Tuesday, August 10, 2010

farewell to Japan

It's sadly time to say goodbye to Japan, and with it a whole lot of wonderful friends and colleagues. Our fellow artists threw us a really lovely goodbye party with some of our favorite Japanese snacks , some delicious and thoughtfully vegetarian dishes (!!) and one snack that’s pretty weird even by Japanese standards: cabbage-and-frog flavored puffs (pictured below). They tasted more like okonomiyaki to me, but sometimes it’s the concept that counts.

The party was hosted by our friend Terue at the apartment she’s been renting through the super excellent Koganecho Bazaar, an arts-centric urban revitalization project which buys out the formerly sketchy neighborhood’s brothels and other houses of ill repute and refurbishes them into affordable spaces for artist studios, artist residencies, shops for local DIY crafts, cafes and gallery space.

The former ill repute of Terue’s flat in particular was its connection to members of Aum Shinrikyo, the infamous doomsday cult responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, an attempt at speeding along the apocalypse that managed to kill 13 people and left thousands of others with temporary vision problems and other injuries. The history of the place managed to spook everyone quite a bit, especially since several members are still at large. We tried out some of their yoga moves and spent a good part of the evening googling strange youtube footage of Aum Shinriyko’s promotional anime (see video below) and energy dances.

We were given a lot of really nice going-away gifts too – a photo album of pictures from the past month, the two-toed sock version of Hokusai’s famous woodblock print, "the Great Wave of Kanagawa", a DVD of Akiko’s animation, and personalized bandage art from Terada. Some goodbyes were a bit tearful and some were accompanied by a firm agreement to stay in touch and invitations to visit each other in Chicago / other parts of Japan. With any luck, we’ll be back again soon.

I'm gearing up for my requisite week-and-a-half of horrible jet lag now, and will miss everyone a lot. Still there are a few simple things I'm really looking forward to: eating whole grain bread again, having kitchen counter space, and being able to walk down the street to the beach with my Chicago friends and neighbors. Just don't call me after 1 pm, 'cause I'll be passed out on the couch.

artists you should know about part IV: Terue Yamauchi

Terue Yamauchi creates her conceptually-based projects a variety of media, exploring (among other things) themes of landscape, scale, human interconnection and human-made spaces. Most recently she’s turned her attention toward the relationships between humans and nature, and we’re all the luckier for it.

For her latest projects, Libido (1) and Libido (2) Yamauchi investigated the lives of local slugs to make her work. Her studio hours revolve around the night schedules of her small, slimy collaborators, whom she invites via motion-sensors and beer to create silvery drawings of goo on large sheets of black paper and performances in structures she’s created. These drawings and actions are also translated other media, including an intimate video installation and a large-scale work on suspended plastic sheeting, with a composition based on overlapping tracings of the slugs’ designs.

You can see a range of Yamauchi’s work on her website HERE.

Monday, August 9, 2010

last minute getaway

Sure, there's a ton of packing to do and last-minute errands to run before heading back to the states, but when a friend's father offered to drive Andy and I for a one-day getaway to their vacation home in Hakone, we jumped at the chance.

Aside from the Japanese signage and the distinctive shape of Mount Fuji looming in the distance, Hakone looks a lot like the Swiss countryside or some other bucolic mountainous place. There’s a big windmill installed in the hillside and a gorgeous lake dotted with little swan boats. One big difference is that the landscape of this region was created by volcanos, some still active. We visited Hakone's famous Owakudani (Hell Valley), where we were treated to throngs of tourists covering their noses as we all peered through clouds of sulphurous smoke, waiting in line to buy hot eggs flash-boiled in cloudy volcanic pools. The eggshells change to a startling rich black from the minerals in the water. Supposedly eating one of these eggs will extend your life an extra seven years. They’re sold in packs of five for 500 yen, which is quite a deal for up to 35 years of extra life expectancy if you manage to eat them all yourself.

