Visual Arts: Simon Fujiwara at Harvard’s Carpenter Center — A Canny, Wildly Funny Lens on Modern Ideas

Simon Fujiwara epitomizes the new model of a successful avant-garde artist in the world today.

Simon Fujiwara: Three Easy Pieces at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, through December 21.

Simon Fujiwara, "Letters from Mexico" [detail], 2010–11. Installation view: Hamburger Kunsthalle, 2011. Photo: Hamburger Kunsthalle

Simon Fujiwara, “Letters from Mexico” [detail], 2010–11. Installation view: Hamburger Kunsthalle, 2011. Photo: Hamburger Kunsthalle.

By Tim Barry

“He is the greatest artist who has embodied, in the sum of his works, the greatest number of great ideas.” — John Ruskin

What would Ruskin say about installation art? Would the great Victorian thinker upon questions of truth and beauty in art be appalled or amused at Simon Fujiwara’s art-installation at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts? I picture the bewhiskered sage gazing with puzzlement at an artwork composed of bits of broken crockery, framed funny letters written in pidgin English, video loops that lapse into German, a lone Mexican sombrero hung on a red velvet curtain — and a pile of sand in the gallery, for good measure.

Yes, we’ve come a long way since Victorian art. The search for the new, new thing has led us to installation art, which may have begun around 1961 when Claes Oldenburg opened a store in New York’s lower East Side, filled with mock consumer-goods sculptures, and called it “The Store.” In 1977 Walter deMaria filled a gallery with 250 cubic yards of dirt in his iconic piece “New York Earth Room.” And in 2008 the art-team of Jonah Freeman, Justin Lowe, and Alexandre Singh recreated an illicit drug manufactory in a ballroom in Marfa, Texas, titling it “Hello Meth Lab In the Sun.”

All very interesting and curious, certainly. And as a reaction to, as well as a strike against, all that had become predictable and safe in the traditional arts of painting and sculpture, installation art has done its anarchistic job.

Still, for those looking for reasons and meanings in the confetti-like scattering of ideas that installation art often presents, the quest can be more than a little frustrating. So the best way to enjoy these quite seriously and carefully thought-out endeavors seems to be, well…to not worry about thinking about it too much.

Simon Fujiwara epitomizes the new model of a successful avant-garde artist in the world today. A gay Japanese Englishman living in Berlin, he often lives out of a suitcase while enjoying art-colony residencies around the globe. He is adept at collage, directs powerful short films, and one suspects he could draw and paint with the best of them if ever called upon to do so.

But what Fujiwara unpacks from his valise is not palette or brush, it is ideas. He is at home with theory, as comfortable referencing Jacques Lacan as cinema verite. Yet he is also a humorist in the gaucherie mode of Mel Brooks.

So his works careen between culture high and low, introducing examinations of identity politics and family dynamics, while broaching large, elephant-in-the-room questions such as “What Is Truth?” and even “What Is Art?”

Yet he chooses to look at these weighty subjects through a canny, wildly funny lens. For example, one of the two videos at the CCVA has him interviewing an actor for a proposed video, during which the Fujiwara recalls a visit he made to Japan to reconnect with the father he never knew. During the visit he was determined to make pottery alongside his father, “so that we could get to know each other but wouldn’t have to suffer the awkwardness of sitting down to discuss the past. But it turned out we were so busy with the pottery-making that we never had any of those discussions.”

He goes onto to satirize (?) the notion that father/son relationships are culturally determined: “It is a Western idea, or European idea, that a son growing up without his father is going to have some kind of trauma.” A visual metaphor for this arrives in a stage-set littered with shattered pottery and hammers, arrayed in front of photographs of Fujiwara and his father.

Another video recreates a casting-session for another proposed film concerning the artist’s mother, who decades ago was a cabaret dancer in Beirut, Lebanon. He uses this as a vehicle to discuss what he terms the “King Kong complex,” which is the fear of (yet probably also the attraction to) “darker-skinned, hairy individuals, and their sexual virility.” The video’s very high-quality production values only serves to highlight an undercurrent of smoldering sexuality.

Language, its uses and misuses, is another target for Fujiwara’s critical eagle-eye. His collages feature letters he wrote home to “Europ,” which were ostensibly typed by Mexican women typists at a public typing-service. The resultant pidgin communiques are at once hilarious and more than a bit disquieting. He seems to be playing with the cliche of the Ugly American on vacation, writing that they serve “fod yu woulndt giv two a dogg.”

Simon Fujiwara, "Studio Pietà" (King Kong Komplex) [detail], 2013. Photograph: Rainer Elstermann.

Simon Fujiwara, “Studio Pietà” (King Kong Komplex) [detail], 2013. Photograph: Rainer Elstermann.

Latin American magical realism often drives Fujiwara’s critical practice, the use of meta-reality the means to prove that things are not quite what they seem. Distinctions between reportage and storytelling, fact and fiction are blurred with a breezy facility.

For example, in one component of the installation sits an interviewing table, with actors’ resumes in a neat stack. However, there’s also a brutally bright light over the table, and a plastic bag containing what appear to be swabs for collecting DNA. So is it an interrogation table? Would “Arab-looking” actors perhaps be suspicious of a Homeland Security set-up? Your call.

Part of the CCVA’s mission statement is to engage students from across all the varied disciplines studied at Harvard: some of this is accomplished through artist visits to classrooms and studios. This “synthesis of art, design and education” is something that greatly excites James Voorhies, the energetic and ambitious new director of CCVA. In a brief conversation before Fujiwara’s opening he explained to me what that meant, “they pretty much give me total freedom to bring together all these elements, to set up the possibilities, and then to see where that takes us.”

Judging from what Voorhies has in store for the near future, it looks like a decided uptick for contemporary art in the Boston area. “The Way We Live Now, Modernist Ideologies At Work” is scheduled for February 5 through April 5, 2015. The group show will feature a number of top-drawer artists, including Josiah McIlheny, Martha Rosler, R.H. Quaytman, Thomas Ruff, and Yves Klein. They’ll be showing works in dialogue with the legacy of designers such as Oscar Niemeyer, Mies, Breuer, Eileen Gray, and Le Corbusier, the architect of the Carpenter Center.

Tim Barry studied English literature at Framingham State College and art history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He has written for Take-It Magazine, The New Musical Express, The Noise, and The Boston Globe. He owns Tim’s Used Books, Hyannis, and Provincetown, and TB Projects, a contemporary art space, in Provincetown.

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