ToBe TokyoBerlin Art Communication (Berlin 1)


Why has Berlin become the capital of the global art world -- at least from many artists' and curators' point of view? This half finished, scruffy, pariah German capital, that still lies half way between the bright lights and money of Western Europe and the frozen wastes of Siberia, first quietly bled all the talent from Amsterdam and Copenhagen, before slowly but surely supplanting New York and then London as the coolest art destination on the planet. And not just in the midst of deep midwinter when temperatures drop routinely to minus 20 (or more), and the hardy antique apartment tenants scramble for enough coal to heat the house. A constant stream of the brightest and best young artists have been leaving other art capitals around the globe to take part in the edgy, experimental, constantly changing Berlin art scene. The curators have followed.

It's all about space, of course, as well as Berlin's famously tolerant and liberal attitude towards the contemporary arts. West Berlin before the wall came down had always been a haven for German alternative cultures uncomfortable with the financial drive and bourgeois ambitions of other, richer German cities. As the new Berlin was being rebuilt, many people thought that with gentrification and money pouring into the city, it would quickly become about as interesting as Düsseldorf or Frankfurt. Yet despite the relocation of government functions and major corporations, it has become clear that Berlin is not yet losing its rather broken down and dilapidated state. The city is still bankrupt, and large parts of downtown areas still lie undeveloped. This leads to lots of unused or abandoned spaces, low rents (vastly cheaper than, say, London, Paris or Copenhagen), and an urban culture of remake and remodel, quite often "illegally". Artists here stand a chance. The popular Japanese self description of "survival artist" in Berlin is not just a romantic excuse for a poor young artist living off their parents while going nowhere (as they do in their thousands in Japan). It is a visibly possible lifestyle and chance for independence.

No wonder then that so many of the wandering stars of young Japanese art have chosen to set up in Berlin, abandoning the frustrations of the Tokyo art world for a city that imposes no particular "Japanese" labels on artists and encourages the most avant garde and progressive forms of contemporary art. A short list of some of the key Japanese names who have been based here in recent years include video artist Takehito Koganezawa, video artist Shimabuku and his photographer partner, Rika Noguchi, and installation artist Chiharu Shiota (surely the most Berlinoise of all in the style and materials of her work). They have secured generous fellowships, found supportive curators, institutions and art press, used flexible if not completely lax visa and residency possibilities, and tapped into a large degree of public support for contemporary art -- even in financially strapped times. The German obsession for all things oriental, and its love of celebrating world cultures also helps.

No surprise then that my favourite days this summer were spent visiting Berlin again, a city I had not visited since the fast moving changes I saw in the late 1990s. My reason was an invitation by Tokyo installation artist and ART-iT blogger, Midori Mitamura, to visit a joint German-Japanese show "To-Be Tokyo+Berlin Art Communication". The show was an artist initiated collaboration, loosely organised by Thomas van Arx and the redoutable avant garde veteran Tatsumi Orimoto, which had been shown first in Tokyo in 2009. Here in Berlin, it took over three floors of the recently opened Freies Museum Berlin during all of August.

The Freies Museum is a typical alternative old warehouse space that has been transformed into a versatile combination of exhibitions spaces, commercial galleries and artists' studios, with a large open space courtyard for events and performances. Mitamura had set up her ongoing "Art and Breakfast" project in the outdoor cafe space, inviting visitors to eat the breakfast she made and talk art with whoever is there.

On the day I visited a random collection of crusty left field Berlin art folk and a sprinkling of visiting Japanese artists installed themselves in the room enthusiastically. Mitamura's work encourages quiet and meaningful communication, with a spare and elegant aesthetic emphasising echoes of past events and places she has travelled to (although making breakfast for everyone looked like a lot of work).

Inside I met Masami Kondo, an established painter who teaches at Tokyo Zokei Art University, and talked with a number of visiting young Japanese artists, including the performance and installation artist Ayumi Minemura, New York based painter Toru Hayashi, and Paris based video artist Jun'ichiro Ishii.

