Tomoko Takahashi: In the eye of the tornado (1999)

Feature article on the Japanese-born, London-resident “scatter” installation artist’s work with particular emphasis on her high-profile Saatchi Gallery piece, Line-Out.

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 3 January 2010
This article first appeared in Sculpture, 18(9), pp. 10-1 in November 1999.

Tomoko Takahashi

“So many things were being knocked over, I had to get out.” While opening nights can be nerve-wrecking experiences for many, Tomoko Takahashi witnessed objects in her installation Line-Out (1998) crashing to the floor, and she saw wine-spilling visitors jumping over her work. With the burgeoning crowds and media frenzy at the Saatchi Gallery’s well-publicized “New Neurotic Realism” show, the attention and destruction were a bit too much for the 32-year-old London-resident, Japanese artist: “It was nice to see my objects dominate people and see them not knowing how to behave, but I was really too scared to be there.”

While Takahashi moved to stage left, her installation got most of the attention— and a great deal of it. Visitors were first greeted with a panoramic view of Line-Out, situated at a key junction in the gallery’s layout. For the uninitiated, the gallery might have looked as though a tornado had swept through it— with various objects and masses of debris scattered in all directions. Her tightly controlled paths leading through the installation to other rooms created a traffic nightmare—and an instant sensation— essentially forcing viewers to inspect her “controlled chaos” and explore her artistic process. Within a big statement in a very large space, Line-Out’s sometimes surreal and fascinating details begged for discovery, exploration, and contemplation, whether they were dysfunctional machines, a melting candle, or a water-filled beaker apparently boiling on a hot plate.

For Takahashi, her work is improvisation-based with a musical temperament. It either specifically refers to the site or brings in more personal considerations. Site-specificity inspired installations such as Staff Stuff (1998) at New York’s Staff Gallery, which is next to a fashion showroom and Authorized for Removal (1997), which addressed the interior of a former police station. Meanwhile, A Table Piece (1998), exhibited at Mary Boone Gallery, and Clockwork (1998), at Hales Gallery, embodied more personal approaches, and Line-Out encompasses both. The installation refers to the “line out” on the back of a hi-fi set, the live wires fueling the piece, and the energy in the work. “I thought of naming it Retrospective, because I had included almost all of the work that I had done before, and I wanted to ‘make sense’ of it,” she explains. So she included monitors and old computers from Untitled (1997) at Beaconsfield, Clockwork’s tools and clocks, Company Deal’s papers from a marketing consultancy office, objects from student shows, and a painted object from her East International installation, which won her a £5,000 prize. East also provided her with her first taste of media frenzy, with headlines like “Modern art? It’s just junk.” Takahashi even included the boxes that transported the material, her sleeping bag and suitcase, and her cigarette butts.

Tomoko Takahashi creates installations by examining the venue and determining a theme, and then she usually gathers appropriate objects and works on composition. “For Line-Out, there are three layers. First a floor drawing underneath the objects composed of dots and lines with black and silver tape— I wanted to become familiar with the vast, unfamiliar space. When I started to get used to the scale of the floor, and it had a sense of flow of the space as well, then came the objects. At the same time, I put up the wires, and then I started to organize islands around the material.”

Tomoko Takahashi is no fan of proposal drawings. “I don’t do them beforehand, unless I’m required to do so. For Line-Out, I had to make one, but in the end it came out very differently. The lines were simpler, and the proportions and shapes of the ‘islands’ of material came out unexpectedly. Improvisation is the point of my work, so be prepared,” she laughs and warns would-be commissioners. Deadlines often define the work, says Takahashi: “If it’s 10:00 on Tuesday, I really do run around the installation until 9:59. I finish on deadline— on the dot.”

Like many artists, she has an intimate relationship with her work— but she not only “lives” with her installations, she frequently sleeps with them as well— about three and a half weeks in the Saatchi Gallery. “Practically, it saves me a lot of time and I don’t have to think about anything else. I change the location of where I sleep— it depends where I’m actually working at the time, and it helps to change my viewpoint,” says Takahashi. “When I get really tired at about 4:00 a.m., I start to fall asleep, but my brain is still moving around. I’d think ‘hmmm… I should move a line a different way,’ and I’ll start to wake up, rush to the line and change it. Then I’ll realize it’s something like 8:00 in the morning.” What is it like to wake up in an installation? For Takahashi, “That’s the best time for me because I always think of something new.” Meanwhile, the intimacy does have its downsides. “It can be really stressful, and I always lose a lot of weight when making the work. For me, it’s a very painful process, but I am addicted to it— sort of,” she laughs.

Fortunately for Tomoko Takahashi, her so-called “addiction” continues to be in high demand. Like a machine gun, she fires off a list of galleries, shows, and cities like Antwerp, Edinburgh, New York, London, Los Angeles, and Lisbon. Yet despite the increasing critical acclaim and sometimes overwhelming media coverage, Takahashi reflects, “all the attention really came completely out of the blue.”

Her work illustrates the inadequacies of artwriting, as the multitude of objects, focal points, details, and experiences goes beyond the confines of various writing genres and could easily look like a complicated, threepage recipe. Back at the chaotic Saatchi opening, I remember watching a couple in their late 50s pointing out a detail amidst the clocks and smiling as if they’d detected a secret find. Takahashi doesn’t know how she can have these effects on people, but says, “I’m really touched if people are moved by my work. In fact, that’s great.”