Artist builds from zero

by Monty Dipietro

Suspicious of the pervasive role of Western culture in his homeland, Katsushige Nakahashi resolved to become a “Japanese artist.”

“Fine art was introduced to Japan during the Meiji Era,” he explains, “and I especially saw sculpture, which I majored in, as an imported art. An uncomfortable feeling arose in me, so I decided to explore the culture of my own country, gradually advancing my view from contemporary to historical. At the same time, I developed a style of making and presenting art based on the Japanese aesthetic.”

After half a lifetime of experimentation, what Nakahashi has ended up doing with his current and most important body of work, “Zero Project,” is recreating World War II-era Japanese fighter planes, and then ceremoniously burning them.

Nakahashi was born in Japan’s smallest prefecture, Kagawa in Shikoku, in 1955. During the war, his father had been a mechanic whose job it was to repair fighter aircraft so that young men could dive them out of the sky and into the decks of enemy ships. Later, when Nakahashi was a teenager, he was introduced to building models of those same Mitsubishi Zero fighters. Making and regarding the model airplanes suffused him, he says, with feelings of “boyish heroism.”

Nakahashi’s “Zero Project” began in 2000 and will continue until 2009. The process runs as follows: First, the artist builds and details a shop-bought, 1/32-scale model Zero. Then, he photographs the entire surface of the model with a micro-lens, in 2 x 3-mm sections. After developing and printing, the standard, snapshot-sized pictures — and there can be some 20,000 of them — Nakahashi and a team of assistants painstakingly cellophane-tape them together to form the shell of a full-size Zero.

There generally follows a formal exhibition, after which the work is taken to a location that has some link to the warplanes, such as an air base or crash site, where it is burned.

Obsessional art — not in the “sex, violence and death” sense of the term, but art made by a process that is repetitive to a degree that suggests neurosis — is well-established in Japan. In much obsessional work, one senses artists may be avoiding subject matter with strong intrinsic meanings, concerned that these may create dissonance in the transmission and detract from the process.

But then Nakahashi’s embrace of controversial iconography appears — and while I am uncertain of the artist’s possible political intent, I am delighted by the fearlessness with which he structures his art. In his case, too, the bold choice of subject matter does not detract from the obsessional qualities of his sculpture, rather it enriches them.

Nakahashi’s ambition is an exception on the Japanese contemporary-art scene, and should be inspiring young artists — but you will not find him in a major Tokyo contemporary-art gallery this summer. Rather, he is at the eclectic “Collapsing Histories,” a group show that catalogs catastrophes. The exhibition has been politically positioned at a monument to an irradiated fishing boat housed in the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall, as well as at a rare alternative art space — the Kodama Gallery — that opened several months ago in a four-story Kagurazaka building that once housed (and still partially does) a printing company.

(Also there, is the talented Yuko Yamamoto’s new gallery, and Ryutaro Takahashi’s viewing room.) Although this is easily the most difficult to find art space in the city, the atmosphere is nicely bohemian-cozy, and other visitors will likely smile at you with the unpracticed warmth people reserve for fellow pilgrims.

I would propose that a perception of Nakahashi’s work as being “difficult” has landed him in these far-flung places, since his burned-out Zeros clearly have little in common with the often over-saccharine work seen in many of Tokyo’s established contemporary-art galleries. Isn’t it ironic, though, how all Nakahashi’s efforts to become a “Japanese artist” have left him looking nothing like one?