Yuken Teruya


Japanese artists nowadays are routinely global, but it is nevertheless interesting to see that different global cities have different conceptual effects on young Japanese artists when they live and work in them. To take two of THE ECHO generation artists I have written about a lot in this blog: Satoru Aoyama and Kei Takemura, born in 1973 and 1975 respectively (* see blogs below). Viewed conceptually, Aoyama is distinctively an artist who came out of Goldsmiths, London at the time of the YBAs -- he is nothing like Damien Hirst, but you still know that he studied there in every stitch he makes. Takemura's art, meanwhile, is all about her Berlin-Japan memories and connections, her mix of poetical Japanese-German texts underlying the conceptual freedom this art capital city has given her. Similarly, Yuken Teruya -- born in 1973 -- who has lived and worked in New York City since the turn of the millenium, is a "global" Japanese artist whose work is decisively inflected by the distinctive influence of NYC.

He says it is because it wasn't until he moved to New York, after studying at Tamabi in Tokyo, that he began to feel comfortable about his "identity" as a native Okinawan. The fact he was not from mainland Japan was always a negative issue for him when he was in his home country. He didn't feel comfortable as a "Japanese" artist. But the concern with feeling a comfortable global identity is itself a typical preoccupation of the USA, where everyone and everything is struggling over a kind of post-ethnic "identity" politics. Race, gender, culture and sexuality are all part of the mix, and you are never allowed to forget it (or be satirical -- i.e., "incorrect" -- about it). New York colonises the mind, even as it convinces you that you are living in the one true big global city (and don't need to go anywhere else).

Quietly, slowly, but surely, Teruya has become one of the most successful younger generation Japanese artists in New York. Perhaps he is the post-Murakami Japanese artist the world is waiting for. There are quite a few Japanese resident artists who were like him featured in the immaculate and emotional Making A Home show at Japan Society in New York (in 2008, curated by Eric Shiner, with Reiko Tomii and others) but many of them are still totally obscure -- etching out declining incomes in the tough, expensive and very very big artist fishpond in New York. One often wonders why New York is so venerated. It seems to constrain artists to direct their work to the market (and to brute "survival"), as much as it might inspire them by their daily floating in the distinctively Americanised "global" atmosphere of the Big Apple.

No such problem for Teruya. Straight out of the MFA at the School of Visual Art in New York in 2001, he was getting ecstatic reviews and prizes for his brilliant opening works, the Notice-Forest series (ongoing), in which minutely cut paper trees sit inside the throwaway bags of luxury brands like Vuitton and Dior, or takeaway giants like McDonalds. It was a great "no logo" art, an apposite and sad environmental commentary, and also exquisitely subtle, small and beautiful. Not a bad riposte to the big, plastic, dumb, corporate art that Takashi Murakami was launching in the US around the same time with Superflat, and was going on to make ever more famous in the silly global era before the crash of 2008. Whereever and whenever they have been shown, these paper bag white cubes astonish. They are like a kind of post-neo pop version of Tsuyoshi Ozawa's Nasubi galleries or Yoshihiro Suda's carved flower installations. It is so easy to miss them, and I think that is the point: I remember the first time I saw one at the Takahashi collection show, Neoteny. I didn't know what I was looking at (just as we don't always know the damage we are doing with our consumer purchases ...). As a signature, it's such a good one. There was even an image in the April 11 New York Times magazine, in an article by the Nobel prize winning critical economist Paul Krugman: a tiny installation by Teruya of US dollar notes out of which he has cut fragile little "green" shoots.

The problem for Teruya is that the action has been very slow for him back in Japan. He was featured in Tadashi Kawamata's 1995 Yokohama Triennial, and we saw him stealing the audience prize last year at the Mori Museum's Roppongi Crossing. There was a small sampler show, My Great Grandma was USA at the Ueno Royal Museum in 2010. But, perhaps for network reasons, he has not been linked up with the growing wave of Japanese artists, born in the 70s and who matured in the "zero years" of the 90s, who have similarly embraced a kind of reflective, minutely crafted, small scale and sustainable art practice (see my essay "After the Gold Rush":

Teruya obviously needs to be located here; and would be a great follow up to Tabaimo at Venice this year, if anybody is watching...

