Kazumi Tanakaby Peter Eleey
Kazumi Tanaka’s show at Kent continues the artist’s earlier work with memory, showcasing her particular brand of nostalgia coupled with high craftsmanship. Many of the seven works in the exhibition employ strategies of simple but disorienting shifts. The installation piece in the back of the gallery for which the show is named, Dream, is entirely achromatic: it features a vase of black and white flowers on a black table with a black and gray chair, a black and gray sunflower and a silver and black television—all of which appear to be meticulously handmade. Every so often the television turns on, showing a vintage Frankenstein clip. The footage, naturally, is black-and-white, but the colorless context of the rest of the installation strips it of its antique aesthetic. It’s as if Tanaka wishes that, for a moment, we lose the sentimental remove with which we view the past—and, in this case, find ourselves in some timeless relation with the quintessentially American cinematic past, free of its nostalgic spell. It is nice how Dream can also cut the other way, suggesting that the environment has become dominated by cinema, and in this submissive state aides cinema’s stranglehold on American culture.
An earlier piece, included in this show, plays further with questions of color and time. It was Aristotle who found color to be suspect because of its place outside of time, impervious to age and decay. In a reprise of this ancient but enduring anxiety, the artist has set up a small still life of three apples on a plate (wittily titled Two Apples), though one seems redder and fresher than the others. This one apple is in fact a painstakingly painted simulation. Its lasting perfection makes the two store-bought apples of the piece’s title look oddly unnatural in their waxiness. That the wax is applied both to preserve the apples and to make their surfaces more attractive simply heightens the effect.
The artist also uses downward shifts in scale. Like a previous work in which Tanaka put a small door at the gallery’s floor, Claustrophobia makes us negotiate space in a sort of Alice in Wonderland way. Miniature cabinets and drawers sit at the back corner of a long wood table pushed up against the back wall of the gallery. When we get closer, we see that there is a closet built into the corner, opened to reveal more shelves and cabinets inside the wall. Tucked inside one of these cabinets is an even smaller chest of drawers, almost dollhouse-sized in relation to the furniture in which it hides. The effect of that tiny piece is to make everything oddly larger, right up to the table upon which everything sits. The miniature chandelier hanging above the table in Dream acts in a similar capacity.
With the exception of the Asian details in Claustrophobia, overt personal references are less evident here than in some of the artist’s earlier work, allowing the more general themes of foreignness, displacement, and disorientation room to breathe. Tanaka cuts down our spectatorial distance, but then pushes us back. One notices, for example, the open book on the table in the installation, hoping to discover a passage selected for special reference—only to find that the text is some unintelligible pattern of marks, denied to us. Perhaps Tanaka is content to let her personal motivations stay exactly that—personal—which allows the work to be a bit more experientially accessible. She does so, however, at the risk of a stricter formalism, which may or may not be a direction she wishes to move in.
But for now Tanaka’s balance between the specific and general is right on. One small change torques the familiar into something foreign, something more vulnerable to time and space, beyond immediate comprehension or perhaps already past it. Evident here is the anxiety of a delicate and elusive beauty, a fragile visual knowledge. These works place us in that strange, waking moment when a complete world crumbles as we struggle to realize it fully, entangling the simple act of perception within the mighty struggle of recollection.