A short selection of art reviews follow:

Hello World, Hello Now

Hito Steyerl, ‘How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.MOV File’ (2013)

The future is here. It’s two decades since the internet first emerged. An algorithm is now a familiar term, being entranced by hand-held devices is commonplace, and adverts for virtual currencies insinuate themselves in the physical world. Technology redraws the world anew. ‘Hello World – For the Post-Human Age’ is a group exhibition by artists from Japan and overseas that looks to art as “an early alarm system”* to alert us to where we are, and what we are likely to face, in the hereafter.

Taking its title “Hello World” from a stock phrase used to test the installation of programming software, Junya Yamamine curates this exhibition at Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito. The show’s graphic design also reflects this media, with typography assembled from a raft of underscores and backslashes. What begins with code, ends with social media, artificial intelligence, and more.

Whereas exhibitions that address technology usually celebrate what innovation brings, ‘Hello World’ casts a critical eye over recent developments and asks us to evaluate whether these advances inspire promise, apprehension or dread. Most of the artists included are in their thirties. Collectively, the show could be read as an essay in which each room addresses a particular aspect that technology ushers forth – be it freedom, topography, intimacy, money, or social validation.

David Blandy, ‘Tutorial: How to Make a Short Video about Extinction’ (2014)

The term ‘Post-Human’ is an idea rooted in science fiction, futurology, and philosophy. It refers to the notion that a person or entity that exists in a state beyond being human. David Blandy’s Tutorial: How to Make a Short Video about Extinction (2014) embraces the possibility of human annihilation following a storm of meteorites. Blandy’s work may seem like a bleak joke without an obvious audience, but it serves to show how easy it is to simulate the earth’s destruction while it attunes us to an era beyond ourselves.

In fact, Blandy’s work is one of several instructional videos on display. These attempts to explain new forms in straightforward terms suggests that we are grappling to understand what we have created. Not that the tone of all these works is pessimistic. Simon Denny’s What is Blockchain? (2016) is an informative way to unpack crypto-currencies and Hito Steyerl’s How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.MOV File (2013) illustrates how we can lose ourselves to technology while watching a video about cloaking tactics.

Steyerl’s How Not to be Seen is shown after a set of optical equipment and an abstract arrangement of white vinyl tape is laid out on the floor. Carefully steering visitors thorough a stark installation before presenting the video, the only colour glimpsed is the green of a green screen.

A projector beams, lessons begin. A variety of tactics to evade sight are listed. Narrated by an artificially modified voice is a game a hide and seek. The abstract arrangement of vinyl tape is explained as a resolution target, which was a way of testing optical imaging employed by the US Air Force. Located in the Californian desert, these physical targets were introduced to calibrate analogue photography before being superseded by digital technology.

As the lessons continue, the seriousness of the voice-over gives way to digital pixelation and offers increasingly more playful ways not to be seen until the analogue world is plagued by rogue pixels. Unlike the aloof presentation of optical equipment in the first gallery, How Not to be Seen is surprisingly amusing, a work whose humour stems from a misplaced importance in any one form of technology; a joy.

Rachel Maclean, ‘It’s What’s Inside That Counts’ (2016). Commissioned by HOME, University of Salford Art Collection, Tate, Zabludowicz Collection, Frieze Film and Channel 4

Another work that uses humour, albeit darkly, is Rachel MacLean’s It’s What’s Inside That Counts (2016). As a 30-minute furore that critiques our growing dependency on social media, this video is crammed with emojis and Comic Sans. Impressively, it is performed by the artist alone. The colours are lurid and enhanced. It doesn’t attempt to be slick but is exaggerated and compelling. 

The characters don’t have noses. The story takes place in is a scentless domain and describes the descent of a happy and attractive, although a deeply narcissistic, woman who fails to achieve the social validation she craves online and so unravels to become fat, hairless, but worst of all, unpopular. Described as “a Kardashian-type Demigod, more cyborg than human”, her fall is accompanied by the need to consume a steady stream of coffee, a drink as essential as an internet connection.

