Tabaimo: Her Room
San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, California, USA, 6 February-21 August 2016
For the first time in the United States, the Japanese artist Tabaimo (born Ayako Tabata) is receiving a major museum exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art, at the southern edge of California’s Silicon Valley.
Appropriately, this encounter of contemporary Asian and American cultures on the Pacific Rim also involves a rich set of artistic crossings, hybrid forms, and stylistic collisions. Up-to-date digital and animation technologies bring sound and motion to Tabaimo’s wide array of traditional Japanese graphic, calligraphic, and painterly techniques and popular pictorial forms reminiscent of manga comics and anime films.
The exhibition comprises three densely textured video works: danDAN (2009, 4:31 minutes, 3-channel video), Yudangami (2009, 4:13 minutes, 4-channel video), and Aitaisei-Josei (2015, 5:33 minutes, single-channel video), along with an array of graphic works related to the video animations. Each of the works exhibited in Her Room, beginning with the series of ink drawings on Japanese paper entitled Akunin (2006-07), make oblique reference to Shuichi Yoshida’s novel Akunin (Villain, 2007), which sets the event of the murder of a young woman within a broad tableau of social isolation and alienation in contemporary Japanese society.
Yoshida’s novel takes place in a series of featureless apartments, clothing stores, fast food restaurants, bathhouses, hotels, and parking lots, which frame the emotionally truncated inner lives of the various characters—her roommates, co-workers, family members, boyfriends—acquainted with the murdered woman. Paradoxically, it is only her murderer himself who demonstrates a degree of moral and emotional depth; the surrounding characters by comparison seem like two-dimensional cartoons full of clichéd thoughts and feelings.
Tabaimo’s title danDAN refers to the danchi, public housing projects now occupied by the sorts of younger employees that populate Yoshida’s novel. Using three video screens positioned at an angle from one another, Tabaimo creates a mobile, multidirectional space that allows her to traverse an apartment building in cross-section.
At the outset, doves fly across the screen, and one bird enters a room through a broken window, where a bed is spattered with blood.
Mushrooms grow from a laptop keyboard, and water flows from a television screen. Human figures also appear sporadically, such as a woman submerged headfirst in a bath or perhaps in a washing machine. A naked man steps out of the shower and climbs into a refrigerator. Images from earlier segments are repeated in different sections in unexpected ways, disintegrating any sense of unity of the building’s architectural space even as rooms and objects merge and metamorphize into one another. At the climax of the video, pieces of furniture, lamps, and other objects tumble in free fall through a hole of empty space.
Yudangani draws upon a character from Yoshida’s Villain, Miho Kaneko, a prostitute who encounters the murderer Yuichi Shimizu in a repeated, passionate set of sexual encounters. Utilizing a curved screen to project the video, Tabaimo animates almost abstract vertical black bands of ink like hanging strands of hair waiving back and forth. From these calligraphic lines emerge hands, an ear, and eventually brief views of a room.
Scissors cut away a curtain of hair to reveal two fingers intertwining under the spray of a shower. A heart beats on the bed; a brain falls from a table, knocks over a chair and shatters.
Hair falls in torrents like a waterfall. Although Yoshida’s readers might be able to identify isolated details that Tabaimo has borrowed from the novel, her video remains at the shadowy borders of a narrative strangely charged with sexual passion and submerged violence.
The title of Aitaisei-Josei, from 2015, plays with a complex set of puns that encompass Japanese words for the theory of relativity, the relationship of a man and woman, and double suicide. Just as the words of the title resonate with multiple significations, so too Tabaimo overlays the narrative of Yoshida’s Miho Kaneko and Yuichi Shimizu with the story of two suicidal lovers in a well-known 18th-century bunraku puppet theater piece. Her video associates a table and sofa in a single room with the two pairs of lovers–
–while constantly shifting the backgrounds and surrounding objects in a pulse of erotic longing, most tangibly symbolized by a pair of beating hearts hung from a tangle of veins and rope, which descend from the ceiling of the room before disappearing through a hole in the floor.
Tabaimo’s represented spaces in these videos palpitate with uncanny life, marked by surprising rotations and reversals of perspectives, and by inexplicable appearances and disappearances of doors, furniture, bodies and body parts, walls, and domestic objects. She offers us brief, tantalizing glimpses that stimulate yet also frustrate our desire to look, see, and explore further in her enclosed, separated domestic spaces. Like Marcel Duchamp’s Door: 11 Rue Larrey, which when pulled open, closed on another room–
–Tabaimo’s video works carry us just up to the threshold where what we see might be recognized and known, but then hesitate and turn in other directions, moving our eyes down further branching pathways of interwoven transparency and obstruction.