by Owen Schaefer
Omotesando’s Rat Hole gallery is more of a fish bowl than a darkened crack in the wall. As you head down the stairs into its outdoor courtyard, the gallery’s sterile main room is already visible through a wall of windows, seemingly built for the metallic glint of Isa Genzken’s exhibition, Oil XV / XVI.
While this exhibition is the artist’s first solo show in Tokyo, Tokyoites might already be familiar with her oversized rose sculpture permanently on display at Roppongi Hills, which vies with Tokyo Tower for its piece of the city skyline. Yet the bulk of Genzken’s work is anything but floral. Call it grunge, kitsch or sculptural pastiche, she works with almost any material or any medium to create arrangements that masquerade as casual mash-ups of found objects, but are carefully considered and meticulously planned.
In her installations, the ‘found’ objects that Genzken uses may call to mind issues of consumption and disposable culture, but these associations are incidental at best—after all, one rarely throws away an abandoned space suit. Instead, she gives us aloof suggestions of narrative, an unabashed use of space and almost architectural structure, and occasional humorous touches in a bid to reveal the life behind lifeless objects.
In Oil XV / XVI, one corner of the room is paneled with metal doors, many with incongruous door knockers, coat hangers or useless knobs duct taped on. Photos of floating astronauts hang like pin-up girls, and on the floor two mannequins lie staring upward—one with its visor closed, clad only in foil; the other wrapped in a blanket with its visor open and wisps of greying hair escaping from inside. There is scarcely a full suit between them, and while both mannequins appear to be male, there is a deliberate androgyny that seems to never settle on one side or the other— they lie close together like lovers.
The scene also refuses to settle into a strict science-fiction scenario. Are these stranded space travelers in a foreign world, their equipment boxes raided for the last of the supplies? Are they an astronaut couple dreaming of the sky in a quiet moment together? Are they indoors, outdoors, or in space, where the terms cease to be relevant? The metal doors suggest interior, while the mannequins’ poses suggest the opposite. And with the work occupying a tight corner of the room, the figures seem to stare into the emptiness beyond them. There is an inescapable sense of witnessing a first, or last, moment—as though we are seeing Adam and Eve, or a pair of final survivors.
At the 2007 Venice Biennale, where she was featured in the German pavilion, Genzken included another Oil work in which two astronaut figures floated high above the floor. Beneath them, abandoned suitcases stood like buildings, a collection of skulls stared up from silver plinths, and toy monkeys climbed hopefully toward the sky. It’s tempting to read the works as a scathing denunciation of space exploration, but there is more to consider—in Oil, Genzken is exploring our view of ourselves and what we aspire to become, by looking through the lens of the objects with which we surround ourselves. She finds comedy but also humanity in our castoffs, and leaves the answer of whether Oil depicts a downfall or a redemption just beyond our earthly reach.
Show: Isa Genzken: Oil XV / XVI (to Dec. 27)
Gallery: Rat Hole Gallery (Omotesando station)
Hours: 12pm–8pm (closed Mon)
Photos by Owen Schaefer