Ken Kagami: How Kakkoii Are You?

Born in Tokyo in 1974, Ken Kagami’s studio sits quietly in the suburban plateaux of Kiyosumi-shirakawa. Threaded by waterways and industry, this unassuming neighbourhood makes for a far-from-unusual place to work in. The diversity of his work on the other hand is head-spinning, ranging from performance to pretty much everything else and making a summary of it almost impossible. From sculptures of found-objects to one-off illustrations to graffiti as part of the collective DFW (Draw For Whatever, which includes artist Barry McGee), to bronze casting, to clothing, to radio shows and ‘Sexy’ Art School Lectures, the one constant in all endeavours is his lack of patience for over-thinking his production. To quote a well known shampoo commercial, he simply likes to “wash and go”.

For over 10 years he’s been a confounding figure. Early encounters with Ken would be his record sleeve in 2004 for Deerhoof’s ‘Milk Man’ album. As a friend of the ‘band from San Francisco’, he joined them onstage wearing the Milk Man’s sadistic grin, stabbed with bananas and trepanned by strawberries. Ridiculous and grotesque yet undeniably attractive this unearthly character was also the star of early solo exhibitions at Tokyo’s Taka Ishii Gallery. He freely plays with social taboos of the body and the mind, especially when you think his combination of plastic toys with a free-associating world of sex and violence. It’s not that he’s making a bold statement on ‘a loss of innocence’ or how corporate media and brand value turn young minds into imaginations fuelled by blood and lust. His illustration of Charlie Brown and Snoopy with extra appendages induce more fits of giggles than any hands-to-face despair. We are living in the 21st century after all and not some Victorian utopia. In his own charismatic way Ken is merely searching for a character all his own.

While early work was colourful and exotic, his later pieces diversify benefitting from the collaborative and spontaneous influence of others. American Scott Reeder, New York -based Trevor Shimizu, photographer Daifu Motoyuki, all artists in their own right extend Ken’s jokes and make them more personal, loveable and altogether more enjoyable. His book with Scott Reeder “Drew” was the result of a drunken drawing performance, while their show together “The Future is Stupid” or his later show with Trevor Shimizu, “HOT” both tested the threshold for what constitutes ‘art’. Its not that he doesn’t care about his production. He does but in ways that are really specific.

For “Bronze works 2013-2014”, his latest show at Tokyo’s Misako & Rosen gallery, the whole process of work is quickly turned on its head. Things like cardboard toilet rolls, a bra, dried noodles, potato crisps, cotton swabs, push pins, crushed cans and even dried snot are painstakingly cast in bronze, becoming artisan to an expanding sequence of unremarkable objects made, in his words, as ‘masterpieces’ arranged on plinths. The unrecognisable subtlety of each piece marks them all as something special. Their importance is in their simplicity, something eluded to during a flurried exchange of emails.

“My most interesting part of my exhibition in M&R was the installation. It was my first trial at making a very simple installation. I enjoyed this new installation idea”

Ken’s uses popular culture like a jigsaw. Some bits combine better than others, with the best emanating from spontaneous collaboration. Without the restriction of over analysis or self criticism he’s guaranteed unexpected weirdness to creep in. In that respect his work has a very Tokyo flavour. His excitement stems from being wantonly clumsy, exploring things too embarrassing to discuss beyond the safety of an art gallery or event. What do ‘Jude Laws Balls’ look like? Ken can tell you. The shape and length of Matt Damon’s or George Clooney’s pubic hair? Not a problem. They all hang in his studio.

“Japanese people really like to categorize something and make everything some kind of “genre”. “Cool Japan” is just one of them…”

In a place like Tokyo, where everything seeks strangely familiar and equally familiarly strange even the most awkward and nonsensical of things seem vital. But this is not always to the benefit of the weirdness allowed to quietly creep in. The problem of pulling things together so loosely to create this ‘Cool Japan’ experience is not so much a failure to represent (if its Japanese it must be cool, duh!) but a failure to willingly accept diversity and difference in itself. The weird and wonderful are sadly suppressed by something flat and ordinary.

