Tabaimo, “Shinju Trail” (2018), single channel video installation with audio and custom frame, 14 1/2 x 54 1/4 inches, running time: 4 min. 10 sec. (all images courtesy James Cohan Gallery)

I would like to get two minor complaints out of the way before I start. The first is that I wish there were benches placed in front of every video, five in all. (Benches were provided for only two videos.) The second is that there should have been folding screens separating the three video projections in the main gallery into three discrete areas. I believe these two additions would have improved the experience of the five videos in the exhibition, Tabaimo: Clue to Utsushi at James Cohan (January 13 – February 25, 2018).

According to the gallery press release, four of the videos in the current exhibition were “previously presented in her 2016 show Utsushi Utsushi at the Seattle Art Museum.” For that show, Tabaimo made the four works in response to pieces in the museum’s collection: two hanging scrolls from the Kano School (1843) depicting dragonflies and butterflies; a woodcut, “Moon Viewing Point,” by Utagawa Hiroshige from his series, One Hundred Famous views of Edo (1857); a pair of round-corner wood-hinged cabinets from the 16th century; and a pair of early 17th-century folding screens filled with crows on a gold leaf ground.

These works were made in Japan at a time when it had extremely limited contact with other nations, mostly for trading purposes, and banned its citizens from leaving the country (1603-1868). While it is not necessary to know this about the videos, it does help. Their origins are in an aesthetic and culture that is very different from ours, and Tabaimo is not interested in dumbing it down or turning it into entertainment for a Western audience. The gallery press release also states:

The nearest English translation of utsushi is “copy” or “reproduction” but utsushi surpasses either. True utsushi simultaneously captures the essentialness and spirit of an existing work but avoids exact reproduction. Utsushi insists on its own originality but acquires a deeper significance through proximity to an archetype. This expectation allows a new generation of artists to manifest their own creativity while learning from past masters. Initially skeptical of utsushi as an aesthetic practice, Tabaimo has come to regard it as an important binding agent, connecting artists and their ideas across long spans of time. She also employs utsushi to probe discourses of originality/authenticity and viewer discernment.

Tabaimo, “Two” (2016), single channel video installation with audio, running time: 3 min. 55 sec., dimensions variable (installation view)

This press release was written for the Western viewer who knows enough about postmodern theories and criticism to understand what is meant by “discourses of originality/authenticity and viewer discernment,” but I have issues with the idea that Tabaimo is probing them, a statement that makes her seem like a proctologist.

Tabaimo deserves a better presentation of her work, is all I am saying.

Her videos, none of which are much longer than ten minutes, are about looking, memory, time passing, one’s relationship to history, to the space one inhabits, to the myths and fictions a culture holds dear, and lots else.

The butterflies and dragonflies in the two-channel video “Chirping” (2016) have been transposed from the original scrolls onto copies, but all the writing and the artist’s seal have been removed from the transferred images. Over the course of less than eight minutes, some of the butterflies and dragonflies fly away; others begin dripping a rivulet of color down the scroll. (The Kano school combined Chinese brushwork, which was largely done with black ink, with Japanese interest in color and pattern). Wings flutter, offspring scatter, and the sheet darkens as it slowly empties. And then slowly the sheet fills up again, and the sequence is repeated. Time-based video replaces painting’s timeless stillness, reminding viewers that real time never stops pulling us into the future. The scrolls have outlasted their subjects. Which is more substantial – the dragons and butterflies or the shadows they left behind, in the form of art?

“Tabaimo: Clue to Utsushi” at James Cohan Gallery (installation view)

In ”Obscuring Moon” (2016), which is based on the Hiroshige woodcut, Tabaimo’s video is projected onto a support that extends out into the room, conforming to the open doorway depicted in the video, revealing an open, roofed porch or viewing area. There is walkway alongside the open doorway, where two ceramic decanters and a bowl sit.

In Hiroshige’s print, a woman’s shadow is cast onto a narrow section of the paper panels visible on the door to the left, which has been slid open. This was one of Hiroshige’s talents: his framing of a scene, which in this case is the moon and all the incidental activity and elements around it. Essentially, we are outside, looking into a partially closed room, which has a view of the ocean and the moon — three distinct places.

While the woman stays on the other side of the door, her shadow visible, the legs of an octopus extend out onto the porch, seemingly at her feet. We are reminded of Hokusai’s notorious woodcut, “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” (1814) in which a woman is having sex with two octopi. In another scene from Tabaimo’s video, we see what we think is the woman’s shadow against closed doors, but when they are opened, the shadow turns out to be a pile of rats, which begin jumping and running off.

Tabaimo, “Crow” (2016), single channel video installation with audio, running time: 4 min. 10 sec., dimensions variable (installation view)

Tabaimo never explains her images and I am sure that a lot of the symbolism went by me. It was only when I saw “Crow” (2016) that I realized that the crow flying through the room and out the doorway at the beginning of “Obscuring Moon” might be a surrogate for the artist — that she sees what we cannot and, as becomes clear in the rest of projection, she still does not comprehend it all.

The newest work in the exhibition, “Shinju Trail” (2018) is an animated black-and-white line drawing with two butterflies flying in and out of the screen. One of the meanings of “Shinju” is double suicide, a pact made by lovers who are unable to be together. It is a story that is central to Bunraku, which is Japanese puppet theater. Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725, who revived Bunraku and is considered one of the greatest Japanese dramatists, wrote many plays about honor-bound lovers committing suicide. I am sure that Tabaimo is aware that the butterfly is a symbol of the soul in many cultures and that Christians see it as a symbol of resurrection.

Tabaimo’s videos are strangely captivating. Initially, they seem straightforward, but they quickly morph into something distinct and even peculiar and deliciously inexplicable, at least to me. The fact that I did not necessarily know the reference or exactly what was going on became secondary to my experience. That does not happen enough these days, and I am thankful when it does. I like looking at something that makes no attempt to be entertaining.

Check out the other videos in this terrific show and you will see what I mean.

Tabaimo: Clue to Utsushi continues at James Cohan (291 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 25.

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John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...