New Contemporaries 98, London: Spotlight on Yasu Ichige, Saki Satom & Miyako Narita

New contemporaries annually showcases work by students and recent graduates from UK art colleges. This year, more than a third of selected artists were born outside Britain; with an Asian-centered eye, the exhibition even turned slightly Japanese. What does this say about the current state of young British art?

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 13 October 2010
This article was first published in World Sculpture News (based in Hongkong) in Autumn 1998, pp. 18-9 with the title “Spotlight on the young”.

"Did we proceed by throwing out any entrant whose name seemed unartistic?" asked Adrian Searle, art critic and on the selection panel for this year’s New Contemporaries. "We did... We were quarrelsome and argumentative and often fractious in the late afternoon? We confess." In his detailed essay, published recently in England’s Guardian newspaper, Searle claimed to reveal a certain arbitrariness in the selection procedure for the 34 new contemporaries.

Yet, according to curator Eddie Berg, who was also on the committee, "Adrian Searle wrote a piece of art fiction. It has as much to do with New Contemporaries as it does for shortlisting work for any other prize. He’s heightened the process of selection to the point of being absurd," said Berg, who runs the Liverpool-based Foundation for Art and Creative Technologies (FACT), a major commissioner for video and electronic art works in Britain. "I think it is a playful, idiosyncratic response, and it didn’t reflect the experience of the rest of us."

While all this might be a potentially amusing art fight for those on the outside, for the applicants to New Contemporaries 98 there is little to find funny. Competition for selection into the prestigious show is fierce with only an estimated four per cent of the over 900 applicants getting in. "For most artists, it will be the first showing of their work in a venue of any significance apart from their degree shows," says Isabelle King, an exhibition organiser at Camden Arts Centre, which hosted New Contemporaries 98 London viewing. "The show attracts a lot of curators, both in the United Kingdom and from overseas, as well as the press and art dealers. For collectors, Charles Saatchi purchased a lot of work in a previous show, as well as lesser-known independent buyers."

[In the past], New Contemporaries has offered minimal Asian exposure, making this year’s inclusion of Yasu Ichige, Miyako Narita, and Saki Satom significant. All three are graduates of Goldsmiths College, which can claim among its alumni artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Rachel Whiteread. All three Japanese artists exhibited pieces displaying how futility in Japan can be turned international, showing that you can be as bored in Tokyo and Osaka as in Berlin and London. Refreshingly, they are still developing their discourse strategies and offer a unique opportunity to learn about their work and themselves.

Yasu Ichige

"Basically, I do not care how I express myself, as long as I can when I need to," says Yasu Ichige bluntly. Exhibiting Burnout (1996), the 33-year-old artist documented bizarre futility. A driver wearing a crash helmet drives a red car along a sea wall, turns and lodges the car slightly raised against it. The engine races, tires spin, the odometer slowly turns to zero, warning lights flash, the engine and tires smoke, until the tires burn out and collapse. What’s the point of this? "In Burnout, the activity is totally meaningless and a waste of energy, and occurs for a certain kind of simple excitement," says Ichige. "I’m interested in the process of its exhaustion and the empty feeling when Burnout is finished."

In another video, Rally (1996), we see an allusion of the theme. A man in a racing suit and helmet plays a computer game in a pub. He finishes the game which announces that he is the overall winner. Despite this accomplishment, his achievement goes completely unnoticed by the pub drinkers, thus bridging fantasy with the shortcomings of reality. "We sometimes make great efforts for our achievements, but when we get it, it is also disappointing. The repetitive cycle of this process of expectation and accomplishment is limitless, but we don’t know how to stop it," he says.

Miyako Narita

Also visually connected to video games, Miyako Narita’s work looked like a space invaders arcade game drawn from real life. "I am God with scarlet toes" is spoken by a man (actually her landlord), repeated and distorted from life representation to abstraction into infinity. The work is drawn from a poem by Alex Ward entitled Ecstasy born of agony, which is also the name of Narita’s two-minute video clip made in 1997. "For me, the poem and the video fit together," says Narita. "At the end of the work, the visual abstraction disappears into the universe like the poem’s discussion of the end of life."