In his essay “What does it mean to be kakkoii?” writer Masaya Chiba describes how a “renewed tendency towards conservatism” grew out of Japan’s ‘Bubble’ period of the mid ‘80s and ‘90s. ‘Islands’ or ‘universes’ grew around fashionable parts of town and the alternative cultures that flourished within, turning their own fashionable disasters of the day into marketing opportunities and potential cultural exports.

The vague self-awareness that places like Tokyo cultivate and the fear of not being “kakkoii” or vaguely “cool”, means Ken’s come-back is an acerbic “so what!” He spies a lack of meaning and provocatively adds some of his own, like blowing up a balloon and replacing the hot-air with the visual equivalent of Helium. Terms like ‘Cool Japan’ or ‘Cool Britannia’ even, have become shortcuts for describing uniqueness but in really dumb, featureless and overbearing ways.

His installation SPICY!!! at Tokyo’s Nadiff Gallery pokes and prods at diverse imagery not bothered with caring for individuals, their origins or collective meaning but more picturing a collective babble of caricatures; Found objects, old barbie dolls, Elmo from Sesame Street, glamour photography, unbelievable breasts and illustrations of unexpected vagina. He adds, fills, adapts, enlarges or enshrouds nearly everything with poo though loving made from felt and plastic. Celebrity portraits hung from within ziplock bags look rather taken aback by the carnage on the gallery floor below. If anything, this is very antithesis of cool!!!

“Art does not change anything and I don’t make art thinking it will.”

The marriage of art and social activism is never a smooth one but its been a familiar sight of late especially in Japan where everyone has been tripping over themselves to come up with an appropriate response, is there is one, to Japan’s earthquake and tsunami of 2011 and the ongoing Nuclear crisis it created. It’s led to art festivals, concerts and events up and down the country commissioning ideas that carry something of the same intent as the earthquake itself but this commissioning process has proven difficult. Their success in generating wider public debate has been for the most part a moot point and despite pushing issues into the path of public consciousness, their efforts have so far been short-lived. Yearly ‘NO-Nuke’ concerts in Tokyo have shown the difficulty of striking a rational balance between genuine action and debate through the promotion of soft politics and the mixed-shadow of fundraising and merchandise. The change that art affords such effort is not so easily rationalised.

Ken tells of once watching Yoko Ono interviewed on Television. The interviewer suggested that instead of making art under the theme of pacifism, she go to any one of the countries affected by disaster and speak with the people there, participating with them directly in making something altogether more meaningful. Her angry response has stayed with Ken ever since. His 2013 work “YOKO OHNO!” quite frankly says it all.

Events like ‘NO-Nuke’ only fuel a distrust of the pressure these events imply to be supportive and conform with common thought when to urge to do so is simply not there. His work’s scatalogical presentation explodes that pressure by making fun of it and distorting the images of things deemed sacred and virginal, casting arbitrary objects in the weighty tradition of bronze, speculating on the size and shape of someones genitalia or inventing tampons that make for acerbic celebrity portraits that while imaginary are far more interesting than the real thing.

Ken’s ‘Sexy Art School Lectures’ and live drawing events are tests of mental agility, as much visual jokes as they are verbally inventive. For the most part the environment they’re created in has become over-saturated, antipathetic and dull. His manipulation of real material or meaning liberate some of the banality thats overgrown as acceptable and unchallenging much like the idea of ‘Cool Japan’ itself. The shift towards humour as a means to escape like banality is a necessity for Ken and not a decorative luxury. Theres already enough visual distraction in Tokyo as it is. Though his sense of humour may not be to everyones taste, his unprejudiced approach to working quickly — stamped-on beer cans with sneakers still entwined, flatirons imprinted on old carpet tile — results in a world way more interesting and ‘sexy’ than it already is or ever likely to be.

An abridged version features in Elephant Magazine #20