Also available there were two new flavors of softcream, which we were happy to purchase: sweet volcanic egg (delicious!) and wasabi, which had a surprising amount of kick. Another bonus of the volcanic scenery: steamy geothermically-heated onsen. Ahhhhhh.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

cooking with park chan kook

The other day we had a lovely afternoon inventing new delicacies with artist Park Chan Kook, a Korean artist whose social practice often involves inviting local people to make a meal together using improvised ingredients and tools. Each participant brought an ingredient: a bunch of bananas, a big jar of miso, a bottle of rice wine vinegar, or several bunches of greens... and then we all worked together to make the meal. It really highlighted the differences between Korean and Japanese cooking and eating styles - whereas Koreans are very comfortable with big, shared meals and experimental dishes, the Japanese typically stick to specific traditional recipes... and shared food (especially food that everyone has been touching) is a little bit squeamish-making for people here.

Still, it was a pretty good time for all, involving a lot of giggling over what to roll up in the Vietnamese spring roll wrappers and Chan's bananas fried directly on the portable burner... and some interesting jellyfish sightings in the water next to the food prep area. Since most of the "cooks" involved were artists-in-residence at BankART, our collective meal wound up being quite a lovely spread, even if not all of it was eaten.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

bus = bar

As I was first settling in at BankART, I remember being vaguely aware of the big run-down bus parked on the waterfront deck with the words “Nikka Whiskey Bus Restaurant” painted on the side. It wasn’t until a week into things that I found out there’s actually a fully-functioning, totally candlelit bar in there that’s only open late at night. The ceiling is plastered with hundreds of meishi from visitors over the years, and two small party rooms in the back. The price is steep – about $13 US for a single beer (!) though the owner did bring out small dishes of nuts, fresh fruit slices, and crackers periodically. Totally worth it once, for the atmosphere alone.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

crazy for dramacrazy

I rarely turn on the television set at home in Chicago, but whenever I'm in Japan I wind up watching television whenever I get the chance – it’s great for picking up the language and cultural nuances, and there are categories of shows that just don’t exist anywhere else. The insane game shows, the children’s programs about beetle battles, the myriad programs of hip young people moaning over delicious food... and the variety/talk shows that report on news stories or funny stunts with a panel of celebrity guests who watch along with you, their reactions visible in a little rectangle in the corner of the screen.

We just don’t have access to much of this in the US, aside from random youtube clips of the wackier stuff. So many thanks to Kianga for turning us on to Dramacrazy.net, which makes hundreds of Japanese and Korean drama shows available to a wider audience… and with English subtitles!

Among these is Kimi wa Petto (you are my Pet), a comedy-drama that Andy and I've become completely obsessed with lately.Originally broadcast in 2003, the show is based pretty directly on a very popular manga series by the same name, which friend and fellow comics enthusiast Jeff turned me on to earlier this year, available in English in the US under the title “Tramps Like Us.”

The premise is this: Tall, successful, smart and beautiful, Iwaya Sumire seems to have it all... but her stature and status make her completely intimidating to most men, including her former fiancée and her boss, who treat her like crap. Angry, depressed, and lonely, Iwaya comes home one evening to find a teenage boy passed out in a box in front of her apartment, and struck by his resemblance to her childhood pet, she takes him in and nurses him back to health. Their relationship develops into that of pet and owner, while she navigates some crazy power dynamics with her coworkers, her landlord, her therapist, and her new love interest (!)

The show funny, sexy, odd, and completely addictive. It also offers a glimpse (albeit an exaggerated one) into some of the more unpleasant gender roles that are still at play in Japan. Not all women here are content to be cute and docile, and this show pries open those stereotypes while also showing how complicated it can be to operate outside of them. See for yourself HERE: Just scroll down for links to all ten episodes...

You can start with this one:

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

trash day

Garbage disposal is something you might not think much about, but in Japan it’s quite a project. There are strict fines for improper disposal of certain materials, and instead of big public trash cans you usually have to find one of the specially separated plastic / metal / burnable waste cans next to a convenience store if you have something small to throw away.

