It's July 12, and a small crowd has gathered at Scarritt-Bennett Center's gallery F. to see the Japan 日本 exhibit and hear some of the artists discuss their work. The gallery's air conditioning is broken, and the temperature outside is approaching 100 degrees. A wasp crawls along the back side of a Japanese flag hanging in the front window — a perfect, unscripted metaphor for the show, which features works by Nashvillians who are of Japanese heritage or who have traveled to Japan.
Co-curated by gallery F.'s Sabine Schlunk, Open Lot's Jonathan Lisenby and Tokyo-based artist Yuki Okumura, Japan 日本 is shaped by the recent tsunami, and shows how current events affect contemporary art.
Instead of a guestbook, Schlunk has laid out a notebook in which visitors can compose haikus. Many of the haikus show the difficulty in translating the poetic form into Western consciousness. Here, people are less inclined to write about fleeting moments and the simplicity of nature — in fact, several gallery F. visitors have composed evangelical ruminations about Jesus. As with the wasp crawling up the flag, a Japanese tradition has been adapted to suit the Bible Belt.
Artist Boguslaw Stepien's series of black-and-white photographs The Invisibles captures passing cars, an escalator, train-station vending machines — all signifiers of commuter life, riddled with travel, motion, and unfeeling repetition. At the artists' talk, Stepien explains that the shots refer to the loneliness of life in a foreign country, and the phenomenon of detached observation that can result from living abroad for too long. His Russian camera was designed for landscape shots, but in The Invisibles he uses it to shoot long exposures of quickly moving subjects. Asking a device to perform a task it's not intended for is a fitting analogy for the rootless, alien feeling that can afflict a weary expat.
David Dawson's color photographs from a trip to Japan six years ago address another side of the "foreigner" experience. The subjects of the shots, vistas from Tokyo to Kyoto, are largely unremarkable, but paired with Stepien's works, they spark an interesting conversation about the nature of tourism. Through Dawson's lens, everything seems interesting enough to document — a pair of discarded umbrellas, or trees in a park, for example. The images speak to the fear of a newcomer in a strange land, and to a camera's ability to protect the photographer from interacting with people or getting too close. Whereas Stepien's pictures addressed life's in-between moments and the frenetic quality of groundlessness, Dawson's show the earnest sentimentality of experiencing something new, tinged with the fear of the unknown.
Some of the show's best work can be found in a series of video art pieces that are projected onto a screen in the gallery's back room. "Infinity" is an intriguing time-lapse video — five days reduced to roughly four minutes — that shows artists Mai Yamashita and Naoto Kobayashi running across a grassy area in a figure-eight pattern, ultimately creating an infinity symbol. With each footstep, they weigh down the grass, eventually digging through into the dirt below it. But this shape doesn't seem organic when it's cut into the earth — it's almost like crop circles, which are so precise they're accused of being produced by aliens. The repetition of the pattern, of the two people walking the same trail over and over again until it digs a hole in the earth, is fascinatingly absurd.
Another standout of the video pieces is Ken Sasaki's "Bat." It shows a metal bat being dragged across asphalt, carpet, brick, up stairs, and through a watery creek bed. The soundtrack is simply the noise that the bat creates against each surface. It is hypnotic, and for all its simplicity, it's also compelling. The close-up shot hovering just above the bat as it repetitiously drags is oddly ominous, bringing to mind the scene of little Danny riding his Big Wheel through the Overlook Hotel in The Shining — in both instances, the white noise of friction on various surfaces is soothing, but also builds suspense.
The videos might have even greater impact in a more isolated environment, away from the fan whirring in the background, the sunlight pouring in, the conversations in the front gallery. But the overall feeling of the space is contemplative and thoughtful. Meditation isn't supposed to teach practitioners to ignore distractions, but rather attune them to living with them in harmony. The art at Japan 日本 is not separate from life, but very much a part of it. The wasp crawling up the flag, the insufferable heat, the natural chattiness of strangers, these are all aspects of Southern culture that do not impose on the art on display, but rather complement it and turn it into something new.
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