The Artist in Wolf’s Clothing

Events - September 7th, 2009


by Owen Schaefer

Show: Konoike Tomoko: Intertraveller (to Sep 27)
Gallery: Opera City Art Gallery (Hatsudai Station)
Hours: 11am–7pm (Fri & Sat to 8pm, closed Mon) Admission: ¥1,000
Tel: 03-5353-0756

It’s not every day that you go to an exhibition that comes with a health warning.

Before purchasing a ticket to enter Tomoko Konoike’s Inter-traveller show, potential visitors will be asked to read a small sign which warns that the show involves stooping and bending, makes use of spinning lights and strong smells, and, for those who might be allergic, involves some generous use of animal fur—humanely acquired, I am assured. But for those willing to risk the ducking and sneezing,  Inter-traveller definitely has its rewards.

Hikers will spot the ‘0 km’ signpost at the entrance, and the traveler part of the title becomes clear— Konoike’s show is a journey; a hike, thousands of kilometers long, through the magma, metal, and magnetism of the earth itself—which becomes interchangeable at times with the human heart in Konoike’s universe.

Konoike is a sketch-artist and painter at heart, and the kind that can remind you of the impact drawing and painting can have. But her work also goes far beyond the canvas to include animation, sculpture, and large installations.

Over the past few years, Konoike’s work has been growing in just about every way imaginable. Her fame has grown in Japan and abroad, and the scope of what her work attempts to cover is virtually boundless—from the nature of imagination to the creation of the universe. Likewise, her shows seem to be getting larger and more complex.

Inter-traveller establishes its imagery early on, in a spiral arrangement of sketches from one of Konoike’s early art books called Mimio. The book’s titular character is a furry, faceless creature one might easily expect to find hanging from a cellphone strap, but rather than being an appeal to cuteculture, Mimio’s story works as a pseudo folk-tale establishing the ideas that will arise again and again throughout the works to come.

Konoike has spent much of her career building a universe populated with an entire lexicon of recurrent imagery and supernatural beings, including a torso-less girl with red shoes, packs of six-legged wolves, a variety of insects, and storms of wind-borne daggers. Her imagery is bold and feral, wintery and primeval, and in no small measure influenced by her Akita prefecture roots.

Featured heavily in the gallery literature, the artist’s painted fusama—the sliding paper doors used in houses and temples—are particularly striking. Hidden Mountain, a mountain with the superimposed face of a woman or girl, works as entrance to the underground, and on other doors, wolves and moths sprout human legs. Doors like these seem to enclose hidden worlds or guard the unseen.

But what makes Inter-traveller really shine is that it succeeds in making even older works feel as though they were always intended to be seen here. It operates as a single coherent installation, flowing seamlessly from its storybook opening to its dramatic conclusion—a room-sized installation that may quite literally leave you dizzy.

And all of this plays into what Konoike is really asking of the viewer: to have an experience, and not merely to navel-gaze within the white confines of a gallery. She asks audiences to smell and hear her work, and in some cases even to touch. One gets the sense that it is only the sensibilities of the gallery that keep her from having us physically crawl into rooms, or push through the branches of trees to see a work. Above all else, Inter-traveller seeks to stir the sleeping wolf-like creature inside, and send it out into the world to live.