MacLean’s video is made from groups of characters. One group are rodents, small and hairy with bulging cheeks and pointed teeth. Then there are the feeders, who demand data. They wear sleeping masks and their skin is splattered with goo. And finally, there is the antagonist, a bald-headed man who levitates aloft a giant dimpled sphere, a bit like a golf ball, who calls for calm like an Eastern mystic. He represents contentment, the antithesis of the main character’s anxiety-riddled existence. 

Beneath MacLean’s imaginative visuals is an artwork that dramatises some of the dynamics at play when we participate in social media by examining the relationship between the reality celebrity star and their followers. It’s What’s Inside That Counts amplifies what it means to seek popularity online as a product for consumption. Although dystopian, it is easy to relate to and very much of its time.

Which is why the exhibition works so well as a whole. ‘Hello World’ could have been a sleek tribute to technology if it weren’t so relevant. It’s an intelligent show that asks questions about how entangled we have become with the devices we use by understanding how we use them. The most engaging works were those that were humorous, those that were ugly or daft, or the most human. If art is an early warning system, this group exhibition in Ibaraki is one worth taking notice of. The future isn’t what it used to be.

*Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964)

This review was first published on Metropolis Magazine, edited by Paul McInnes.


Different Circles

Ei Arakawa, ‘Tryst’ (installation view) at Taka Ishii Gallery. Photo: Nick West

Radical artists and musical theatre usually occupy different worlds. But suppose they didn’t. What if the story of the post-war artist group Gutai was told in the form of a musical? The struggles they faced, the validation they sought, the leadership they found, the differences they set aside, the critics they wooed, even the untimely demise of their founder. Now, imagine it presented in an art gallery and that rather than live performers imagine if five flashing LED displays resembling Gutai paintings sang the songs. For Ei Arakawa’s first exhibition at the Taka Ishii Gallery in five years, “Tryst” did just that.

A tryst is a private rendezvous between lovers. Uniting painting with performance, this installation consists of five handmade LED screens that reference paintings from 1959, a turning point in Gutai’s history. Presented on upright fixtures, one of the paintings rests on the edge of a large green floor mat displaying a back-to-front Art Basel logo. The LEDs shimmer, attracting visitors to walk across the mat, only to be advised not to do so. These details are deliberate. In 1959, Gutai artists began exporting their work overseas. The private rendezvous the title alludes to is the connection between Jiro Yoshihara, their leader, and the French critic Michel Tapié whose alliance paved the way towards what would eventually become a global contemporary art market.

Arakawa’s artistic approach welcomes collaboration. For “Tryst” the artist teamed up with David Zuckerman as composer and Dan Poston as co-writer of the lyrics. Musically, the production is full of cheery melodies and catchy refrains. Just short of 40 minutes, there are nine songs in all, spliced between excerpts of dialogue. ‘One Perfect Painting’ is a dreamy, longed-for ballad that ends with “…coming soon”. ‘¥en ¥e ¥e, ¥en ¥e ¥e, ¥en ¥en!’ contrasts the artists’ financial struggles with the pull of the market. A shady sounding riff lures the listener in and the song builds until the artists chant the names of currencies in punchy staccato.

At the centre of “Tryst” is its leader Jiro Yoshihara. Arakawa’s politically attuned biography introduces him as “a painter, a critic, and also an heir of a salad oil company”. Since this musical concerns alliances, Jiro shares his LED painting with Michel Tapié. The other LEDs pair the artists Kazu/Suda, Akira/Sabu, Atsuko/Tsuruko and Shozo/Allan together. Jiro/Michel states: “I am Jiro Yoshihara, leader of Gutai. I am Jiro, but at the same time, I am not Jiro. Every character is more or less mixed with several other people’s personalities. So I am Jiro, but not Jiro”.

