Art

Roppongi Art Night’s giant splash of color

by John Tran

Contributing Writer

Louise Bourgeois’ dark and emotionally ambiguous “Maman,” a giant spider sculpture in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills district, has been covered in brightly colored yarn for the 15th anniversary of Roppongi Hills and the ninth iteration of Roppongi Art Night.

The artist behind this is American Magda Sayeg, who has been covering various street monuments, vehicles and objects around the world as minor acts of rebellion against modern urban life. In a TED Talk on her work Sayeg, who is considered to be one of the originators of the worldwide phenomenon of “yarn bombing,” says she started covering things in multicolored crochet and knitting work when she had the desire to see something “warm, fuzzy and human-like on a cold steel grey facade” that she saw everyday.

With textiles being an integral part of Bourgeois’ life and work, there is certainly a pleasing resonance in this intervention, though of course it’s not without irony. Sayeg ostensibly aims to “enhance the ordinary, the mundane … even the ugly,” but in this instance she’s covered the one object in a commercial district whose main function as an art piece is to invoke thought and feeling about human relations.

The jollification of “Maman” essentially summarizes what is in store for us with Roppongi Art Night 2018. Key words in the mission statement for this year’s one-night-only art festival are “celebration,” “extraordinary,” “enjoyment,” “lifestyle” and the hyperbolic terms “trailblazing,” “vast,” and “premier,” which seems to insist that the event will be entertaining with a capital “e.” The event’s head honcho, Mori Art Museum curator Fumio Nanjo, mentions “fun,” “unique experiences,” “beautiful dreams,” “dazzle” and “neon” and, borrowing from New York, refers to Roppongi as the district “that never sleeps.”

The marketing rhetoric is unfortunate, but we should not judge the book by its blurb. The three headline Japanese artists, Teppei Kaneuji, Kengo Kito and Ujino, all produce visually bold, dynamic work that in the context of art night is aimed at pleasing big crowds. Kaneuji’s oeuvre includes installations using everyday objects — the medium of choice for many millennial artists in Japan — as well as objects and images that incorporate the visual language of manga. Much of Kaneuji’s work has an anarchic junkyard/funhouse feel to it; a result of mashing disparate things together to see what happens.

Kito also uses everyday objects, but in comparison to Kaneuji’s experimentation, Kito uses multiples of the same object to fill large spaces with bright colors and abstract shapes for installations that are often titled with references to cosmology. At an exhibition of Kito’s work at the Yokohama Creative Center last year, his “Eraser Cave” involved filling one floor of the venue with hundreds of white twisted hula hoops made to look like particle trails, or the movements of celestial bodies through space.

Ujino’s quirky motorized kinetic installations are more mechanically complex — they strum, bang and stroke themselves. Born from absurdist neo-dadaism and the ideas of Italian futurist Luigi Russolo, Ujino’s work is noisy, occasionally violent and engages with modern urban life in a hyper-masculine way. Ujino’s exhibition “Lives in Japan” at the Yamamoto Gendai Gallery earlier this year circled around the influx of American culture after the end of World War II.

There are more than 50 other associated programs in Roppongi Art Night, and among these are giant illuminated puppets “Dundu” devised by German Tobias Husemann, Japanese magic (wazuma) performed by Japan Professional Magicians’ Association member Kyoko; and kamikiri (paper-cutting) with Hana Hayashiya, a teacher of the art form and the first female paper-cutting performer in 300 years of Japanese vaudeville history. There is also comedy with Syoji Miyata, who was one half of the manzai comedy duo Yoji and Syoji, which made its debut in the 1950s.

Many of the remaining contemporary artists are, like Kaneuji, Kito and Ujino, doing some variation of arranging colorful lights, hitching up household objects to motors or laying everyday objects out in ordered compositions. Apart from any conceptual issues about the practice of daily life, and/or opposition to the bourgeois art object, it indicates how early and mid-career artists in Japan are obliged to create maximum visual impact with cheap and readily available materials that can be disassembled and easily stored. Within this form of practice look out for Junya Kataoka’s fiendishly precise work with paper airplanes, Koutarou Ushijima’s semiological play with words and meaning and Toshiyuki Shibakawa’s ponderings on contemporary consumer culture through the strategy of an imagined future archaeology.

For the more theory-oriented there is Catherine D’Ignazio’s performance piece “Corporate Commands,” which comes out of her research into feminist data visualization. For the very theory-oriented, art critic Hal Foster’s book “The Art-Architecture Complex,” which suggests that artists are increasingly becoming supporting acts to the buildings that host their work, would be an interesting framework in which to consider the spectacle of this event.

Roppongi Art Night 2018 takes place at various locations in the Roppongi district of Tokyo on May 26 and 27. Most artworks are free to view, though some events require entry. For more information, visit www.roppongiartnight.com/2018/en.