The image of the place like Japan is hard to resist at best, and at worst, intoxicating. The current atmosphere is full of change. It feels ʻof-the-momentʼ, unstoppable and utterly dynamic. At other times it can be uncomfortable, unaccommodating and distant. It truly is a contradiction. A recent exhibition in Hiroshima though, has shown me just how stunning that contradiction can be and how it really isnʼt what you would expect. Hiroshima is of course universally known and recognized but as a modern Japanese city it represents more than it’s own historic event. It recognizes a diversity and contradiction often overlooked in favour of an easier aspect and it is at the Viewing Room of the Daiwa Radiator Factory that I saw artwork that wrestled with this diversity, contradiction and playfulness with stunning results.
Born in Saitama, north of Tokyo, Hideki Nakajima wanted to be an illustrator but became quickly frustrated with the constraints of disinterested clients. It was finding a record sleeve designed by Peter Saville that changed all of that and he realized that he could do more of what he wanted as an art director than as an illustrator. It was also that element of art-infused with design that led him to work on a plethora of diverse projects in different styles often with a small unit of collaborators including amongst others musician Ryuichi Sakamoto. Nakajima established Nakajima Design in 1995 and actively continues producing and designing album sleeves, books and an exhaustive array of other work, often personal, that he and Sakamoto do together, experimenting, trying things out and seeking each others impulse. In many ways he epitomizes some of the ethics of designers like Saville or Vaughan Oliver of v23 who both had their own intensely creative working relationships (it should be mentioned Oliver also wanted to be an illustrator, before discovered the joys of typeface and photography). Experimentation and an unequivocal desire to search for something visually ambiguous is Nakajimaʼs mantra. It is here that his dream begins with a 20-year career giving shape to, as he puts it, ʻnon-existent formʼ.
Daiwa Press Co., Ltd. started life in 1953 as a manufacturer of car radiators (Daiwa Radiator Factory) and was originally based in Tokyo. They moved to their present home of Hiroshima some 20 years later. Company president Tatsumi Sato began avidly collecting art in the early 1980ʼs, a collection that ranges from contemporary to ceramic art, antique, primitive and Buddhist art too, collecting from a diverse range of artists both Japanese and foreign. The Daiwa Press Viewing Room started as the place where he could keep and view his own collection, showing it to and sharing with his friends. The Viewing Room has also hosted 13 shows including one by British artist Ryan Gander who is due to return there later this year. The thirteenth and latest exhibition is by Nakajima and is an overwhelming retrospective of his working career.
The show starts with the ʻInfinite Librariesʼ a collection of 8 large prints exploring a typographic Library of Babel. Text is entangled then pulled apart, de-bossed, embossed and overprinted. Next, ʻUnfinished Seriesʼ takes the eye across flat landscapes of over-printing and a huge expanse of vivid colour. Working closely with printers developing a delicate and refined method goes someway to describe his talent in layering and obsession with technique. Other rooms are given over to his role as art-director of CUT magazine and other work with a diverse array of artists and musicians. The central space documenting his 20-years relationship with CUT brought to mind magazines like The FACE (UK) and Raygun (US). Both no longer exist and yet both were radical with their own graphic and cultural identity. Both cared little for their own legibility if it betrayed the subject matter. In fact it was their very mission to evolve visually if an article or photograph required it. With magazine culture now being streamlined as advertising changes it is impressive that such a magazine like CUT can still exist. In contrast within another room and amongst photo books by Araki, Vincent Gallo and Yoshihiko Ueda sits a dot matrix portrait of singer Morrissey for a book simply entitled ʻThe Smithsʼ.
Like the gallery, the work on show is a contradiction and much better for it. At times it goes from being restrained and considered to being schizophrenic and revelatory as the work changes in scale and medium. The best example of this is his ʻRe-Street Viewʼ series that takes screen printed street-rubbings that are then cut and sliced along with the canvas frame. Other works like ʻCitF_#277 explode into the gallery space spelling the cut-out word ʻServiceʼ, a nod perhaps to the experience of his work being most important, performing a service and function and being free of curation and embellished design sense. It is true that the experience reading and viewing this work becomes a priority and impossible to ignore. Statements form the core of his work but they don’t necessarily exist to make sense of or describe what is happening. They feel more like a stream-of-consciousness or a pata-physical ingredient adding personality instead of removing Nakajimaʼs spirit. I wonder if itʼs a reaction to Savilleʼs work as much as it is a homagé that ultimately separates these two figures? Minimal text against stark backgrounds rarely exists and although at times his designs appear slight they infer depth and elegance by the way he incorporates printing techniques with intricate packaging.
Thereʼs a sense of humour deep within the work as much as a maudlin sense of doubt and lack of confidence. Just consider some of his titles, “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT DESIGN MEAN (sic)”, “Clear In The Fog”, “Re-cycling”. To produce work of this nature requires a real sense of belief, along with some healthy tongue-in-cheek irony. It could be said heʼs searching for reason through making, spitting out ideas rather than carefully considering the merit and worth of each individual piece. That ultimately feels refreshing and honest.
I asked Nakajima what his favorite Smiths song is. His work is littered with oblique references to the Manchester band and of course there is that Morrissey book cover. “There is a light that will never go out” was his answer. It didnʼt surprise me. It’s a great song, but it also goes a long way to describe the meta-physical theme running through titles in his personal work and their eventual application in his commercial work too. Most interesting is how frequently and often these two bodies of work overlap. CUT Magazine clearly benefits and feels more exuberant and fresh as a result. Even some of the simplest work on display (the cosmetic packaging or the posters for fashion brands) feels somehow playful, experimental and inquisitiveness. At first sight, all the work together appears random and at times disparate. However, the more you look the more you begin to notice tiny traces of Nakajimaʼs humour creep in. The silver-printed edge on the cover of ʻDrum and Bassʼ (part of the Schola music book series) and the metallic cover of Daido Moriyamaʼs photo book ʻFragmentsʼ both tantalize with a fascination for detail and craft as much as a love for word-play and cheeky association.
The Daiwa Radiator Factory and Daiwa Press form the perfect place for such a show as this. They are made for one another. On leaving the gallery, I stood opposite the factory in the shadow of a neighbouring building and took a succession of farewell photographs. To the side I noticed a small lean- to greenhouse sitting hard against the galleryʼs white exterior filled with a dizzying array of cacti. So I ran over to take just one more photograph of this splendid array, as the image was far too hard to resist. My camera summarily gave in, the shutter seized and the camera broke.
Like much in the show and Daiwa Press Viewing Room there is little to resist and much to enjoy. Such irresistible charm may be at the expense of your camera but not your heart, your mind, and most definitely not your eyes.
Hideki Nakajima, http://www.nkjm-d.com
Daiwa Press Viewing Room
2-26-21 Nishihara, Asaminami-ku,
Hiroshima, Japan 731-0113