Critical Reflections: Masaru Tatsuki: Decotora

TAI Gallery<br /> 1601 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe

Date July 31, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


Sidelined by television and the Internet in mass culture, and made suspect by conceptualism's analyses into its ideological resolutions, the perceived utility and veracity of art-photographic reportage has witnessed in recent decades a steady decline in the eyes of artists, curators, critics, and-perhaps most significantly-the general public. In its wane, it has increasingly lapsed into auto-cannibalizing cliché and reliance on counterfeit exoticism at the expense of its former position as a critically important recorder of the everyday. Despite such pervasive scrutiny and interpretations-which, incidentally, form the gist of any intense human interplay, and especially of art-there remain numerous reasons not to declare it to be as dead as painting was perceived (wrongly, one might add) in the decade past.

 Among these, photographer Masaru Tatsuki's documentary project Decotora is a fine signifier of the medium's sustained vitality. Over a ten-year period, the artist's photographic recording of Japan's decotora-truck subculture has rendered his subject's visual decadence into perceptively glimpsed social documents that accumulate meaning with each click of the shutter. An analogue to the United States' own lowrider culture, Japan's community of decotora drivers ornament their industrial rigs with a plethora of lights, chrome extensions, and backlit graphics-transforming tools for the transport of goods to market into items that recall no market more than the commerce of dreams resident to the casinos of Vegas. From the miasmatic dark of oil-streaked, rain-damp parking lots, the arcade-console glow of these machines punctuates Tatsuki's nighttime photographs like lightning that strikes feet away-suggesting, in its cinematographic sweep, a deafening soundtrack of Tetris trills and diesel rumble. And it owes precisely to the images' cinematographic character-indeed, their overt fabrication and theatricality-that Tatuski's work succeeds in extending the chaos of the particular into the revelation of greater underlying social agencies.

 According to the artist, the principal impetus behind his explorations is the representation of a sort of masculinity that Japan finds to be in decline-"a masculinity,"€ he states, that "cannot be easily explained in a single word."€ He succeeds brilliantly in Denshokumaru; Shinjuku, Tokyo 2005, in which a star-studded, dinosaur-depicting, faux-laser equipped decotora truck idles in proximity to Robert Indiana's iconic LOVE sculpture. Self-consciously asserting the ludic aesthetic embraced by the culture of otaku, a Japanese term meaning people's passion for science-fiction cartoons, manga, and video games-a phenomenon, moreover, whose apparent cheerfulness belies profound malaise and fascination with violent power-the work foregrounds the process of commercial expression co-opted as a symbol of personal identity and the anxious relationship between Japanese and American post-war cultures. From means as limited as a gleefully puerile sculptural declaration of love and a truck that could serve as the protagonist of the next Transformers film, Tatsuki conjures the interrelatedness of the aesthetics of love and war, masculine bravado and childish escapism, and the clean slate of a deserted nighttime thoroughfare (which, both in its staging and its metaphorical potential, is itself a mixture of the real and fantastic).Despite their almost epilepsy-inducing veneers and sumptuous chandeliers, Tatsuki reveals the trucks to harbor drivers whose reserve, world-weariness, and self-sufficiency may be precisely the embodiments of the masculinity his works seek to uncover. The subject of A Member of Seirokai, Behind the Wheel, Tokyo 2006 reclining amid the crimson arabesques of his velvet helm, lips in a loose smirk, with his left hand supporting a weary head, the other clenched into a fist resting on the cushions, suggests a life of internal reflection and nonchalant bemusement, which at first glance, doesn't correlate very well with his lurid environs. Further consideration, however, recalls Francis Bacon's (the mathematician, not the painter) perennially quoted dictum "Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is."€ The picture is indicative of the artist's ability to provoke unexpected conclusions about decotora: though its visual culture is unabashedly whimsical, it's meaning need not be superficial. A truck, it turns out, is deeper than its cargo hold.

In the final analysis, Tatsuki's art puts wit into witnessing as it inquires into the relation between private and public, reality and fantasy, art and life. Balancing the banal and the bizarre, the exotic and everyday, his images also extend the lineage of what is a dynamic Japanese documentary photography movement. An oeuvre that owes both to the seductively colorful, mirror-bright sheen of compatriot Rinko Kawauchi's quasi-Pop-art take on reportage, and the fastidious reserve of Shizuka Yokomizo's portraits of human beings made vulnerable in their intractable, homebound isolation, Decotora is at once as exciting as Japan's urban streets and as meditative as its temples.