Clue to Utsushi

by Diana Seo Hyung Lee

March 3, 2018

Clue to Utsushi, the fourth exhibition by Japanese video artist Tabaimo presented at James Cohan Gallery, acted as sort of an encore to Utsutsushi Utsushi, her 2016 exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. For that exhibition, Tabaimo selected works from the museum’s permanent Asian Art collection and used them as launching points for new work. This latest iteration included four pieces shown in Utsutsushi Utsushi, while also debuting Shinju Trail (2018), a new piece created specifically for the occasion.

While it is not uncommon for museums to invite contemporary artists to create new work inspired by pieces from their permanent collections, this premise was particularly fitting for Tabaimo due to her deep interest in the Japanese artistic concept of utsushi. Without a linguistic counterpart in English, utsushi could be described as “reproduction” or “copy,” though they only cover a portion of what utsushi means. When a work is said to have achieved “true” utsushi, it imbues the essence or spirit of the original artwork without literal reproduction. 

Tabaimo Clue to Utsushi James Cohan
Tabaimo. Clue to Utsushi; installation view. James Cohan, New York, 2018. Photo: Phoebe d’Heurle.  
Tabaimo. Chirping (2016); two channel video installation on hand-made Japanese scrolls; 7 min. 36 sec. Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York. 

Chirping (2016), a pair of hanging scrolls whose imagery was shown through a video projection instead of a physical painting or drawing, was installed near the entrance of the gallery. Meticulously depicted butterflies and dragonflies flutter on the surface of the scroll, then pause and gradually lose their color as what appears to be liquid pigment bleeds out. Wings begin to fall off some of the insects, then, one after another, the remaining butterflies and dragonflies slowly drift away.

Crow (2016) appears on a mustard yellow corner wall that has been modified and expanded to look like a trifold. When the animated projection of what looks like gold leafed surface materializes, it refers to the panels of a 17th century Japanese folding standing screen that Tabaimo studied in the Seattle Art Museum. However, both Chirping and Crow are an aesthetic departure from Tabaimo’s signature ukiyo-e-style[1] video work. Without understanding which specific works Tabaimo is referencing, these pieces risk feeling out of place. But after spending some time in the show, even without didactic explanation of the works’ origins, one may begin to deduce that, unlike previous works in which strange events happen within the world she has created through the narrative of her videos, these pieces are categorically different: they activate the entirety of the object represented. The crows in Crow do not just fly in and out of the frame of the 17th century Japanese screen, but by their movement, the screen as an object becomes, even for a moment, disturbed. The butterflies and dragonflies in Chirping and the crows in Crow all refuse arrival—as they vanish or fly away, their elusiveness gives the impression that the act of looking triggers their dispersal. Tabaimo seems to suggest that neither she nor these cultural artifacts can be pinned down. 

Tabaimo. Clue to Utsushi; installation view. James Cohan, New York, 2018. Photo: Phoebe d’Heurle.  

The Obscuring Moon (2016) and Two (2016) are more recognizably within Tabaimo’s oeuvre, as they combine storytelling qualities with a depiction of a spatial environment, usually reminiscent of contemporary or traditional Japanese architecture. By compartmentalizing the composition, Tabaimo variously reveals and conceals the presence of something odd or disturbing. The partially open sliding door in The Obscuring Moon conceals a geisha but reveals her shadow. Feet, hands, and strands of hair peek through the tidy organization of linens in the two cabinets in Two. 

The smallest and perhaps humblest piece was also the most revealing in the whole exhibition: Shinju Trail (2018)The word shinju means “double suicide” in Japanese, and is used to refer to the suicide of lovers who are unable to live out their affections due to social or familial conventions and duty. In Shinju Trail, a string emerges from the center of the composition and divides the plane in two, which serves as the horizon line as well as the string of an instrument. A hand emerges in front of the line, and plucks the string, emitting an authoritative base note, as if to set the story in motion. The hand disappears, then what looks like feet as well as two intertwining figures emerge in and out of the line. Several scenes are shown: an outdoor plain with a glazing sun where plants grow; an exterior of a traditional Japanese house; a butterfly in a cage. In this video, repetitive motifs from her exhibition come together in one. Though still abstract and mysterious, rather than denying the viewer through its subjects turning away, Tabaimo illustrates a sort of transformation and a cycle of life. The pared down, black and white line drawing adds to its more poetic and honest feeling, as if they were a look into the private inner world of Tabaimo. 

Tabaimo. Shinju Trail (2018); single channel video installation with audio and custom frame; running time: 4 min. 10 sec. Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York. 

 All four utsushi-inspired works are in some way concerned with connecting the present with times past. Perhaps the two lovers envisioned in Shinju Trail are not people, but representative of the dichotomies existent in all of Tabaimo’s works—history and the present, reality and illusion, interior and exterior. While they may seem to be disparate, Tabaimo imagines the possibility of their meeting and becoming one; maybe not in a grand ultimate sense of redemption, but at least for the duration of her videos.


Tabaimo: Clue to Utsushi
James Cohan Gallery
January 13–February 25, 2018 


[1] Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese woodblock print and painting from the Edo period between the 17th–19th centuries.


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