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John Harrison

he JAPANCONGO exhibition at Garage, which runs until August the 15th, is German artist, Carsten Holler’s, take on Jean Pigozzi’s collection of Congolese and Japanese contemporary art. Holler has chosen work by 16 Congolese artists which is shown to a counterpoint to works by 47 Japanese artists. The idea of presenting a double exhibition within one exhibition is not new, but usually the term refers to two aspects of one culture, not aspects of completely different cultures, which JAPANCONGO is all about.

The exhibition’s design and installation presents Japan on one side and the Congo on the other, with the walls on which the Japanese pictures are mounted being straight and rectangular, while the Congolese walls are rounded like the breasts of women from that country, as we are reminded of in so many paintings from that ample country. The walls form a spiral at one end. At the narrowest point, the visitor acts as a missing link between the two walls, although really what happens is that the corridor abruptly ends and the visitor is left staring at the non-plussed security guard.

The official blurb says that “there are some astonishing similarities between the Congolese and Japanese works on display”. This is true. The similarities are not on the technique level, that’s for sure. The Japanese are expert technicians, with fine painting and print-making being their hallmark, whereas the Congolese are big at ‘bs’: burlesque, bold, brash and bright, with paintings professionally done to appear to be half-naïve, and half political-poster in style. The exhibition, space, with its twisting walls thus becomes an artwork in itself, with curvy rooms full of trippy Congolese architectural; models and moody photographs.

The Japanese work on display is also full of protest, but it is subtle and, as with all things Japanese, exquisitely performed. There is a print on display showing a Japanese girl revealing her upper leg whilst another girl looks on. Pure pornography! The Japanese try to do expressionism and Hamilton-like collages, but it doesn’t really work; their strongest pieces are their most subtle. Here the Japanese artists show the collapse of Japanese traditional society, and “coming out” from inhibited sexuality is one good way to do that, as Japanese society and inherent sexual inhibitions are one and the same thing.

The Congolese show the regeneration of deep-rooted folk art in strong physical, emotional, almost pagan, works mixed with good-natured anarchism and alcoholism. All of this made me think what a collection of Russian and Irish art might look like? Very drunk, that’s for sure. Perhaps it is easier to come up with a national identity when far from home and viewed by people who don’t understand a hell of a lot about either culture, hmm. Perhaps such an exhibition should be suggested to the curator of the ICA?

As the exhibition space is an exhibition, there is no need to display individual artists’ names alongside each work. This is very irritating. Even the official guide is difficult to interpret to the extent of understanding who did what. But it doesn’t really matter, as most visitors don’t remember artists’ names anyway, unless they are “famous”, and there’s not much chance of that happening with these artists, although the work is great.

On the way in to the vast cavernous space of the Garage, you pass though the large exhibition space of James Turrell. I couldn’t see any of James’s works as this exhibition was closed, apart from a marble boat with an outboard motor attached, floating on an artificial pond with floating fairy lights around it—which did make me think a bit. I am not quite sure what about; my thoughts were abstract. I shall reserve judgement on James’s work until I return and see the whole show.

The exhibition runs to the 20th August 2011
Garage Centre of Contemporary Culture
19A Ulitsa Obraztsova Moscow
Tel (+7 495) 645-05-20

I thoroughly recommend a visit to JAPANCONGO, if only for a chance of getting blown out of Russian culture for few hours, by a double whammy of Japanese and Congolese art. Really!

Fifteen Congolese artists are displayed including the talents of Peter Bodo, Chéri Samba, Pathy Tshindele, Jean Depara, Cheik Ledy and Bodys Isek Kingelez. An equal number of Japanese artists will also be displayed with works from Natsumi Nagao, Nobuyoshi Araki, Akihiro Higuchi, Kazuna Taguchi, Kaneuji Teppei, Hiroki Tsukuda and Keiichi Tanaami.

JAPANCONGO was first exhibited in France at Le Magasin in Grenoble. It will travel to Russia at The Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture of Moscow in summer 2011 and Italy at the Palazzo Reale-CIMAC of Milan in September 2011.

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