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チェックと日本の現代美術界についての感想

昭和40年会 (2) / 松蔭

2011年5月21日


Now for something a little more serious.

Downstairs at "We Are Boys!," the newly opened major show of the work of Tokyo's legendary SHOWA 40 NEN KAI in Düsseldorf, Germany, there is a rather lonely video screen. Away from the chaotic and emotional action upstairs, Joseph Beuys preaches his political thing to a lot of very earnest, clean cut looking young Japanese art students in the mid 80s.



It is almost a throwaway line, but the cheeky little word play/appropriation in the title ("We Are Beuys!"/"ワイアボ-イズ!") is probably a good marketing move in a city that venerates the funny looking radical bloke in boots and hat. Apparently over 8000 Düsseldorfers lined up during the closing weekend of his big show at the end of 2010 at the Kunstsamlung.


MATSUKAGE

The Showa boys themselves don't seem too much motivated by the reference to Beuys. One thing no-one in the group is likely to admit is any particular relevance for reading back into their work western master narratives of art history or art theory (now, that really is not the point). The (mis) connection is certainly interesting, although the only really proven link here is that Matsukage designed and photographed the poster for the Mito Show on Beuys, "Eight Days in Japan" in 2010. Matsukage, himself, as I mentioned in my blog yesterday, thinks not of Beuys, but of Kraftwerk, when he thinks of Düsseldorf or Germany. And so his performance, "Echo" (with music/sound affects by Sumihisa Arima), for the week of unpredictable events lined up during the run in to the opening on Friday 20th March is, he says, at least partly inspired by the legendary electronica foursome's "Spielgelsaal" (Hall of Mirrors). This brutal few minutes of electronic noise crunches its way through side two of their über-classisch Trans-Europ Express LP of 1977.



"Echo", was I understand first seen at the Singapore Biennale of 2006. It involves a built five metre square cube of clear plastic sheeting and wooden frame, within which the shaved headed Matsukage paces around like a caged cougar, smashing bottles on the ground. There is a mirror at the centre of the box, which he periodically sweeps clear, and flashing white lights that create the atmosphere of a tear-gassed riot zone. The noise meanwhile is filtered, warped and recycled into ear splintering sound affects by Arima from a sound consel nearby.





Given the prevailing humourous tone of much of the proceedings up to now, "Echo" in fact crashes into the show as quite a shock. Dressed in black leather biker gear, and a scarf and safety goggles that makes him look like an anarchist, Matsukage sets to work in the white cube like a man possessed. The audience are positioned all around, far too close. The bottles start crashing, and before long there is a bottle flying out into the room, showering by-standers -- which include various other artists, representatives of the Japan Foundation, and members of the local Düsseldorf press -- in glass. I'm standing next to one of Oscar Oiwa's sensitive paintings ("Oil Ghosts", 2009) and wince as bits of glass thud into the canvas like wartime shrapnel. Makoto Aida, too, is getting a little worried about his masterful wall painting-jigsaw, "Monument for Nothing (3)", that fills the back wall. A brief check that no-one is hurt from Matsukage, and he pursues his lonely catharsis. More bottles smashing. Hundreds of them. The performance goes on and on and on, uncomfortably. A cameraman risks himself to document the work. The crowd backs off, eventually mostly heading upstairs to the balcony for a safer spectacle.

Interpreting this work is a matter of questioning intention and reception. It is for the viewer an overwhelmingly violent, frightening piece. There could be a lot of frustration, anger or despair here. Matsukage has been talking to me about hard times in Tokyo that everyone faces now. There is a feeling -- mine -- that we shouldn't even be watching. We should walk away from this private ritual. We should indeed "back off" somewhere safe, maybe go for a drink at the bar until he is done. When Matukage pauses to clean up, there is that sad feeling of contrition after an outburst; a sense of what is broken cannot be mended. Yet the artist himself puts it in quite different terms. A bottle is like a human body. Fragile. Breakable. Containing fluids that are the human spirit. With every bottle he says a small prayer, a memorial to someone. Smash! There are evidently a lot of lost souls haunting the show tonight. I can't help thinking, though, of David Bowie, and "Low" -- which Matsukage confirms is also his favourite Bowie album. "Baby. I've been. Breaking glass. In my room again. Listen. See." Meanwhile, Arima sits, consumed in electronics, unperturbed.





