Traveling through a symphony of art

by Donald Eubank

Several weeks ago at the Fuji Rock music festival, I realized that I might be in the wrong game. The art world is about the object: You look at a work, often something inert, and attempt to discern from it an emotion, a meaning or a truth. But music irresistibly moves you, it mysteriously reaches through the ear to some part of the mind that ignites a passion, elicits joy and maybe even makes you want to get your boogie on. Can static artworks compete with the power of rhythm and melody in succeeding in touching the soul?

Maybe an artwork can’t compete with the urgency of an individual song, but when successfully put together in an exhibition, they can replicate the experience of more expansive musical compositions.

The current solo show of Tomoko Konoike at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery does just that, playing out like a visual symphony with distinct sections, a sense of pace and development, and an overarching theme. Titled “Inter-Traveller,” the exhibition brings together trademark works from Konoike’s fertile imagination: her howling wolves, disembodied legs of a young girl, and the bulbous daggers that swarm through her worlds.

What makes the show powerful is the path we take through these pieces. They are arranged in a manner that suggests the development of a narrative, but if there is a coherent story, it is obviously a deeply personal one for Konoike — its full nature remaining beyond the grasp of the viewer. Her aim at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, however, is to create in the audience the sense of a soul moving between dimensions, lost at sea, so if one feels a sense of displacement wandering through the exhibition, count this as a success.

What is clear from the show are the parallels that this other world has with our common concerns, including those about birth, death and the exuberance and uncertainty of life.

Four main rooms make up the high points of the story, like the four movements of a symphony. In the stark white antechamber of the exhibition, the sculpture “Virginia-Set Me Free, Fly from My Restraint” (2007) — a flying cocoon that is giving birth to a human child, its legs coming out first — hangs over a spiral layout of pages from a book that follows an anthropomorphic fur ball called “mimio” through the four seasons. Konoike says that visitors are meant to project themselves into her story through the blank slate of mimio, taking them into a world that despite being tinged with a menace never seems tragically violent, though it does evoke sadness.

After this introduction, visitors stoop to pass through a curtain into a completely red room that is like a womb, with four massive panels that Konoike made in 2005 and a bouquet of lilies in the center of the space.

The third room presents “Shira — Spirit from the Wild,” a new work made especially for the show. In the centerpiece of three ivory-white sliding doors is a giant skull from which gold dust pours. On the right are a group of butterflies with human legs and on the left, wolves with the same. In the past, these legs, when attached to her wolves, appeared like an intrusion; here, stripped of their skin, they look as if they are capturing a moment in a transformation from beast to man. In an interview with The Japan Times, Konoike said that though she has not often portrayed humans in the past, now she is looking to do so, revealing that these stunning works are a transformative moment in her art.

After a series of dark hallways with smaller pieces, you arrive at the heart of the composition. Konoike and curator Shihoko Iida imagined the path of the exhibition as a journey to the center of the earth, and in the artist’s vision, this darkest part of the world is another new work, an installation of a giant baby’s head covered in shards of mirrors and rotating on a pedestal.

The idea for the journey arose after a discussion Konoike had with a scientist about the center of the earth. Realizing that no one had ever traveled there, she decided to apply her imagination to what such a place would be like. Needless to say, her version is mystical, containing not only the child, but fluttering bats, driftwood and a boat with a sprawled-out deer.

So consistent is Konoike’s vision, that you want a key to unlock the meanings of her themes and symbolic characters. But that would be asking too much, because they are not meant to have a one-to-one relation with the world we inhabit. Instead they are a skewed mirror with which the viewer can reflect their own interpretation. That’s not a new approach for an artist, but what makes “Inter-Traveller” great is the sustained presentation of the show, the thematic development, the symphonic nature of it that builds through its set pieces to encourage viewers to seek a meaning and gives them plenty with which to work.

Tomoko Konoike “Inter-Traveller” is showing at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery till Sept. 27; admission ¥1,000, open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri., Sat. till 8 p.m.; closed Mon.). For more information call (03) 5353 0756 or visit www.operacity.jp/en/ag/