Young Japanese Art

Stefano Pasquini

Following art fairs and exhibitions around Europe, I couldn't help noticing an ever growing number of very strong works from Japanese artists of a close-by generation. The gallerist Sueo Mitsuma, from Tokyo, once told me that it's this generation that finally has been able to overcome Japan's inferiority complex provoked by the nation's mistakes and horrors of WWII.

Rieko Akatsuka is still studying at Goldsmith College in London but is set to follow the career of Tomoko Takahashi. Her work deals with the preoccupation related to new technologies. In an untitled installation we see a cartoon-like man sitting at his desk in front of a computer: nothing happens, but the passing of time is spelled out by a flower that blooms, withers and fades. A simple but poignant work about the collateral effect of a technological society set to grow in isolation. In other untitled sculptures, she constructed cities out of motherboards and computer parts. This time computer technology is facing its impact on urban and social structures: the city as black-box, high-speed information transmission, and the disappearance of local time and physical space. Her best piece is a motherboard of a fully-functioning computer with the monitor displaying these manipulated cityscape images.

Noritoshi Hirakawa is based in New York and makes highly sexual works. This, at times, makes his photographs impossible to show in the US. As he puts it, "the sexual revolution is over and the Puritans won", and he certainly would have an easier time exhibiting his work if he were a woman. Often playing with the classic situation of "the artist and his model", Hirakawa highlights and transgresses moral codes, questioning their identity. Photographing women in men's toilets, or the puddle as a result of women urinating in the streets, he challenges society conventions, the gendering of public spaces and inconsistent norms of acceptable bodily conduct. In the photographic series "The Reason of Life", he deals with voyeuristic desires, showing diptychs of photographs of his models looking at the camera on a busy street, and of the shot taken from another camera set on the floor looking up their skirts. "The camera can be a good excuse to connect men's and women's desires", he explains, and what strikes of Noritoshi is the calm posture he keeps while talking of taboos most people wouldn't dare approaching. After all, he did study sociology, and a lot of his art practice consists in talking to people, understanding their fears, wants and desires, then put them to a good sociological use through his art. The importance of Hirakawa's work lies not only in this unmasking of the inconsistency and paradoxicality of society's taboos, but also in the questioning of sexual, religious, racial and national issues. His work aims to sparkle fresh thinking processes that can better society and make this world a more liberal place to be.

The work of London based Kaz plays largely on the effect it produces on the spectator: this can be done through the passing of time, a delicate scent or the projection of the viewer on view.

His short videos have displacement as their main subject: the beautiful "Same Different Journey" shows a London train journey overlapped four times over the same timeframe, creating a sense of routine repetition (the life of the London commuter), yet it has a spiritual tone to it, the sense that by repeating over and over the same journey we are in the process of learning something bigger than us.

His earlier installations played with the spectator's participation in order to achieve their disarmingly intense simple message, and often Kaz uses simplicity as a means to achieve the spectator's reaction: in the installation "Forever Changing" he placed two hundred paper plates on a pond. On each plate he printed a photograph of a London manhole cover: the spectator would have to wait for the movement provoked by the wind in order to view each cover. In his latest installation "..am I?", inside a darkened space he projected TV snow on the viewer and reprojected the image on one side. Within the realm of broadcasting visual noise the view of oneneself's projection comes as a relaxing shock: a calm yet disorienting piece that positions the spectator as both "I" and "the other", as the fruitioner and the artwork at once.

"Star", an installation by Tokyo based Hiroyuki Matsukage also puts the spectator on the spot. Matsukage plays in a rock band called "Gorgerous", a mixture between dangerous and gorgeous. In "Star" he took a panoramic photograph of around two hundred of his fans (incidentally, all beautiful Japanese girls) and displayed it life size in a half cylinder wall. The room is dark and the spotlight is on a microphone: anything the spectator whispers is followed by fanatic cheers from the fans. In tune with his rockstar ego, Matsukage takes portraits of Japanese girls recalling famous artworks, like the ManRayan "Portrait of my soul" and the Maya Desnuda's "Star Milk": he calls these "cover versions". With these and other works Matsukage questions the propaganda of Western advertising. "Star Milk" refers to a huge advertising campaign to promote the consumption of milk in Japan, which is also the food product that absorbs the highest amount of pollution from the environment.

"I had a dream" Hiroyuki tells me regarding his only photograph depicting a Western girl, "I dreamt of a blond girl saying to me 'Adieu, Adieu, Adieu!', and then disappears. The following morning my European complex disappears."

Hiroyuki Matsukage, Star, 2000.