Indulging in post-apocalyptic nostalgia

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

Hiroki Tsukuda’s “199X” exhibition of frenzied monochrome compositions on acrylic frames is like a ’70s prog rock concept album.

Each work is individually intense, with its own rhythm and hint of a story, but they also work together to imply a larger alternative reality. However, unlike world building in books and films, which can be very exact in their storytelling, the narratives of concept albums are a backdrop to a more open-ended sensory experience — Rush’s “2112” or “Tales From Topographic Oceans” by Yes would be good examples. The story doesn’t have to be watertight, but the idea is that you will be transported somewhere that is weird and hyperbolic.

So it is with Tsukuda’s “199X,” which has the back story of being images of, or possibly from, a post-apocalyptic world (the apocalypse happened in the 1990s). Smudged diagrams of the Kabbalah’s teaching, references to trashy movies and freemasonry, the biohazard symbol and alchemical notations can be seen among jumbles of geometric planes and calligraphy of made-up characters that resemble a mixture of Arabic, hiragana and graffiti tags.

With a theme of the end of human civilization, and a techno-horror aesthetic reminiscent of the cult 1989 movie “Tetsuo: The Iron Man,” Tsukuda’s fourth solo exhibition at the Nanzuka gallery in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, might sound like it would be grim and depressing. But the compositions are too well-arranged and the pieces too rigorously crafted to be the work of a hopeless nihilist. Rather, there is a sense that the artist is enjoying himself; the theme and imagery is dark, but the graphic design is confident and energetic. When referencing B-movie titles like “The Day It Came to Earth” (1977), it’s hard to imagine that the artist is not having fun.

Tsukuda, at his well-attended opening night, wearing a T-shirt sporting one of his own designs, seemed relaxed and happy. When cornered for a few minutes to chat, he said that the exhibition was an affectionate look back at dystopian late 20th-century movies such as “Mad Max,” “RoboCop” and “Blade Runner”: “At the time we could enjoy the end of the world as science fiction and fantasy, but when I think about the younger generation now, it’s more serious. For them, with the development of artificial intelligence and other technology, it looks like this future is more likely to actually happen.”

The artist himself, however, didn’t show signs of feeling threatened by a post-human world, saying, “I wouldn’t mind being a replicant, I could get rid of some back pain.”

Tsukuda describes himself as a sci-fi nerd and something of a slacker who skipped classes (“so boring!”) at Musashino Art University and was more into music than his Imaging Arts and Sciences course. His works, however, look pretty labor-intensive, with multitudes of discrete pictorial elements combined either through layering or juxtaposition.

The centerpiece of the show, for example, is a trapezoid over 2 meters high, busily packed with imagery of disjointed mechanical bits and pieces. Individual parts are recognizable as real-world objects but together are an irrational, though cohesive, jumble. The black-and-white mixture of pencil, charcoal and ink drawing and silk-screen printing gives it the feeling of a Max Ernst collage updated for the 21st century; the fever dream of an android that’s been over-juiced.

Tsukuda’s method is, however, less successful with the smaller, rectilinear “Records” series, which lack the chaotic and bombastic energy of the larger pieces in the exhibition.

There’s no question that Tsukuda has a distinctive technique and style; but more interesting is the way that he proposes an imagined world beyond the work.

“199X” at Nanzuka runs until Sept. 29; free entry. For more information, visit www.nug.jp.