For once, rather un-Germanically lax health and safety concerns allowed something extraordinary to happen. Gregor Jansen, the curator, keeps cheerfully jovial about it all. Alles gut. At the main opening, the next day, the effect has been blunted by the necessary doubling of the plastic on the box. We can't see Matsukage so well, and the big crowd upstairs seems more complacently voyeuristic rather than plain scared.

Matsukage's installed contributions to the "We Are Boys!" show are equally strong. He says that he was very active producing new works in 2010, and there is a driven energy about all of them. A sinister black kite, marked in the double meaning kanji "kage" (shadow/ghost) hangs over the exit to the main first room.



Upstairs, there is more work from his 2010 Mizuma show, which others told me was sensational live. His video "Undead Mishima" relives another version of the suicide myth, punctuated by strange electronic noise and flashing neon. The LP on the old plastic turntable is The The's "Mind Bomb". And downstairs, among several of his famous perverse fashion photos, is a video, "Hole Yoko".



A suspiciously young looking Yoko Ono, dressed in skinny black, a pony tail and those famous bug sunglasses circa 1981, walks across an empty beach, to the sound of a electro parody of Ono's "Walking on Thin Ice". She is implacable, determined. She walks towards the camera. Crash! She falls in a big hole. Out she climbs, adjusting her glasses and stilettos. Onwards she walks. Crash! Another hole, she disappears like Alice. No, she is back, walking proud again. Crash! And so on. It is hilarious. I ask if the beach is Dubai? After all that's where we would expect to find this Queen of global conceptual art these days. No, its a famous beach in Chiba, Hitomi Hasegawa tells me. I suppose I should have recognised it was in Japan, from all the junk and garbage dumped on it. (I have always found it so strange why Japan -- a country of immaculately cities -- has such a grotty, uncared for coastline -- although I admit the tsunami gives a very different perspective on this question.)

The preface to Matsukage's piece, is a performance by Parco Kinoshita which starts on the outside steps of the Kunsthalle. He is re-playing Beat Kitano's famous blind and bloodthirsty samurai, in a blue kimono, flailing at the air with a blunt sword.



After whirling around awhile, he points towards the door. "You're the victim!," laughs Gregor Jansen, as he seems to be pointing in my direction. But I prefer to think the ever-kindly Kinoshita just wants to lead us all up generously into the show.



Inside, from the top of the stairs, he changes into his Haruko Japanese housewife alter-ego (with a black curly wig), and with the help of a friendly young Japanese art student with a MAC, he serenades us with a cheesy karaoke. It's a great start to the evening.


DETAIL OF OSCAR OIWA, KITA-SENJU, SHOWA 40 NEN KAI PERSONAL BOTTLES ON A SHELF

The point about SHOWA 40 NEN KAI, as Oscar Oiwa tells me later, is that things happen when the group get together. There may not be a theme, an "ism", even a single point of view on art here, but they are old friends, who have been through it all, and playing together takes the pressure off. There is respect and tolerance, and an overwhelming sense of fun. Solo shows are very different, Oiwa says. I also suggest that as a unit of six they have a sheer collective power as artists that can resist the framings that might be imposed by curators in other group show contexts. Matsukage describes their 17 years of activity as "lazy and intermittent", but the fliers and texts (almost all in Japanese) fill a fat folder, and the memorabilia fills a couple of glass cases.



The youthful energy, ambition and emotion at this show, among these now mid-forty-somethings, is palpable. 17 years on, and still going strong, it is high time this particular art history was told in the West.



ADRIAN FAVELL
http://www.adrianfavell.com

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