Embracing the surreal: video animations by Tabaimo

tabaimo aitaisei josei
This exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art showcases the work of Japanese artist Tabaimo, who creates bold video animations in a style influenced by manga and anime. It works well as a complement to the digital art show in my last post, which was also by Japanese artists and highly immersive.

However, the Tabaimo show distinguishes itself by offering more sense of a narrative. Each of the three main animations is loosely inspired by the same work of fiction, the 2007 novel Akunin (Villain) by Shuichi Yoshida. I was sufficiently intrigued by an exhibition themed around a single novel that I checked it out from the library this weekend – another post on this may follow.

The video installation danDAN (2009) gives the viewer a kind of intimate bird’s eye view of life inside an apartment building or danchi, which is a setting used in the novel. Tabaimo presents a rapid-fire series of vignettes, some mundane and some macabre. The pace is quick and the viewing angles a little odd, so you strain to make sense of what you are seeing.

A domestic interior is also central to the video installation aitaisei-josei (2015), though here the surreal gains the upper hand. Disembodied organs (the heart, the brain) that popped up previously now take centre stage, contrasting strangely with traditional motifs from Japanese art (the full moon, the pine tree).

The effect is entertaining, if enigmatic. The work references a pair of lovers (Miho Kaneko and Yuichi Shimizu) from the novel, and even a second pair of lovers (Ohatsu and Tokubei) from a famous bunraku play of the 18th century. This would probably remain obscure to most of us, but for the excellent labelling.

New Stories from the Edge of Asia: Tabaimo: Her Room
San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CA
6 February to 21 August 2016

Above: Tabaimo, aitaisei-josei, 2015. Single-channel video installation. Running time: 5 min 33 sec. Image: the artist; Gallery Koyanagi, Tokyo; and James Cohen, New York. Photo: Kazuto Kakurai at http://sjmusart.org/exhibition/new-stories-edge-asia-tabaimo-her-room.

The brave new world of digital art: interactive exhibits at PACE

 

teamlab crystal universe v2

This digital art show at the PACE Gallery in Menlo Park has proved very popular. Slated to close on July 1, it has been extended to mid-December. I booked tickets in what would have been its last week, and it was hot, heady and heaving with visitors. The crowds reminded me just a little of when I went to see Shunga, the 2013 exhibition at the British Museum, though the draw in that case was the erotic content.

The show is the work of teamLab, a group of Japanese artists collaborating on works that explore the nexus between art and technology. It really consists of two shows, housed in different buildings. The first, “Living Digital Space”, is more for adults; the second, “Future Parks”, is theoretically for children but was packed with adults nurturing their inner child. Ocean creatures, space rockets and railway layouts feature prominently – plenty to keep a five-year-old boy happy, though frustrating when the interactive digital train tracks won’t line up where you want them, and you can’t fathom why.

In “Living Digital Space”, the works are less interactive and more contemplative: flat-screen displays of constantly changing images, sometimes arranged as a series of smaller panels, sometimes unfurling across whole walls of a gallery. Themes are often drawn from the natural world, with motifs you might recognise from traditional Japanese painting, amped up: explosions of flowers, great frothing waves, crows, butterflies.

There is a strong technical underpinning, though. In Black Waves (2016), for instance, the image you see is based on calculations about the actual behaviour of particles at the surface of the water, yielding a computer-generated image which looks photographic but isn’t.

The pieces that made me linger were those that used technology in more sculptural ways. I enjoyed Light Sculpture of Flames (2016), in which points of light in a giant cuboid produce mesmerising flame effects. Crystal Universe (2015), described as “an interactive installation of light sculpture”, was exhilarating in the same way as a Yayoi Kusama mirrored room, like the one in the 2012 exhibition at Tate Modern.

Another immersive showpiece is Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders (2015), which I did not manage to see. The technology was broken and the room was closed while they fixed it. However, I was told I could come back again for free to see it another day, so perhaps I will. As art experiences go, this one is strange and tantalising, and admirably suited to its Silicon Valley location.

teamLab: Living Digital Space and Future Parks
PACE Art + Technology, Menlo Park, CA
6 February to 18 December 2016

Above: teamLab, Crystal Universe, 2015. Interactive installation of light sculpture. Image at http://www.pacegallery.com/exhibitions/12781/living-digital-space-and-future-parks.

