The elaboration of decoration as art

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

In the setting of what is probably Tokyo’s most stylishly decorated art museum, curator Kasumi Yamaki explains the theme of the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum’s latest exhibition “Decoration Never Dies, Anyway.”

“I’ve always wondered what the audience are thinking when they use the word ‘decoration. Does it mean something positive? Rich? Extraordinary? Of course beautiful. Is it something they think is necessary to life, though? I doubt it,” she says. “Also, this is an art museum, and art people use the term ‘decorative’ in a very negative way — contemporary art is focused on concept, and ‘decorative’ is like a dirty word. For audiences though, decoration is very positive, so where does that difference in attitude come from?”

The narrative of decoration as “low” and art as “high” culture is tackled in exhibits for which the issue is central, but also indirectly by virtue of their inclusion in the show, all of which plays beautifully with the museum’s art deco interiors. Belgian-born serious prankster Wim Delvoye’s exhibits make a point of extraordinary, ornate detailing — model trucks turned into Gothic fantasies, Rimowa aluminium suitcases covered with elaborate Islamic patterns and car tires turned into delicate medieval illuminations. British-born Kour Pour references his Iranian heritage with life-size riffs on Persian rug design. Using silk-screen printing and painting, Pour mixes imagery from ancient Egypt, Medieval Europe, Japan and other cultures, one result of which is to offer a critical distance to different social practices.

Nynke Koster uses silicon rubber castings of architectural details to produce functional household objects that are elegant and knowing. Coming from a background of interior architecture and furniture design Koster seems more militant about overturning perceptions of ornamentation and utility as culturally inferior to “fine” art. In a piece created in response to her first visit to Japan, Koster has created an object of indeterminate function that references the port island of Dejima, through which contact with foreign traders and envoys was strictly controlled during the period of sakoku (national isolation) and various Japanese pattern designs.

Yoshikazu Yamagata, though ostensibly a fashion designer, exhibits pieces, some of which are runway “garments” from his label writtenafterwards, very much in the manner of art installations. With a keen sense of melodrama, Yamagata fills small rooms in the Teien with oversize pieces, some of which are chaotic and extravagant, such as the totemic figures made from bric-a-brac from his “The Seven Gods” and “The Fashion Show of the Gods” series.

Twin sisters Akiko and Masako Takada also play with scale; miniature books appear in the library, a tiny triumphal arch made out of pumice stone has been placed in a wash basin, and dresses with stitched snowflakes and tree branches hang in one of the palace’s original wardrobes. In the same room, a display case holds a row of cheap plastic suction cups gamely transformed into simulacra of flamboyant cut-glass objects. The various transformations of the mundane into the “precious,” the grand to the modest and the interior to the exterior test binary oppositions with whimsy and attention to detail.

The exhibition’s stand out work in terms of driving home how decoration plays an integral role in our lives while also being strangely invisible is the video/performance work “Thai Medley” by Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook. The artist is filmed reciting a story from classical Thai literature in a mortuary, where dead bodies have been covered by floral print cloths. According to Yamaki the work has been very divisive in terms of audience reaction, but that’s art for you; it’s not always that nice to look at.

“Decoration Never Dies, Anyway” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum runs until Feb. 25; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed second and fourth Wed of the month. www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp/en