Sunday, 22 June 2014

Noguchi Tetsuya – another look at 'samurai'

Talking Head 2010
All the pictures in this post are of works by
Noguchi, unless otherwise stated.

Sometimes you see an exhibition that strikes such a deep chord that you say to yourself, 'Yes! This is what art is about!' Rare though this may be, it's even rarer with contemporary art, which was why it was especially refreshing to see Noguchi Tetsuya's one-man show at the Asahi Villa in Oyamazaki – just outside Kyoto.

Not only is the museum (a 1930's villa and garden overlooking the battlefield of Oyamazaki, where Toyotomi Hideyoshi beat the rebellious Akechi Mitsuhide, thus stamping his claim as contending heir to Oda Nobunaga's position) worth seeing in itself, but the exhibition has enough to satisfy anyone with a spark of soul (especially if their childhood contained a healthy dose of model building and painting up the kind of miniature figures used in war games and fantasy role playing games).

Work by Tenmouya Hisashi - used as an
advertisement for the 2006 World Cup
Noguchi, a generation younger than artists such as Yamaguchi Akira and Tenmouya Hisashi, who also have a strong link with historical imagery in their work, unrepentantly takes 'samurai' as his theme, with a refreshing outlook that combines humour and sensitivity, inviting the viewer to share and enjoy his passions, presenting snapshots from an alternative historical narrative that is, at times, so convincing that you are almost fooled into believing it's true. He works with highly detailed figures cast in resign, dressed in leather, cloth and metal(?), as well as painting in a reproduction style, throwing in his own anachronisms that make it more than simply an exercise in model making.

The first thing that strikes the visitor is the incredible degree of skill displayed in the works. The craftsmanship shows a loving attention to detail which, in itself, is more than enough to hold the viewer's attention. This is displayed equally in the paintings, facsimile pages from fictional historical reference works, and in fact, in every aspect of  his finished works.

Chanel Samurai 2009

Some of his work drew attention in the glossy magazines a few years ago because of his collaboration with Chanel - I saw the photos of the models wearing armor stamped with the Chanel symbol, and assumed, because of the detail, that they were, in fact, actual people wearing the armor. Even later on, I'm not sure if I had realised that those photographs were of models, but I certainly assumed that the armour was life size – I was wrong, and this was a pleasant surprise. They worked far better as models (up to about 30 inches high, seated, with many smaller than that) than they would have done full size, inviting both closer examination and a kind of respect and fascination that automatically seems to attach itself to the miniature.

Portrait of an Armoured Warrior
Taking the Field by Bicycle

But all this would be mere model making if it was not imbued with a charm and wit that added to the superb craftsmanship: samurai with propellers on their helmets, jetpacks on their backs and giant robots, all rendered as if they came from the 16th century, which manages to keep the charm and makes it almost believable. Other works aimed at different interstices of past and present, involving fashion, technology and identity.

None Shall Speak 2008

Part of the reason this works is because the samurai remains such present figure in modern Japanese culture, reconfigured to match each new generation. This reinvention, the constant stream of dramas, books, manga, magazines, anime and games which feature samurai, means that they retain a relevance which I would be hard put to find an equivalent for in Britain or the USA. Certainly, some people find it passé, I'm sure, but generations of children are brought up with this as part of their contemporary culture, the same way as I had Star Wars and Judge Dredd in my teenage years.

Samurai Stance 2013

This, I think, is the point. The artist has successfully taken the interests he had as a child, and transformed them without losing the intensity of meaning that they have when you are young; in his case, that intensity is continued through the strength and mastery of his craftsmanship, bringing them into the adult sphere in a way that is neither arch nor mocking. He does not denigrate or hero-worship, but treats his subjects with an interest and respect that brings us closer, perhaps, to seeing ourselves.

you ever get the chance, this is one artist whose works I thoroughly recommend you see.