Station Museum, Houston
June 27 – October 18, 2009
Art that comments on its own medium and art that comments on political events are often assigned to separate categories, attracting different audiences, different kinds of critical responses, different ways of looking. One of the refreshing things about this recent show by Peruvian-based artist Carlos Runcie Tanaka is how it wove together medium (ceramics), subject (Peruvian history), and identity (Runcie Tanaka’s Peruvian-Japanese-British heritage) into an indivisible continuum.
And yet, the title of the exhibition, Fragmento, seemed to challenge the notion of wholeness. The work that speaks most directly to the title is “Manto” (Mantle), a low, glass-topped case sitting in the middle of a darkened gallery. Dated 1978-2006 (many of Runcie Tanaka’s works are multi-year projects, though generally not as long as this one), “Manto” is a bed of multifarious pottery shards spread out in a massive rectangle. What makes the piece so powerful is not just the formal ingenuity of the composition but also the provisionality of the arrangement, set out in a never to be exactly repeated configuration. One’s first instinct is to view “Manto” as a mosaic lacking any binding agent, but, in fact, it is much more like a stretch of riverbed or an archeological excavation.
The riverbed association isn’t accidental: the artist, who studied traditional ceramics in Japan (as well as in Italy) in the early 1980s, likes to recount how Japanese master potters toss rejected pieces into rivers. Following years of wide travel, Runcie Tanaka returned to Peru in 1985, when he simultaneously devoted himself to ceramic sculpture and to the production of functional pottery. He has since gone on to represent Peru in the Venice Biennale (2001) and the São Paulo Bienal (2004).
In a sprawling work titled “Huayco/Kawa/Rio” (2003-2006), Runcie Tanaka’s fine art/functional art background comes together in the form of some dozen large ceramic orbs (about 2 feet in diameter each) studded with broken stoneware and dinnerware. The orbs, which look like small meteorites or giant sweets, were placed on the floor in a rough zigzag arrangement along a long, corridorlike gallery (as is usually the case at The Station Museum, the space was reconfigured for this exhibition). Runcie Tanaka isn’t the first artist to do daring things with broken plates (Antoni Gaudí, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Julian Schnabel are among his precursors), but he may be the first one to have actually made the very broken plates that fill his work; the holistic status adds power to the work. As in “Manto,” the ceramic fragments convey Runcie Tanaka’s gift for manipulating this venerable medium; every detail rewards close attention.
The largest gallery in Fragmento is occupied by a somber, complex installation titled “Tiempo Detenido/No Olvidar” (1997-2006). Ranks of ceramic figures, each decorated with black circles and standing on a pedestal softly glowing with red light, surround a low, coffin-like vitrine. Stretched out in the vitrine, which is ringed with other, still lower glass cases filled with red marbles, is a single ceramic figure. The interior walls of the darkened space were covered with glass, multiplying the standing figures and red lights; the sounds of traditional Andean music added to this theatrical environment. While it seems to evoke some ancient burial ceremony, the work was inspired by a specific incident in recent Peruvian history. In 1996, Marxist guerillas stormed the Japanese embassy in Lima during a party celebrating the birthday of Japan’s emperor. Runcie Tanaka was among the hundreds of hostages held there for five days. (The embassy remained under siege for nearly four months while the guerillas continued to hold a number of diplomats and prominent Peruvians.)
Striking at the heart of Runcie Tanaka’s Peruvian-Japanese identity, this incident is transfigured into an affecting lament for all the many victims of the political violence that permeated Peru in the 1980s and 90s. In his dedication of this exhibition to the victims (on both sides) of a fatal clash last June between Peruvian police and indigenous protestors, the artist reminds us that the conflicts memorialized in “Tiempo Detenido/No Olvidar” are still very much present.
Raphael Rubinstein is the author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). He is currently writing a book about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès. A Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art, he divides his time between Houston and New York.