Just a few days left in Tokyo to see some amazing art works from the 1990s: Hideki Nakazawa's small retrospective, "Systems and Methods in Hidden Functions" at The Container in Naka Meguro.

Nakazawa, the artist, has been an influential but singular presence in Tokyo art world for more than two decades. He first emerged as a talented graphic artist in the context of the pulsating 1980s Tokyo scene in graphic arts. By 1990 he was also established as an art writer for Bijutsu Techo on global conceptual trends. In the early 1990s he entered an alliance with some of the brilliant young Geidai artists about to change Japanese art forever; his ideas contributed to the effervescence of the group, notably the Hi Red Centre homage/parody Small Village Centre, the ad hoc performance group which united Nakazawa with Ozawa (Tsuyoshi), Murakami (Takashi) and Nakamura (Masato). Long before the days of Illustrator and Photoshop, he embraced the possibilities of computer technology in contemporary art, transposing his graphic art into a new on-screen generated genre that was discussed as Baka CG (Silly Comuter Graphics)(*1). In a brave new world in which artists could no longer technologically compete with the immaculate skills of graphic designers, the conceptualism of his heta uma (clumsy or low skill art) had to be answer (at least until the success of Yoshitomo Nara made a more expressivist version of heta uma credible again).


The central piece which fills Shai Ohayon's industrial alternative white cube -- a tin can gallery located inside a hipster hair salon -- is from this earlier period in Nakazawa's work: "Essay on Invisible Functions" from 1996. It is, extraordinarily, a cartoon machine, fronted by what looks like a steam age vintage personal computer. For years it was installed at the ARTPIA, Nadiya Park in Nagoya; the last couple of years it has been languishing in a children's museum in Sasayama; a new lick of paint, and a bit of rewiring, and Nakazawa's 3D vision has been reborn again as a gloriously funny and absurdist art work. Pressing the choice of words on the computer screen causes -- by some "invisble function" that we never know -- classic Nakazawa-style Baka CG images to pop up on the screen. Silly voices also accompany the words or expressions. You are composing a poem on screen, except there is also a degree of unpredictability. Words are mostly correlated with images and colours, but sometimes random things splash on to the screen. Effectively you create your own digital painting, before it gets wiped clear for the next visitor.


In his notes for the show, curator Shai Ohayon argues: "It may look like a retro video game, but Nakazawa's associative use of language examines the conceptual, functional, and pictorial interrelationships of text and image as explored in the most recent critical theory". There is an eloquent thread here to some of the most important long term international trends in conceptual art.

I met with Nakazawa during the summer to discuss the show he was planning. After a delicious teishoku lunch in one of my favourite small places near Yotsuya, Nakazawa insisted on taking me for coffee at an old school kissaten nearby for further discussion. I hypothesised that his deliberately clumsy engagement with these now dated technological forms was a kind of intentionally anachronistic appropriation of fast moving techniques and possibilities that artists inevitably cannot stay abreast of. But Nakazawa resisted my interpretation, insisting that the antiquity of the technology or some kind of nostalgia was not the point; a new version of the machine could in theory be made with newer technology. "Essay in Invisible Functions" was, in other words, a work of conceptual method not form; a meditation on the invisibility of the relation between signifier and signified, and one which heralded his sharp turn towards a more ascetic, systematic practice from 1997 on.

Soon after the word machine was produced, Nakazawa's art took a new direction: towards the "Methodicism" he would formalise as a manifesto in 2000. From 1997, Ohayon has thus selected two of Nakazawa's original methodicist paintings, "Letter Coordinates Type Painting", Nos. 1 & 2. These are glowing light boxes, displaying a grid into which kanji and kana have been placed in systematic fashion. The kanji can be read, while the kana are upside down; in No.1, for example, the kanji have been selected according to a standardised linguistic ordering related to the basic Chinese elements. But meaning or form is not the point; they are rather exercises in a particular method replacing the usual pixel-like "data" of colour, so that we must indeed re-imagine these works as paintings; albeit "pathologies", as Nakazawa calls them, in which the neutral perfection of Chinese character codes taken from the Japanese Industrial Standard, has replaced the emotional "pleasure" caused by colours.


The "Letter Coordinates" works are nonetheless beautiful works, that look stunning in the Naka Meguro space. They were once displayed with works by the celebrated Chinese/New York artist Xu Bing, but the concept is quite different. Nakazawa invites us rather to view painting as a "structured arrangement of data", rejecting "the sensualist immersion in pleasure that exploits the lack of foundations in the arts". By introducing his own alternate method, he places himself at the moment of the formation of a "new genre." Here I quote from an early essay by Akira Tatehata on Nakazawa, which succinctly captures the intellectual drive of his work.

Nakazawa trained as a doctor and retains his boffin-like aura. In person, though, he is warm and funny, as well as inspirational. Parts of my book Before and After Superflat would have been impossible without his advice and encouragement; his own Contemporary Art History: Japan (from 2008) was a crucial reference for me, in its eloquent attempt to situate the 1990s in the longer history of Japanese modern art and its always difficult relationship with global trends. We must thank Shai Ohayon for reminding us of these semi-forgotten treasures from that amazing period in Japanese contemporary art. And I urge everyone to get down to the quiet streets of Naka Meguro and see Nakazawa's classic works before they get unplugged again.


*1. Nakazawa's story about the origin of the idea is that the phrase "Baka CG" was first coined and introduced by artist Gabin Ito in BT at the end of the 1980s. BT editors Kiyoshi Kusumi and Kenichi Arai (a.k.a. Noi Sawaragi) shouted "Baka CG!!" when they first saw photos of Nakazawa's CG works in January 1990. Nakazawa adopted and advocated the term, and over time became the artist most associated with the idea.






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