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  • Christian Hain

Visions of Exchange: Taking the Daimler to Tokyo

(Berlin.) “Sorry, we could not calculate driving directions from ‘Berlin’ to ‘Tokyo, Japan’”. Thank you, Google Maps, at least you tried. Driving might not be the best option here, not even in a S-Class Maybach. The participants in Daimler Art Collection’s Japanese-German exchange programme that once started as a Japanese–French exchange programme before HQ took over in 2004, certainly did not. This summer, the motoring behemoth’s Berlin art showroom wants to tell you about this success story (and maybe help the artists to a show they were promised in the programme guidelines?). The selection comprises five German names and six Japanese, each of them a participant of the past eleven years.

The journey starts with photo/video drawings by Taro Izumi, and these are great! Not sure, if he's painting directly on the lens - with erasable colours and/or a transparent foil, would be expensive otherwise, even though he does use a lot of TV screens, thanks to a generous sponsor – or if it’s some electronic wizardry, but the results are highly impressive. An artist’s vision reaching beyond the reality of Berlin street life, well, reality is overrated, anyway. Another, slightly hidden, work next to the freight elevator follows Izumi on a stroll through Berlin and tracing its lines, literally: We see the artist walking down a site fence, fingers sliding along a graffiti that he may or may not have put (do you say “bombed”?) there himself, all under the watch- and doubtful eyes of random passers-by. It’s one way of getting to know a place. Lines and the city, a psychologist could potentially tell a thing or two about a population’s mind-set from simply observing the patterns they've expressed on roads and walls (reverse urban Rorschach, so to say). But then again, psychologists can probably tell something from everything, it’s a creative art, too.

On the other hand, Menja Stephenson‘s photos appear just that little bit too much altered, “improved” or rather worsened in excessive Photoshop sessions, a digital overkill. They exceed reality too, but in a soulless, plastic, kind of way. Should have done a painting instead, but this might be a matter of taste.

The show continues in different chapters, “Transforming the Everyday”, “Images of a Floating World”, “Urban Landscapes”, you won’t necessarily notice and it doesn’t matter anyway.

Contemporary art abides to certain rules, normative, typical, aesthetics that originated in a “Western” context and have since evolved into something postcultural. The more so here, with Japan having long been a fashionable influence for European artists and vice versa. With most of the artists it’s impossible to tell where they’re hailing from, could be anything from descendants of Americo-Japanese war veterans to black Lesbians from inner Bavaria or whatever (purely fictional examples!). Streamlined by contemporaneity, but we call it diversity as long as everybody buys the same, automated electric cars for example. Yet, when Europeans try to “learn from Japan”, to adopt or appropriate, foreign traditions and cultural practices, things go awry, most of the time. Take a photo series by Benedikt Partenheimer who dares to show Views of Mount Fuji and even his proper version of The Wave. That’s uncalled for, uninspired, seen much too often, on posters and T-Shirts. Yawn. Not much better: Eva Berendes‘ curtains before some windows to emulate “authentic” Japanese silk screens. Yawn again. Oh wait,... I’m being told, these patterns are supposed to evoke Hermès scarves, and if you’ve ever seen Japanese, or Asian in general, tourists lining up at their stores..., still there are better ways to tackle this in art, methinks. But enough with the negativity for today!

Hiroki Sakai - no, that’s a footballer, Hiroe Saeki’s the name of the artist! – shrinks a little Manga-esque drawings into something else, and new. Murakami-style floral patterns crushed by white spaces, blank voids “un-filling” the paper. In one example, it’s tentacles, or beads of pearls, hanging down like fly curtains, with emptiness taking the lower two thirds of the drawing. From up close they again resemble a blooming network, or organic cells under a biologist’s microscope. Nice.