Space is at a premium here, and instead of giant dumpsters for the garbage we wind up with at home, my neighbors and I stumble out early in the morning to tuck our little bags of trash under a big plastic net on the corner that’s let down on certain days for specific materials: Glass and dry batteries are Friday, and Wednesday is for plastics, metal cans and folded-and-bound former cardboard boxes. General ‘burnable’ garbage (foodscraps, cellophane wrappers, waste paper etc) is picked up on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Unlike in the US, you can’t just take out your giant bag of garbage the night before (or several nights before) trash day. The net on my street is let down only between 7am and 9am on the day of a pickup. A sign in my apartment building warns that this is because our neighborhood is “sensitive to the pyromaniac” but I suspect it has more to do with the giant crows who still sometimes manage to ways to drag the trash out from under the nets and make a giant mess of it on the street, causing the old woman who lives across from our trash pickup site to rush out with her broom to deal with the mess (and to regularly offer me as the resident foreigner some detailed instruction in Japanese on how to properly tuck the trash under the nets.) Sleeping in on trash day is no joke, especially in this 95-degree heat, as it means your apartment might smell like rancid fish for three days until you’re allowed to remove the offending items to the curb.

Apparently some regions of japan have as many as 44 different categories of trash / recycling disposal, all firmly enforced, with a goal of seriously reducing waste production over the next 30 years.Japan’s obsessive categorization of trash might seem a bit weird to Americans, but according to this fascinating NY Times article, it may be the look of things to come for us as well! There’s some debate about whether all the sorting (which is a fairly recent thing) actually leads these materials to different locations or not, as the country is still working out a large-scale system to deal with all its garbage. Either way, I must say it makes you really aware of how much waste you produce in a day, which is never a bad thing.

Monday, August 2, 2010

hana bi!!!

I always feel a twinge of disappointment when have to be in another country during the 4th of July, as I miss the relaxing revelry and the fireworks that go along with celebrating our country’s independence. This year was no exception, but I was comforted by the fact that Japan is known for hana bi, or fireworks shows, which happen throughout the summer in various locations.

No offense to the folks at home, but Japan’s take on fireworks kind of beats the pants off any such show I’ve seen anywhere else. Rather than a half-hour spectacle that starts with the 1812 Overture and builds to a grand finale, Japanese hana bi can go on for quite a while and tend to go full-blast all the way, pausing for short reloading intermissions throughout – a different narrative approach to the whole thing.

The hour-and-a-half-long Yokohama fireworks show last night was apparently one of the more spectacular in Japan this summer, and we inadvertently found ourselves with the perfect seats at BankART, where we were already spending some time in the studio showing around visitors and friends. The streets were packed with traffic and people dressed up in celebratory yukata. I don’t even want to imagine the crowded subway situation, but up at BankART we just pulled a few chairs out onto the back deck (which is a pretty excellent place to hang out anyway) and enjoyed a tremendous and stress-free view of the fireworks.

Some kimono-clad girls in front of us took a lot of cell-phone photos of each other and a few of the fireworks, too, and I put my own camera through the paces to try and catch a few good shots. Our fellow artists passed around plates of takoyaki and baked potatoes, cups of beer, and other festival snacks and we all had a pretty nice night of it.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

2010 summer open at BankART NYK

I've been delaying this post because it's kind of impossible to pick just a few photos or a few aspects of the Summer Open to write about... but here's a taste.

Friday was the culminating event of BankART's 2010 Summer Open, which has been a two-month long intensive residency for 45 emerging and established artists including Andy and myself. It's still on view, for those of you in the Yokohama/Tokyo area... through August 5th. If you think you might visit, drop me a line, since there are several video components that sometimes travel with us.

The opening party for the 2010 Summer Open was a pretty spectacular multimedia experience, including a guy in an illuminated suit, giant soft-sculpture flowers, amazing video, performance, painting and installation, and lots of eating, laughing, drinking and celebrating. The experience here over the past two months has been a bit like grad school, with late-night studio time sometimes devolving into giggling youtube sessions with the artists in nearby studios, convenience-store meals (which in Japan at least manages to be a fairly decent thing) and a lot of trial and error in the studio.

The results are pretty spectacular, I must say. I'll be doing more posts soon (time willing) on some of my favorite artists and projects. In the meantime here are a few shots from the evening.

studio visit!

