Tsubasa Kato, Black Snake, 2017, digital C-print, 17 3/4 x 24 5/8".

Tsubasa Kato, Black Snake, 2017, digital C-print, 17 3/4 x 24 5/8".

Tsubasa Kato

Tsubasa Kato, Black Snake, 2017, digital C-print, 17 3/4 x 24 5/8".

Tsubasa Kato’s work is typically described in the terms of socially engaged and community arts. This framing befits his iconic “Pull and Raise” series, 2007–, for which the artist recruited people to erect or topple symbolic architectural structures, including apartment rooms and a tsunami-destroyed lighthouse, with ropes and festive cheers. To some extent, it also applies to “(Drawing) Fractions of the Longest Distance,” his recent exhibition in two successive parts, which featured video documentation and performance artifacts from nine projects conducted between 2015 and 2017. Black Snake, 2017, for example—the most recent of several projects carried out at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota since 2013—documents locals overturning a giant three-dimensional wooden grid. Plastic sheeting had been woven through the structure so that it resembled a black serpent, an animal that features centrally in Sioux legend and that has become a metaphor for the notorious oil pipeline.

But “(Drawing) Fractions” also highlighted how Kato has branched out beyond such affirmative and simplistic images of community toward more complex social figures. Proximity, for one, no longer guarantees unity. Listen to the Same Wall, 2015, shows three folk musicians in Mexico City struggling to play together despite each being sequestered in adjacent patios separated by ten-foot-high walls. Woodstock 2017 pays homage to Jimi Hendrix’s legendary performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” by showing a rock band in Seattle trying to play the national anthem while their limbs are tugged at by ropes attached to their bandmates. “In a time when it’s less clear who to unite with or what to accomplish, when social media provides the main forum for our debates, we look back to the physicality of Woodstock with a kind of longing,” writes Kato in the exhibition notes.

Do we really, though? After all, Kato himself clearly enjoys dissonance. Like a thesis statement, Can You Hear Me?, 2015, was the sole work exhibited in both parts of the show. Four smartphones, their casings removed and their insides showing, stood upright in a plastic vitrine. On their screens we saw four people in four countries tossing pebbles at cameras placed on the ground; they are led by Kato, who tries, unsuccessfully, to keep their throws synchronized via a conference call from Seattle. Their failure may confirm suspicions that telecommunications provide a poor substitute for actual face time, yet it is precisely through this disjuncture that the participants’ humanity and the work’s humor manifest. Underground Orchestra, 2017, is set on a plain opposite the former main protest campsite at Standing Rock. The sudden influx of socially engaged Homo sapiens caused the local prairie dog population to flee and build a new network of burrows here. Kato hung small bells at the entrances of the animals’ refugee homes, so that when they poke their heads out, their curiosity results in a haunting, irregular jangle.

In his early works, Kato typically depicted community as a monotone chorus of group heave-hos and smiling hurrahs; the pleasures to be derived from his videos were largely vicarious, and thus (at least for this nonparticipant) largely unsatisfying. Now exploring community instead as a prepared piano of cross-purposes and obstacles, Kato has begun using video for more than just documentation, offering a richer experience for the gallery visitor. That said, what was most effective for me was not the individual works, but the ensemble. The exhibition in general, and Can You Hear Me? in particular, reminded me of the video for Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” (2013), in which young and old, beautiful and awkward, famous and anonymous are seen dancing by themselves in various places, then brought together virtually through editing and a common rhythm. If “Happy” uses pop music to imagine a seamless, utopian version of the global village, “(Drawing) Fractions” improvised a mosaic that was closer to what belonging really means in the age of ubiquitous video and social media, when disparate groups and individuals don’t have to be acting toward the same goal or according to the same score to feel connected or to be part of a community. I’ll take YouTube over Woodstock any day.

Ryan Holmberg