When I was in LA, in late March, I had heard there was a show of Teruya's work, from Ei Kibukawa of eitoeiko gallery, who was in town to launch the Torrance show that he part curated:

One of the pioneer galleries of Santa Monica's famous Bergamot Station, Shoshanawayne Gallery had put on Teruya's solo show, his fourth at the gallery. I was getting in to the Big Orange on the Sunday after it closed, though. No matter: a phone call to the gallery, and I was invited to drop in on the closed day, Monday, to see the show before it was taken down.

Teruya can fill big spaces, as well as he can work on a microscopic scale. The big main room included a forty foot long tapestry, any number of cut up ("Teruya-style") brand name consumer boxes and packet, a series of wall paintings (actually fabric-colored stencils), and a lot of wall graffiti of flowers, birds, waves and bicycles. The main visual technique he has now adopted is the ancient Okinawan craft of bingata, making designs with stencils, then using natural dyes on fabric to decorate them. This is usually used to decorate kimono. Here, taking the basic images of a series of masculine heroes -- Ultraman, Geronimo, Obama and, controversially, Emperor Hirohito -- he decorates them in this most feminine, near-kitsch style.

The point becomes clearer with the brand name packaging strewn around the room: stuff like Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes from a take away, or old Pocky packets and Cheerios boxes from the conbini around the corner (7/11 being a universal these days). Each is both coloured with stencils, and also cut up into fine and delicate paper/card vegetation, growing up the walls. It is a pick and mix of Okinawan, Japanese and American pop/consumer culture: the material and daily detritus of an artist living between all these places.

The wall "paintings" were selling for $30,000 -- quite a big price for a junior artist -- and the box packets for $1-$5,000: an impressive value mark up for what were once throwaway junk materials. I wonder, though, if he runs into any brand copyright issues for this kind of parasitic commodification? Interesting to know who might be buying it: the gallery mentions a number of museums collecting his work.

In the smaller west gallery room, a number of artfully strewn cardboard boxes, also cut into shapes to make them resemble little houses or warehouses, were used as the galleries for minature video installations. These depicted small paper boats, with flags of central American countries, riding the dirty water in the gutter, under cars and down drains, in Teruya's home neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn. The idea here is, again, a rather trite commentary on American "identity". But it is impossible not to be charmed by the sweet little videos, for which you have to bend down and crawl around to see.

Teruya apparently was working in "just in time" fashion up until the last minute before the opening to fill the gallery. He works with materials to hand, and ideas as they pop up. I was intrigued by the political aspects of the large tapestry, also stencil dyed, hanging across the room. Apparently no-one else had really asked about the heavy textual references Teruya makes on the tapestry to post-war American military policy on Okinawa. A text from 1947, in which a US military advisor writes a memo for the head of the occupying forces, General MacArthur, reads: "Mr. Terasaki (on behalf of the Emperor) stated that the Emperor hopes that the United States will continue the military occupation of Okinawa and other islands of the Ryukyus, a hope which undoubtedly is largely based on self-interest... In his opinion the Japanese people would therefore be convinced that the United States has no ulterior motives and would welcome the United States occupation for military purposes". Nowadays, Japan welcomes Burger King or Krispy Kreme Donuts on the same basis. But, at a time when the Japanese government still lacks the courage just to tell the colonials to leave, it is good that Teruya reminds us that Okinawa is still, over 60 years (!!) later, the US's largest aircraft carrier in the Pacific. His empty pizza boxes at Roppongi Crossing, dumped perhaps by a squad of a hungry American servicemen, made the same point, even more graphically. I personally got very tired of big, lumbering Apocalypse Now US Air Force helicopters flying over my apartment in Omotesando, like it was still the last days of Saigon, to land in a military airbase in the middle of Roppongi that officially "does not exist". Colonialism begins at home, and it begins in the head.

This may be a concern for Teruya as he moves on. The heavy "political" aspects of some of his work -- riffs on the US flag, or commentary about being an "immigrant" -- look familiarly like generic radical New York speaking to me. I hope, instead, than he can continue to articulate his peripheral Japaneseness, not through the ideas and the more obvious "conceptual" take away, but more through the methods, materials, and aesthetics he uses. This, at least, might be one way to "come home".

Images coutesy of Shoshanawayne Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

*More on Satoru Aoyama and Kei Takemura:





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