Art Review: Muneteru Ujino: Japan Series

By John McGee

Y-SHIRT, 2002, wood, 190x61x12cm
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.

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 wood—fir, 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 distinctly Japanese.

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 katakana pronunciation."

Ujino's paintings and sculptures are not so overtly ironic. They are kitschy totems to the evolution of the Japanese language—its 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 Art Gallery

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438: Modern Paintings of Mongolia
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435: Muneteru Ujino: Japan Series
434: Photography Today 2: Site/Sight
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432: Three Young Artists from Korea
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430: Seoul Pop
429: Dreams & Goals
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417: Masterworks from the Prado Museum
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405: The Art Ahead
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