Bless America, 2002, for example, a video projection in which he and collaborators are shown in stop-motion time—eighteen days boiled down into a couple of renditions of the title song—living their daily lives around and thereby animating a clay head as tall as a person. While the head’s squeaky singing acknowledges the urgency to the question of what “America” means in the age of Empire (following Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri), it does so in a way that is not stridently political—the artist’s sex life, sleep, and meal times visibly aren’t put aside in the face of this concern, after all. Ultimately the work doesn’t affirm but demonstrates a discomfort with the cliché of Japan’s fascination with American culture.

Takamine’s attention to intersections of lived experience and art is emblematic of an exhibition that kept both in view in a number of ways, from the social project work of Noboru Tsubaki’s Radikal Carbon, 2004, for which he built kilns to produce the sustainable energy resource bamboo charcoal during his residency in New Plymouth (New Zealand’s “energy capital,” home to natural gas reserves), to a program of art and club culture crossover events, including cabaret rock stars Gorgerous and Tokyo underground VJ/DJs Numb and exonomo.

The performative thread was sustained by the predominance of moving-image work in the gallery, including performance videos by Kusama, Makoto Aida, and Saki Satom; the eight-artist video program “Replay”; Tabaimo’s interactive animation Japanese Interior, 2002; and Motohiko Odani’s lurid, digitally constructed videos Caterpillar, 2003, and Rompers, 2003. Both technology and tradition—as represented by the visual tropes of geisha and kawaii style, for instance—were predictably but effectively shown up for their hidden violence. Wish-fulfillment fantasies indistinguishable from mysteriously symbolic nightmares, Odani’s scenarios provoke a thorough ambivalence, suggesting the dark side of being able—digitally—to get anything you want; while Tabaimo and Aida employ traditional drawing and printmaking styles to reveal flashes of abusive, cannibalistic, and suicidal urges in the highly groomed world of salarymen and uniformed schoolgirls. While such legibly Japanese concerns may at first appear pitched to a foreign audience, their very expectedness may be part of what artists based in Japan are concerned to work through, perhaps especially when art is conceived as a lived process rather than something to produce a transportable or transmittable finished image.

Jon Bywater