BY Rachel Withers in Reviews | 03 MAR 98
Featured in
Issue 39

Tomoko Takahashi

BY Rachel Withers in Reviews | 03 MAR 98

In the days when Beaconsfield was a school for the children of Victorian Lambeth's poor, any pupil foolhardy enough to question the irrevocable laws of the divinely ordered universe, or the immutable rules of grammar, would doubtless have had the devilry knocked out of them in no uncertain fashion. So there's poetic justice in seeing Tomoko Takahashi's work sited there: a gentle conceptual installation that's licensed to please, focused on an unprejudiced exploration of classification, selection and systems ordering and their relation to aesthetic pleasure.

Until now, Takahashi's work has largely relied on the retrieval and redeployment of pre-existing materials. In Company Deal (1997) she swamped a London marketing consultancy's offices with six weeks' worth of its own refuse, generating a chaotic tableau of obsolete office equipment, mouldy pizza boxes and hundreds of sheets of A4, all visible text painstakingly deleted with black felt-tip. For East International this year she resurrected the detritus that had been shuffled into storage for Norwich School of Art's Degree show and East itself, and piled it all back into two small rooms. (Just the stuff, of course, to please tabloid editors: 'Taxpayers-money-spent-on-load-of-junk' squealed the Mail, the Express et al. when she won East's £5,000 prize.)

Amidst this recycling process, Takahashi has arguably been caught on the horns of a particular dilemma. Prong number one is the tactic of making paradoxical arrangements that resist as absolutely as possible the imposition of recognisable order and legible, pattern-making gesture (à la Laurie Parsons). Such an approach would have the benefit of a clear-cut conceptual end; espousing a routine scepticism about self-expression and originality, it would lead to a fashionably intransigent product (from the spectator's point of view) and its author certainly couldn't be accused of naivety. The downside is that it's been done until the pips squeak and is in danger of becoming an utterly tedious formula.

Prong two is to eschew irritatingly clever paradox, embrace artifice and get stuck into the business of wholeheartedly arranging stuff - a tactic that Takahashi has chosen to follow. By committing herself more thoroughly to obvious intervention, she gives herself greater leeway for wit, complexity and imaginative play. It remains possible to indulge the simple pleasure of concentrating on particular bits of her work and flipping them to and fro, duck-rabbit style, from heap to random matter, to carefully orchestrated arrangement, and back. But overall the work conveys a cheerful celebration of human organising tendencies, not a half-baked anarchic critique. (And there's an interesting thing: what makes a pile of cardboard boxes - for instance - seem cheerful?).

Beaconsfield has the (dis)advantage of being more or less devoid of clutter. This has compelled Takahashi to evolve a fresh rationale for assembling raw material. The presence of 36 power sockets set into the curiously stepped surface of the gallery's wooden floor has prompted the installation of a live and whirring appliance-fest: radios TVs, computers, printers, fans, videos, projectors are dotted all over the floor, amongst many miles of tangled flex, upturned buckets of screws, boxes of washers, dead batteries and other arbitrary odds-and-sods. The material has been lent by Takahashi's friends, thus testifying to peoples' - or more precisely blokes' - hoarding habits. ('That's my yoghurt maker' declares one visitor with pride in his voice.) 'None of this is rubbish', Takahashi insists. But then, what is rubbish? (Maybe, following Nelson Goodman, one should really ask 'when is rubbish?', or even 'where is rubbish?'). Takahashi's work lucidly demonstrates that the meaning of an erratically clattering record player, or a clutch of worn-down scrubbing brushes, or a disabled black and white TV, is its use in the language. Viewed from above, the installation is like fantasy urban planning - Broadacre gone loopy. It's kind of modular, too, with clearly designated departments: the cleaning depot, the audio section, and a computer lab stocked with items that might have represented the white heat of technology in the days when Tony Benn was Minister for Industry.

Comment has been made on the supposed analogies between Takahashi's practice and musical composition: downstairs there is a tentative installation charting the evolution of a collaborative work whose accompanying attractive, rather romantic piano music was developed by Neil Quinton from forms contained in a photographic assemblage by Takahashi. Frankly, the exercise indicates that she is better off working on her own. The musical comparison is inappropriate: it mistakes a source of inspiration for some kind of explanation. Her language game is too detailed, too literal to be analogous with music. (Her installations usually feature a signature pile of cigarette butts and there is no way a tune can tell you 'I smoked my way through 30 packets of Marlboro getting this bugger off the ground'.) The work is actually more like nonsense verse - Takahashi endows inanimate objects with personalities, incites dishes to run away with spoons. While working on the piece for a pre-decided period of three weeks, Takahashi slept on site, and the shadow of her alarm clock on the wall has been adorned with exuberantly painted 'ringing bell' cartoon zigzags. It's one of the most enjoyable details in the show - an entirely gratuitous, confident landmark in a pleasantly green valley of silliness.