Le Magasin, Centre National d’Art Contemporain, Grenoble, France
Carsten Höller’s avid interest in duality harks back to his exhibition ‘One Day One Day’ (2003) at the Färgfabriken in Stockholm, where two works were shown opposite each other and changed every day without the public’s knowledge. His latest exploration, the curated project ‘JAPANCONGO’, juxtaposes works by artists from Japan and from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The pieces are all sourced from the Geneva-based private collection of Italian businessman Jean Pigozzi, who has long been one of Europe’s leading collections of contemporary African art, and who has recently added works by young Japanese artists. Pigozzi and Höller first met in London while the artist was working on The Double Club, a bar-restaurant-disco bisected into Congolese and Western sections. When Pigozzi asked him to curate a show from his collection, Höller saw it as an opportunity to make another artistic statement about doubling. The fact that the exhibition is an artwork as well as a curatorial take on Pigozzi’s collection creates yet another double situation.
Here, Höller presents art works by 16 Congolese artists opposite a diversity of works by 47 Japanese artists, though he has tried to make the exact volume of each group equal. To find an architectural solution for displaying them, Höller created a curved wall on the left-hand side of the gallery to hang the vibrant, richly coloured paintings by the Congolese artists, referencing the way art is sometimes hung on curved walls in African homes. Some of the paintings, largely representational in style, depict vernacular street scenes; others evoke a desire for post-colonial democracy. By contrast, the drawings, paintings and photographs by the Japanese artists, including Erina Matsui, Mayu Daigen, Miho Gorai, Kaori Kobayashi and Tomoko Nagai, are hung on a 40-metre-long straight wall. Their works brim with diversity; some of the paintings are fantastical and executed with a fine, meticulous attention to detail, others reveal the inspirations of popular culture such as manga and animé.
The corridor-like space between the two sides is wider at its entrance and the exit, requiring the visitor to look from left to right to view the works. But it narrows in the middle like a funnel, to enhance the visitor’s sense of the physical space and allowing both sides to be seen simultaneously. Here, Yuko Akasu’s acrylic-on-wood triptych of a red-and-white hot air balloon floating over a landscape where a steam engine rumbles past trees, mushrooms and flowers (Pui Pui Pui, 2004) faces Pathy Tshindele’s acrylic portraits with multiple eyes. Both are bright, vivid and imaginative; the proximity between them enhances the precision and complexity of one versus the art brut style of the other. At the narrowest point, the visitor becomes the missing link between the two walls, with the cultural personalities of Japan and Congo drawing closer but never touching.
The curved wall opens into two circular rooms: The first houses Bodys Isek Kingelez’s cardboard, maquette-like sculptures of cities and Ambroise Ngaimoko (Studio 3Z)’s black-and-white images from the 1970s – a group of women in traditional dress, suited men in a meeting, and young, fashionable people – showing the evolution of Congolese society. The second room contains Jean Depara’s black-and-white photographs, also from the 1970s, of hip couples, stylish women and smart men on a night out, as well as Rigobert Nimi’s sculptures of machinery made from recycled materials. The straight wall leads into a rectangular space showcasing a range of Japanese art, including Nobuyoshi Araki’s erotic photographs, videos by Hirotoshi Iwasaki and Naoyuki Tsuji, and mixed media sculptures by Akiyoshi Mishima and Teppei Kaneuji.
Höller’s deliberate exhibition design emphasizes the tension, and the obvious formal differences, between the two centres of cultural expression. It would be easy to draw conclusions about the reasons for this contrast, but, as Höller says, ‘At the end of the day, it’s not about cultural differences any more but what remains when you subtract one from the other. Hopefully what comes is an understanding about the pure language of contemporary art that is not influenced by where we come from.’
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