A Jolt to the System: Japanese installation artist Tabaimo


hanabi-ra (2003)
by tabaimo
a visual installation
(c) tabaimo / courtesy of gallery koyanagi

(a shorter version of this article appeared in the June 27, 2005 issue of newsweek international)

What comes to mind when you think of Japan? Sushi, sumo wrestlers, high-school girls in short skirts, tattooed gangsters? Stereotypes, to be sure. But the installation artist Tabaimo (a.k.a. Ayako Tabata) relies on such motifs to create playful commentaries on modern Japan. "To Japanese, the foreigners' idea of Japan is funny," she says. "It's even funnier to stuff as many stereotypes as possible into one piece."

But her work is funny with an edge. Tabaimo, 29, borrows the colors and style of traditional ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and hand-draws hundreds of frames to give her animation -- projected on large panels to create a theaterlike experience -- a warm, retro feel. Still, her subject matter can make audiences squirm. In the eight-minute animated film "The Japanese Bathhouse -- Gents" (2000), presented at Tabaimo's first New York solo show earlier this year, blank-faced salarymen bathe fully dressed, while a high-school kid takes off layers of his skin and disappears, perhaps failing to find his true self.

At the same time, women invade the men's bath by climbing over the dividing wall, aggressively pursuing gender equality. "Behind her bitter and grotesque images, we can see that she has a positive belief in our hidden potential," says Toshio Hara, director of Tokyo's Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, which is planning a Tabaimo show next spring. He calls her installations "shock-therapy-like."

In the generation of artists who tend to go inward and avoid being concerned with the big issues, "her ability to confront the complicated realities of life and make art out of it sets her apart," says Hisako Hara, an Osaka-based independent curator (and unrelated to Toshio Hara). Her world is utterly original; there*s nobody one can compare Tabaimo to.

Indeed, they are the antithesis of kawaii, or cute, a term repeatedly used to describe today's hip, anime-inspired Japanese art. The centerpiece of Tabaimo's latest solo show, now at Tokyo's Gallery Koyanagi (through June 24), is anything but cute: a video installation called "hanabira" -- flower petals -- that projects an image of a naked back covered with flowery tattoos. The petals slowly drop beneath a flying crow and a diving carp. When the last petal falls, the body collapses into... well, the artist asked us not to divulge the surprise ending.

Tabaimo's new show reveals her growing confidence and sophistication, displaying more subtle wit and ambiguous themes than her earlier works. The artist says she was aiming for "something more conceptual, something each viewer would react to differently." The show includes drawings of hands that in part look like grotesque insects -- an uncharacteristically personal expression of her self-conscious struggles with atopic dermatitis, a skin condition that has left her hands covered with red, itchy patches. "I couldn't stop looking at my hands and wanting to hide them at the same time," she says.

Tabaimo has been drawing attention since the start of her career. Her art-college graduation project, "The Japanese Kitchen" in which a fat housewife cuts off a salaryman's head as a miniature politician revolves inside the microwave -- won a prestigious Kirin Contemporary Award. "The Japanese Bathhouse -- Gents" cemented her reputation for provocative talent, followed by "The Japanese Commuter Train" (2001), in which a sushi chef serves up sexy high-school girls.

International attention is also growing rapidly. Her New York show attracted "extraordinary interest," says gallery owner James Cohan, who presented it. Museums and collectors from Miami to Jerusalem have purchased or are considering acquiring her pieces. She's preparing a new installation for a group show in Denmark, and the Cartier Foundation in Paris is scheduled to hold a one-woman show in the fall of 2006. That would be a major coup; the Cartier is credited with accelerating the careers of such Japanese artists as Mariko Mori and Takashi Murakami. Tabaimo seems likely to follow them to art-world stardom -- as long as she continues to shun the kawaii.

(c) Newsweek, Inc

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