As Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art in London prepares to celebrate its 10th Anniversary, the gallery has unveiled its final show for 2014. Covering thirty years of artistic practice, the new retrospective of Japanese artist Shinro Ohtake’s work now showing is curated by Parasol Founder/Director Ziba Ardalan, and looks set to cap off an incredible decade of work on an undeniable high note.
Images of Ohtake’s work already suggest something of their incredible intricacy, but it’s only when you get right up close to them that the staggering detail of their construction becomes fully apparent. While the artist is commonly known for his massive series of Scrapbooks (of which Scapebook #66, 2010-2012, is featured here in the upstairs gallery), the exhibition also contains pieces from several other ongoing projects, including ‘Retina,’ ‘Time Memory,’ and ‘Cell’ series. All of the works seem to meld elements of collage and sculpture with painterly qualities, while also incorporating sound and light.
On the artist’s own website, the genesis of the scrapbook project is described as follows:
“He worked as an expressive painter and sculptor before a stay in London where he chanced to meet an old man who had obsessively collected matchbooks and glued them into pages of a notebook. Ohtake purchased the collection and began to create his own “street books”, intense travel scrapbooks crammed with discarded cultural artifacts-scavenged tickets, snapshots, tags, currency, newspapers and other mass-produced printed matter shrugged off by popular culture.” [Sic]
This explanation is a useful starting point, illuminating Ohtake’s approach to incorporating found objects and images into strands of dense, cryptically observational narrative. It’s this seemingly exhaustive collecting and re-appropriating that leads many of the works to contain material and medium lists which sometimes number as high as forty, leaving the viewer staring into a sometimes intimidating abyss of ephemera.
Perhaps the best example of this is ‘Retina (New Tong of Tangier I), 1992-93.’ Measuring 216 x 212 x 82cm, the work resembles a huge wardrobe or shelving structure that has been gutted and then festooned with photos, newspaper clippings, wire, scrap metal and just about anything else you could imagine, as well as a small light feature. You could literally spend hours looking at this piece, finding new details and intricacies in its construction, pulling together disparate strands of imagery and text into obscured directions
On the ground floor of the gallery two other works incorporate sound into their multidimensional properties. Teaching of Islam III, 1985-87 sits like a sort of treasure chest, counting feather, leaf and driftwood amongst its other synthetic materials. From several speakers nestled within the work comes an indefinable sound, voices perhaps, echoing the dense construction of their surroundings.
Further along, Radio Head Surfer, 1994-95, stands on a small raised platform which sits just out from the gallery wall holding up Frame I, 1990, a massive empty frame built from polystyrene foam, fibreglass, plastic resin, plastic putty, cloth and adhesive tape. The perspective of the installation is jarring, heightened by the small model-like work’s sound component that quietly blends with the other sound work in the same space. The overall effect is that of ghostly transmissions, which hover throughout the space without ever fully forming, much like the elusive narrative suggestions of Ohtake’s physical works.
Upstairs, the works are largely wall mounted, save for Shiphead I, 1988 and of course Scrapbook #66, 2010-2012. The majority of these come from Ohtake’s ‘Time Memory’ series, though one exception which stands out is Torso and Guitar, 1988. This piece which sits high on a wall behind the scrapbook is comprised of paper, iron, wire, parts of a book and also a wooden ship. The work could be read as a nod to cubism, a subtle reference which reveals itself elsewhere in the show through some of his wall mounted assemblages. It makes for an engaging aside, which when taken within the context of the exhibition as a whole casts some of his other works into a whole new light.
The scrapbook work itself, which appears in most of the press for the show, is displayed on a plinth standing up with the pages only slightly splayed open. Installing it this way allows the viewer to really grasp the size and dimensions, as well as the detail in its cover, which appears to have something resembling an animal hide draped off the back of it and over the edge of the surface of the plinth. What is somewhat absent however is a good view of the inside of the work, making it seem as if the size and dimensions are the central concern, rather than the detail of what has gone into creating it.
As an addition to the works on display here, in a side room off the downstairs gallery, three film works are playing through a loop, featuring documentary footage of works from previous exhibitions including dOCUMENTA (13) and a series of other venues between 1999 and 2013. These eleven minute works flesh out some of the larger, site specific aspects of Ohtake’s oeuvre, which echo the collage like elements of the (relatively) smaller works in the gallery, while also presenting what happens when the artist has been space to stretch the narrative aspects of his work.
Shinro Ohtake is on show at Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art in London until December 12, 2014.
By Will Gresson