One of the amazing things about receiving a grant from the Asian Cultural Council is the way they connect current and former Asian Cultural Council recipients. I've been so fortunate to meet up with some really incredible people here and made some good friends in the process. Last week I spent the day with acclaimed artist and fellow enthusiast of medical/biological things Kaoru Motomiya last week to check out the science exhibits at Tokyo University Museum, and Andy and I both had a great time catching the tail end of the Tanabata Festival with incredible audio/installation artist Kianga Ford, who's been doing research through a residency at Tokyo Wondersite this summer.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to have a studio visit from Kenichi Yokono, who I mentioned in an earlier post: he makes incredible woodblock paintings that aren't printed, but inked and presented as physical objects in and of themselves, their format and imagery referencing both contemporary manga culture and traditional ukiyo-e prints. The axe at left is a nice example.

Yokono-san brought along his wife Makiko Inoya and their two-year-old daughter Ichiko, and the five of us ate lunch and had a lot of fun running around BankART to see some of the work that's up right now. Ichiko was especially fascinated by the earbuds attached to the Bunrui Bento that Andy and I collaborated on. The bento (below) includes insects, plants, shells, and a tiny embedded version of Andy's konyaku stingray-release video Back/Forth, is accompanied by the lovely (and apparently kid-addictive) music of biologist, musician, and friend Yui Suzuki.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

resurrection: artists you should know about, part III

The evening before the public opening was a bit more dramatic one might hope. Our friend and studio neighbor Terada Shinobu has spent the past two months painstakingly constructing a delicate eight-foot wall made of thousands of gauze bandages. His work crosses over into a variety of media – video, performance, photography, installation, and painting… but it always incorporates gauze bandages because of their material and conceptual flexibility.

Terada-san’s installation this time was built to be the counterpoint for a big performance on opening night involving a rockstar-esque stage dive into the exquisite eight-foot tall wall, but things took an unexpected turn around 10pm the night before, when the cord from a vacuum he was using to clear the rest of the space caught the corner and pulled the whole thing down in about two seconds.

It was a pretty dire situation and most of us were at a loss for words. Everyone was working late that night for the event the next day, and soon a small crowd of artists and staff members gathered to assess the damage and help Terada figure out what to do.

It was decided that we’d resurrect the fallen wall as best we could, which seemed a bit impossible given the ephemeral nature of the whole thing... but ten or twelve people began to slide sheets of plywood underneath, caaaarefully pulled and pushed, and in an amazing feat of collaborative energy managed to get the whole thing back up! The end result was a bit more tousled than the original, but pretty great in its own sort of way – the delicacy of the layers was miraculously intact, with a tousled waterfall of bandages careening over the top.

The evening of the opening, the work included time-lapse video of the work in progress (which he’d been documenting during the residency) along with documentation of its destruction and resurrection. The unplanned bit from the night before created a strange loop of time travel, suggesting that the wall that had just been destroyed in performance might rise again after the performance, extending his gesture toward the themes of perfection, control and destruction beyond the theme of virtuoso guitar-smashing to something strangely hopeful. The dive went well and everyone cheered, and after the performance visitors were invited to take off their shoes and wade through the mounds of gauze on the floor, breaking it apart. The piece has since turned into a daily process of reconfiguration and metamorphosis.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

one day till showtime...

The big open studio event for BankART NYK's Summer Open is this Friday, and I've still got a lot of work to do, as you may be able to tell from this photo. Andy and I are putting the finishing touches on a new video, and spent a good chunk of the day installing the hair waterfall drawing from the museum's ventilation system (hence the high vantage point of this messy-table photo). Now there's a lot of cleaning up to do!

To clear my head for a bit, I wandered around the 2nd and 3rd floors and checked out what other artists were up to. Some have their spaces gallery-ready, with everything hung and ready to go, others are setting up for live performances and events on opening night, and there are still a few more that reveal the same sort of frenetic energy I can relate to just about now. Perhaps some of you will recognize the fellow carefully arranging his photographs below. Can't wait to see how it all comes together!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

beating the heat in Yokohama

It has been a hot few months in most parts of the world this year. In Japan, it's been blindingly, gaspingly hot. Apparently this is fairly normal here. During the sweltering rainy season, I laughed when I was told that summer season wouldn't officially start until Marine Day on July 19th. But as the moisture cleared and was replaced by a relentless, beating sunshine starting at 4am every morning (meaning that by 9am it's about 98 degrees Fahrenheit outside) the reality of the situation began to sink in.