Around the corner, step into - and be careful: not on! - the mysterious miniature world of Ryosuke Imamura, and should you now think: “They are rather delicately built, those Japanese”, be told, these street lamps could not even illuminate the comings and goings of rats and cockroaches, which you'll certainly not meet at Daimler Contemporary. Those giant Japanese hornets, nasty critters, could use them for toothpicks, or to whet their stings. Nearby, a tiny telephone table is tortured with electricity, while more electrodes (or are they?) connect to a lamp above. Could be some highly elaborated example of art interacting with its surroundings. But if it is, it doesn’t become very obvious. Two model street lamps inhibit regular sized light bulbs (evil, power wasting, climate destroying, relicts of the past! Save the world and burn a bulb!). Blinking intermittently, do they communicate in Morse code? And this video of a clock timing bubbles in a glass of sparkling water, is it something to do with Zen?

A highlight: Meiro Koizumi‘s film Defect in Vision, screening in a side room. As usual, it depends on your luck at which point of the loop you enter, but at least this one’s not too long, just wait for it to start over. First thing I saw was the close-up of a Japanese jet pilot, conversing – over the radio? telepathically? only in his mind? - with a woman with whom he, potentially, shares a romantic relationship, promising her his timely return for dinner. Hate to say it, but: This looks like a kamikaze mission. He rather won’t.

Follows what came before: A family dinner (without kids). The pilot reads a paper, then tells about his next mission, kamikaze-sans will show some samurai ba--s, lousy Americans will chicken out (not in these exact terms, maybe). His wife traditionally serves him, and she seems really happy with it. So extraordinarily happy in fact, her smiles and facial expression leave you with serious doubts concerning her mental sanity, or was the actress only struggling to contain her giggles? Suddenly an idea strikes you: Could she be supposed to be blind (no offense, carrying no glasses, I’ll grope around with equally ”challenged” looks)?

Next, the same dinner scene starts all over again - from a different angle but the same, as the camera itself stays put and only the actors move, taking new positions around the low table, directed by the artist/director/cameraman (that’s one of the more easy to learn Japanese expressions: “kameraman”! “genki, kameraman-san?”) who makes a cameo. The dialogue starts again too, but this time, it’s the husband who's visibly acting blind (or dumb, yet not deaf). Maybe he feigns it, lowering the newspaper to feel around for a glass of sake, and he did not have that many already. Finally, in a third take, both appear blinded - by their socio-economico-historical situation? zeitgeist? traditional Japanese culture? The Heavenly Sovereign himself? All the while, their words hardly change, if at all. A glorious kamikaze mission soon, and later a swim in the hot springs. Talking about denial, and reality is overrated anyway. Finally back to where we started: his face in full frontal nosedive, and no: he won’t make it home for dinner, not in time, nor ever at all, the only hot bath he will ever take again will be in kerosene or the ocean, or a private’s hose washing the remains from a Pearl Harbour road or the runway of an aircraft carrier.

I’m still not convinced whether it’s the good kind of progress when young Japanese laughingly discard their past like outsiders do, to get in line with the rest of the world. It’s certainly contemporary, that it is.

Satoshi Ono paints abstractly German, so much, she could show at Eigen&Art or cfa Gallery, and noone would notice. A second series seems deliberately trashy - imagine your primary school water colours in acryl, then add (tame) nudity. We’ve seen this before.

A couple of sculptures lighten up the show, an asymetrical not-exactly-a-tube-nor-a-cube with a warning not to crawl inside - it’s art, not a playground -, flat rhombi and more geometrics. Daimler’s placement of labels to their artworks is open to improvement, to put it mildly. It takes some research to identify the artists not only in these cases: Jan Scharrelmann, and Eva Berendes once again. To close the circle and finish as we started (almost): Two pairs of photos from Tokyo, one of each being monochrome and taken by Tokihiro Sato twenty-five years ago, the other more recently (25 years later, logically). Fascinating, although... not very artistic, is it? Might be more interesting from a city planning/architectural documentation pov.

All in all, a really nice show, one of the best in Berlin this summer! And the visit will take you less time than a flight Berlin-Tokyo (not to mention Tokyo-Pacific by Kamikaze).

...And there definitely is a route: take the Benz through Russia to the Koreas, maybe say “Hi” to Kim Jun, “how’s them nukes going?”, then..., ok, could prove rather tough to find a ferry for that last part.


Visions of Exchange, 2 June-4 November 2018, Daimler Contemporary

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism



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