2002 PHILIP MORRIS AWARD

Rage against the machine: anti-tech art

by Yoko Haruhara

“The First Move,” a showcase of finalists for the 2002 Philip Morris Art Award, opens this Saturday at Tokyo International Forum. On display until May 6, the exhibition includes paintings, photographs, 3-D pieces, videos, installations and computer-generated work by 57 young artists selected from more than 1,095 entries. The 10 award winners, to be announced May 1, will then have their works shown in New York at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 Contemporary Art Center.

This year marks the fourth biennial Philip Morris competition, Japan’s largest in the world of contemporary art. Given the scope of the works reviewed by the jury, the award plays a major role in kick-starting the careers of Japan’s up-and-coming artists.

Judge Alanna Heiss (deputy director of MOMA, New York) was impressed by a common theme among this year’s entrants. “Many of the artists, across the media, were exploring an anti- or sub-technological attitude,” she said.

One interpretation is that the artwork on display reveals how the downward spiral of the Japanese economy has prompted an introspective search for meaning and spirituality. This, in turn, has led to a rejection of high-tech but shallow lifestyles.

Now art has translated anti-technological attitudes into a series of commentaries on life. The artists showcased here have created works that are subversive in nature: art that challenges viewers to recall a time when technology was not at the center of our existence.

Koji Iijima, whose “Fake Aibo Tetsubo” (2000) is a real live Chihuahua clad in aluminum to resemble Sony’s pet robot-dog Aibo, inverts our expectations about the relationship between quality of life and technology. As we look at this dog, imprisoned in a 0.5-mm sheath of armor that limits its movements, it appears that the depersonalization of life has sunk to a new low. No longer cute, like his robot twin, the “fake” Aibo suggests a grim future in which life as we know it is overwhelmed by technology.

The fake Aibo also questions the perceived efficiency of technology. “As a real dog,” explained Iijima, “the fake Aibo is an example of low-tech. However, he can move around better than the real one. So what is real and what is fake?”

In another dig at the world of high-tech, “Mellow House” (1999) by artist Chelin is suffused with the smell of baked cookies, evoking nostalgia for the domestic happiness of childhood. The installation resembles a doll’s house — and also conjurs the fairy-tale image of a house of sweets, as in the story of Hansel and Gretel. The walls are covered with a mosaic of colorful cookies, baked by the artist, the floor is coated with granulated sugar and the room contains only empty chairs and a table.

An “icon of happiness,” Chelin’s work distills the world of her childhood — and of times now lost. Her hope is that “people who pass by and experience its fragrance will recall the smell of something similar that is no longer in existence.”

“A Place Where the Sea Is” (1998) a series of photographs by Nobuo Asada, also triggers our memories and takes viewers right back to the primordial setting of the ocean. Asada took his camera into the water, snapping photos of what he saw at different times of day and in varying light conditions. The immediacy of the lens viewpoint — at water level, parallel to the sea’s surface — seems to plunge the viewer right in, conveying such sensations as the water’s coldness and the movement of the waves.

Commenting on these photographs, shot near his birthplace in Fukui Prefecture, Asada said: “Depending on the time of day, the wind and the action of the waves, the scene is constantly shifting. The essence of the work lies in the variations in shapes that are visible.” Just as Akira Kurosawa’s seminal movie “Rashomon” (1950) stunned Western film critics by offering many points of view of the same event, Asada’s photographs deftly reveal multiple aspects of the same object.

Each in their own way, Iijima, Chelin, Asada and other exhibiting artists testify to a turning away from technology. It is an irony, however, that much of their “humanist” art relies on technology-based media and precision. The shock of Iijima’s fake Aibo derives from a world in which pet robot dogs seem commonplace. Chelin’s “Mellow House” is intricately constructed, and Asada’s sea views are captured through the lens of a camera rather than with the human hand and eye.

Despite our longing for a pre-technological world, this striking exhibition suggests, the instruments of technology have become our eyes, ears and noses.