Johnnie Walker’s A.R.T. gallery (Art Residency Tokyo), which opened last October, extends his philanthropic mission to promote cultural exchange between foreign and Japanese artists. Offering a window into Tokyo for many young hopefuls as well as a meeting point for the more established, the gallery is housed on the ground and basement floors of a building designed by leading young architect Yukiharu Takamatsu (who also designed Mariko Mori’s Dream Temple).
The design features distinctive Shinto-inspired honeycomb windows on the upper levels in a deceptively modest-looking duplex situated opposite the Defense Agency office in Ebisu. The gallery is currently holding its fifth exhibition, “Inside,” a series of more than 200 drawings by Scottish artist Jack Mclean, accompanied by the short stories of Italian-English writer Lorenzo Fantini. Both are based in Tokyo.
Jack Mclean started creating the works while traveling on the capital’s bustling Yamanote Line, and they are part of an ongoing collaboration that began when Fantini, impressed by the narrative qualities of Mclean’s miniature notebook drawings, decided to write some short stories in transit to accompany them.
Glaswegian Mclean is an accomplished draughtsman who nevertheless sees himself primarily as a performance artist and something of an outsider. A previous project involved placing miniature figures (or microsculptures), invisible to all but the most discerning eyes, in famous museums around the world, without the consent of the owners of these spaces.
The surreptitious insertion of these involuntary “Acquisitions” was intended as a mischievous challenge to the institutionalization of art and was covertly filmed. This exhibition, in which his drawings literally line the concrete walls of the building like a frieze, is his first official gallery show. The drawings are economically rendered with precise outlines and regular pen-and-ink cross-hatching, like satirical cartoons.
Mclean draws while standing up in Tokyo’s busy loop line trains. Some of the images are responses to real events, such as the picture of Iraqi soldiers startled by a volley of soccer balls, taken from a 2004 news story about the consignment of Japanese balls sent to promote friendship through sport in Iraq.
Others satirize scenes of everyday life in Japan. “Being here for a number of years, I have observed the way that technology affects the way we behave,” he said in an interview, about one image in which a single fragile cherry blossom branch is besieged by a line of keitai (cell phone) picture-takers. An onlooker looks out of the picture at us, horrified. Then there are those that come from a darker Lynchian place: car crashes, maimed artists or satires on mad- cow scares. Often the figures are looking out of the frame as though to the next scene or event.
In one picture a girl samisen player practicing alone in her room gazes up at the ceiling fan, from which a dog is hanging, in its turn looking up through the ceiling as if in a search for inspiration. Mclean’s characters never quite seem to be “in” the situation in which they find themselves.
In relation to this, he says that drawing on trains is a kind of escape. “I find just the process of drawing is quite good for me,” he said. “Another reason is the chance interactions of the passers-by or in this case fellow commuters as an audience, which follows on from my previous public performance projects that involved an element of travel.”
The results are meticulous, grotesquely humorous images that are full of suggestive details with subject matter that ranges from the commonplace to the surreal. The work sometimes echoes the fairy-tale composition of Paula Rego and at other times the satirical quality of a Steve Bell or Gary Larsson.
The precision of Mclean’s composition is mirrored in the persistence of Fantini’s Lilliputian handwriting, which can pack up to 1,000 eye-straining words onto a sheet smaller than a postcard. The handwritten stories are displayed alongside the images, lending an additional tension to the overall effect. Fantini concedes that with almost 200 narratives on display, few viewers will have sufficient time, or eye power, to read them in their entirety, especially as for many, English is not native.
Those more accustomed to image-and-text works involving more succinct forms of language, such as aphorisms or comic-strip captions (think of Yoshitomo Nara or David Shrigley), may find the sheer volume of text here overwhelming.
Fantini’s stories are mostly interior and exterior monologues that portray characters caught up in and trying to come to terms with their circumstances. Fantini relishes the awkwardness and paranoia that Mclean’s work suggests. In “Big Bird” a dodolike bird appears in the street behind a family. The man, interpreting this as a flashback to a bad trip, panics because his wife knows nothing of his past drug use. When his wife notices the bird, he realizes it is not a figment at all. Tales such as this deftly complement the images.
For those who would like to engage the work in detail, there is a book available for 1,000 yen offering three longer stories and 12 illustrations featured in the exhibition.
The pair are also showing enlargements of six new drawings and stories based on the theme of buildings in Bakuracho on the JR Sobu Line, as part of the CET04 (Central East Tokyo 2004) visual arts festival, which opens on Friday. For more information on this see www.centraleasttokyo.com.