Portrayed as a demanding critic and a dismissive mentor in pursuit of originality, Jiro/Michel is capable of self-criticism but seeks the validation of scholars. At his most vulnerable, he even asks for assistance from his proteges. Tellingly, Jiro/Michel is also the only character to have a robotic voice, ensuring that he is easy to identify while remaining at a distance throughout, always being difficult to identify with. Another outcome of his android voice is that, towards the end, after a rift forms between factions of artists, some are accused of “joining the robot chorus”.

“Tryst” joins the company of other works by Arakawa that contextualise Japanese post-war art history among the broader history of contemporary art. In the past, the artist has appropriated from other avant-garde groups like Jikken Kobo and Fluxus, collectives who also embraced collaboration and multi-disciplinarity. It would be erroneous to think of these works simply as homages. 

“Tryst” carefully sites the meeting of Jiro and Michel as the advent of the global art market. 

Art about art always runs the risk of alienating some gallery-goers. “Tryst” is entertaining enough to appeal to viewers unfamiliar with Gutai – it talks to you, not down to you. There are even some familiar mentions of technology – Instagram and email – to put newcomers at ease. But the real attraction of “Tryst” is in the writing and in how absurd it sounds when its subject is set to music.

Following the protagonist’s sudden death, Gutai is left without a leader, its members are disbanding, liberated from the weight of expectation. Jiro/Michel returns from the grave to evaluate the work of his followers for one last time. As ever, he is committed to exhausting the possibilities of his present condition. “I can’t die enough!” he exclaims.

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Ei Arakawa, ‘Tryst’ (detail) at Taka Ishii Gallery. Photo: Nick West

This review was first published on Tokyo Art Beat, edited by Jennifer Pastore.


Matrix at Teshima Art Museum

Ryue Nishizawa, Teshima Art Museum (2010) Photo: Noboro Morikawa

The coastal path that takes you to Teshima Art Museum loops around a clump of trees at the edge of the island first. The clatter of cicadas resonates as you follow the winding track through woodland, seeing the neighbouring islands and the hazy horizon before the trail bends back to a clearing that reveals a gently domed concrete shelter. Pale and unobtrusive, it lays low in its surroundings, but the coastal path that has taken you there is just as important in attuning you to what awaits.

Upon entering, a festival volunteer asks you to remove your shoes and to refrain from touching the artwork. Barefoot, the first sensation is the feel of the floor against the soles of your feet. It’s smooth but uneven and cold to the touch. Nearly everything inside has a quality contrary to its exterior counterpart. Bright becomes shady, sweltering becomes cool; the slender path becomes a broad interior, and despite there being many other visitors inside, it feels almost empty. Even the song of the insects becomes serene.

The museum itself roughly resembles a huge, hollow pebble. Without distinguishing between wall and ceiling it slopes gradually upwards to form a continuous concrete canopy. It’s spacious and there are two elliptical apertures in the roof that bare the building to the elements and frame the sky. A few treetops are visible through these, but instead, your eye follows its general contours, taking in the pale grey tones of building material and searching for Rei Naito’s elusive installation. Initially, there doesn’t appear to be an artwork to resist touching.

Rei Naito & Ryue Nishizawa, ‘Matrix’ at Teshima Art Museum, (2010). Photo: Noboro Morikawa

From one of the openings in the roof, a single thread hangs in a deep arc like a hammock. A trickle of moisture runs down the string and pools onto the floor below. And then another. Then you notice that there are dozens of other puddles strewn throughout the space. Some are motionless whilst others stream into shallow ponds nearby.

Looking closer, you begin to notice the sum and speed of these minuscule streams. The floor is a finely veined network of pale waterways. Reflecting the silvery environment, they dart like mercury tadpoles across the floor. The entire base of the building is alive with liquid wriggling over the irregular ground at sporadic intervals.

