‘Physicatopia’: Boys being boys

by

Special To The Japan Times

Being only a part-time art historian, but full-time gossip, I spend more time commiserating with my single female friends on the problem of “Why are there no great men?” than I ponder the rhetorical “Why have there been no great women artists?”, as feminist art historian Linda Nochlin asked in 1971 (hint: who writes the art history?).

Women trying to find a decent man is an eternal problem, but I think it might be a particularly acute one in Japan right now, where we seem to be in the midst of John B. Calhoun’s (1917-95) Universe 25. In the course of his studies on overpopulation Calhoun created a living environment for mice that provided unlimited food and water, but was limited in space. A group of mice developed that Calhoun dubbed “the beautiful ones,” as they lost interest in socializing and reproduction, and spent their days grooming themselves.

The “Physicatopia” exhibition at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art by art performance collective contact Gonzo definitely has an air of unravelling masculinity about it. Sometimes funny, sometimes pathetic and occasionally disconcerting, the group, named after their fondness for writer Hunter S. Thompson and their performance style of half brawling and half dancing, camped out for a week in the gallery, leaving their bunkbeds and work table behind like an ultimate version of teenage boys refusing to tidy up their room. The fenced-off living area looks like a cross between a prison cell and a terrarium.

The display of their mess is a little self-indulgent and not particularly innovative, artistically speaking, but I can’t deny that little gestures of rebellion like graffiti in the elevator and vandalizing the gallery signs prohibiting photography appealed to the naughty boy in me.

Spontaneity and freedom, are major themes in this exhibition, but its unrelenting maleness does bring into question how profoundly these qualities are being explored. One of their video pieces is a product of the group spending time in the mountains where Mikao Usui (1865-1926) came up with the healing practice of reiki. With a makeshift but powerful sling, one of them launches grapefruit at the others. A variety of outcomes are shown: someone gets hit in the neck, the missile is dodged, a grapefruit seems to skip through space to magically hit the sling operator in the back. The soundtrack is a few doleful piano chords, making the absurdity and amateurism curiously moving.

On the floor below visitors can try this out for themselves with a device that shoots a ball out of a black shed. It hurts, but the anticipation of pain is worse than the impact.

On the floor below that, a live video feed projects this onto a T-shirt via a mechanical creature filled with the artists’ vinyl records and videos. There is a copy of David Lynch’s “Dune,” a David Bowie LP and, depressingly, a voice recording of right-wing literary critic and militarist Hideo Kobayashi (1902-83).

“Physicatopia” at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (Watari-um) runs until March 26; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Wed. until 9 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.watarium.co.jp