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WONDER SITE

Japan grads go apolitical

by Monty Dipietro

With its current exhibition, “Index #2 — Life Styles,” Tokyo Wonder Site in Ochanomizu has mounted a worthwhile survey of recent Japanese art-school graduates. Prolific critic Kentaro Ichihara, in association with Kyoto University of Art and Design, selected five Kanto- and five Kansai-region artists to provide an indication of where the next generation of Japanese artists are headed.

First, you have to find Ochanomizu Wonder Site, which is more a drab than a wonderful site — the exterior suggesting a derelict warehouse, walls painted institutional gray, windows shuttered closed. Even the potentially attractive architectural features have been disregarded — the long display case beside the entrance, for example, sits empty. The only vital thing about the three-story building is the proliferation of leafy ivy across the southern wall — you can only hope this will one day engulf the entire structure. That said, there is a nice expanse of exhibition space inside, and for this show two of three floors are being used.

The first impression of “Life Styles” is of an educational environment. Drawings graffiti the stairway, and Maho Yamada’s installation “Mahtan Club” suggests scholastic escapism — with a “Twister” playing surface (or, in this case, “Twist Game” — perhaps the game manufacturer Hasbro isn’t getting a licensing fee) laid out on the floor before a row of hall lockers. Peeking behind the half-open doors, inside the different lockers you discover a wallpaper of sex-club adverts, an army of action figures and a stash of junk food. The piece likens school to a naughty playground, but I don’t know if the intent was nostalgic or ironic.

Of all the media on display, only the painting is disappointing — mostly labored and confused abstracts. Better are the photographic works and installations. Chihiro Wakabayashi’s set of high-contrast, high-saturation photo-acrylic pieces take a wide range of subject matter — flowers, a carp, a bus interior — and show both a good eye and fine execution.

A series of portraits by Chika Tsubota, “Simply Photographed,” is of people with CG’d cat-eyes. The artist’s adjacent series, “Entrances” comprises almost life-size, photo collages of apartment doors and interiors. They are an exploration of the boundaries between private and public space, using a photo-reconstruction technique that recalls the standout work by the artist Sahoko Yamada displayed at the Royal Ueno Museum’s 2001 Visions of Contemporary Art competition.

The “Vision” pieces by Archibiming look at first like photo portraits in gilded frames, but the fluttering of a lock of hair or the sudden appearance of a little dog scurrying through the background reveal that they are in fact high-resolution films of unmoving subjects. Little gems, possessed of the peculiar immediacy and appeal of Warhol’s moving portraits series.

The largest room here is dominated by Kyoko Ishikawa’s sprawling installation, “Call Off,” a collection of jigsawed pieces of plywood and other raw materials that are centered around a television set. It is all nicely happenstance, suggesting an artist’s studio — if only artist’s studios were so large in Japan. The image on the television is a tight shot of a body of water, with light reflecting off the undulating waves, and there is something elusive and dreamy about this piece.

What I found lacking in the show was outward-looking or political art. But that is nothing new — even younger Japanese artists tend to avoid, for whatever reason, this sort of thing. By way of comparison, consider the stuff now showing at the other Wonder Site, in Shibuya.

The exhibition “Move on Asia 2006 — Conflict and Networking” features video works by 21 young Asian artists who are willing, even eager, to tackle political issues. The Indonesian artist Andry Mohamad’s 2005 piece, “Just Do It,” starts with a Nike “swoosh” logo catching fire, then proceeds, using a campy 1950s-style instructional animation format, to issue an indictment of the new global capitalism and the sweatshops it has delivered to poor countries. In 10 minutes, Mohamad mocks brands, assails the image of the benevolent corporation and issues a call to embrace piracy.

Many of the other videos, from Singapore, South Korea, Australia and China, also either touch on or ram home political messages. Again, the Japanese contributions do not.

Although “Conflict and Networking” has some great moments, a problem with the show is the no-frills presentation of the work — but for one room with a projector, the videos are shown on simple, identical monitors, a row of several chairs and a couple of sets of headphones in front of each. A visitor would have to move from one to the next for some five hours to see all the videos through from beginning to end. Maybe it would be better to simply issue a DVD set?

Finally, also at Wonder Site Shibuya, is Hitoshi Nishiyama’s “White Out,” a walk-in installation sculpted out of Styrofoam and incorporating the spiral staircase in the space. It is nearly disorienting enough to become something more than a cross between a child’s fort and an igloo — but only nearly.