Looking closer still, you see that the surface of the floor is speckled with pinholes that push the tiny droplets up to the surface. Concealing an intricate network, a matrix, the floor acts as a membrane to produce a spectacularly subtle installation in a museum on an island in the Seto Inland Sea.

Matrix was created by Rei Naito. Teshima Art Museum was designed by Ryue Nishizawa.

Rei Naito, ‘Matrix’ at Teshima Art Museum, (2010). Photo: Noboro Morikawa

This review was first published on Genso, edited by Nick West.


Myth of Tomorrow

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Taro Okamoto ‘Myth of Tomorrow’ (1969) Photo: Nick West

Before being unveiled in November 2008, a large public notice on an empty white wall in Shibuya train station announced the imminent arrival of a mural that had long since vanished from modern art’s vast archive. Almost four decades since it was created, twelve years since the artist Taro Okamoto (1911-1996) had passed away and three years since his partner Toshiko – who not only located the lost mural but orchestrated its recovery from Mexico – also passed away, was it installed posthumously as a prominent public artwork in central Tokyo.

Originally commissioned by Manuel Suarez y Suarez for Hotel de Mexico in Mexico City during the late sixties, Myth of Tomorrow (1969) was also painted there. Unfortunately, the entrepreneur suffered financial difficulties that prevented the ambitious hotel from being realised, and so all fourteen panels of the thirty-metre wide mural went into storage. The details of its whereabouts were mislaid and its location went unknown for thirty years until Toshiko unearthed it and began arranging for its shipment to Japan.

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Taro Okamoto ‘Myth of Tomorrow’ (1969) Photo: Nick West

Depicting the effects of the atomic bomb, Myth of Tomorrow shows a devastating panorama of destruction. Rendered in a semi-abstract modernist style, it recalls the work of other avant-garde artists who portrayed fierce physical conflict. Okamoto’s opus is a memorial that shows the ruin of more abstract forces at work. Ablaze with wildfire and violent contrasts, it’s a memorial that honours soldiers and the residents of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Visually, it’s comprised of an array of symbols that satellite a skeletal figure with a bent spine and hallow eye cavities. This figure’s scale and position are determined for optimum impact. Its chiaroscuro of bones is so dramatically portrayed that it’s difficult to imagine it having more emphasis. If you view the mural from directly below, you’ll see that the bones curve out from the panels in low-relief. Emblazoned centrally, this figure dominates the composition, adorning it like a pendant. The entire mural wears death as a centrepiece.

Eyes recur throughout the painting; both as giant smears on the right, as well as on the crimson piranha-like creature on the left. Above this piranha-like creature are five eye masks that diminish as they arch into the distance. Eyes are also suggested on the black banner that threads its way through the flames on the right, with a perforated band of circles within circles that ripple through the work. All these allusions to sight are deliberate, as they, and we, bear witness to the atrocities of war.

So much emanates from the skeletal figure; zigzagged lightning, plumes of smoke and comet tails of fire. There are vibrant streaks, distortions, and surges of volcanic force. While groups of match-stick silhouettes are kindling to the flames that fringe the lower regions, streams of wispy spirits soar above. Despite the horror of his subject, Okamoto’s flair for theatricality lends the mural an exhilarating charge.

Piranha and masks
Taro Okamoto ‘Myth of Tomorrow’ (1969) Photo: Nick West

As well as the subject itself, another reason for its theatricality could stem from the original cultural context it was produced for. It’s easy to overlook this when you see it at Shibuya Station, but it was initially created for a hotel lobby in Mexico. Although the spectre of death could seem an incongruous subject for a hotel, the imagery used – especially the skeletal figure and eye masks – seems to acknowledge the Mexican festival The Day of the Dead. Had Okamoto chosen the iconography to resonate with these undertones?

