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Installation view of “Change Room” at The Container, Tokyo, including the series “Past Prediction”, “AMG Tile Studies” and other works (2014), collages and drawings on paper, each 11 3/4 x 8 1/4 inches; locker silk-screens on paper, each 25 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches (photo by James Bingham, courtesy of The Container, Tokyo)

TOKYO — Robert Waters is a 40-year-old Canadian conceptual artist who was born and brought up near Toronto. Later he lived in Mexico City, where he explored the rituals, beliefs and symbols associated with colonial and post-colonial Mexico’s variety of Roman Catholicism. There, he made site-specific art installations using packing tape and taught blind people about Duchamp’s theories.

Today he lives in the Basque region of northwestern Spain, an outpost far removed from the larger, more commercially active centers of post-Duchampian, “post-studio practice.” There, he keeps a small studio from which he dispatches his messages to the world about, well, all those subjects an idea-fomenting conceptualist might want to weigh in on.

As it turns out, Waters is probably better off for his relative remoteness, for not only does a certain isolation seem to impose a sense of coherence on the overlapping thematic strains that tend to flow simultaneously through his work, but also because being away from all that heady, art-center action allows him to concentrate on the actual making of his artworks — on the hand-crafting of the objects that give tangible, visible form to his ideas.

Armed with little more than an X-ACTO knife, paper, some computer-printed images and some basic silk-screening supplies, Waters created all the components of Change Room, his current solo exhibition at The Container, a small, alternative-space gallery in Tokyo. They include simple, silk-screened images of the doors of metal lockers, which, magnet-pinned to the gallery’s walls, look convincingly real; homoerotic photo-collages; a small, stand-alone sculpture, part of which has melted (more about that momentarily); and meticulously cut-out patterns on paper, which are related to and repeat certain patterns in his photo-collage images. (In New York, Mark Fox and Kako Ueda are two artists who routinely work with cut paper as fastidiously as Waters has handled this basic material in the works for this show.)

Installation view of “Change Room” at The Container, Tokyo, including the silk-screen “Controlled Negation” in the foreground (2014), collage and silk-screen on paper, 39 1/4 x 27 1/2 inches (photo by James Bingham, courtesy of The Container, Tokyo)

Change Room’s themes are the general notions about and images of masculinity that circulate in Western society and inform what it means to “look and act like a man.” Another of its other big subjects is physical transformation.

“I’ve been thinking about these topics for a long time but only recently have I tried to address them through art,” Waters told me in a telephone interview, just before I saw his Tokyo exhibition. “In such a tiny space, I could only touch upon a few of the themes that interest me in relation to masculinity and change. I tried to bring them together here.” The exhibition’s venue, The Container, is literally a half-size shipping-container replica installed in a hair salon in Kami-Meguro, a quietly hip neighborhood in southwestern Tokyo.

Robert Waters, “Past Prediction #1” (2014), mixed media on paper, 11 3/4 x 8 1/4 inches (photo by Vanessa Franklin, courtesy of The Container, Tokyo)

In the past, Waters has addressed some other big subjects. In 2009, at a former Roman Catholic convent in Mexico City, he presented an exhibition that featured finely crafted objects and manipulated reproductions of Renaissance paintings of biblical themes. Those works subtly commented on the character of Mexican Catholics’ belief in certain enduring myths of their religion, their deference to the unelected, male leaders of their church, and the ways in which, over time, these same believers had taken certain aspects of Roman Catholic theology and iconography, and adapted them to suit their local traditions. For example, Waters examined the function and appearance of Mexican retablos, traditional folk art images that are used to thank saints for their benevolence or to ask them for protection.

Like other postmodernist artists, Waters’ essential art-making gesture is that of appropriating subject matter from one context and placing it in an unexpected, different setting, thereby creating new contexts in which subjects can and must be considered.

Change Room, the title of his Tokyo exhibition, is a play on “changing room,” that towel-snapping gym or sports-club bastion of testosterone and musky odors, where real men undress together and let it all hang out on their way to the playing fields and game courts, where masculinity is measured in terms of athletic prowess. Waters is less interested in the locker room or changing room as a physical place than he is in this semi-public space as a social-cultural environment or even as a kind of mindset according to which notions are nurtured about how men should behave in the company of other men.

Robert Waters, “Natural Selection” (2014), polyester scarf, real bananas, 19 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches (photo by Vanessa Franklin, courtesy of The Container, Tokyo)

However, in Change Room, it is not actual men dressing and undressing who are on display, but rather a collection of art objects, all of which, in various ways, allude to processes of change or transformation, from one material to another or from one physical state to another. At the same time, in Waters’ locker room, even if only by implication, the men are ogling the men, savoring each other’s forms as aestheticized, idealized objects.

On display, for example, is “Jungle Gym” (2014), a series of silk-screened images of men exercising on metal gym bars in a Mexico City park, based on photographs Waters shot himself. He also presents photos of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures of the naked male body in a series of photo-collages he calls “Past Prediction” (2014). These images refer to the athleticism represented in “Jungle Gym” and to idealized depictions of the male body in classical Western art.