The video raises issues about the relationship between man and technology, and the sterility of the abstraction was unnerving. Also a photographer, the 35-year-old Narita expresses interest in the everyday, and she often uses her landlord and his dog in her work. "I believe that daily life is the basis of everything and anything in the outside world— even the most profound things— that can be found in one’s life. In my recent work, I have been dealing with how to understand my own identity, particularly in relation to my experience in England since arriving eight years ago," she says.

Saki Satom

For Saki Satom, the daily grind of commuting to her advertising agency job in Tokyo provided an inspiration for the video M Station Run (1997), which was exhibited in the show. A group of "commuters" at a train station near Tokyo race to the next train or to work. Comically, one of the commuters carries a traffic sign reading "do not pass" and appears like the leader of a group setting off for battle. Once out of sight, they appear again running towards the screen. With the video looped, the daily commute proceeds endlessly, and the comedy turns into the tragedy of routine.

In addition to video, Saki Satom is involved in sculpture where the Tokyo commute has also provided inspiration. In preparation for Space of space (1996-1997), she carried six kilograms of papier mache and clay daily onto a crowded train for three months—each form molded by people pushing and shoving. Alternately stacked and dispersed, the clay forms represent people, while wine boxes allude to trains. On each hand-sized piece, the time of the train is imprinted, highlighting routine and also questioning the everyday of cultural inheritance. "Even people in crowded places have their own individual aims and destinations," says Satom. "If we see them as collective, they are involved in the same performance."

Social context

The dynamism and opportunities in London today are attractions for many artists, not least the three in the show. But problems as to their lives and their futures are not always easy to resolve. All are reluctant to leave London and are baffled at the idea of being able to continue their art in Japan. Yasu Ichige, Miyako Narita, and Saki Satom each mentioned "freedom" when talking of their situation and the dynamic art scene in London. All are thinking of ways to stay and to avoid the stiff overseas student fees of—at some schools—over £8,000 which threaten their stay, in addition to the high cost of living. They were considering further education courses and even a return to a less expensive English language program—despite successfully completing post-graduate work at Goldsmiths. The art and lifestyle refugees fear their talents will go to waste in Japan because of the pressure of hierarchy, authority, and conformity. Their art takes on the form of cleansing rituals.

Yet, why did New Contemporaries 98 go international? A Camden Arts spokesperson said, "The selectors change every year and my feeling is that the exhibition and YBAs (young British artists) are getting better-known overseas, and that artists from abroad are gravitating more to London. I would imagine that the art schools have a much greater intake from Europe and abroad." But one visual arts lecturer says bluntly, "At some colleges overseas applications are preferred. Because of the higher tuition fees, they provide more money to the school."

[London continues] to be a hot place for young artists from around the world to develop their work—providing they can afford the cost of "cool Britannia." But the question does remain: does this influx of foreign students crowd British artists out of the New Contemporaries show? With less than two-thirds included in the show, the answer would appear to be, most certainly. But is this occurring because colleges enrich themselves with foreign fees? Or is it because British applicants can’t cut the international competition? The answers are neither black nor [white. The truth lies beneath the surface] of art school education. Perhaps what is more important than numbers is that good, dynamic, and innovative artists, regardless of origin, are adding to the international reputation both of the British art scene and the quality of the art schools’ student body.

The value of being included in the New Contemporaries show cannot be underestimated. In addition to offering contacts, publicity and press clippings for emerging artists, as well as viewings at the Tea Factory in Liverpool, the Camden Arts Centre in London, and the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle, it has acted as a useful springboard for several artists who have achieved international [recognition], including recent Turner Prize winners Gillian Wearing and Damien Hirst, and current Turner Prize 1998 finalists Tacita Dean and Chris Ofili. The three Japanese artists among the New Contemporaries could take off from here—and then perhaps foreign names do sound more artistic than plain old Smith.