Tomoko Takahashi: Demystifying the remains of our time (1998)

London-based Japanese artist Tomoko Takahashi, 32, is rapidly gaining attention for her installations.

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 15 September 2009
This feature article first appeared in World Sculpture News, 4(4), pp. 24-7 in 1998.

"Modern Art? It’s just junk," headlined the British daily The Express. "Portrait a Load of Junk," wrote the Daily Mail. Even the eminent Times of London engaged in the frenzy, with the headline “Highly Prized Pile of Rubbish”. The news noted Tomoko Takahashi has "stolen" the £5,000 EAST International Exhibition Prize at Norwich caused many to choke on their breakfasts in July 1997.

Tomoko Takahashi’s art can certainly produce a sexy headline, yet her work isn’t a one-hit-wonder; it is hot art news in Britain and among the pages of the international art press. In just over a year, Takahashi has gone from relative obscurity to an artist whose works are consistently exhibited in London. Mega-collector Charles Saatchi has purchased three of her works, and she is included in Saatchi’s recent publication, The Neurotic Realism. An associated show on the theme is planned for January 1999, potentially paving the way for a new group of YBA’s (young British artists) with Takahashi among them. Crossing the Atlantic, she has taken her so-called "modern junk" to the Mary Boone Gallery and the Drawing Center, both in New York. She works furiously and with precision, and in a finished piece objects appear tossed around in her wake. .

While her installations may initially look somewhat spontaneous and intuitive, Tomoko Takahashi works between order and chaos, making "designer disorder," as she calls it. "I feel the work is highly ordered, and I hope it is readily apparent to the viewer. Of course, it is camouflaged because I want to get closer to this relationship. The work has a face that looks chaotic, but at the end of the day it is designed to be disordered," says Takahashi.

Such was the case with her Norwich installations which caused the press stir. For these, she reclaimed Leftovers from the Painting Department (1997) and Storage for the Painting Department (1997) in two rooms at the Norwich school of Art and Design, composing an installation including her now trademark cigarette butts, buckets of paint, easels, canvas, furniture, and lockers- energetically and gloriously arranged throughout the space. In a group show, at the deserted Old Bethnal Green Police Station, she reorganized abandoned equipment to magnify its presence, previous life of movement and energy. Dotted lines created focal points, and recalled crime scene outlines— in calculated multitude.

Yet, while she works with a variety of found and gathered materials, she cites music as a strong inspiration for her art practice. "I compose and conduct my whole installation to make visual music," she says. "I always aspire to achieve such a world through my art works. However, in my art practice, all the work is engaged through purely visual perception," she says.

As a result, site plays a significant role in her installations. "Many of my works are based on, and [are] strongly influenced by the venue where the work takes place. The intention here is to encapsulate the activity of the people who inhabit that space, often through objects which are left behind by them. For me, each place has its own natural music which is pre-composed by those inhabitants."

In the spring of 1998, Tomoko Takahashi illustrated these ideas at Tablet, the art gallery at the Tabernacle, a community arts center in London’s North Kensington. For the venue, Takahashi resurrected the process of its previous renovation by arranging material including documents, design plans, orange cones, and associated objects for her own renovation in a chaotically designed symphony. Gill FitzHugh, director of the Tabernacle, knows Takahashi’s call for participation. "I was infinitely more involved than is usual," said FitzHugh. "It had a certain impact on me because it made me look at the building process and discuss things with the builders that I normally wouldn’t have. I asked them a huge number of questions about the effects of the renovation on them and their emotions. It gave me a new perspective on viewing the process."

Whenever possible, Tomoko Takahashi also embraces the site— literally. By living on site during the construction, it facilitates a stronger relationship with the material and aura. "Not only did she live on the site during her recent installation, she barricaded herself inside the space for three days before the opening," recalls Paul Hedge, co-director of London’s Hales Gallery, which represents Takahashi. So, if you decide to commission her, be prepared, you might just find the artist snoring amidst your developing installation. She doesn’t make preparatory sketches either. According to Takahashi, "I really can’t make proposals. I have such an improvised quality that I have to tell every curator that I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m sorry." She bows her head slightly and laughs hysterically. "But could you be patient and wait until the private view day? I’m going to finish somehow."

Meeting and talking with Tomoko Takahashi is always an event. We met last November for the first time, at the art space "Beaconsfield," south of the Thames River. Sitting on the floor amidst the dimly lit untitled installation (1997), an echoing slide machine clicked hypnotically amidst other technological products that included computers, tape desks, and an amplifier, and mounds of cigarette butts. Desk lamps acted as light-directing focal points in compartmentalized spaces with a play between order and disorder. As we talked her shyness slowly gave way to a warm and expressive personality; her enthusiasm is contagious and fun.

Tomoko Takahashi revealed how the layers of the installation lead to an abstract autobiography. "I had been working in this gallery as an attendant and cleaner before, so I knew the space very well, which actually made it hard to approach," she said. "This venue has often been used for performance, multi-media, and music events. I wanted to explore that area, and I wanted to do something with electricity, as this space is unusual with its 40-odd sockets."