Robert Waters, “Past Prediction #5” (2014), mixed media on paper, 11 3/4 x 8 1/4 inches (photo by Vanessa Franklin, courtesy of The Container, Tokyo)

Waters’ “Past Prediction” images recall the many thousands of photos of naked or nearly naked musclemen that were produced by the Athletic Model Guild. Founded in Los Angeles in 1945, AMG published and sold photographs of male bodybuilders, and also published a magazine, Physique Pictorial. In “Past Prediction,” Waters places his Greek and Roman nudes in the same shower stalls in which AMG’s hunks once posed. In these pictures, the presence of classical Western figures serves as a reference to men’s bodies engaged in athletic performance and, through such activity, to the body’s production of sweat, another theme of several works in the exhibition.

Robert Waters, “AMG Tile Grid #3” (2014), white pencil on inkjet print on paper, 11 3/4 x 8 1/4 inches (photo by Vanessa Franklin, courtesy of The Container, Tokyo)

Waters likes to produce his works in series, and the themes of those on view in Change Room — the male body and athleticism; athletic activity and sweating; sweat and its evaporation — overlap and refer to each other. Insofar as their subjects are interrelated, Waters’ various works all allude to autopoiesis, a scientific concept in which he is especially interested. It is a term derived from the Greek by the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in the 1970s. They used it to refer to a living system that is capable of reproducing and maintaining itself, the best example of which is biological cells. As Waters sees it, the various themes that serve as starting points for his artworks or that later emerge from them form something of an intellectual-aesthetic system, in which one idea naturally leads to and overlaps with a related one.

In Change Room, Waters also presents two sculptural works, both of which refer to physical transformation. “Resistance” (2014) is a pair of bodybuilder’s dumbbells, whose bars are made of bone-colored resin. The weights on each end of the bars are — or were, since they melted on the exhibition’s opening night — made from the artist’s own frozen sweat. Those weights evaporated, just as sweat evaporates off the surface of the human body, leaving no trace.

Robert Waters, “Resistance” (2014), bone-colored resin bars and frozen-sweat weights, 13 3/4 x 7 x 7 inches (photo by Vanessa Franklin, courtesy of The Container, Tokyo)

A second sculptural work, “Natural Selection” (2014), consists of a polyester scarf draped over a bunch of fresh bananas. On the scarf is a photographic image of the American actor Lex Barker (1919-1973) in his movie role as Tarzan of the Apes, along with Cheeta, his companion chimpanzee. Barker began appearing in Hollywood’s Tarzan films in the late 1940s, following Johnny Weissmuller’s long run in that popular series. During the course of the exhibition, the bananas have ripened and rotted, and the artist’s scarf has served as a shroud for the deteriorating fruit’s remains. In “Natural Selection,” Waters again refers to the theme of physical transformation, while the image on the scarf, which depicts a nearly naked male figure, evokes the homoerotic air of the other works on display.

“Natural Selection” also evokes the spirit of one of the best-known, seminal works of conceptual art, which was first presented in a solo exhibition at Indica Gallery, in London, in 1966. That was Yoko Ono’s “Apple,” in which the Japanese-born artist placed a green apple on top of a transparent, acrylic-plastic pedestal, which was marked only by a small brass plaque bearing the word “APPLE.” Similarly, that piece of real fruit was left to decay.

Robert Waters, The sculpture “Resistance,” in the process of melting (2014), bone-colored resin bars and frozen-sweat weights, 13 3/4 x 7 x 7 inches (photo by Robert Waters)

In Waters’ current exhibition, as in earlier presentations of his art, various ideas or mere suggestions of ideas float freely among and cross-pollinate the works on view. “I don’t want to be too obvious or heavy-handed about getting my thoughts across,” he said. “I don’t want to be polemical. I’m not pushing any agenda.”

Instead, Waters’ works invite viewers to enter a zone of observation and contemplation, and to consider the multiple themes that emerge from the artist’s re-examination of his source material. Waters has also noted, unsurprisingly, “I think that, often, the conversations that result from someone’s aesthetic experience can be more meaningful than the art itself. I do concentrate on the development and production of my individual artworks but often I’m more interested in the relationships that are generated between artworks in the same exhibition.”

The Exhibition “Change Room” at The Container, in Tokyo, including the melting-sweat sculpture, “Resistance,” on table in foreground (2014) (photo by Vanessa Franklin, courtesy of The Container, Tokyo)

As much as any of the works on view, it is that open-ended concept of ideas emerging, crisscrossing and evolving — in effect, transforming themselves — that lies at the heart of Waters’ Change Room. It’s a gentle notion, too, one that has wafted all the way from the Basque countryside to the Japanese capital, where it has found a temporary home in a most unusual venue.

Robert Waters’ Change Room continues at The Container (Hills Daikanyama 1-8-30, Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo) through November 16.

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