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Although she has only recently turned 28, I am starting to think Tabaimo is one of Japan’s most important artists. Here’s why.

In the more than 10 years I have lived in Japan, I have gradually become acclimatized to an environment of pervasive cuteness. For example, the logo on my Asahi Bank cash card is not a strong, powerful image like a talon-baring eagle or towering mountain peak — rather it is a line drawing of an upright bunny rabbit, dressed in a pink smock, out for a stroll with five little ducklings. And I find nothing wrong with this picture. I think it is normal, fun. But art should be another matter, shouldn’t it?

I don’t mean to pretend that art that is likely to appeal to children is necessarily immature. Consider Andy Warhol’s floating silver helium “pillows” and his larger-than-life Brillo boxes; Roy Lichtenstein’s big, bold, comic-book panels; Jeff Koons’ cute ceramic Pink Panther statuettes — these unabashedly fun works are all counted among the more important art of the 1960s-’80s.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Japan has been setting new standards in the world of fun art. Some 10 years ago, phantasmagorical sculptor Takashi Murakami, painter of impish kids Yoshitomo Nara and space cadet Mariko Mori first brought their easygoing Asian pop-exotica to Western contemporary art fairs. Soon afterward, hyped by trendy media and helped by savvy gallerists who could position and explain the work, this new generation of artists found favor with influential curators and deep-pocketed Western collectors.

For Murakami, the crowning achievement comes in less than two weeks when, on Sept. 9, his “Reversed Double Helix” — a busy pastiche of 3D plastic mushrooms and cartoon characters done up in super-saturated limes and pinks, and sure to titillate any preteen — will be unveiled in the Rockefeller Center Plaza in New York City. Recently completed at a factorylike Murakami work space in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, “Reversed Double Helix” was produced with assistance from the Public Art Fund of New York and the Marianne Boesky Gallery. It will be one of the largest public-art projects the Big Apple has ever seen.

It will necessarily be 20 years or more before we see how history judges the likes of Murakami, Nara and Mori — and I fear I am in the minority when I predict, “not kindly.” In any case, these art stars are turning 40 — and behind them is a new generation of fun Japanese artists.

Pulling far ahead of this pack is Tabaimo.

The video-installation artist was appointed a professor at the Kyoto University of Art and Design at the age of just 26, and is certainly one to watch. She currently has room-filling pieces in the Hara Museum ARC in Gunma and the Kirin Plaza Osaka, and is showing pencil-on-paper studies and a new, shoebox-size maquette of her video-installation piece, “Japanese Kitchen,” at the Gallery Koyanagi in Tokyo’s Ginza district. (The original “Japanese Kitchen” was Tabaimo’s graduation piece in 1999, which won her the Kirin Contemporary Art Award.)

I first saw Tabaimo’s work at the 2001 Yokohama Triennale (where she was the youngest of more than 100 participating artists). Her multiscreen video installation there, titled “Japanese Commuter Train,” was a life-size animated portrayal of not-so-normal events and interactions on a normal inner-city train. Viewers could stand in the center of a hallway and watch movement on all sides, even the scenery outside the train windows was well detailed.

Like many successful Japanese contemporary artists, Tabaimo uses high-tech equipment to carefully craft large-scale works based on both traditional and contemporary Japanese culture. Typically, she shows three-screen video projections in “theaters” that are lifesize reconstructions of typical Japanese living and social environments (a carriage on a commuter train, a traditional wooden house, a public bath). The short, looping vignettes are done in an early, flickering cartoon style, with all the animations hand-drawn by the artist.

The characters inhabiting Tabaimo’s animations are realistic in appearance, and go about their routines just long enough for the viewer to be surprised when they make one of the weird deviations that characterize these pieces — for example, a housewife preparing dinner casually slices the head off a miniature salaryman before tossing his body into her nabe pot; a couple of sumo wrestlers at the sento embrace and kiss deeply, until one is entirely inhaled by the other, and so on.

The sensation when viewing many of today’s Japanese artists is akin to eating a big swirl of pink cotton candy — it’s sweet and goes down easily, but leaves you unsatisfied. Not so with Tabaimo, who gives you something to sink your teeth into. With themes that range from alienation to molestation, from politics to homoerotica, Tabaimo shows a rare willingness to visit dark places and ask difficult questions.

With their many surprises, their flat colors reminiscent of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and their bouncy soundtracks, Tabaimo’s wholly original video installations manage to be quite a bit of fun, without being cute. And that may be what I like best about this exciting young artist.

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