Tadashi Kawamata at Galerie Deux

by Monty DiPietro

"A house," wrote Le Corbusier in Toward a New Architecture, "is a machine for living in." It is unlikely that the Swiss-born modernist foresaw the chock-a-block residences of Tokyo today so accurately confirming the contention he made some 50 years ago. Bereft of gardens, attics, or cellars, made up of tiny dining-kitchens and molded-plastic unit-bathrooms, it is difficult to conceive of these homes being any further de-humanized, or, with the exception of capsule hotel rooms, of the places we inhabit shrinking any smaller.

Difficult, but not impossible. For even as Tokyo’s residential architects may lead the world in the skill of squeezing more people into less space, they are being one-upped by local artist Tadashi Kawamata, whose "Tokyo Project – New Housing Plan" explores the possibility that humans can be crammed between fences, installed behind billboards, or wedged in behind vending machines. If there is an overlooked slice of space somewhere in Tokyo, Kawamata regards it as a potential place for someone to call home.

The 45 year-old artist’s latest exhibition, now on at Galerie Deux in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward (which, ironically, is one of the city’s most expansive private art spaces), features full-scale reconstructions of three "guerilla houses" Kawamata constructed last year. The first, "House of Vending Machines," was originally built behind an L-shaped configuration of drink machines in Setagaya Ward. Not for the acrophobic was "House of Billboards," the largest of the artist’s works, constructed between perpendicular rooftop billboards in Ota Ward. Finally, there is "House of Construction Fences," which appeared last year sandwiched between two walls of three meter high galvanized tin at a construction site in Setagaya Ward.

Exhibition visitors can enter Kawamata’s works, each of which was occupied on rotation over a one-week period by the artist and his associates. Inside they will find journals, photographs, and other documentation of nights spent in what Kawamata describes as the "illegal houses." Among the interior amenities are wall-to-wall carpeting, heaters and CD players that were run on electricity appropriated from sources such as the vending machines, and a Mount Bell brand "#3 Super Burrow" down-filled sleeping bag. Kawamata and his guerillas were not exactly roughing it – the total cost of materials used in "House of Construction Fences," for example, is recorded as some 81,000 yen. Not a huge sum of money for the internationally-acclaimed artist or Champagne-swilling opening party guests, but there are thousands of homeless Tokyoites out there this winter who might consider the installation a little worse than cute. Insulting, perhaps.

"I’m not a social worker," counters Kawamata, "I’m not an architect or a designer either. In this art I’m interested in questioning the possibilities of the forgotten spaces that exist between other sites. It’s a reaction to my travel overseas because when I return I realize that Japan is a country of gadgets and gadget materials. The idea is to make people think about what a house is."

Framed this way, "Tokyo Project – New Housing Plan" comes off as a stark piece of social satire and a rather depressing study of space in an urban environment. Just what are the minimal requirements, the artist seems to be asking, that permit people to live in the middle of such an impacted place as Tokyo?

In a Canadian interview discussing his ambitious 1989 public work, "Toronto Project," Kawamata said: "My projects are a metaphor for my philosophy which is not only against architecture or art or a city, but against categorized and culturally enclosed situations and the political power structure which we already have."

Given the sarcasm evidenced in his current exhibition, it could be that Kawamata is just too pessimistic to be a social worker.


notes: Until Apr 10 1999 at Galerie Deux (3717-0020).
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