It has been 91 years since Luigi Russolo published his manifesto “The Art of Noises,” in which the Italian Futurist implored, “We must break out of this narrow circle of pure musical sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise sounds.”
Answering Russolo’s battle cry, countless creative souls have howled, shrieked, smashed and crashed their way into the annals of modern noise art. There have been times when the distinction between artist and musician was difficult to draw. For example, Yoko Ono and Laurie Anderson, who were working as avant-garde sound and performance artists where their primary focus was neither rhythm nor melody nevertheless both garnered commercial radio airtime.
For other artists, without aiming to be musicians at all, the act of performance itself engendered successful noise or sound art — the Blue Man Group started out as an art collective before producing their recent hit CDs. Japan’s most amazing noise-makers are Maywa Denki, referred to in their own press releases as both a company and an art unit. Maywa Denki was established in 1993 by “parallel-world electricians” Masamichi and Nobumichi Tosa, a couple of brothers who are the subject of a retrospective, “The Nonsense Machines,” which features hundreds of their low-tech, sci-fi creations. The exhibition is now showing at the InterCommunication Center Gallery (ICC) in Nishi Shinjuku.
Maywa Denki started out by publishing manifestos and building wacky noise machines. These are frequently hybrids combining popular musical instruments such as acoustic guitars, pianos, drums on the one hand; and, on the other hand, fish. The fish angle has its origin in a 1990 experiment that served as the inspiration both for the group in general and for their “Nanki” series of products (yes, they sell these things) in particular.
Nobumichi, then but 22, was doing some soul-searching. Instead of simply reading “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse, he resolved to pursue the following methodology:
1) Compare oneself to a fish, and the world to a small sea where a fish lives, then ask oneself “Who am I?” to find the answer from the point of view of a fish.
2) With the theme of “one item=one message” create a product to express the answer. Give each one of 26 products an alphabetical model number.
3) Examine the results as a whole and feel the total image of one’s self.
The 26 devices that resulted, many of them noise-producing, are made of shiny metal and springs and rubber and wood, these fashioned into gills, fins and fish skeletons and other biomorphic shapes. Here, they are mounted on a wall in alphabetical order comprising one of the more attractive displays in this exhibition.
Short descriptive texts (in both Japanese and English) introduce the Nanki products and expound on some of the group’s fanciful philosophies.
For example: regarding an inflatable rubber membrane installed in a test tube, it is explained that the membrane represents a fish bladder, which represents man; the test tube represents the world man lives in; and the hand, outside, which can pump the membrane full of air, represents god.
Visitors are invited to interact with some of the devices — push a button, and a loud bell rings in another part of the room; strike a touch pad and a wood mallet hits a cymbal; squeeze a syringe-shaped controller and a balloon first inflates and then slowly farts air through a noisy steel valve.
Generally, the execution is more 1950s eccentric inventor than 21st-century high tech. The nonsense machines shake, whirl, rattle and shriek and can be fun to look at. The question is, how far can a fascination with a couple of guys’ somewhat juvenile hobby hold our attention?
There are a number of performance videos here which show the Maywa Denki members on stage, dressed in their trademark matching blue-collar factory worker polyester-blend outfits. They stand with affected seriousness etched on their faces, and pump out elementary grooves on their “instruments.” The audience — in France at least — were loud in their appreciation afterward. In a kitsch way, these guys can be a hoot.
In this show, however, there are no live performances, only recreations of some of the group’s previous stage setups, complete with headless mannequins. These erupt several times daily in a programmed cacophony when triggered by gallery staff. It communicates the general idea of a Maywa Denki performance, but it isn’t the same.
There is extensive documentation here, from sketches to schematics, and dioramas of key performances in the group’s 10-year history. Visitors can even dress up like the band and be photographed in front of a re-creation of their 2004 Paris stage.
The show celebrates the ne plus ultra of geek art culture, and it is certainly not uninteresting, but without the lights and the sound and of course the human energy that goes with actual performances, “The Nonsense Machines” come off somewhat cold and empty, and the visitor may leave feeling not a little unfulfilled.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.