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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese art critics living in Japan.

The Path to Understanding: Peter Bellars at 3331 Arts Chiyoda
Roger McDonald
Peter Bellars, The Path to Understanding, 2012, sho calligraphy.

Peter Bellars is an Englishman who has been living in Japan since 1989, teaching English and making art. Although many Japanese art fans may not be familiar with his name or works, Bellars is in fact one of the very few non-Japanese to have been part of the Japanese contemporary art scene since the early 1990s (Mario A being another). He participated in a number of seminal exhibitions through the 1990s, notably Ginburart in 1993, organized by Masato Nakamura and Takashi Murakami, as well as most of the early Command N artist space exhibitions. Bellars occupies a peculiar place in Japanese art, at once in it but also forever at a distance from it. And it is perhaps this very sense of tension or unease that informs his art in important ways.

The Path to Understanding, a solo exhibition of Bellars's work recently held at the Artist Initiative Command N gallery in Tokyo's 3331 Arts Chiyoda complex, presented old works alongside a new video piece, tied together by ideas about understanding and cultural mis-reading. This is the area in which Bellars excels. Although a fluent Japanese speaker and long-time Tokyo resident, he maintains a critical distance from Japanese culture and everyday life. His experience of the Japanese city as a field of hyper-consumerism that he cannot fully read informs a number of early works which explore word games and puns. His love of Magritte seeps through in his painted works, both formally and conceptually.

Peter Bellars, La Trahison des Mots, 1990-91, oil on canvas.

For another delicately realized work titled Little Leonardo Modern Masters Series, Bellars created sets of do-it-yourself modern art painting kits which were produced in the 1970s by a small British company. "Includes all you need to create your own Modern Master" reads the label, which instructs you in how to drip paint to make a Pollock or apply cutout colors like Matisse. Underlying this acerbic wit is criticism of the Japanese art school system, which remains rooted to the copying of plaster casts of classical European sculpture. Bellars's little kits (actually invented by him) debunked the aura of the master artist as well as leapt across classical art training to bring art education mimicry into the 20th century. They are wonderfully crafted objects that utterly convinced me.

Bellars's new video work documented several of his non-Japanese friends trying to faithfully copy a kanji text in sumi ink on large sheets of paper. The resulting calligraphies were shown in the exhibition, looking like abstract postwar painting but with faint passages of readable Chinese characters. The text that Bellars asked his friends to transcribe was a Japanese translation of Jackson Pollock's famous quotation about his painting process. The work was at once parody and sincere effort -- different cultural and psychological elements intersecting across material, language and time. I was reminded of the significant historical transmission of Japanese calligraphy to American abstract artists (Mark Tobey, John Cage) in the postwar period, even though these artists could not read the script.

Language to be read shifts into shape and pattern, which in turn shifts into a grammar expressing emotional and psychic states. Bellars's works are also complex, layered forms of communication that utilize humor, reason, language and slippage to evoke a sense of unease and tension that probably rests at the root of all cultural expression, however solid we may think it normally is. In this respect, Bellars makes works that are singularly global in implication, inviting us to question our assumptions about identity, understanding and communication, rather than claim any national lineage for art.

Peter Bellars, Little Leonardo Modern Masters Series No. 1, 2000; card, watercolor paint, paper, photocopy.

All photographs by Roger McDonald

Peter Bellars: The Path to Understanding
3331 Arts Chiyoda
4 June - 16 July 2012
image
Roger McDonald
Roger McDonald was born and brought up in Tokyo, educated in the UK, and returned to live in Japan in 2000 after completing his PhD. He has worked on the Yokohama Triennale 2001 as assistant curator, the Singapore Biennale 2006 as curator, and organised a number of exhibitions and projects independently. He is deputy director of the non-profit curatorial collective Arts Initiative Tokyo, and teaches at Musashino and Joshibi Art Universities.
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