"Twelve people contributed to this work. I discovered that so many people were keeping old machines, some even half-broken, but they didn’t discard them for some reason. Half of them are from my collection, and some are from Beaconsfield. They all roughly span my lifetime, and I want to know what I’m surrounded by. I started to dismantle things—to demystify them—and they are so beautiful. For example, an old Walkman is amazing. It’s mysterious, but it is very simple and practical."

Divided into compartmentalized themes, Tomoko Takahashi explained some of the divisions: "In a way, it’s like an autobiographical theme park. That part is my old stuff, that’s my contemporary connection, and that’s my memories as a cleaner- of the past. Over there is a computer- my enemy- while I like the idea of the computer, I simply can’t use it, because I can’t type." She explains all of this while an empty slide machine machine automatically clicks in rotation, and a video monitor plays a blank tape endlessly. On the floor, white lines connect the compartments of controlled chaos.

As with the Beaconsfield installation, Tomoko Takahashi has continued her interest in demystifying technology by examining clocks, as with Clockwork (1998) at the Hales Gallery and A Table Piece (1998) at Mary Boone Gallery. She continues her autobiographical slant by selecting those items that have been roughly produced in her lifetime: they also act to a certain extent as a history of clocks as product design, not defined by "isms" or decades, but a new time period—"Birth of Takahashi to present." Yet, despite also acting as an illusion of consumer products, styling, and our capitalist desires, Takahashi doesn’t intend her work to heighten awareness of consumption and its environmental impact. Instead, "It’s more like an observation. I don’t see myself as commenting on environmental issues because I’m delighted to find a lot of strange things—and I take care of them lovingly," she says, laughing. "I see myself as a neutral observer."

Tomoko Takahashi doesn’t only exhibit in art spaces and galleries, but sets up installations in other environments. With Company Deal (1997) she reclaimed a marketing consultancy in London, taking up "as much of the office space as possible without disrupting the work." This is difficult to imagine when you see the garbage that she collected over a six-week period, which she returned and spread across the floor. Old cola cans were treated with as much respect as old computers, potato chip packages, and the obligatory cigarette butts. In September, in SoHo, New York, she organized an installation in another traditional work environment, an office space—at the New York offices of Staff International, a fashion showroom and distribution company. Her material included debris and refuse left over from a sample sale— including price tags and clothing, as well as office equipment.

Over the past year, there have been attempts to evaluate, contextualize, and jockey for position with Tomoko Takahashi’s work, bringing connections to Abstract Expressionism with her approach and a myriad contemporary influences— particularly with reference to scattering debris. Japanese rock gardens and Zen have been considered in pursuit of identifying the "Japanese-ness" of her work. Yet, asking her about her art influences, she feels she has many, and mentions her admiration for Hieronymous Bosch and the Spanish still life painter Juan Sanchez Cotan. Yet, at the end of the day, for Takahashi, "influences are something that I’m not really that conscious of. I concentrate more on making my work."

After receiving a BA in oil painting at Tokyo’s Tama Art University, she came to London nine years ago, graduating from Goldsmith’s College of Art and Slade School of Art, as well as supplemental studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in ethnomusicology. "I came to London and then I seriously started to make work," she says. But ask the 32-year-old about her early life in Japan and she is evasive. "I don’t know if they [would] accept me [now]. They never did before. I was a painter, and they really didn’t care." She pauses, then laughs. "But then I wasn’t that good anyway."

When speaking to Tomoko Takahashi, one has the sense of her as something of Japanese refugee, like Yayoi Kusama who "escaped" to New York in 1957 and claimed, "I left Japan to get my freedom." She didn’t return to Japan until the 1970s, and in some ways, foreshadows the wave of Japanese artists who can be found practicing and studying in the West today. Takahashi isn’t familiar with the Tokyo art scene, but how would she feel if she was invited to participate in a major show in Japan? "Yes, I’d do it, but if I had a second choice of venue, I’d do that. I don’t know if they’d accept me," she said. Even after her success in London and New York? "Yes, I really doubt that my work could be popular there. I’m in England by accident as well. I didn’t choose to be Japanese, yet I’m not keen on becoming English. If I live here, I have a good life in many ways. I have good friends, I can be comfortable, I can relax, and most of all, I can make the work. I’m accepted here, and that’s my little success, and it’s nice."

When I met Takahashi last November, she was broke. Has that changed? "A bit," she says, smiling. Reflecting on an amazing year, Takahashi acknowledges that winning the EAST International show was very important. "In the end, yes. Because it allowed people to get to know my art. I’m not inhibited to create in front of people anymore, and I’ve learned to be more open. With this kind of work, you’ve got to talk with the people involved with the space. But, I’m also getting thick-skinned. I’m tougher." So, perhaps the headlines won’t affect her? She laughs, "And I’m more shameless."