Exhibition: Fuchu Biennial

There is a philosophical conundrum that runs: "If a tree falls in a forest with no one to hear it, does it make a sound?"

The point being that some qualities—solidity, extension, motion, number, figure—are supposed to exist independent of perception, while others, the so-called "secondary qualities"—sound, smell, taste, and color—clearly depend on someone to sense them, and are therefore less fixed and more subjective.

This is one of the aspects of art explored by the fourth Fuchu Biennial, which presents young artists from the Tama area of Western Tokyo. Subtitled True Colors, the exhibition features art dealing with color, or, in the case of the puzzling installations of Yosuke Amemiya, its opposite—darkness.

It is ironic that this exhibition celebrating color should be held in one of the drabbest areas of suburban Tokyo. Fuchu City is home to vast public housing schemes, Japanese military bases and an agricultural university. A museum curator confided that the local people are not the sort who warm easily to contemporary art. But this is one of the reasons that color was chosen as the theme for the show—it has an immediacy and simplicity that less sophisticated visitors or local children might enjoy.

Certainly, Tsutomu Mutoh’s light installations have an accessible enjoyableness that fits this brief. Optical Tone (2007-08), which comprises colored walls and three mobile LED globes on poles that change color as visitors rock them back and forth, highlights the mercurial character of light and color, and suggests their diurnal changeability—but the interactive element also makes it great fun for bratty kids.

This is in sharp contrast to the subtle color field paintings of Sei Imazawa, which, despite having a delicate charm, make wallpaper seem exciting. This kind of contemporary art is one reason why public museums struggle to attract the average citizen. Yutaka Watanabe's garish paintings are another. While energetic and intriguing, the artist's declared intention is to create "an enormous ambiguous mass" and he definitely succeeds.

More artistically attractive and with an appeal that straddles tentative local visitor and art cognoscenti alike are the sensuous, satin dye paintings of Kentaro Yokouchi, which are shown here under lighting slowly alternating between bright and dark. Created using a technique of adding paint and dye and then removing it to leave faint motifs, blurred colors, and evocative traces and stains, these works give the more solid and fixed qualities of form and shape the same fleeting nature as light-dependent color.

Although color is an important factor in Takafumi Hara's acrylic paintings, these essentially stem from that other "secondary quality": sound. Hara takes oral history or words overheard out of context, then paints what the story or disembodied phrase suggests, printing the words on the canvas as well.

The results emphasize the degree to which "secondary qualities" rely on the perceiver for their existence, and how original stimuli can be distorted, changed or intensified in very subjective ways. The Voices Have Been Fade out… (2008), a massive work measuring 227cm by 728cm, was apparently inspired by the voices of small children calling for their parents. The words "Mama" and "Papa" dot a canvas that shows a large, melting candle, embedded with the figures and heads of children, surrounded by a encroaching a pack of ebony wolves with flaxen-colored eyes. This suggests that the "falling trees" in Hara's aural forest make a surprisingly sinister sound.
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