In 2010 the San Jose Museum of Art introduced New Stories from the Edge of Asia, an ongoing series of exhibitions featuring artists from the Pacific Rim. What unifies the New Stories artists — in addition to their geography — is the media through which they primarily deploy their narratives: video, film and animation. The opening this month of Tabaimo: Her Room is no exception. Tabaimo, née Ayako Tabata, is a Japanese artist whose disruptive animation “dolefullhouse” brought her international acclaim at the 2007 Venice Biennale. The following year she had her second solo show in the U.S. at the James Cohan Gallery in New York.
Tabaimo peppers her titles with an invented vocabulary of puns and hybrid phrases and contractions. That’s an apt description of her visual language as well. She’s as skillful and talented with her hand drawn sketches as she is with the conversion and assemblage of those drawings into her mesmerizing animations. As the title of “dolefullhouse” suggests, the setting is the inside view of a dollhouse. But one that’s been vivisected by an agitated hand. Streams of water flow irregularly while octopi, instead of dolls, invade through windows like vermin from the sea. Unlike some manga artists that Western audiences may be familiar with, Tabaimo reduces the cute factor to nil.
In an interview for the PBS series ART21 Tabaimo stated, “I believe that the work becomes better when the viewer engages with it actively. So I don’t recommend that you look for the artist’s message in my work.” On Saturday morning the SJMA docent tour was in full swing at her latest exhibit, along with the search for hidden meanings. In each darkened hall, the docents formed semicircles that opened out toward Tabaimo’s animated video screens. These were the friendliest of cabals in which the exchange of ideas formed and reformed in synchronicity with the looping animations: “Why does he go into the refrigerator? Why is she washing her face in the toilet? Is she drowning?” These particular questions were uttered in response to “danDAN” (2009), the first, or last, of the three video installations on display.
Tabaimo visits each installation site in advance of the open to reshape the space. The building itself bends to her imagination in order to serve the work and the viewer’s response to it. In this case, she has arranged the galleries on a spectrum of light to darkness, or vice versa. If you begin by entering the “danDAN” hall, you start in darkness. If, on the other hand, you begin your tour with door number one, you’re surrounded by ghostly sketches that adorn the high white walls, an anteroom leading into her new animation “aitaisei-josei” (2015). Either way, you’ll feel a pull to revisit each room full of halting, wobbling spirits.
Something’s not right in every narrative. The images aren’t just surreal; they’re insoluble. And yet, despite her artist’s warning, it’s impossible to resist the brain’s itch for reasoning it all out. In “yudangami” (2009), the gallery animation in the middle, long blades of grass, no, bamboo… No. It’s a woman’s black fringe of hair, alternately revealing and hiding what’s inside her mind: a pendant earring becomes a chandelier, a veined brain with blood red wings naps upon a cot.
The fluidity of Tabaimo’s imagery recalls the Greek myth of Proteus: if she herself is not a shapeshifter, then surely her consciousness is. Like the backward cursive writing on the wall in “akunin” (2006-2007), we only get glimpses of meaning and fragments of apprehension. The waves on the soundtrack echo with the sound of someone’s underwater laughter. Is it coming from the squid on a clothesline, or yet another throbbing brain that turns into the moon’s reflection in a small blue pool? This artist is welcoming you to all of its beautiful melt and ooze.
Tabaimo: Her Room
Thru Aug 21
San Jose Museum of Art