2.17 / Review

Get Your Ass to Mars

By Genevieve Quick May 16, 2011

Although Ratio 3 has admirably refrained from overstating Takeshi Murata’s show Get Your Ass to Mars, the gallery provides a rather simple interpretation of his show. The press release explains that the objects in Murata’s computer-generated imagery (CGI) appear “eerily real, accentuating their strange relationships with each other as they rest in a timeless abstract space.” While Murata may, as the press release continues to state, explore the tension of still images, he also establishes a complex set of self-referential propositions about image production and technology through formal references to seventeenth-century Dutch vanitas painting, commercial photography, film, and popular culture.

From a contemporary perspective, seventeenth-century Dutch vanitas paintings appear as realist still lifes of rather familiar and innocuous objects. However, these paintings frequently combine lilies, skulls, hourglasses, and lobsters to symbolically moralize about virginity, death, temporality, and luxury. As with Dutch vanitas painting, issues of mortality, vice, and vanity may be symbolically read into Murata’s highly rendered (digital, rather than painted) still lifes. Murata actually uses some Dutch still-life symbology (fruit, eggs, and skulls), but adds objects from pop culture and media that, while appearing mundane, also create an intricate set of references to the vanity and vice of modern life.

Takeshi Murata. Gumbone and Coke, 2011; pigment print, 23.2 x 32 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco.

In Art and The Future (2011), Murata juxtaposes eggs, oranges, a skull, driving gloves, a marijuana pipe, a microphone, and the book also entitled Art and The Future. The head-shop ceramic skull with inset laser beam eyes tchotchke and a nearby marijuana pipe are campy references to mortality and vice. The microphone and driving gloves suggest the vanity of celebrity and materialism. Murata has constructed a modernist set of plinths that segregate the objects into a vertical hierarchy. With an anthropomorphic resonance, the skull sits highest, the microphone in the second tier, while the eggs, oranges, marijuana bowl, driving gloves, and book constitute the bottom two levels. Like slick commercial product photography, Murata’s stark CGI images have an almost seamless background where the lighting is artificially isolated for perfection. While the CGI is well executed, Murata refrains from making the image truly believable by leaving the surface of the oranges and shadows slightly simplified in an acknowledgement of the artifice of his images.

Murata cultivates similar ideas in Cyborg (2011), in which a shell replaces the black skull in the center of the image. In lieu of the clean white plinths, Murata uses a faux brick cardboard box and VHS tape of the science fiction film Cyborg to create some vertical spacing and hierarchy. In addition, Murata uses mirrored arc forms to eerily double the shell, faux-brick plinth, and lemon, creating a sense of spatial ambiguousness. While the lighting is fairly neutralized in Art and The Future, in Cyborg, Murata uses dramatic colored lights; the latter piece shares a similar lighting aesthetic with Dario Argento’s horror films, specifically Suspiria (1977). Murata also references the legendary horror filmmaker in his image Salon Kitty (2011), which actually includes a VHS tape of Argento’s Terror at the Opera (1987).

Following the moralizing of Dutch vanitas, Murata mines many layers of sexual symbols within his works. Within Salon Kitty, he has placed a VHS tape of the actual sexploitation film by the same name. In addition, in Jazz Funeral (2011) and Gumbone and Coke (2011), brass instruments possess a flaccid and soft sculptural quality, and appear to be made of latex, bubble gum, or felt. While the objects are suggestive of phalluses, the dumbness of the lumpy horns seems rather self-consciously comic and campy. The trombone in Gumbone and Coke begins to look like one of the crude latex prosthetics from an early David Cronenberg film, which were frequently phallic or vaginal in reference. In Golden Banana (2011), the cow skull is suggestive of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, in which skulls or flowers are often literally represented, but are also suggestive of vaginal forms. However, in Murata’s Golden Banana, the pile of bananas and penultimate golden banana contrasts the suggestion of vaginal imagery. While Murata includes sexual symbols in his work, their absurdity and self-conscious directness cause them to possess a rather deadpan comic feel.

Takeshi Murata. Art and The Future, 2011; pigment print, 32.5 x 50 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco.

Murata displays a great deal of self-referentiality through a series of media references. In Expanded Cinema (2011), he includes Gene Youngblood’s 1970 book by the same title. The book, which examines the technical and conceptual aspects of video and multimedia as art forms, balances somewhat unrealistically on a tennis ball. In addition, Murata references a number of 1970s and ’80s horror and science fiction films. In these films, dystopian and utopian narratives interlace reality and artifice to address our ambivalence about the extent to which our lives are increasingly reliant on technology. Moreover, these fantasy films are shot with sleight-of-hand special effects and CGI to create constructed realities that blur the boundaries of believability.

While Murata’s highly rendered CGI images come across as being located in contemporary digital technology, many of his visual cues date back thirty or forty years. Through its inclusion of ’70s and ’80s horror films on VHS tapes, the media format of the ’80s, the work delves into the past. This revisiting becomes even more elliptical, as many of these films had futuristic narratives. Moreover, the high key color and simplistic geometric forms (cylinders, arcs, and wedges) that dot his still lifes harken to the early ’80s, when CGI was just beginning and popular culture became infiltrated with simplistic computer-generated forms.

While Get Your Ass to Mars, the title of Murata’s show, may seem unnecessarily provocative, it is a line in the film Total Recall (1990), a movie in which perception becomes muddled and reality and the virtual overlap. In his work, Murata repeatedly creates tensions about representation, in terms of his media and his images’ symbolism. Moreover, his elaborate set of illusions provokes questions about how one may read his images and his artistic intentions. His work balances a deadpan delivery with some fairly academic references to create a rich visual and conceptual duplicity that allows for multiple interpretations.  

Get Your Ass to Mars is on view at Ratio 3, in San Francisco, through June 11, 2011.

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