It's been this way every summer for centuries here, and given the necessity of leaving air-conditioned spaces the Japanese have figured out a lot of additional ways to deal with the hot summer sun - some very old and some new. I'm surprised more of these devices haven't caught on in the Southern U.S. Here are a few:

* futuristic-looking, mist-emitting architecture on my local outdoor shopping street
* hand fans, folding and otherwise. Traditional, practical and portable. Also sometimes free, when emblazoned with ads.
* umbrellas and parasols - using your umbrella on a dry day may sound silly, but it makes a lot of sense when the temperature difference between shade and sunshine is vast.
* neck-cooling collars
* restaurants and shops that blast the AC into the street through open doors (??)
* covered walkways and shopping arcades (also crucial during rainy season)
* mentholated cooling shirt spray (here's one user's review)
* ice-cold beverage vending machines on every corner. And I mean every. corner.
* soft-serve ice cream in every flavor and combination you can possibly imagine: canteloupe, green tea, ramune soda, apricot, black sesame, and apparently even cuttlefish. Check out the Japanese Ice Cream blog for more.
* arcwelder-style full-face sun visors
* elbow-length gloves -- okay, so on a comfort level this has always baffled me, but it does help prevent sunburn.

There's a nice Japan Times piece on some more of the more newfangled heat-beating products you can find at your local Japanese convenience store. As I sit here in my muggy apartment covered in sweat I'm rather excited to try some of these out.

rural towns + contemporary art in Japan

I was in the midst of another post about beating the heat in Yokohama when our friend Stanley Murashige passed along this New York Times article about a small Japanese village's attempts to attract tourism by combining its rice paddies with a little genetic modification. The story's quite bittersweet, though the end result is pretty arresting.

Inakadate's plight is part of a larger national trend of rural depopulation as birthrates decline and young people flock to bigger cities for job opportunities. The interesting side of this otherwise unfortunate situation is that small towns have become the new alternative spaces for contemporary art, with residency programs and site-specific projects popping up all over the place. Japan's commercial gallery system - which usually requires artists to pay gallery rent and watch over the space during visiting hours - is too expensive for many artists here, and many are heading for the hills (literally) to make art where space is more plentiful, cost of living is cheap, and the towns are rich in local tradition and ancient history. Arts tourism has become the new hope for many small towns, even if terms like "sound art" or "social engagement" aren't part of the local vocabulary. One great example of this phenomenon is the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial, which features installation by a host of internationally-acclaimed artists every three years, accompanied by experiential art hotels and innovative eateries that incorporate the talents and tastes of local residents. I really hope to get to visit one of these years. It's also the idea behind the Setouchi Art Festival I just returned from, which launched this year to much fanfare, and rightly so.

Will contemporary art help preserve rural Japan? Only time will tell. Either way, here's hoping that the village of Inakada manages to continue supporting its residents, with or without the rice-paddy graphics.

Inakadate image (above) borrowed from the NY Times; photo of Sue Pedley installation at Setouchi Festival (at right) taken by me.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

my new favorite summer dessert thing

Welll, it's hard to top the reigning champion, black-sesame soft serve, but give kuzukuri noodles on ice with sweet dipping sauce (kuzukuri no kuromitsu) a try. Kuzukuri is made from arrowroot starch. Cut into wide, flat noodles for this dish, it's crystal clear and totally flavorless... but then you dip those noodles in "dark honey" or brown sugar dipping sauce, and slurp them up like they're sweet, ice-cold udon. Mmmm.

In some areas, a variation of this dish is made with tokoroten, a seaweed-based version of gelatin made from agar.

Mad props to Georg K. for suggesting I try these. Totally unlike anything I've ever eaten, and a completely addictive summer treat. To think I was going to go for the cheesecake! Time to get a jelly-noodle press. Here's a how-to for the tokoroten version, which yields thinner noodles:

I heart bath + art

Even in this sweaty summer weather, a good soak at a sento or onsen is one of my favorite Japanese traditions. It's refreshing, relaxing, and often comes with a surprise or two - like the electrified bath I accidentally slid into in Kyoto once, or the three gripping volumes of Keitae Kurono's manga Dragon Head that I found in the comfy post-bath relaxation room of my hotel's rooftop tub.

