Interview: Satoru Watanabe

Few of us can understand why the Taleban in Afghanistan are destroying the awe-inspiring giant Buddhist statues at Bamiyan instead of turning them into profitable tourist sites generating millions through T-shirt and other souvenir sales. Possibly someone who does is the 33-year-old Japanese artist, Satoru Watanabe, whose own iconoclastic exhibition of art is on display at the Mitaka City Arts Center.

Watanabe’s most characteristic style uses a painstaking masking method that borders on the mind numbingly repetitive acts of autism. Applying thousands of tiny white dot stickers to a canvas, he then paints a picture over it, usually of a famous sightseeing spot, such as Loch Ness or Machu Picchu. After this the dots are removed, creating a softening effect, like a weakly printed image. Sometimes the dots are reassembled onto a new canvas to create an additional work. Both works, however, end up with a texture that seems artificial while it is in fact highly hand-crafted.

An excellent example of this is his Taj Mahal (2000). The image reconstructed from the dots has been assembled in a freer way so that it seems to fold and undulate like a piece of printed cloth, as if it were a souvenir T-shirt. Watanabe admits that his intent is ironic referring to the way these sites are viewed as "Image consumption."

A big influence on his work were the three years he spent studying at Glasgow's prestigious School of Art.

"I live in Osaka. People there tend to be a little bit like Glaswegians. One day, I saw some families on Sauchiehall Street. A guy shouted 'Get your fucking arse in the car.' It sounded beautiful to me."
But living in post industrial Britain made him aware of the whole heritage aspect of the economy.
"My own existence as a student abroad seemed a little surreal," the 33-year-old artist confesses. "Studying art at art school was like an optional tour. In the London area, there were schools with programs set up especially for Japanese students and it seemed to me that studying abroad was becoming another form of consumption."
So, in a sense, Watanabe's work serves as the antidote to the caricature of the camera-happy Japanese tourist. Instead of clumping around the World, guidebook in hand, making appreciative noises at each World heritage site or famous building, Watanabe stays at home and uses photographs to paint his irreverent images. Nothing makes this more clear than his triptych Wrecked/ Pissed/ Stoned (1999), in which the latter two slang words are left to stand out from the dotted surface of pictures representing Niagara Falls and the Pyramids. This seems to suggest that sightseeing is just another way of getting high.

Using a simpler masking technique, his message is equally clear in the awkwardly titled Healing Journey to Nepal Search for Himalayan Power 129,000-198,000 Yen (2000), in which the title, taken from a travel advertisement, is scrawled, graffiti-like against the background of the Himalayas. In Untitled Landscape Painting (1999) the title practically blots out the landscape itself so that it is not only anonymous but also unrecognizable. These works, which consume a lot less time than his dot pictures, are, however, less artistically successful. The conceptual element dominates and the artist’s intent is all too obvious.

A good artistic concept is like electricity. By itself it is merely capable of a momentary shock. Combined with other artistic elements, however, it powers the machine. This is why Watanabe's dot art works are the only ones worth bothering about at this exhibition. Showing confident brushstrokes and excellent composition and tones, works like Matterhorn (2000) or Beamed in and Beamed out (1999), a set of two depicting the famous facade of the British Museum, oscillate between texture and visual paradigm, creating a surreal but beautiful effect.

Watanabe is aware of the final irony of his work. All that he has succeeded in doing has been to refresh and repackage these definitive images.

"My style must be just a new design for consumption – products for sale," he comments. 
Now if only the iconoclasm of the Taleban were so harmless.

Japan Times
17th March, 2001

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