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.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

artists you should know about part I: Chiaki Kamikawa

I've been seeing so much interesting new artwork in Japan that it seems only fair to share some of it with those of you reading from other parts of the world. I'm thinking to do a post a week (or something like that) about a Japanese artist or two that I think you should know more about.

First thing, I want to highlight the work of Chiaki Kamikawa. "Kamikawa" means "paper river" in Japanese, which seems a pretty appropriate surname given the nature of her work. She is currently working on a series of drawings and cardboard sculptures in which she invents curious shrines and ritual objects, then places them into imaginary cultures in which her abstracted characters spend time with them in a variety of ways. She's also one of the few artists I've met here who does work with small-press publications - right now she's making an amazing zine charting the imaginary family tree of various geometrically-shaped objects.

Raised in Yokohama and schooled in Edinburgh and Amsterdam, Kamikawa's work investigates cultural tradition, exoticism, and everyday life with a wry sense of humor and an amazing dexterity with graphite on paper. She is currently an artist-in-residence at BankART NYK (where I'm also working), so I peek in on what she's up to whenever I get the chance.

Monday, July 12, 2010

roof party

If you were to pass by our stairwell the other night, you'd know there was a party going on because of all the shoes piled outside the door. To celebrate all of our public artist lectures and also to make use of the excellent little roof garden attached to Nakamura-san's otherwise tiny little top-floor apartment, the artists in our apartment building (there are four of us) decided to throw a little party for our friends and fellow artists at BankART. We all trailed home, stopped at the 100-yen Lawson's for edamame crisps, gooey dango, and various types of booze, and climbed the four flights of stairs into the starry night. It was a really lovely evening filled with interesting conversation, sometimes incorporating three or more languages and involving a lot of animated gesturing and liberal use of digital pocket language dictionaries.

Thanks to Andy for taking these great photos with the digital SLR. My little compact couldn't handle the darkness, so I focused my attention on the food and giggling attempts at communication.

paper animals

Here are some images of paper models like the ones I mention below. Papercraft is very popular in Japan, which provides me with a pretty amazing opportunity for creative research. These photo-based cutout models are like tiny, mass-produced variations on Oliver Herring's photo-based sculptural portraits. I love 'em.

If you're interested in excellent little things made from paper, check out - a really extensive blog focused on pop-up books, papercraft, and pretty much anything made out of paper.


Given my interest in the local sea/river life here, it seemed appropriate to take a trip to the Tokyo Sea Life Park this weekend, where the underwater ecosystems of the region are explored in-depth. Wow. What a worthwhile trip. It's a really well-designed aquarium, beginning with modest displays of some really unusual creatures and building up to a really great multi-level wave-tank pool display of local tidal pool and undersea life, and a HUGE, curved tank of monstrous, silvery tuna (the type everyone eats here as sushi) with ampitheater seating packed to the gills -pardon the pun- with interested onlookers. We arrived just in time for fish-feeding, which was pretty spectacular.

It was also a fantastic place for people-watching - indeed, sometimes they were all you could watch, 'cause it got pretty crowded. The displays were beautiful and often swayed with kelp and the waves, touch-pools filled with sea urchins, rays, nurse-sharks and starfish, and an above-tank viewing area where you can see how it all works.

I saw plenty of creatures I've never encountered before, including air-breathing, rock-hopping blennys, newborn jellyfish, and the spiky sea-cucumber below - many of which made Japanese monster-design seem so much less bizarre and more connected to nature. In terms of the everyday informing creative endeavors that might seem strange and otherworldly in another context, it was eye-opening. The gift shop was filled with surprises of its own, including a lot of really great paper models to fold into paper lobsters and fish. I bought several of these and I'm already thinking of ways to use the patterns for my own paper things.

Friday, July 9, 2010

fish food

a few images here of a project that Andy's up to, which I helped him document the other day: he's been cutting jellyfish and stingrays - local wildlife in the river here - out of konjac / konnyaku, a jellylike food made from a sort of potato-starch that's very good for your health. At first it just looks like something out of a strange cooking show (of which there are many here), but then we set off for the river's edge, to encourage some cross-cultural exchange between the artificial konnyaku creatures and the ones in the water.

hair river waterfall

I've been working on a 7-meter long drawing of hair on a roll of tracing paper -- something I've had in the back of my mind since I got here. I had the idea that I could hang it out the window of my third-floor apartment, toward the river below.

As I worked on it, lots of interesting associations began to arise - its connection to the flowing water of the river itself, or to a waterfall, connecting the body with the river, and also with the architecture of the building. Of course there are some obvious associations to the western fairy tale, Rapunzel, too. As I worked, my fellow artists at BankART began to point out out associations to Japanese history and folklore - most notably the tale of Genji and the very long, black hair of the Heian period, and the ropes of human hair used to make the Higashi-Hongan-ji temple in Kyoto (which I hope to visit in a couple of weeks)... not to mention how long black hair is commonly used to creep people out in Japanese horror films and manga.

The site-specific launch of the drawing was a little wilder than I'd planned, as I had not factored in the effects of summer breezes on seven meters of tracing paper. It's sturdy stuff, though, and caught the wind beautifully, giving us a range of interesting shots and a crackly, strange surprise for passers-by below.

artists talk!

Yesterday Andy and I gave a public talk at BankART on the themes and connections between our work, both individual and collaborative - generally focusing around themes of communication, the body and nature... particularly the river that flows outside our window and through Yokohama.

I think people weren't quite sure what to make of it all - Andy's work (below) is often punny and playful, though he speaks about it in a very conceptual way .. and my work seems to be really scary to most people here -especially the long black hair- though the way I talk about it tends to be a little less serious. It's all very much in-progress, but it was a good chance to start making clearer connections between some of the disparate things we've been working on here. A few images from the talk are posted here.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Well, time is flying over here, and I've gotten behind on posting as I try to make a lot of art and get out to see events into the evening. Since my last post I met Kione, a rather brilliant bilingual teenager here who, like me, happens to be very passionate about zines. She helped me translate and launch a mini interview-based zine project about communicating with others when language is an obstacle (which it surely is for me here). It's hard anywhere to get strangers to stop and talk with you, but difficulties with language and etiquette make that ten times more so. It was a lot of fun, though, especially when we managed to snag a whole group of uniformed schoolgirls on their lunch break.

I've also discovered a really nice stand making fresh, delicious, fish-shaped taiyaki cakes near the train station, went for a muddy mountain hike in Kamakura, made plans to go to the Tanabata festival with friends tomorrow, and spent some solid studio time working on drawings and animation that I promise to post photos of soon. This Friday I'll give an artist talk with Andy Yang about a collaborative video we're working on together, so that will be a good excuse to get some images together.