Bamboo basketwork: a contemporary Japanese art form

image modern twist sonoma

We took a trip to Sonoma back in April, to see this fabulous exhibition of contemporary bamboo artworks. The exhibit has been on tour in several locations and showcases the work of 17 Japanese bamboo artists, drawn from the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

We received a very warm welcome from the museum volunteer, who introduced the exhibit and reminded us of the significance of bamboo in Japanese and other East Asian cultures.

As you can see, some pieces have strong geometric qualities, such as Sun and Squares and Circles by Tanabe Chikuunsai III (b.1940). Others exploit the visual properties of the material, with a shimmering moire-type effect on pieces such as Gentle Heart by Fujinuma Noboru (b.1945), or Pattern of Wind by Uematsu Chikuyu (b.1947) – inspired by the ridged pattern that the wind creates when it blows across sand.

Such allusions to the natural world are frequent: the wind, hot air, the sun, the moon. All in all, this show really opened my eyes to the sheer range of colour, shape and space that can be conjured up from this one material.

Modern Twist: Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Art
Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, Sonoma, CA
19 March to 12 June 2016 (now closed)

Above: Main section of the Modern Twist exhibit at Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, seen April 2016. Photo: JF.

Below: Tanabe Chikuunsai III (b.1940), Sun, “Yo”, 1980. Bamboo (yadake and madake), rattan, lacquer. Photo: JF.

image tanabe chikuunsai iii sun

Below: Tanabe Chikuunsai III, Squares and Circles, “Hoen”, 2005. Bamboo (yadake), rattan, lacquer. Photo: JF.

image tanabe chikuunsai iii squares and circles

Below: Fujinuma Noboru (b.1945), Gentle Heart, “Yushin”, 2006. Bamboo (madake), rattan. Photo: JF.

image fujinuma noboru gentle heart

Below: Tanioka Shigeo (b.1949), Asuka, 2002. Fruit basket. Bamboo (susudake), Japanese horse chestnut wood (tochinoki), lacquer. Photo: JF.

image tanioka shigeo asuka

Below: Tanioka Shigeo, Shimmering of Hot Air, “Itoyu”, 1999. Bamboo (hobichiku), rattan, lacquer. Photo: JF.

image tanioka shigeo shimmering of hot air

Below: Uematsu Chikuyu (b.1947), Pattern of Wind, “Fumon”, 2002. Bamboo (kurochiku), wood. Photo: JF.

image uematsu chikuyu pattern of wind

 

 

A trio of pebbles: Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware, part 2

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These massive, lustrous pebbles dominate the final section of the current Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware exhibit at the Asian Art Museum. They are displayed in an adjoining gallery, alongside other contemporary works inspired by the mother-of-pearl concept.

The three giant pebbles by Hwang Samyong (b.1960) are made from lacquer and mother-of-pearl applied to fibreglass. This involves slicing the mother-of-pearl into very thin strips, a technique used on some of the more traditional pieces in the main exhibit.

Each pebble is a different colour, depending on the material used. The dark pebble (2014) uses black-pearl oyster shell from the Philippines and Indonesia. The green pebble (2015) uses native Korean abalone shell. The white pebble (2016) uses white-pearl oyster shell from Tahiti. The artist works from photographs of real pebbles, magnified up to 100 times.

I love how materials lifted from one type of natural object (seashells) are manipulated to recreate another type of natural object (pebbles), and one that you might also find on the seashore, suggested here by the mirrored surface on which the pebbles have come to rest.

Mother-of-Pearl Lacquerware from Korea
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
29 April to 23 October 2016

Above: Hwang Samyong, Pebble (P1409), 2014; Pebble (P1501), 2015; Pebble (P1602), 2016. Mother-of-pearl and lacquer on fibreglass. Length of longest pebble: 90cm. Crosspoint Cultural Foundation, Korea. Seen at Asian Art Museum, San Francisco in 2016. Photo: SF.

Black and white and nacreous all over: Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware

image lacquer box
An exhibition of Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware, on view at the Asian Art Museum, is one of those small but precious shows that invites you to delve deep into one particular subject.  A selection of 25 pieces, crafted between the 1600s and the 1900s, showcases the exceptional skills of Korean artisans in this field, and the wide variety of objects that were decorated in this way.

A rectangular box features a design of peonies, configured in rhythmic, curving lines. The peony was a common motif on mother-of-pearl lacquerware, signifying fortune and prosperity.  However, in this case the technique used is especially demanding, with the tendrils made from mother-of-pearl instead of wires. This involves preparing a very thin sheet of mother-of-pearl, from which long thin strips are cut with a special saw, and then applied to the surface.