Imagine how pleased I was, then, to take a break from the heat in artist Shinro Ohtake's sento on Naoshima Island. I (heart) Yu, the "yu" being the Japanese kanji character for hot bath water, is both a multimedia installation and a fully-functioning public bathhouse, where locals and tourists alike let their hair down and soak away the stress of the day.

Forgot your towel and your soap? Well that's okay: the vending machine out front will dispense a ticket for your choice of colorful souvenir bath sets starting at just about 500 yen (that's $5 or so, depending on the exchange rate).

For obvious reasons I was unable to take photos inside the space itself, but hopefully the poster of the men's side (above) will give you a sense. Every inch of the space was packed with Ohtake's signature work, from the video installations inset in the changing-room benches to the object-filled knobs on the showers and elaborately-decorated porcelain of the toilets to the stained glass and the montaged structure of the building itself.

After a refreshing soak I felt rejuvinated enough for some midday hiking around Naoshima's incredible Benesse House museum and some of the site-specific works they've got studding the island. Curious to know more about I heart Yu? Check out this great interview with Ohtake about the bathhouse courtesy of the Japan Times.

artists you should know about part II: Yumiku Utsu

I stumbled across Yumiku Utsu's photography three times tonight during a visit to the excellent art bookstore/gallery Nadiff in Tokyo, and I'm so glad I did.

First I noticed her visceral depictions of eroticized shellfish and walnuts in the Australian food-as-art mag Condiment, which is well worth a look in and of itself.

Then I noticed a poster hanging near the gallery entrance of the eerie-looking cat photograph below (spoiler: not the cat's real eyes).

Finally I came across her totally sexy full-color book Out of the Ark, which accompanied her solo show at Nadiff's G/P gallery in 2009. The catalogue contains hundreds of the most drippingly graphic combinations of insects, toys, seafood, chocolate, and found photography you can imagine - funny and gorgeous and disturbing all at once. What I really enjoy about her work is how skillfully she manages to merge two- and three-dimensional images with her camera, something I've been particularly interested in these days.

Thus far it looks like Out of the Ark is only available in Japan, but here's hoping that it - and Utsu's work- finds itself overseas soon. Thus far Utsu has had shows in Budapest, Korea, China and her native Japan, but no U.S. appearances to date. Curators take note!

Friday, July 23, 2010

lost and found

In many locales it's common enough to see a lost mitten or other small item placed on a fencepost for the owner to reclaim.

In Tokyo this kind gesture is taken a step or two further: find a protective plastic bag, some packing tape, a scrap of paper and a marker to make a handmade sign reading " LOST ITEM," then post your package near where said item was found. The child's shoe here was found hung on a residential street near Nippori station. Sadly a week or so after this photo was taken and the owner had not yet returned for it. Anyone missing a little pink shoe?

Also lost/found in this neighborhood were a frilly black broken parasol carefully draped over a rail, and a tiny sock with cherries printed on it, perched on a tree branch.

Field Trip: Kyoto and the Seto Islands

Okay, I'm back after a long and lovely trip to visit Kyoto with my visiting family and then on to the Setouchi Contemporary Art festival in the Seto Inland Sea area. We arrived in Kyoto only to discover that we'd unwittingly scheduled our trip smack dab in the middle of Gion Matsuri , one of Japan's biggest summer festivals. I've never seen Kyoto so packed with kimono-wearing festival-goers! It was a great chance to catch some DIY fireworks along the river and the big traditional parade, with towering and elaborate floats on immense wooden wheels, pulled by sweating men in the hot Kyoto sun.

After a lot of eating delicious food and visiting our favorite shrines, temples, bamboo forests and courtyard gardens, my parents split off to visit friends in Fukuoka and we hopped on a train to Takamatsu to visit to the Setouchi Island Festival. What an incredible way to see contemporary art! Setouchi invites notable contemporary artists from across the world to create site-specific projects in the ruins of old abandoned homes, ports and hillsides of the tiny rural islands dotting Japan's inland sea. For visitors, it's a sweaty, nature-filled scavenger hunt for experiential art up ancient hills and coastal towns that show evidence of human habitation dating back 9,000 years. There's far too much to squeeze into a single post. More on some of the highlights very soon.