The show itself was a mixed bag with a few highlights. Tatsumi Orimoto's montage about his home life and relationship with his mother who suffers from Alzheimers, offered one of the more compelling insights into communication. What looks at first a rather squalid even exhibitionist glimpse into his messy and difficult home life, is in fact a deeply moving expression of the reality of his "art life" now, that revolves around the permanent care of his 92 year old mother. It is Orimoto's art that has sustained her these last years. The power of his message was reinforced a few weeks later in October when I was honoured to be invited to visit Mrs Orimoto and her son for oden and shochu in their shitamachi Kawasaki house (something which surely requires a future blog).

Orimoto's long time assistant, Noritoshi Motoda, offered a similar auto-referential installation, documenting the comedy and bathos of his fixation with an unattainable 22 year old idol in a seedy cardboard space that approximated a hikikomori's bedroom. This theme raised the question of what the "typical" Japanese element was in the show, which was notably (and mercifully) free of the usual "neo-japoniste" themes of kawaii, manga, anime, otaku and so on. Where a self-consciously "Japanese" aesthetic was used it was by the Europeans, with works that might echo a tourist visit to Japan or their idea of Japanese art materials.

One might have thought, however, that the provocative poster for the show, of a pretty young girl artist covered in an apparently all over "tribal" body suit of rubber and coloured paint was part of some typical "neo-japoniste" marketing logic. It looked like there might be some kind of agenda here underlining kawaii girls' culture or manga body painting (recalling some earlier work by Makoto Aida). In fact Tomoko Kofuneko's installation room (and performance) was something very different: a spoof art video documentary, that looked superbly like one of Pipilotti Rist's sillier moments in its multi-coloured aesthetic. Her sarcastic, "dumbed down" pop humour in fact has more in common with Chim Pom and other Mujinto Productions artists. The 22 year old artist and a couple of equally clueless airhead girlfriends, go off an "exotic" holiday to find and communicate with primitive native tribes in Indonesia -- a kind of silly parody of the typical Japanese HIS Asian holiday. Taking some reckless risks -- they just laugh when someone tells them that they might get drowned in the boat they are using -- the girlfriends throw themselves quasi naked into some tribal dancing once they finally reach a native village. Along the way, they laugh and bicker a lot, try out their silly costumes, worry about money and the weather, and then basically go wild in the jungle to a tribal beat. The video is a complete riot, a nice companion piece to Chim Pom's equally stupid tribute to Lady Diana ("I'm Bokan") in Cambodia. The title "I don't need nationality" also appropriately echoes the legendary art unit Dumb Type, yet this is no longer the earnest 80s but the cynical noughties. Tofuneko clearly deserves her graduation at Kanazawa art school, which is also shown on video as she collects her prize and takes her first hesitant steps to a serious art career (in another silly costume). Kofuneko is clearly a real talent if she can find something to follow up this gaudy and tasteless little masterwork, and someone to back her in what she is doing.

I liked too the videos by Mio Shirai, which I'd seen at Tokorozawa Biennial, as well as the more abstract conceptual photographic work of banal moments captured at the same time and same day in different locations by Hiroshi Suzuki. Meanwhile, the sweet sickly sound of Tokyo metro music greeted visitors in the entry hallway. This always gives me a nostalgic and bitter sweet feeling, even here. On the final day, ikebana artist Tomohiro Hatori entertained the crowd with a naked performance of his own, wrapping himself up in plants and twigs to the delight of the hippy Berlin audience. It seems to be what the freedom of the city inspires. Better though was the clever and very funny show in the commercial gallery Walden downstairs, in which Japanese calligrapher Tomoko Kawao collaborated with the El Salvadoran artist Judith Umaña Ayala to illustrate various forms of "Virtual-itis", imaginary human to technology pathologies, with which we Web 2:0 addicts are inflicted these days.

I ended the day catching up with Taka Ishii artist Kei Takemura and Koyanagi artist Kengo Kito, who are now living and working in Berlin with their by now one and half year old son. They have successfully completed a family installation in the city, now with two studios since Kito's return from a scholarship in New York. Both have been busy with new work as well as shows older work in new places (Takemura in Akita, Kito in London). For the moment, they like other Berlin Japanese seem to be settling in, figuring it has never been easier to keep in touch with Tokyo -- or anywhere else for that matter -- while finding the breathing space and conceptual inspiration that Berlin is famous for.

A Berlin door





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