A more pictorial design is found on a table, decorated with a bird on a plum branch, the plum being one of the “Three Friends of Winter” (plum, pine and bamboo) that stood for the virtues of the literati, especially in the face of hardship.  Very thin strips of mother-of-pearl have been used to create the individual bamboo leaves and pine needles.

Plum blossoms make another appearance on a lobed round dish, the lacquer applied this time not over wood but over paper, thickly layered. Korean paper was much sought after, in China as well as Korea, and its use here shows how versatile it could be. Both this dish and the table with the bird and trees were newly acquired in 2016.

These few examples illustrate some of the beauty and variety on offer. They are complemented by useful displays that explain the technical steps involved, and a short video that covers the same steps in more detail. Recommended.

Mother-of-Pearl Lacquerware from Korea
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
29 April to 23 October 2016

Above: Box with peony motif. 1550-1650. Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Lacquered wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Height 14cm; width 38.1cm; depth 30.8cm. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: SF.

Below: Table with bird and trees motif. 1700-1800. Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Lacquered wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Height 11cm; width 49.1cm; depth 26cm. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: SF.

image lacquer table v2

Below: Dish with moon and plum blossoms motif. 1800-1900. Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Lacquered paper with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Diameter 27cm. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: SF.

image lacquer dish v2

Books: 101 Japanese gardens you have to visit – in North America

image cover quiet beauty

Visually stunning, this glossy hardback features 26 Japanese gardens from the United States and Canada, each photographed in loving detail. A further 75 gardens are listed (without illustrations) in Appendix 2, which is helpful because you are likely to find more that are within reach of your own home. It was a revelation to me that there are so many Japanese gardens on this continent, and so far I have visited only one, the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park.

The introductory essay is excellent and fills in the historical background. I was struck especially by the trend observed in the second half of the 20th century, a trend away from absolute authenticity to a broader conception of the North American Japanese garden as a kind of hybrid, where the designer is empowered to be more artistic or to respond to the specific qualities of the local environment.

This local adaptation comes across in the stories of the individual gardens. For instance, the Nikka-Yuko garden in Lethbridge, Alberta, where due to the harsh climate they have found they can use only plants local to southern Alberta. Or the Suiho’en garden at a water reclamation plant in Van Nuys, California, where the express purpose of the garden was to soften public opinion regarding water reclamation and reuse of sewage effluent – hence the name meaning “Garden of Water and Fragrance”.

My only reservation was that the texts on individual gardens sometimes felt pedestrian, laboring over the chronology of which feature was added when, or dwelling too much on visitor amenities – catering, weddings, corporate events. However, the gorgeous photography more than compensates.

Quiet Beauty: The Japanese Gardens of North America
Kendall H. Brown, 2013.
Tuttle Publishing, 176 pages, $34.95 (hardcover).

This book was received as a gift from family.

Asian art in the Musee du quai Branly

image musee du quai branly blossom

It is a decade since the 2006 opening of the Musee du quai Branly in Paris, under the auspices of President Jacques Chirac. The collections span Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, and the focus is on ethnology and art combined.

The opening generated plenty of excitement at the time, but when I visited in March the Parisians I spoke to seemed less enthused. One friend criticized it for being too dark inside; another for poor quality labeling, with not enough effort to explain or contextualize the objects.

This was my first visit and – given the negative comments – I was pleasantly surprised. The building is unusual and somewhat womb-like inside, with its organic contours and earthy colours. The galleries are not always easy to navigate and there is, deliberately, no demarcation between the four main sections, allowing a free flow from Oceania to Australia to Asia and so on. But the collections are huge and cover every area of human activity, from masks and bowls to spears and boats. The displays are spacious and easy on the eye (although it is pretty dark, especially for taking photos).

The Asia section is interesting because it focuses on the folk art and indigenous cultures that regular museum displays tend to overlook. These include the Miao and other groups from China, represented here by their textiles – jackets, headdresses, baby-slings and so on. These displays work well but in other parts the Asia section can feel a bit thin, as though a single object is being introduced as proxy for a whole culture – perhaps the Buddhist statue from 11th century Nepal, exquisite but isolated on its plinth. It makes for a visit that has great moments but doesn’t quite satisfy. Overall, though, the museum is a must-see.

Musee du quai Branly
Paris, France
Permanent collection

Above: trees in bloom at the Musee du quai Branly. Photo: JF.

