Masaru Iwai digs the dirt on cleanliness

by John L. Tran

Special To The Japan Times

Masaru Iwai, a Ph.D. graduate from Tokyo University of Arts, tells me that he only showers once every two days. This fact causes the two gallery directors in the room to gasp in horror. In an ill-advised moment of sharing I let slip that in Britain this wouldn’t be so unusual. It’s not that Iwai is a slob, or an Anglophile, but that the notion and value of “cleanliness” are not to be taken at face value — they should be questioned and considered as socially constructed phenomena.

Two phrases come to mind seeing the inaugural exhibition at the new Takuro Someya Contemporary Art gallery in the Minami-Azabu district of Tokyo: “cleanliness is close to Godliness” and “you can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter.” The first phrase is appropriate because Iwai rejects the normative association of morality and hygiene, well aware that two of the most fastidiously clean countries in the world, Germany and Japan, have something of a history together. In the second case it’s because one of the video works on show literally reveals a dog turd decorated with glitter — but more on that later.

The main work, “100 Fish, or Before and After Epicure,” is a 14-minute video of 100 freshly caught fish being carefully laid out on a white sheet, gutted and then eaten off-screen, followed by the detritus of the meal being assembled and cleared away. Ambient sounds and foreign voices — the work was created in the Autonomous Republic of Adjara in Eastern Europe — are both undecipherable but, somehow, instinctively recognizable for anyone who has shared a communal meal.

Subtle transitions and time-lapse editing contribute to the video having an epic span. We start with raw nature and, through butchery and organization, end up with Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline in fish blood before unexpectedly returning to nature, red in tooth and claw, as the bloodied sheet and table are taken away to reveal a mystery guest.

Another intriguing aspect of the work is the complex relationship between artist, performers and objects, in which Iwai’s control and intentions are in conflict with the unpredictability of his collaborators and the flow and movement of the material.

But back to turds. Another work in the exhibition is “Roadway Cosmetology,” in which Iwai lushly decorates dog excrement on the streets of Berlin. If you start watching the video from halfway through, you will see colored marbles and golden glitter being dropped into swirls of white and chromium yellow. The start of the video, however, reveals that the base material for this creation was a dark, robust turd buzzing with flies.

Iwai says that, while he was filming, passers-by would inevitably ask him what he was doing. On one occasion a man wordlessly hugged him. I can understand that.

“Masaru Iwai: Passed places, passed things” at Takuro Someya Contemporary Art runs till March 20; 12 p.m.-7 p.m. Free admission. Closed Sun., Mon. The gallery will also have a booth at Art Fair Tokyo, at Tokyo International Forum; March 20-22.