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Tomie Arai

Urashima: An Installation
Bronx Museum of Art Through March 14

<i>Urashima: An Installation</i> by Tomie Arai, (2003-2004) (detail). Installation at The Bronx Museum of Art.
Urashima: An Installation by Tomie Arai, (2003-2004) (detail). Installation at The Bronx Museum of Art.

In a process that amounts to subjective excavation, Tomie Arai considers the various layers of our unresolved relationship to history and place within the context of our mortality. Drawing upon the metaphorical language of stories and an image from a distinct time, Arai’s work orients us in our relationship to evolving, accumulated collective memory, and locates our ultimate submersion within the non-linear processes of time.

Occupying a small, intimate space in the Bronx Museum, Arai’s installation entitled "Urashima" is part of an ongoing series of contemporary artists’ conversations with the museum’s permanent collection. A printmaker with a sculptural bent, Arai’s reinterpretations make for an unexpected conversation between a sixteenth-century Japanese scroll depicting the story of Urashima Taro, and photographs from the 1970s by the late Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta. Urashima, a Buddhist allegory first written in 712, is the story of a young fisherman who, despite the potential for blissful life in the undersea Dragon Kingdom, is consumed by his longing for his home above.

A looped recording of ocean sounds links Urashima’s descent below the sea and one of Mendieta’s photographs of a mass of lush green seaweed forms the shape of a figure that undulates with the movement of the water that covers it, and ultimately would pull it apart. Other photographs show the mounds and negative spaces of a female figure made in the remote creek beds of Iowa, some of the over two hundred site-specific works that comprise Mendieta’s "Siluetas." Arai connects Urashima’s longing with the yearning implicit in Mendieta’s ritualistic act of leaving her trace on the earth— a wandering desire that never quite settles— and her own concern with our acculturated state of perpetual desire. In a parallel and repetitive process of imprinting, Arai silk screened images from her own reinterpretation of Urashima onto a range of vibrant magazine advertisements, choosing the kind of nowhere visual terrain of such ubiquitous forms as a contemporary site. Displayed on Arai’s worktable, the assertiveness of the superimposed image lends an intransigence that is seemingly greater than Mendieta’s imprints, however, they too belong to a collecting layer of debris that will be dispersed in the hands of visitors. The irony of Mendieta’s ostensibly narcissistic obsession with her own disappearance is that her ephemeral traces survive the passage of time precisely through their documentation; moreover, through contemporary excavations by Arai and others, the photographs become less about the documentation of past actions, and more about images of her enduring presence.

Aside from painting the walls red, Arai seems less interested in the formal cohesion of the installation than in a kind of exploratory inclusion of associative, almost unconsciously connected elements. The space ends up feeling too small for all that Arai has included, and there is a disproportionate reliance upon textual explication to illuminate the less obvious logics. The core of the installation, and its most successful element, is Arai’s sequential black silkscreen drawing on four tall wood panels. With stylized nuance and delicacy, it retells the story of Urashima plunging through the floating layers of the sort of debris that Walter Benjamin might have collected in the Paris Arcades. Within the drawing, Arai includes a sensitive portrait of her husband’s parents, and so mixes her own personal narrative and iconography into her reconstruction. A small video projection with found footage of fish and images from Kurosawa’s Dreams seemed extraneous, reiterating the expansive quantity of free-form associations, which is already implicit. It made me long to see Mendieta’s time-based film shot on a Mexican beach of a Silueta being washed away. A curiously seductive fish tank containing kitsch tourist keepsakes of New York’s monuments (including the WTC towers) and a miniature dragon pagoda had a magical poignancy— the city as both a dream place (like the "floating world" of Chinese mythology) and submerged and subsumed by the elements. Both grand and intimate in scale, "Urashima" becomes a meditation on the fluid boundaries between desire and place, memory and time.


Denise McMorrow

DENISE MCMORROW is a painter, photographer, and sculptor.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2004

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