Ghostly hybrids and uneasy, shifting spaces characterize the hand-drawn animations created by the Japanese artist Tabaimo in her solo show at James Cohan Gallery. DANDAN isn’t a conventional show of animated films. It is comprised of three short video-and-sound installations (the longest is about four-and-a-half minutes long), running on loop and projected on the surfaces of darkly lit rooms which further evoke a sense of haunting. There is also a series of small works (tetege, 2011) using human hair, pigskin, and ink, which underscore Tabaimo’s occupation with the body, but the gallery presents them as auxiliary objects. The real focus is on the videos, and rightly so, because Tabaimo is a master at adapting the visual language of traditional Japanese prints (ukiyo-e) and translating it into multiple dimensions.
It’s a challenge to describe the spaces that she creates. They are new and clever without feeling like a gimmick. In BLOW (2009), a raised floor slopes upward and joins two parallel walls together. The combined surfaces then offer up a dark void projected from the ceiling. It’s a play on the traditional triptych. The viewer must traverse the middle “panel,” from which bubbles seemingly rise from a primordial abyss. Familiar but obscured human anatomies (the muscles of the neck, a spine, etc.) transform into flowers once they touch the walls. This continuum between human and nature—though not necessarily dichotomous terms—is rendered in washy colors outlined by crisp black contours. It is beautiful, but in the context of the two other videos, beauty is something that one must be suspicious of.
Guignorama (2006), projected straight onto the wall to create the illusion of a continuous darkness, contains a similar feeling of genesis, or perhaps a post-apocalyptic return to life. Whereas a sort of New Age spiritualism permeates the arabesque rhythm of BLOW, contorted movements in guignorama evoke violent beginnings with no end. Pink, veiny rivulets float in a black space, becoming hands and feet. They emerge, melt, consume, and thrust into each other in an endless loop. The soundtrack is an intermittent cracking—a machine at work or bones being crunched together.
The influence of ukiyo-e is apparent in Tabaimo’s work, not only in the delineated, flat-colored figures and spaces, but also in the mundane settings that are punctuated by an uncanny occurrence. This afflicted mood is more present in danDAN (2009), where furniture bleeds or melts, growing bulbous mushroom forms. I’m reminded of the pastoral or domestic scenes of Hiroshige, in which the realization that the objects in the space are actually alive contributes to the haunting being depicted. danDAN is also in triptych format. There are three angled panels obliquely set into the corner of the room. The structure suggests an interior in recessed perspective, seen from above or through a window from very far away. The interior of a house is then projected over this space, sliding down from panel to panel so that variegated views of the Japanese home are displayed as paper-like cutouts.
There’s a sense of detachment in Tabaimo’s work, which is the source of its power. While the artist seems to insist on the materiality of her images, she denies the viewer the logic and structure of story and the sensuous fulfillment that narrative might bring. The result is an enigmatic repetition, anxious and relentless. It is a world trapped in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Here, 1945 is an obfuscating presence of loss: heavy and palpable, but unspoken. You notice there’s no speech here. There are only bodies stuck in the process of becoming, or rooms where things could be defined or held more strongly together, but they are not.
~Aldrin Valdez, a writer living in New York.
Images: Tabaimo, BLOW (Installation view), 2009, 3 ' 42 " (loop), video installation; danDAN (Video Still), 2009, 4 ' 34 " (loop), video installation. Courtesy James Cohan Gallery.