In a recent talk at Shoto Junior High School, Masayasu Kobayashi from the Taro Okamoto Memorial Foundation suggested a way to read the mural by separating it into three distinct tenses – past, present and future. In characterising the pictorial chronology by reading it from right to left, he posited that the two main branches of fire to the right-hand side are the two nuclear detonations and represent the past. The skeletal figure in the centre serves as a lasting reminder of the fatalities that ensued, representing the present. And finally, on the far left, we see a pastoral cluster of figures that represent a peaceful future. Kobayashi’s explanation unpacks Myth with clarity, where Okamoto’s work is seemingly muddied visually.

Myth of Tomorrow is rightly among the annals of modern art history, but it’s also a work whose story as an art object can eclipse its content. Another difficulty with Okamoto is that his oeuvre is entwined with an enthralling biography that occasionally overshadows what he’s produced. Instead of being a backstory, it can sometimes become the story itself.

It is marvellous that Myth of Tomorrow can be seen freely. The decision to present it outside a national museum, if only as a conservation issue, is astonishing as well. But despite these aspects, its context and content aren’t mismatched. Seeing it within such close proximity to the ultra-modern surroundings of Shibuya crossing helps to situate it within its own epoch.

The fire in the lower section of the Myth of Tomorrow is crisply defined with white outlines, while the background is indistinct. These smeared shapes and organic forms are like shadow play on the walls of a cave, cast by flames flickering across bumpy surfaces. There are the match-stick silhouettes and animals running, just as bison roam the rock face savannahs of prehistoric cave paintings. I can’t help wondering if Okamoto’s mural doesn’t belong to an older, more elemental narrative, if it isn’t primitivism and the magic of fire that he’s really captivated by, as much about creation as it is destruction, made by an artist and a war veteran.

“Art is explosion.” Taro Okamoto.

This review was first published on Tokyo Art Beat, edited by Emily Wakeling.

Word Perhect

Tomoko Takahashi, ‘Word Perhect’ Loading screen (2000)

There’s scarcely a pause as “Word Perhect” loads. The title and credits flicker past drawn in black marker pen. The initial dialogue box appears, also drawn in pen, and the first thing that you’re asked is to select an item on which to write. Having retrieved an item from your imaginary pocket, bag or studio, you can choose to write messily, tidily or hardly visibly. You can choose the size of your writing and you can choose what colour to write in; as long as it’s black.

The homepage opens. The next box, a box with a tip of the day appears: “Did you know that cycling on Christmas Day is wonderful if it’s not raining?” Other tips are available as well: “Did you know that cheese and apples go together very well, as do pears?” and “Did you know that I usually end up wearing different socks on each foot?” Suitably advised, you are now ready to begin writing.

A scanned image of the item you chose to write on occupies the main part of the screen. Word Perhect’s interface is a hand-drawn version of the previously popular word-processing program of a similar name. When you press the command buttons, scribbled messages on note paper and parcel tape appear. These handmade, personal touches are just one characteristic that distinguishes it from its predecessor.

“I don’t do that,” is written in a message box next to an OK button. It appeared after I asked it to align an object to the right. Word Perhect’s responses can be contrary. Delete and Completely Delete offer two kinds of inky stain; blotchy and blotchier still. Word Perhect is unforgiving about mistakes. If you select the Undo button, you are advised “you can’t take it back,”  and are encouraged to “be responsible,” instead. Help: “We haven’t quite got around to doing this yet”. Save: “Sometimes things get lost,” is Word Perhect’s consolatory reply.

Produced in collaboration with digital arts organisation e-2, in conjunction with the Chisenhale Gallery in London at a time when fast speed internet had barely been introduced in the UK, utilising the internet as a context for an artwork was one of the innovations that led to Tomoko Takahashi’s nomination for Tate’s Turner Prize in 2000. As a general theme, Takahashi’s work often concerns order and classification. “Word Perhect” parodies a familiar format, deliberately humanising how we assemble meaning from organised preconceptions.

This review was first published on Genso, edited by Nick West.