While it is not uncommon for museums to invite contemporary artists to create new work inspired by pieces from their permanent collections, this premise was particularly fitting for Tabaimo due to her deep interest in the Japanese artistic concept of utsushi. Without a linguistic counterpart in English, utsushi could be described as “reproduction” or “copy,” though they only cover a portion of what utsushi means. When a work is said to have achieved “true” utsushi, it imbues the essence or spirit of the original artwork without literal reproduction.
Crow (2016) appears on a mustard yellow corner wall that has been modified and expanded to look like a trifold. When the animated projection of what looks like gold leafed surface materializes, it refers to the panels of a 17th century Japanese folding standing screen that Tabaimo studied in the Seattle Art Museum. However, both Chirping and Crow are an aesthetic departure from Tabaimo’s signature ukiyo-e-style video work. Without understanding which specific works Tabaimo is referencing, these pieces risk feeling out of place. But after spending some time in the show, even without didactic explanation of the works’ origins, one may begin to deduce that, unlike previous works in which strange events happen within the world she has created through the narrative of her videos, these pieces are categorically different: they activate the entirety of the object represented. The crows in Crow do not just fly in and out of the frame of the 17th century Japanese screen, but by their movement, the screen as an object becomes, even for a moment, disturbed. The butterflies and dragonflies in Chirping and the crows in Crow all refuse arrival—as they vanish or fly away, their elusiveness gives the impression that the act of looking triggers their dispersal. Tabaimo seems to suggest that neither she nor these cultural artifacts can be pinned down.
The smallest and perhaps humblest piece was also the most revealing in the whole exhibition: Shinju Trail (2018). The word shinju means “double suicide” in Japanese, and is used to refer to the suicide of lovers who are unable to live out their affections due to social or familial conventions and duty. In Shinju Trail, a string emerges from the center of the composition and divides the plane in two, which serves as the horizon line as well as the string of an instrument. A hand emerges in front of the line, and plucks the string, emitting an authoritative base note, as if to set the story in motion. The hand disappears, then what looks like feet as well as two intertwining figures emerge in and out of the line. Several scenes are shown: an outdoor plain with a glazing sun where plants grow; an exterior of a traditional Japanese house; a butterfly in a cage. In this video, repetitive motifs from her exhibition come together in one. Though still abstract and mysterious, rather than denying the viewer through its subjects turning away, Tabaimo illustrates a sort of transformation and a cycle of life. The pared down, black and white line drawing adds to its more poetic and honest feeling, as if they were a look into the private inner world of Tabaimo.
Tabaimo: Clue to Utsushi
James Cohan Gallery
January 13–February 25, 2018