Picture, if you will, a typical Saturday afternoon in Shinjuku. Throngs of people scurry to and fro, delivery trucks troll by belching fumes, while scooters dart in and out of traffic. This time, though, something’s up.
A crowd has gathered in front of the chic Beams gallery on Chuo-dori. Television crews are milling around, lending a sense of expectation to the atmosphere. Before the gallery stands a wall of multicolored plastic buckets. What could be about to happen?
Suddenly, from within the gallery comes an answer — of sorts. An ominous scraping beat can be heard. Then the crowd surges forward, gasping, as a troupe of schoolgirls emerges.
But these are no ordinary girls, navy-styled uniforms notwithstanding. Safety cones spray-painted a fluorescent pink sit atop their heads, covering their faces. The girls’ feet are adorned with plastic buckets, hence that sound so reminiscent of a marching battalion in old war movies.
As the girls shamble along Chuo-dori, they pause to peer into restaurants much to the consternation of the diners. A man exiting a pachinko parlor stops in amazement as he watches the bizarre procession before him, followed by a crowd now a few hundred strong.
The Cone Girls aren’t modeling the latest in street fashion, though: They’re an art show.
The mastermind behind the happening (who discreetly records the proceedings on video) is Tokyo-based performance artist Shinji Shishikura. Over the past two years, Shishikura has staged similar events in both Japan and Europe. He favors the use of everyday items in his works, particularly plastic buckets. One past show involved a group of schoolchildren drumming on such buckets, then launching a mock attack on Shishikura himself, clad in a giant plastic garbage can.
“The image that Japanese people have of art is too narrow,” Shishikura offered by way of explanation in an interview before his show. “It’s destroying the possibility of creation.”
Shishikura claimed that Meiji-Era mass importation of European culture had created a stagnant legacy for Japan’s artists and their audience. “The Japanese word for art, bijutsu, is made of the characters for ‘beauty’ and ‘technique.’ But what about something that is neither?” he asked. Using everyday materials like buckets and safety cones is an obvious challenge to rarefied notions of what is or isn’t art. Shishikura’s motivation is simple and direct: “I would like to break these invisible walls.”
In last Saturday’s show, the plastic buckets were prominent, although not to the extent that Shishikura had originally planned. The artist had intended to hang some 3,000 buckets along the length of Chuo-dori, but at the last minute Shinjuku Ward officials denied him permission, without stating a reason. Infuriated, Shishikura modified his program in protest — instead of hanging up the buckets, the Cone Girls form a human chain along the length of Chuo-dori, dismantling the bucket wall in front of the Beams building and passing the buckets down the line and back up, only to build the wall all over again in the original location.
According to Shishikura, art is not something to be sequestered away in galleries, or presided over by academicians. “When you say ‘art,’ you may think of something dreamy and unreal, but I disagree,” he explained. “Art has to be realistic.”
But despite Shishikura’s observations about art transcending its traditional limits, he is keenly aware of the “rules of the game.” Art survives only insofar as it (and its creators) can attract attention — more so than ever in these wired times. Shishikura clearly understands this, and in the audience for this show, the ratio of media people to “genuine” spectators is high. While the underlying themes of consumerism, conformism and the anomie of urban life in Japan may have been lost on those watching (or passing by) the Cone Girls, they are certain to be spelled out in media coverage of the event.
At one point somewhere near the beginning of the show, all the girls sat down beside a tiny stall selling lottery tickets, when two bewildered and mildly intoxicated men came up to the booth. “Is this some kind of promotion?” they asked the woman behind the counter, who simply smiled and laughed. Some kind of promotion, indeed.