Art Review: Muneteru Ujino: Japan Series
By John McGee
Your language exchange partner Keiko tells you that she recently "reform"-ed
her "mansion," likes to go shopping at a "bargain"
at the "depato," and wants to "volume up"
her English vocabulary. Many Japanese believe they're using English
when they employ such foreign loan words (collective sigh from English
teachers). Like the incomprehensible but usually hilarious end-product
of a game of Chinese whispers, the meaning of such loan words is either
completely different or unknown to a native speaker.
Y-SHIRT, 2002, wood,
Tokyo-based artist Muneteru Ujino monumentalizes this gap between correct
Japanese and incorrect English as katakana-shaped sculptures and as paintings
and ink sketches written in katakana. For example, Ujino, 38, formed a
set of three door-sized sculptures from what he calls American woodfir,
pine and spruce. They look like tall ramma, the decorative wooden transoms
that fit above shoji and allow air to flow between rooms. Instead of the
usual landscapes, Ujino carved clothing terms out of the unpainted wood:
g-pan (jeans), y-shats (men's dress shirt), and t-baku (thong underwear).
|G-PAN, 2002, wood, 188x58x9cm
One-Room Mansion (studio apartment) is about the same size, but is modeled
after the lighted signs that real estate agents put on the sidewalk in
front of their shops. Instead of apartment listings, Ujino has installed
wallpapered wood in the shape of the katakana words.
As half of the art band Gorgerous (gorgeous+dangerous+
glamorous), Ujino has experience in word-play and odd noises. His last
show, "Love Arm," was a range of homemade musical instruments,
e.g. a modified baseball bat and a long, boxy case with motorcycle handlebars,
lights and dials attached.
Here, though, he literalizes sound. Katakana is also used for writing
sound effects, and in the sub-gallery there are shodo-style ink drawings
of baseball terms like goro (the sound a ground ball makes) in addition
to loan words of dubious merit like asuholu (asshole).
Text as an artform is also used in traditional calligraphy, pre-modern
Japanese sumi-e painting, and recent pieces by Hiroko Ichihara. But Ujino's
works seem closer to those of photographer/sculptor Jack Pierson and painter
Edward Ruscha, both Americans.
Since the '60s, Ruscha has made hundreds of paintings of words,
often rendering the letters into rebus-like depictions of the thing named.
Likewise, Ujino's words often mimic their meanings. Royal Milk
Tea is made of wood painted with the Union Jack. Fuck, however, is camouflaged
in a forest scene. The characters are made of cute branches and leaves
painted on a fake wooden tabletop that's hung on the wall.
Ujino's large wall piece, Twenty-One Century (the original Japanese
translation, later corrected, of "twenty-first century")
looks a lot like a Jack Pierson wall sculpture painted by Frank Stella.
Pierson assembles evocative words like "paradise" from unmatched
letters taken from old store signs. Ujino's colorful, dynamic,
mixed style manga-like characters, however, are definitely homemade and
For one thing, to really read Ujino's work you have to know kana.
Fellow Mizuma artist Makoto Aida recently pursued a related idea of crossed
linguistic and cultural signals. While in New York last year, Aida formed
a mini-rally of Japanese people carrying signs encouraging locals to "use
Ujino's paintings and sculptures are not so overtly ironic. They
are kitschy totems to the evolution of the Japanese languageits
consumption of Western culture on its own terms.
Mizuma Art Gallery
Until Aug 10. Nakameguro stn (Hibiya, Tokyu Toyoko
lines). 2F Fujiya Bldg, Kamimeguro 1-3-9. Tue-Sat 11am-7pm. Tel: 03-3793-7931.
Photos courtesy of Mizuma