The art and poetics of a domestic environment

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

Jaws dropped as American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, arriving in Japan in the 1980s, named Yasujiro Ozu as one of the directors he was most inspired by. Ozu, active from the 1920s up to the 1960s, was then considered old fashioned for his slow pace and lack of movement, and for the middle-class sensibilities of his dramas set, usually, in domestic spaces. He is still largely neglected by Japanese youth today, so one wonders how the art crowd will respond to two Portugese artists taking Ozu and mu, most often translated as “nothingness,” a concept associated with the director’s films, as the theme to their show.

At “MU: Pedro Costa & Rui Chafes” five works each by Costa, a filmmaker, and Chafes, a sculptor, give new life to the staircase and garden as well as the exhibition rooms of the Hara Museum. In one room, Chafes, who works mainly in iron, has installed a structure reminiscent of a confessional, with a row of booths separated from a line of seats by grid panels. High above, in a work by Costa, what seem at first to be photographic character studies of striking faces are revealed, through the slightest detail of movement, to be filmic images.

The artists themselves admit that their works share few direct similarities with Ozu on the formal level.

“I relate more with his way of working than with his films. I respect the way he works as a craftsman, the way he gives clarity to the image that he wants to build,” said Chafes in a recent interview. “That interests me a lot as a maker of images. I relate mainly with his working ethic.”

At an artist talk at the opening of the show, Costa deferred to the comments of film director Kenji Mizoguchi, known for his complex camera movements and long takes, who once famously said that Ozu’s simplicity is extremely difficult to achieve.

“It’s very hard to get there as you always get lost in some small thing that makes you stumble and fall,” Costa later elaborated. “His genius is so evident — and that’s very hard to achieve.”

The Hara, which was once a residence, is itself is a unique art space, and Costa said that his work is designed for domestic spaces. “I discovered that some years ago,” he said. “In rooms and corridors, people leave and pass, so it’s much better for me than the white cube of a gallery.”

Chafes also noted that inside conventional gallery spaces, “you create a moment that is always possible. The conditions are a theoretical ideal, the light, everything.”

But that isn’t the case in a space like the Hara.

“In a domestic space, you have to deal with the contingency of life,” he explained. “This was not built as a museum, the stairs were built for people, the rooms for people to sleep in, for cooking and eating, so when the artworks arrive they have to deal with these contingencies, and that’s very beautiful.”

MU: Pedro Costa & Rui Chafes at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art runs till March 10; open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Wed till 8 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.haramuseum.or.jp