Saturday, January 8, 2011

"Transformation" at Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art: Bio-Viewing

I spent about four hours yesterday cruising through the TMOCA exhibit "Transformations," which is ending a the end of this month. It's absolutely essential for anyone with an interest in art, and likely important for anyone who thinks seriously about the show's particular themes - the status of humans in an era of advancing biotechnology. The exhibit deals with things like genetic engineering and artificial limbs, but also more abstract ideas of transformation. It's so full of amazing stuff I didn't have time to fully absorb all of it, much less the energy to keep going to the current display from the permanent collection, so I plan to go again soon.

It's an amazing museum and this exhibit is not to be missed - but there are definitely some problems. The biggest head-scratcher was that Matthew Barney's Cremaster 3 is being shown in its entirety on two small LCD screens suspended above an installation, in a gallery room full of film stills. Since the film is still impossible to legally see outside of a museum, this leaves the option of standing for an hour and a half, or sitting against a wall. On top of that, since it's showing in a fully lit gallery instead of a screening room, parts of the occasionally very dark film are just hard to see. Especially since so much space was given to other films, this seems crazy. I can only think of two explanations - either there was an assumption that people have already seen Cremaster 3 and only needed a refresher, or Barney didn't agree to a full-scale screening as part of his broader tendency to limit access to the work.

Masakatsu Takagi
More generally, though, there were just too many films, which led both to viewing fatigue and, worst of all, some sound bleed - particularly in one section where Sputniko!'s techno-pumping installation threatened to break the suspension of disbelief fostered by Masakatsu Takagi's enthralling Ymene.  That work still managed to be the show's greatest discovery for me - conceived as a "bird's-eye-view" video, it uses video manipulation techniques that are completely impossible to describe, and has the visceral impact of a roller coaster ride.  It's mind-bending in the best possible way, and absolutely worth experiencing even in somewhat compromised conditions.

Other highlights included Jan Fabre's amazing self-portrait busts, in which he molds horns of real-life species onto his own head, Lee Bul's somehow acutely Asian robots, and Patricia Piccini's deeply uncanny short about a mermaid.  I'm late enough getting to this show I can't justify a full writeup, but suffice it to say, if you live in Tokyo or will be here in the next few weeks, you owe it to yourself to go.

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