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Tatsumi Orimoto at the Hara Museum

by Monty DiPietro

It's been a long, strange road for the guy they call the Bread Man. Years of on-the-cheap tours of Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, decades of binding baguettes to his face for performances, a lifetime of, if you'll pardon the pun, going against the grain.

But now, finally, Tatsumi Orimoto has arrived. Last week, at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward, Orimoto's first-ever Japanese museum show opened. It is called "Art Mama and Bread Man," and is a tribute to the tireless work of Orimoto, 53, a.k.a. the Bread Man. It is funny and it is wonderful and it may well prove to be the most important art exhibition in Japan this year:

Several hundred photographs, about a dozen objects and videos, and a series of scheduled performances make up the extraordinary exhibition, a show that Hara organizers were initially unsure they should even put up. See, for years now, even as he was building a cult following overseas, few in the network of cliques that make up this country's art elite were willing to take Orimoto seriously. Here was a performance artist, a Bread Man no less, who didn't talk the talk and wouldn't walk the walk. Orimoto had kowtowed to nobody here, and nobody was going to help him out of obscurity.

The Bread Man was born to working class parents in Kawasaki, and began drawing seriously when he was ten. His mother encouraged him by buying the latest art magazines, through which Orimoto developed an admiration for European artists, particularly Paul Klee. His dad disapproved, but the boy was inexorable, and vowed to study at a respected Tokyo art university. The most-respected art university in Japan, actually: the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music.

But Geidai wouldn't have Orimoto, he failed the institution's entrance exam. He tried again the following year, and failed again. And again the next year. And once again the year after that. His father, who for years had been pressing his son the dreamer to give up on art and get a "real job," began to demand it. But Orimoto's loving mom understood when he went to America, and congratulated him when he was awarded a scholarship to study at the California Institute of Art. She also approved when he moved to New York to learn about making art, and again when he set out to travel, to scores of countries, to take his performance art, impromptu style, to the found streets, restaurants, and drinking halls that were to become his stages.

The best of Orimoto's performances grew out of a series he termed "communication art." In these, he became Bread Man, his face totally obscured behind a tangle of twine and a bunch of baguette. Why Bread Man? Well, everybody asks that question, and really, the answer is not important. What matters is the effect Orimoto has on the people who watch him perform. The meaning of Bread Man is in the eyes of the people who are watching Bread Man.

Thirty years after he first left Japan, it is Odai, Orimoto's 82 year-old mother and number one fan, who is the center of attention at the Hara's opening party. Orimoto lives with and takes care of the frail but determined-looking woman who, several years ago, he dubbed "Art Mama." Odai is both the object of her son's love of art and the subject for his creations. On this evening, she walks slowly through a smiling reception of well-wishers in a performance called "Art Mama in Big Shoes." She is wearing, you guessed it, big shoes. She finishes, sits down in a white chair with her son by her side, says "Thank you." People are smiling. People are crying.

This, in a nutshell, is what the Art Mama portion of the exhibition is about: Love. Orimoto documents, primarily through photography, (including three large scale works) the lives he and his aging mother are living out in Kawasaki. There are also objects and videos here, all with a very immediate, Fluxus feel to them.

Upstairs at the Hara is a room dedicated to Orimoto's Bread Man performances in Nepal, in Poland, in America, and elsewhere. With all he had going against him, Orimoto must have always known he would make it some day—why else would he have produced such high-quality photodocumentation of his work? There are more than 200 photographs here.

That Orimoto was ostracized for so many years reflects a sorry state of affairs that, unhappily, is being replayed to this day by many of the same art compacts, a bunch of reactionary baggage congesting the Japanese contemporary art scene. On behalf of the, dare we term them "gaijin" artists of Japan, the Hara has dealt a surprise strike against these pedants by giving Orimoto this show. For his part, the Bread Man has responded graciously, by building two beautiful rooms bursting with life and love. Try not to miss this exhibition, it is special.

Notes: Until August 28, 2000 (3445-0651).
Tatsumi Orimoto Gallery 1
Tatsumi Orimoto Gallery 2
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