Tadasu Takamine shocks us, yet again

by C.B. Liddell

In their endless efforts to make us see things in new ways and generally mess with our minds, contemporary conceptual artists such as Tadasu Takamine may often do more to distort their own view of the world than change the way the wider public sees it. This would explain why, in 2004, Takamine attempted to show “Kimura-san,” a video of himself masturbating a disabled man, at a group exhibition at the Yokohama Museum of Art (YMA).

Although we could all sit down over tea and biscuits and have a big heart-to-heart on how disabled people have sexual needs too, the bluntness of Takamine’s work showed both a lack of artistic wit and a callow disregard for commonly accepted norms of sexual propriety. Indeed, rather than leading to any improvement in the sex lives of the disabled, I suspect it may even have put many people off addressing the issue. The YMA, dreading a public backlash and possible legal challenges, did a U-turn and decided to pull the work from the show before it opened.

Now, seven years later, Takamine is back at the YMA, and both the artist and institution are once again keen to challenge what they no doubt see as the backward mindset that led to their previous setback.

“I think, compared to other museums, the Yokohama Museum of Art had courage in trying to display the work,” Takamine tells the Japan Times.

Appearing bleary-eyed, he mentions that he hasn’t slept for several days in order to get the exhibition ready, giving the impression of someone so deeply caught up in his own world that he is oblivious to what others might think. Many would say that this is exactly the type of attitude an avant-garde artist should have — questing for truth and beauty, without regard for “the common herd.” But unfortunately, Takamine falls short on both counts.

Whatever his notions of truth may be, beauty is clearly not his intention. One of his main works “Baby Insa-Dong” (2004), a narcissistic examination of his marriage to his Japanese-born Korean wife, is merely a long, dreary line of family photos, with an accompanying text that strains to extrapolate a universal message, while also making noises about “racism.” With no aesthetic appeal, this piece instead tries to engage our thoughts and sympathies, but, as there is nothing particularly compelling about the story, the pill isn’t even sugar-coated.

The exhibition also features one of Takamine’s most famous pieces, “God Bless America” (2002). In this video work, the artist and a female assistant shape two tons of clay to create a time-lapse animation of a giant bust singing the song of the title. The amateurish claymation has a certain naive charm, but more interesting is the fact that Takamine and his assistant appear to whiz around at lightning speed in the background, performing a number of tasks, such as manipulating the clay, sleeping, eating and even having sex.

Because it was made in the aftermath of 9-11, at a time when America was projecting its political and military power, some critics have read great significance into the use of “God Bless America,” but with nothing else in the work to tie it to, the choice of song seems essentially arbitrary.

“I thought ‘God Bless America’ would be suitable, because people who sing the Japanese national anthem with tears flowing are few,” Takamine offers, implying that the song was chosen merely because it stirs deep feelings, although, given the comical tone of the piece, even this seems a pointless explanation.

A constant problem with Takamine’s work is that it mixes weak or unclear ideas with sexually shocking elements. As a result, after viewing his works, it is the whiff of sexual scandal that remains. I put it to Takamine that with “God Bless America,” people are more likely to remember him having sex with his nubile young assistant than anything else.

“Regarding what you call ‘people,’ if the general reaction is that they only remember the sex; if that’s the way people are, I think it’s very stupid,” Takamine responds. “With ‘Kimura-san,’ it’s the same. But, as I have had a lot of experience showing these two works to university classes, I think a further polite explanation (of them) is not necessary.”

The exhibition title “Too Far to See” takes its name from a major new work. Again, it shows Takamine’s trademark combination of sexually provocative elements with vague, ambiguous ideas. Life-sized male and female silhouettes walk on and off a screen, sometimes pausing to crouch down and fellate the phallic shapes that litter the floor. Takamine claims that this artwork is all about our relationship to the Earth, and although we do, in a sense, “suck” sustenance from the soil, all I remember about this work is the great sound of sucking produced by the artist’s largely vacuous ideas.

“Too Far to See” at the Yokohama Museum of Art runs till March 20; admission ¥1,100; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.), closed Thurs. For more information, visit www.yaf.or.jp/yma