Below: Buddhist temple door, Myanmar. 19th c. Teak, traces of red lacquer. Musee du quai Branly. Photo: SF.

image temple door Myanmar

Below: Buddha, Myanmar. Late 19th to early 20th c. Wood with gilt and lacquer, glass inlay. Musee du quai Branly. Photo: SF.

image buddha Myanmar

Below: Shakyamuni Buddha, Nepal. 11th century. Copper, mercury gilt. Height 52.5cm. Musee du quai Branly. Photo: SF.

image Buddha Nepal

Books: Looking East by Helen Burnham

cover looking east

This slim but attractive hardback is the catalogue for the Looking East exhibition, held earlier this year at the Asian Art Museum. Introductory essays by Helen Burnham and Sarah E. Thompson set the scene, characterizing the cultural exchange between Japan and the West as a two-way process.

Japanese motifs and styles were popular and widely disseminated by the late 19th century, but the Japanese influence was one among many, and a given artwork may reference Japanese sources with the lightest of touches, or in a way that blends borrowings from other cultures too.

This approach is (unsurprisingly) more nuanced than what you take from the exhibition marketing, so reading the book helped to answer some of the questions I had when I reviewed the exhibition originally. The catalogue covers four main themes: Women, City Life, Nature and Landscape. The last section is my favourite, and concludes with a print by Yoshida Hiroshi of El Capitan, from his series The United States, a choice that integrates beautifully the Japanese and American strands of the show.

Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan
Helen Burnham, 2014.
MFA Publications, 128 pages, $29.95 (hardcover).

This book was received as a gift from family.

Below: Yoshida Hiroshi, El Capitan from the series The United States, 1925. Woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Height 40.2cm; width 26.7cm. Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Image at http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/el-capitan-from-the-series-the-united-states-129018.

yoshida hiroshi el capitan

Movies: Sweet Bean

poster sweet bean

I enjoyed a rare trip to the cinema to see the new Japanese film Sweet Bean, directed by Naomi Kawase. Masatoshi Nagase stars as the manager of a small shop selling dorayaki, a sweet made from two little pancakes sandwiched with red bean paste. An elderly lady (played by Kirin Kiki) approaches him for work, gradually revealing herself as a great culinary talent, who can teach him how to make the ultimate red bean paste.

Sweet Bean starts out as a food movie par excellence, then morphs into something darker. There are many loving shots of pancake production and Azuki beans simmering, and in a sense the work of the shop is at the heart of the story. However, it is the growing rapport between the three main characters that draws you in close: the manager, the old woman and a schoolgirl customer (played by Kyara Uchida), each of them concealing their own private sorrows.

This was a moving story and, bar one or two moments of extreme slowness, absorbing throughout. The visual effects are beautiful, especially the classical emphasis on the passage of the seasons, and the great clouds of cherry blossoms. Recommended!

Sweet Bean (2015)
Director Naomi Kawase
Running time 113 min

You can view the trailer below.

Books: Listening to Stone by Hayden Herrera

book cover listening to stone

Sometimes it’s a joy to try something different. I knew next to nothing of the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), when I picked up this recent biography by Hayden Herrera. It was a gamble of sorts, given that the book runs to nearly 600 pages, but I am glad I persevered.

Herrera covers the artist’s life story in extreme detail, drawing on archive research and interviews with those who knew him, especially Priscilla Morgan, his partner in later life. This gives a very full picture and presents the biographer with certain challenges.

The action moves backwards and forwards between different countries. There are so many love affairs I lost count (and interest), and numerous professional false starts. On five separate occasions he creates designs for different children’s playgrounds, only to have the projects (yes, all five) cancelled at the planning stage. I found the first third of the book much the slowest and enjoyed the reading more as I went on.

What really lifts this tome are the discussions of the sculpture and other works, including the set designs for Martha Graham and the Japanese-inspired gardens, such as the garden for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Herrera excels in her vivid descriptions and her crisp approach to interpretation. The pieces are mainly abstract, but she tells you where to look for a bird’s beak or a person’s arm, and these gentle hints enlarge your understanding, even from within the confines of a black and white photograph.

She also draws out certain lifelong themes in Noguchi’s artistic career: the tension between his American and Japanese backgrounds; his focus on the natural world; and his notion of sculpture as the shaping of space. Had this been a monograph, we could have had an essay on each of these, but instead Herrera lets them surface naturally, sticking to a chronological approach that can feel repetitive but is also more organic, more like real life.

Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi
Hayden Herrera, 2015.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pages.
$40.00 (hardcover); $25.00 (paperback).