An artist caught in the moment

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

Why isn’t Yukihiro Taguchi in jail?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t for a minute think the 31-year-old artist who hails from Osaka deserves to be thrown in the slammer. What he deserves is to be feted at many more exhibitions like the one currently underway at Mori Art Museum in Tokyo’s Roppongi district.

But the question remains — both in my mind and that of many of his viewers, it seems. How does Taguchi do what he does, and stay out of trouble? How does he get away with it?

Take for example the entrancing video of his so-called “performative” installation, “Moment,” from 2007.

Taguchi ripped up the floorboards of a gallery. So what, you say? Isn’t that all in a day’s work for an artist? Well, perhaps, but he didn’t stop there. He dragged all 70 or so of the 3-meter planks through the streets, stopping to make large assemblages around bus stops, park benches, bridges and just about anything else that he found in his path. It certainly looks like a text book case of what is known — in Japan at least — as “obstructing a public thoroughfare.”

Taguchi even provides all the evidence of his transgressions that a police officer could hope for. He takes hundreds of photographs of the whole migrating procession and then stitches them together into a stop-motion animation to make it look like they’re moving by themselves. That video — and many like it — are currently on show at Mori.

Taguchi has an answer for those viewers who look at his work and wonder why he doesn’t get in trouble, why he doesn’t have police officers and security guards chasing him through the streets. His answer is that he lives and works in Berlin.

“If I had stayed in Tokyo I would have ended up a very different artist,” he told The Japan Times recently. “Things are just done differently over there. There’s an openness, a willingness to try things, and it invites experimentation.”

Taguchi moved to Berlin in 2005 after graduating from the most prestigious of art schools in Japan: Tokyo University of the Arts.

Although he spent four years in the institution’s oil-painting department, he “didn’t make a single proper painting” while he was there. Instead, he fell under the influence of Tadashi Kawamata, the globe-trotting installation artist best known for massive nest-like structures he builds around existing buildings.

“I thought Kawamata’s work was all about communicating with a particular community, and making artwork in that community,” Taguchi said. He wanted to do the same.

Taguchi was also keen to avoid a trap that often ensnares young Japanese artists: the rental gallery system, where you spend a year doing part-time jobs to make enough money to hold a solo show for a week.

“I had been to Berlin a few times already and I sensed that things would work out there,” he said. “It felt like I could get my work seen.”

After spending a year in a language school learning German, Taguchi set about involving himself in the thriving local artistic community.

“I walked around outside with a sign saying ‘Please give me an exhibition,’ ” he explained. He lived — and still lives — with nine roommates, most of them artists and many of them foreign. They held parties, sometimes with more than 200 guests. Some of their friends had galleries. Some of them, naturally, thought it would be fun to work with a young, outgoing Japanese guy.

At his first event, Taguchi boiled a pot of coffee using only friction for heat (“We got so hot we didn’t feel like drinking coffee.”) At his second, he was given free use of a large gallery, but he had no budget to make new work. He decided to rip up the carpet and place poles and beams underneath it so that it turned into a wildly contoured landscape of short pile.

“I asked another gallery operator if I could pull up his floorboards and he said sure, that sounds fun,” Taguchi continued. With that, the show at Galerie Air Garten, where he made “Moment” was decided.

“You know in Tokyo, the style of interaction is very different — not necessarily bad, but just different,” he said. “In Japan, if someone likes your work, they will like hang back and maybe contact you out of the blue in a year’s time. Over there (in Berlin) they will say, hey, let’s do something together next month.”

At Air Garten, Taguchi initially intended to make a single, static installation from the floorboards — an attempt to turn a familiar scene on its head — but then, as he scrolled through photographs of the process, which he had taken on his digital camera, he marveled as the floorboards appeared to come alive.

“I decided I could make even more variations of unusual landscapes by using video,” he said.

As he ventured into the street with his army of floorboards and camera, he found passersby curious and supportive. “People would come up and ask if I was an artist or if they could help me,” he said. “They stood and watched or offered opinions.”

Needless to say, in Tokyo, he didn’t think he would get the same reaction. “In Tokyo they’d look at you suspiciously, or just ignore you, assuming you were setting up for some event or something.”

Taguchi liked the suggestion that Berliners might be closer in spirit to the people of Osaka, where he was born.

I reminded him of one of many regular attempts by television comedians to prove that Osakans have a better sense of humor than Tokyoites. A comedian with a banana held up to his ear like a mobile phone approaches a passerby. “Phone call for you,” he says, as he holds out the banana. Most Osakans, it turns out, cotton on to the joke and play along, grabbing the banana and pretending to have a conversation. Most Tokyoites, however, look at the comedian like he’s crazy. Or they run away.

“You’re right,” Taguchi said. “In Osaka, people will say, ‘hey that’s interesting’ and they’ll stand and watch, or they’ll say ‘let’s hang out some time’ or whatever.”

Taguchi says he thinks he feels more comfortable in Osaka than Tokyo, but for the moment he has no plans to leave Berlin.

In Tokyo for the current Mori show, however, he’s had to adapt slightly to the staid ways of the capital. In a new version of his “Moment” series, made especially for the show, the museum’s white walls break off from the building, head down the large service elevator and then out into the Roppongi Hills complex, where the museum is located. They appear to run and dance around the town.

It’s as though the gallery walls themselves are relishing the freedom afforded by this greatly liberated artist.

Still, he found the experience of creating that work within Roppongi Hills — with its planning meetings and permissions and security — odd.

“In a way it felt like a miniature version of Tokyo — a Tokyo within a Tokyo,” he said. “It’s such a controlled environment.”

“MAMP015: Yukihiro Taguchi” at the Mori Art Museum runs till Aug. 28; admission ¥1,500 (with entry to “French Window”); open; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Tue. till 5 p.m.). For more information, call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.mori.art.museum