Taro Izumi


The only country whose fast trains get close to Japan’s is Germany, so when I heard that Midori Matsui’s Micropop 2.0 show “Winter Garden” was going to open its world tour in Cologne, with a reasonable ICE train connection via Hamburg from Denmark, I was quite tempted to go. What sealed the deal, though, was hearing that one of its central selections, Taro Izumi, was going to be there for the opening. I remembered his hilarious people-fly zapping video “Lime at the Bottom of the Lake” (2006) from Micropop at Mito, but I had missed his shows at Hiromi Yoshii in Tokyo. I always sensed there was something here to take more notice of, but had not yet really got clear what it was. So I boarded the train, and met up with Izumi in the urban heart of the German Rhineland.

Izumi was pacing around outside, frantically talking on his mobile phone, when I arrived at the big Japanese cultural institute in the city early evening. Our lack of much common language (English/Japanese) didn’t promise too much, but we got along just fine in the end. Going over his portfolio with him, and discussing small elements of the various shows he had put on, it became clear to me that Matsui’s placement of him within the overarching theory she has advanced for this show, while a great selection, actually mischaracterises why his work is so interesting and so charming to viewers. Matsui puts his video work upfront in her argument that “Winter Garden” is taking her Micropop idea deep down into the unconscious of young Japanese art. This is the argument she made to Donald Eubank in his review of the show for Japan Times, and Eubank makes a good case for her there (see link below, I will review Matsui’s essay for the new catalogue in a forthcoming blog).

The argument is that since the original Micropop, the artists Matsui has selected have shown a tendency to go beyond the quiet, “micro-political” expressions of freedom and resistance to the contemporary Japanese condition shown at Mito, and are now tapping directly in to an unconscious level of interaction with the everyday, the small scale, and the banal, that represents a triumph over the restrictions and frustrations of the society they live in. It’s a reading that invests Izumi’s incredibly simple and absurd little exercises in on-screen automatic drawing and noise making with a heavy infrastructure of philosophical meaning.

When I ask Izumi what he thinks, rather than what this curator has read into his work, he shrugs and explains that the reason he devised “Curos cave” – the much seen video where he tries to draw TV personality faces on a television screen as they are moving and changing – was just a method of improving his bad drawing. The TV controls him, as he controls the TV. It is, in other words, like “action painting” (as Matsui says), only done as a kind of simplified Matthew Barney style “drawing restraint”. Barney strings himself up in all kinds of weird positions, whereas Izumi just shrugs and uses a felt tip on a TV screen. Now, I know that Japanese artists are famous for shrugging and saying not very much about their works, and that they often leave the big talk to others. But in fact it is precisely the simplicity of Izumi’s work that makes it so special. What the restrained drawing video achieves is exactly what Izumi says it does. With no talent for drawing, and nothing but a stop-start video controller, he creates a very funny, striking and totally hypnotic work of art – that exists in and only in the video, independently of any other meaning or ideas that might be read into the work. The politicians and famous faces that flash up for the felt tip treatment on screen are all a “red herring”, in this respect, or, if you prefer, a cheap joke. There isn’t meant to be anything much to say about the drawing other than it is (just) drawing. This is what a pure “phenomenology” of art making might be, not any kind of work pointing at deeper meanings. If we start interpreting Izumi’s squiggles as revealing some kind of inner unconsciousness, it is our own unconscious that we impose, not the artist’s. He named the work after a brand of snack food, after all.

The same goes for “White Bear” where we watch over and over silly black and white drawings he has made be smudged when a stone is thrown into a pool of water. At Hara, this was shown in a toilet sink – and this made it even better, even funnier. Here it is just a video on the wall. Are we supposed to watch the drawings smudge and start looking for inner meanings as the ink bleeds? Psychoanalytic truths about Japan? The meaning of life? No. We are supposed to laugh. Izumi turns pathetic little doodle drawings into a funny video, with just water and a stone added. High art out of nothing. Brilliant. For Matsui, though, it’s the high road to the Japanese social unconscious. But I really don’t think that Izumi wants us to care about “what is on his mind”, or that the video is some kind of Rorschach test to see what we can say about Japanese society or the “contemporary condition”.

Izumi’s art, in other words, has a quite “punk rock” aesthetic about it. What kind of noise can I make out of piece of plastic, zero technique and (almost) zero technology? It does not surprise me when tells me he didn’t learn much at Tama University, that he has no-one he thinks of as his “sensei”, or that he doesn’t even talk to Hiromi Yoshii much about what he is doing.

I do think Matsui’s earlier linking of Izumi with the kind of video art “gentle interventions” of artists like Shimabuku or London based Saki Satom was a better approach. The fly zapper video has that kind of feel to it, and there is something quaintly Monty Python about the way all these artists make a serious laugh out of life’s little ironies. But even here, the connection can be misleading. Shimabuku’s works are ideas, often set in specific contexts, with a performance attached. The video merely displays the idea. In Izumi, there is no external idea to the work, the work and action that we see is the idea: it is the elementary combination of a video machine, and the single piece of action, that constitutes the work. It is laughably simple, and simply a laugh. Art out of nothing, remember? This even might cut to some kind of core, the kind of brilliance that Monty Python occasionally flashed. Izumi as the art equivalent of the Parrot Sketch, or Ministry of Funny Walks.

In Cologne, the shy and shambling Izumi offers his own “live performance” for a delighted German crowd. It’s hit and miss, as might be expected. He sits a woman down, grabs a romance photo magazine, and starts drawing her portrait using the face of a man in a couple as his drawing guide. The crowd love it, but its just a daft bit of graffiti. He switches to a second idea: drawing a four or five line cartoon animal mask on an acetate sheet that he then holds in front of the person while taking a mobile phone photo. The person becomes a cartoon pig, cat or rabbit. Great results. He gets the person to sign their name and approval on the sheet, and within fifteen minutes he has generated ten new works for his gallery, mostly portraits of women, a couple of babies.

There is no doubt in my mind that Matsui discovered a new star in the making, when she first stumbled upon his work at Hiromi Yoshii at the former Complex building in Roppongi five or so years ago. Here was indeed somebody “younger than Jesus” (another international book selection in which Matsui presented him)—although he laughs that this particular recommendation no longer applies, as he is now 33. Global art collector François Pinault also thought the same, when he snapped up the “Lime...” fly-zapper video in Paris after he saw it recently. Japanese museums are also in the hunt, and there’s new public art works appearing now in Yokohama, curated by Fumihiko Sumitomo. Izumi is quiet and seems quite casual, but he is prolific and totally disciplined. His work should not be loaded with the overbearing philosophy that Matsui imposes, but she is right that Izumi is a kind of pure “micropop” art – the real thing, perhaps, no more, no less. The same alas could not quite be said about the authentic “Japanese” dinner in a local sushi restaurant that the nice folks at the cultural institute treated us to once the opening was over, but the local German “Kölsch” beer tasted good.

Donald Eubank’s review of “Winter Garden” can be found here:







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