Masato Takasaka: Prog art - Art Collector

Issue 54, October - December 2010

Taking his cues from prog rock and hair metal bands, Masato Takasaka might just have delivered art’s grandest guitar solo writes Rex Butler. And like with a guitar solo, If you cut away the showmanship and displays of virtuosity, what we are watching is simply an artist making art.

For me, one of the most adventurous selections in the wonderful Cubism and Australian Art, staged earlier this year at Heide Museum of Modern Art, was the work of Melbourne-born Masato Takasaka. In the final room of the exhibition, devoted to the effects of cubism from 1980 to the present, curators Sue Cramer and Leslie Harding saw fit to include Takasaka’s weird hybrid sculpture-cum-installation Return to Forever (Productopia). Against the paintings and sculptures of Rosalie Gascoigne, Madonna Staunton and Diena Georgetti, which remain so closely wedded to their sources and even on occasions revert to the dreaded green and dun brown of the Australian landscape, Takasaka’s tilted surfaces, crazed patterns and acid colours struck this viewer as genuinely eccentric. Along with Daniel Crooks’s videos slicing time and space up into finer and finer fragments, it was Takasaka who seemed most authentically to point to the future possibilities of cubism in a digitised 21st century.

Actually, it is surprising that Takasaka’s work was chosen at all for a show on cubism. When the artist himself is pressed on the major art movement he feels closest to, he invariably nominates constructivism, and he originally emerged in Melbourne’s alternative art scene under the protective wing of Australia’s grandfather of hardcore abstraction John Nixon. An early Takasaka work like Untitled (Outdoor Abstract Painting #2), a two-colour billboard mounted in an outer Melbourne tract development called Caroline Springs, is a classic exercise in concrete painting, and Takasaka served a long apprenticeship in artist-run spaces and such self-styled avant garde collectives as Sydney Non Objective and Melbourne’s Inverted Topology, best known for leaning sheets of coloured wood up against walls to produce something like a cross between an Ellsworth Kelly and an earthquake.

At some point in the mid 2000s, Takasaka’s work began seriously to mutate. We could undoubtedly point here to the influence of the architecture studies, later abandoned, that Takasaka undertook at RMIT from 2005. But we might also suggest that it was the outcome of a long-repressed fascination with the baroque and its taste for excessive detail and bad infinity of intertwined forms. This involved nothing so highbrow as research into Bavarian church interiors or the paintings of Andrea Pozzo and Pietro da Cortona. Rather, Takasaka found confirmation of what he was looking for in the self-absorbed and pyrotechnic musical virtuosity of such prog and hair metal bands of 1970s and 1980s as Yes, King Crimson and Van Halen. It was a declaration of intent made clear in his 2009 show Post-Structural Jam (Shut Up! We Know You Can Play!), in which Takasaka put forward a claim for the guitar solo as the guiding aesthetic for a new art by featuring together in the catalogue both the rock magazines he had collected as a teenager and the art magazines he had collected as an art student.

What Takasaka had belatedly realised was that the music he had always listened to offered an unexplored aesthetic for art. The brilliant technical virtuosity of the players – the guitarist trying to squeeze in as many notes as possible, the frequent key and tempo changes of the rest of the band – ultimately served no expressive purpose. What the listener was hearing was precisely the sound of the musicians making music, outside of any wider narrative or communicative context. And the music was astonishingly innovative, with its unexpected and difficult-to-play connections, but also strangely repetitive or history-less, without any language of formal assessment. Damiano Bertoli in an essay for Post-Structural Jam speaks of the pure me-ness of the improvised guitar solo, famously masturbatory in its disregard both of the limits of the medium and the demands of the audience. Indeed, the second half of the title of Takasaka’s show, Shut Up! We Know You Can Play! comes from the exasperated comment of the singer to guitar whiz Steve Vai as he wound up for yet another round of guitar playing on a favourite CD of Takasaka’s.

It is something like this pointless and supernumerary excess, overwhelming in its uncategorised detail, that characterises Takasaka’s recent work. I Like My Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff (More Prog Rock Sculptures from the Fifth Dimension), originally shown at Melbourne’s Ocular Lab, is a riotous assemblage of precariously leaning boxes, striped and tessellated surfaces and origamied paper, the whole passing several times back and forth through a series of broken pictures frames. For the Cubism and Australian Art show, Takasaka continued using the same reiterative principles, this time combining old work, studio detritus, abandoned models from architecture school and even packaging and drinks cases from his parents’ Japanese supermarket in a kind of self-curated mini-retrospective.

Critics who have followed Takasaka’s career have searched hard to describe the exuberant chaos of his work, with its simultaneously formless and cyclical nature. In an art historical vein, they have come up with such terms as “techno-contemporary” or instead speak of “Kandinsky on acid”. (And, of course, we can adduce a whole line of artistic precedents for Takasaka’s work, from the rawness of dadaist Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau to the delicacy of someone like Sarah Tze.) When the critics allow themselves to go with the work, they have come up such coinages as “riff-a-rama mini-cities” or, following Takasaka’s own lead, describe him as “playing guitar in five dimensions”. Perhaps the best categorisation so far is Helen Hughes’s “never-endism,” which nicely captures the expansiveness and seeming limitlessness of the work, both physically outwards in reach and metaphysically inwards in compression and intensity.

So far the one angle that has not been seriously explored is Takasaka’s connection to – particularly Japanese – architecture. In the bent, crumpled and endlessly interacting surfaces of his recent work, after all, we see something of the possibilities opened up by the computer modelling of materials first explored by such pioneers as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, and now carried on almost to infinity by such über-hip Japanese practices as café co. and Atelier Bow-Wow. Takasaka notably refers to himself as Studio Masatotectures – and he is not being entirely ironic when he does this. After all, his sculptures, if seemingly like scaled-down life worlds, invite imaginary occupation. Or, to put this another way, like so much contemporary architecture they resist for as long as possible any such occupation, insisting like any great guitar solo that they are seen for exactly what they are. •

This quarter Masato Takasaka’s work will be exhibited in Edge of the Universe at Shepparton Art Gallery from 27 November 2010 to 6 February 2011 and Dot Dot Dot at Lismore Regional Gallery from 3 December 2010 to 29 January 2011.

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