What’s real in a world of copies and clones?

by Matthew Larking

I n contrast to the type of mass- produced art best characterized in Japan by Takashi Murakami and the hordes of assistants who complete paintings and sculptures to the specifications of their employer, is a small coterie of sculptors/painters who work at individually crafting the mass-produced items of the everyday environment.

Kenji Toki crafts visually identical polystyrene sushi trays commonly found in supermarkets using traditional techniques of lacquer, and Yoshihiro Suda and Fuyuki Maehara carve trompe l’oeil vegetal sculptures following after nature — surely the prototype for mass-production. Another compelling artist is Nobuaki Onishi (b. 1972), who is exhibiting recent work in Chain at Osaka’s Gallery Nomart until Jan. 23, and like his contemporaries’ creations, the virtuosic realism of the works is primarily an aid to lead the viewer in more cerebral directions.

Onishi’s slightly earlier works in the back, second-story gallery impart context to his more recent works in the exhibition space at the front. In the 2005 work “Burajya” (Brassiere), Onishi simply hand-crafted a reproduction of a factory-made fine-lace bra in lacquer on acrylic resin. The result was perceptually indistinguishable from the expected mass-produced finish of the original; though while one could marvel at the artist’s labors and technical proficiency, there did not seem much else to say of the work.

In another work from the same year, “Nori” (Glue), Onishi began to leave his reproductions incomplete. Here a yellow tube of glue becomes transparent toward the base of the object, the color fading to the clear resin that gives the object its form, revealing the artifice, exposing the fraud of the experience.

The idea seems to be a nod in the direction of the early 20th-century subversive surrealist Rene Magritte (1898-1967), who painted a picture of a pipe and then in bold French lettering on the canvas below wrote: “This is not a pipe.” Of course the painted image was not a pipe but the representation of one, and the representation shared no qualities with that of the real object. One was 3-D, made of wood and served a practical purpose, the other was a contrivance in oils.

For Onishi too, it became important to insist on the visual reproducibility of reality while retaining the sense that his sculpted works were indeed unreal. This he achieved in “Nori” by draining the color to the transparency of the resin so that the illusion is revealed.

Such concerns led Onishi to position his work in relation to the flood of imitations that surround us in everyday life and the deluge of images that results from endless reproducibility. The artist points out that we continue to copy and clone everyday things around us, so much so that the copies become an integral part of our reality, and there is a widespread pleasure in them being so.

Onishi’s most recent work is a continuation and development of these ideas, and includes a foray into moving images. In “Chain/ banana, ice” (2009) five Dell monitors show the same scene of a mass of bananas that slowly decay, their skins turning brown, then black. Three bananas in horizontal chain formation, however, seem immune to the aging process. These, of course, are Onishi’s creations, and the point ostensibly is that the copies are infinitely more visually pleasing. Real, organic materials decay and lose their appeal; the reproduced ones ceaselessly retain their perfection. Following the bananas, a similar thing happens to icecubes.

“Chain — Butterfly” (2009) continues the play with decay and permanence but this time with reference to the somewhat morbid pastime of killing, collecting and displaying butterflies, something that Onishi does. These butterflies, however, are delicate silkscreens on film and they are given their taxonomic Latin designations such as Idea leuconoe, or “Rice-paper butterfly,” a name that has palpable connection to other carefully drawn works on collaged rice paper such as “Chain — Lace and Chain — Sea” (2009).

A final thread to the exhibition are the works “Pottery 1 and 2″ (2009). Here, Onishi has not actually contrived the form and appearance of one thing through the materials of another, but has actually produced real pottery — the thing itself. Four plates form “Pottery 1″ and three mugs make “Pottery 2.” All are dark- brown fired clay with a frosty white glaze.

The intention here, it seems, is that even Onishi’s efforts at creating original crafts in authentic materials results in reproducibility. With each plate and cup being indistinguishable from the others around it, asking which is the original becomes altogether beside the point.

This, then, is the tyranny of Onishi’s reproductions, as any recourse to the original becomes futile as everything in origin is conceived of as a reproduction. For Onishi, the intimately hand-crafted object is deeply enmeshed in the world of mechanical mass-reproducibility.

“Nobuaki Onishi: Chain” at Gallery Nomart in Osaka, runs till Jan. 23; open 1 p.m.-7 p.m., closed Sun. and national holidays; free admission. For more information, visit www2.nomart.co.jp