JAPANESE PERFORMANCE ART REVIEW
Inside a cramped art space off a small side road at the wrong end of Hong Kong’s gallery street Hollywood Road, the great performance artist Tatsumi Orimoto bows, his chin-length grizzled hair falling forward. “That’s it” he laughs as he straightens up. “It is four o’clock….my medicine time”. On cue a gallery assistant brings the artist a beer and a stool to sit on as the handful of viewers applaud, laugh and jostle closer to claim his offer of an autograph on a free ‘Breadman’ poster.
Tatsumi Orimoto, also known as ‘Breadman’ for his world-famous performances in which he wears French baguettes twined to his face, has just completed his half hour performance piece ‘Finger Dolls’ and a lecture. The latter turns out to be a recount of his life’s work salted with comical asides and has been described by Para/Site Art Space’s new curator, Alvaro Rodriguez Fominaya, as a ‘performance in itelf’. Spaniard Alvaro brings Orimoto to Hong Kong as part of an overall plan for his new role described to Time Out writer Claire Morin. “I want to refocus Para/Site … with more artists from Asia,” he says. “I also want Para/Site to become a social space, a space where things are actually happening, not just exhibited… I want the public to appropriate Para/Site and become a part of Para/Site.” Arimoto’s quirky performance and engaging lecture are two sure steps towards that vision.
Short in stature and dressed in a strange semi-formal ensemble of green tie and waistcoat, Orimoto begins the Finger Dolls piece by wheeling an old bag across the floor and then slowly and deliberately opening and removing from it crumpled plastic carrier bags bearing the names of Japanese stores. These in turn are opened and small grubby dolls – mostly babies – are taken out and either hung around his neck or laid carefully in a semi-circle around him on the floor. The deliberate repetition of movements is puzzling: why this heaviness? But then we notice one of the dolls has been given a cane and marked with pen-made facial wrinkles, a clue to the meaning behind this work. As Orimoto explains later in his lecture, “They are all Mama” .
Sixty- two year old Orimoto feels a special duty to care for his mother because of the part she has played in his long hard road to art success. Although he is now a leading name in the global performance art scene, having performed with legendary video artist Nam June Paik and received spectacular reviews at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001, this was not always the case.
The Bread Man was born in Kawasaki outside Tokyo to a working class, poor family and began drawing when he was ten. While his mother encouraged him, buying supplies and the latest art magazines for him, his father a heavy drinker disapproved. As a teenager he began painting with oils which made his father fly into ‘ugly’ rages because he did not like the smell. Dealing with these experiences caused Orimoto to develop a resilience which enabled him to carry on in the face of prolonged rejection by the art establishment later in his life. “Even after I was asked to perform for the Queen of Spain, the Japanese establishment still didn’t want me” Orimoto grins to his Hong Kong audience, ” I don’t care. I call myself International Orimoto”.
But everyone needs a supporter according to Orimoto. “For me my Mama is like Van Gogh’s brother Theodore”. When he applied to the most-respected art university in Japan, the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music he was rejected year after year. His father pressed him to get a job but his mother supported his move to New York in the 1960s where he discovered performance art – “there was no performance art in Japan, ah I am so lucky, I saw the early peformance art in New York, I saw people like Joseph Beuys. Soho was exciting, artists came from around the world”.
Helping him financially she worked until she was 75 years old and supported him again when he set out to travel around dozens of countries where he held impromptu performances in unexpected places. “Art is not only white space gallery, it is also public places, railways stations and restaurants. It is a very important thing”.
Later in his Finger Dolls piece he carefully produces from yet another old bag a used box and from this, ponderously, in the manner of the elderly he brings forth bizarre mini-heads sculpted from papier mache and odds and ends. Each is individually crafted with its own quirky features (lurid pink eyes , green bobble hair) and treated with tenderness and the special focus only a ‘Mama’ can give. Cautiously, protectively each puppet is laid on the ground before being donned on Orimoto’s stubby fingers and displayed to the audience during a purposeful unhurried walk around the room. As the piece develops we are increasingly aware of allusions to maternal and filial love and finally we are left in no doubt when Orimoto, rhymically slowly expels the word ‘Mama’ in a series of gravelly gasps.
Today his mother is a source of inspiration for his art and occasionally a participant in his performances. When his mother developed Alzheimer’s disease Orimoto knew that, as a man without wife and children, he had a duty to return home and care for his mother but this was not an easy step: he felt ambivalent and he worried that he would have to give up his art. But with characteristic creativity and perseverance he has turned this setback to advantage and she has evolved into his muse.
Is the work Finger Dolls about the love of a mother for her child or the filial duty of love and care owed to a mother? Is Orimoto playing the part of a mother or a son? At times the roles seem interchangeable. He is a mother who carries his creations wrapped about his neck and he plays a son who calls for his mother but in an ancient crackly voice. In turn-and-turn-about fashion, he is now the older and now the younger, the mother and the son all in one. What does his art mean? What is it telling us? Perhaps it does not matter why or what his art is saying. As Monty diPietro says in his review of Orimoto’s first ever museum show in Japan at Hara Museum in 2000 when he was finally given deserved recognition, what matters is the effect Orimoto has on the people who watch him perform. With a satisfying blend of drama and substance Orimoto’s puzzling, eerie performance work thoroughly engages his Hon g Kong audience – and thankfully the art establishment now too .
Sources and more reviews
- Hara Museum show 2000 review by Monty dePietro on Assemblylanguage.com – recommended
- Meet Mama in the name of art – Japan Times 2002
- Time Out Hong Kong feature Parasite Art Space and Tatsumi Orimoto 2009
- Changes in Tokyo’s art scene – new fair, art district, art guides January 2009
- Takashi Murakami lecture in Hong Kong on why the War helped create Japanese otaku culture December 2008