The Watari-Um Museum of Contemporary Art in Shibuya is one of Japan’s most respected private museums. Now, it seems, the beautiful, Mario Botta-designed art space has also become one of the country’s leading supporters of young artists.
In the summer of 2002, when the Watari showed Carsten Nicolai’s “Parallel Lines Cross at Infinity,” I remarked on how rare it was for Japanese museums to award solo shows to under-40 artists (German-born Nicolai was 36 at the time). This month, the Watari has surprised us again, by mounting a one-man show by Osaka artist Zon Ito, who is but 31 years old.
At first glance, the playful, sometimes exotic embroidery pieces that dominate Ito’s exhibition, titled “Kinjo no Hate (Edge of Town),” bring to mind neither youth nor contemporary culture. Because embroidery is generally regarded as a pastime for seniors, these works can look like the sort of thing your grandmother might come up with. And because grandmothers tend to be deft with their needles, Ito’s raw, uneven works suggest a grandmother only just learning how to embroider. On the other hand, Ito’s preferred subject matter — animals and landscapes — are also the kind of thing that can attract a child’s eye.
So it is not easy to pigeonhole Ito. For one thing, it is not at all appropriate to look at him as a needlework artist. Ito has said he took up embroidery partly because it required more time and effort to stitch a line than to draw or paint one. Looking over his work at the Watari, the impression I got is that his primary interest is not in technique but process. That is, Ito’s work is less about producing artworks than it is about the action of producing them.
In conjunction with Ito’s exhibition, the artist and the museum have organized an ambitious program of daily workshops that are proving popular with both adults and children. The high walls on the first floor of the Watari are already largely covered by hundreds of postcard-size pictures of pigs, done in colored pencil and watercolors by participants in one of these workshops.
As the weeks roll by, more and more pig pictures will be added to the walls — they already outnumber and eventually may overpower Ito’s own artworks. This community participation is something Ito and the museum are very serious about. When it became apparent that some disabled and elderly people in neighboring care centers would not be able to visit the museum, Ito decided on outreach, taking his workshops to the institutions.
One of the workshop formats includes a sort of scavenger hunt for some 20 tiny (smaller than a thimble) artworks that Ito has hidden in unlikely locations inside the Watari. In another recent session, Ito played participants a recording made in the neighborhood and asked them to draw the scene. He then took the group out to the site of the recording, so the drawings could be compared to the place that had indirectly inspired them. The workshops, held at 5 p.m. daily, are an integral part of this show, and it’s wonderful to find an artist who is inviting others to share in his creative process. (Contact the museum for a detailed schedule.)
There is also a selection of Ito’s journals here; some small and obsessive pencil-on-paper line drawings; and a very good video piece, “Children of Veins” (2003), which Ito did in collaboration with his wife, Ryoko Aoki.
The video, which runs about six minutes, takes us on a trip that includes a friend of Ito’s practicing surfing on the lawn in his backyard. An animated “wave” comes along, and soon we are in a world swirling with monkeys, clouds, bunnies and rainbow-colored trees. It also features a clanging guitar and floating flute soundtrack by the artist. “Children of Veins” is far more ’60’s psychedelia than 21st-century computer graphics. I sat through it twice.
With so many young artists involved in new media these days, it is unavoidable that brush strokes often yield to mouse clicks on the contemporary art scene. I have no problem with that, but it is also very refreshing to experience a lovingly homemade show like Ito’s, where the hand of the artist can be seen and felt everywhere.
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