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Montreal
Tammer El-Sheikh
Ai Ikeda at Calaboose
May 09, 2018

Chris Kraus opens her book Where Art Belongs with an account of a short-lived LA recording studio cum gallery called Tiny Creatures. She pauses on a manifesto penned by its founder in which the gallery is described as an “instrument of communication” that “refuses to be big, aiming instead for change in tiny ways.” Danica Pinteric and Garrett Lockhart, founders of the even tinier Calaboose,share this conviction about where art belongs. For Les temps mutants, their exhibition of Ai Ikeda’s paintings and ceramics, the space reads more like a habitat than a gallery.



Ai Ikeda, Mutated Apple, 2018, glazed earthenware (photo: Edwin Isford)

With the garage door opened on a rainy day, Ikeda’s brightly coloured salamanders, frogs, and fungi are at home on the gallery’s sweaty concrete walls – a rejoinder to the deadening sterility of bigger museum spaces. With the door closed, the gallery looks sinister, like a bunker or a creepy tinkerer’s hideout, and Ikeda’s works reveal their darker side. The mushrooms and salamanders are locked in a death-stare across the room, and there are greedy stacks of “radiated” ceramic coins, mutant apples, and vaguely phallic sculptures lurking in corners, in a boarded-up window, and overhead in a ceiling hole.

Ikeda’s works respond to a rich history of Japanese art, with references to manga caricatures from 12th and 13th Century scrolls, the experimental films of Shuji Terayama, the genital gardens of Neo-Dadaist Tetsumi Kudo, and the “superflat” aesthetic of Takashi Murakami. More urgently, the exhibition relays the aftershock of a history of Japanese nuclear disasters from Nagasaki and Hiroshima to the Fukushima meltdown of 2011. For Ikeda, who emigrated to Canada from her hometown of Nara a few years later in 2013, “nuclear anxiety” is the motive force behind the show. Her works are imaginative projections into the gaps left by “three invisibilities of Japanese nuclear culture”: the invisibility of radiation, the invisibility of its impacts resulting from state secrecy laws, and the invisibility of Japan’s mass-denial of the extent of Fukushima’s damage. The figure/ground toggling in her paintings restores a depth of meaning to the surfaces of Japanese visual and political culture in the post-Fukushima era.



Ai Ikeda, Mutation Series #4, 2017, acrylic on canvas (photo: Edwin Isford)

In Mutation Series #1 we are introduced to the reluctant heroine of Ikeda’s narrative. An axolotl or Mexican salamander is shown peering out of an orb with beady eyes. The tiny neotenic creature is well chosen for Ikeda’s world, evoking the cuteness of the kawaii style and the menace of congenital disorders caused by radiation. Unique among salamanders for remaining gilled and aquatic and not undergoing metamorphosis, the axolotl is a symbol of arrested development. As it lurches forward, ahead of a receding Earth and a smudged yellow moon, planetary and embryonic scales are merged to convey the scope of Ikeda’s environmental concern. In the show’s next paintings, the creature reappears in a hermaphroditic origin myth, resolved finally under the sign of the female. In Mutation Series #3 and #4 the axolotl encounters a pair of mammals with goofy sex organs for noses in a mountain-scape, and then morphs into a mature amphibian in a pink and green acrylic dreamscape at the front of the gallery. A tally of gendered signs in this picture (the egg cradled in the salamander’s tail, its fallopian tube-shaped legs, and a yawning clam shell in front of its nose), and in a facing one of a manga frog hoisting a bent nail into a vaginal opening on the horizon, tips the exhibition’s phallocentric balance. For the moment, the powers of care and nurturing win out over those of industry and violence. Nevertheless, one gets the sense that this fight is not over, and the aesthetic resolution Ikeda achieves is harder to find in a wider world marked by shrinking ice caps, population explosion, mass extinctions, and petrochemical and nuclear waste.

Ikeda’s rendering of an age of environmental disasters coincides with the so-called “Anthropocene epoch,” beginning with Hiroshima and Nagasaki and marching forward into our increasingly uncertain times. According to theorist Heather Davis, one thing art can do under these circumstances is challenge the catastrophic belief that natural and cultural objects are "distinct from their processes of emergence and decay.” Galleries can help with this too. After just under a year and only three shows, Calaboose is set to close at the end of May. The space will be turned into an industrial fridge for a new St. Henri restaurant. As Pinteric and Lockhart consider its next shape, their exhibition of Ikeda’s paean to mutants is especially fitting.


Ai Ikeda: Les temps mutants continues until May 24.
Calaboose: http://calaboose.info/
The gallery is accessible.


Tammer El-Sheikh is a writer and teacher based in Montreal. His art criticism has appeared in Parachute, Canadian Art, ETC and C Magazine.

 

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