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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.1 (2001) 105-111

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Momentum of the Ephemeral: Kawamata's Temporary Structures

Yvette Biro

Tadashi Kawamata, Les chaises de travers, Metz/Delm, France, 1999.

IMAGE LINK= The Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata is one of the most original installation-artists of the last decade. A poetic radicalism--call it minimalism--defines his work. On the border between sculpture and architecture, Kawamata constructs his "temporary structures" with simple wooden panels, waste building material, or useless scaffolds and creates out of them a highly articulate aesthetic order. Yet we should not imagine that from this cast-off lumber he fabricates a scrap heap or junk pile. The evocation of the entropy, the vision of a pathetic, disintegrating world has been the privilege of the Russian-American Ilya Kabakov [see PAJ 54]. Here we are dealing with an exceptionally fashioned, artful composition, which nevertheless represents the unpredictable forms of chaos, the random, asymmetrical structures of the incidental. They appear as if they were free spatial drawings--in wood. Certainly, the tradition he comes from, the Japanese sense of refined expression and calligraphic economy, has distinctly informed Kawamata's gesture. His complex yet graceful constructions, placed in contemporary urban space, reveal an ephemeral stability, reminding us of the unsteadiness of this order and the vulnerability of the modern city's grandiose buildings, so often in decay.

Tadashi Kawamata, born in 1953, in Mikasa, Japan, earned his first success with the Japan Pavilion for the Biennale di Venezia, in 1982. He has worked in Tokyo, New York, Sao Paolo, and almost every big city of Europe. Among his best known installations: Destroyed Church, Kassel, Documenta, (1987); The Favellas in Battery Park, (1988), followed by others in Houston, on Long Island, and in Japan; Project on Roosevelt Island in the East River, New York (1992); Catwalk, Tokyo (1995); Work in Progress, Alkamaar, Holland (1996); Le passage des chaises, Salpetriere, Paris, (1997); Field Work, Hanover, (1997); Haus de Kunst, Munich, (1998); Les chaises de travers, Metz/Delm, (1998).

Espace Trouve

Kawamata's fundamental method is intervention. He works not simply with objets trouves but with espace trouve. [End Page 105] That is, he expropriates public places, using them nonchalantly for his expressive needs. Should he gain a commission in Tokyo or New York, he seeks out the most defiant sites. In Manhattan's Battery Park or next to the skyscrapers in Roosevelt Island on "found," abandoned lots he irreverently built a series of makeshift, miserable shacks, Favellas, a kind of fake?--genuine?--remake of the well-known shantytowns. They seemed so authentic that sometimes they truly offered shelter for the indigent and homeless. Was it desacralization? Not at all, surely, not against the artist's spirit. Operating in real space, deliberately exposing his objects in open places, he causes the real, active response of observers--even those unaware of the origins of what they are seeing--to become part of the enterprise.

One of his critics has called his gestures subversive modesty, stressing in this odd coupling the paradoxical nature of Kawamata's art. Kawamata, who, according to his own words, lives in the various big cities of the world like a nomad, like a "modern urban guerrilla," has demolished the wall between public and private space. With the subversion, doing away with the conventional division, he questions the opposition of mass-presence and intimacy, order and anarchy. In his work primitive constructions meet sophisticated technology, simple craftsmanship confronts the large-scale complexity of modern civilization. In another way we could say that the organic pure wood, the archaic ground material of Japanese housing, challenges the soulless, lofty forms of western architecture, as a "poor" counterimage to its heterogeneous, hodgepodge surface.

Yes, the gesture is doubtlessly provoking, yet ultimately constructive, and the result, besides the breach of order, suggests another, new order. Kawamata molds his structures with poetic sensitivity. In the Destroyed Church, for instance, he placed a wood scaffold on the ruined walls of a church destroyed by World War II bombings, surrounding a startlingly empty inner hole. In this way he forcefully emphasized...


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