Text by Masato Fukushima
(The University of Tokyo)
The diverse activity of contemporary artist Tetsuya Umeda has often been characterized as “traversing” different genres of art: performance, installation, and other areas of artistic expression. I am tempted to describe his displays of multiple talents as those of multiple “attractors” of activity, the term originating from the chaos theory in vogue decades ago and signifying the specific points where the complex values produced by such a system occasionally converge.
These attractors within Umeda’s activities, so to speak, have usually been spoken of in terms of existing genres of artistic expression (performance, installation, etc., as referred to above). However, my strong impression is that the reality is far more complex than this, from my own experiences of his works, even though, unfortunately, these are limited mostly to the works categorized as installations. In Umeda’s case, the mutual relationships between these attractors seem to be so entangled that it is hard to comprehend how each of them functions in any specific artwork. In fact, Umeda recollects a spectator who privately described him as “an artist who makes works hard to comprehend” (1), and I surmise that this is because of the entanglement of the attractors in his activities.
Installations are a relatively new form of artistic expression that have become dominant in the contemporary art scene; likewise, the practice of so-called site-specific works is common these days. Umeda himself, once invited to a specific place, makes it a rule to observe the site rather minutely, then developing his work from the inspirations obtained from this close observation of the site (2).
From here, his specific sensitivity (or “attractor,” to use my term) may arise, and most notable to me is his rather peculiar interest in what may be called the “backyard” aspect of the site. The work that I directly experienced was floor 0, a large-scale installation that occupied the whole basement of the old ex-municipal building of Omiya City in Saitama, north of Tokyo (3). Such a place—the basement of an old building—is certainly imbued with a kind of esoteric atmosphere. Using the merit of such a pre-existing atmosphere to its greatest advantage, Umeda added a gamut of artistic devices into each room—some for surrealistic tricks and others for added attraction like in an amusement park—to create his distinctive Umeda-world. I was exceptionally lucky to be able to monopolize his artistic park, as the preceding group of visitors had gone out just before I did.
I found, while reading about his earlier stage work, Internship, which he performed at KAAT Kanagawa Arts Theatre in 2018, that his choice of a place like the basement was not accidental but intended. This is an esoteric stage work where the theater’s technical elements became the center of the performance. It was first performed in 2016 in Korea; the artist noted that he conceived the idea when he witnessed the maintenance work of the stage machinery during his first visit to the theater (4).
These types of space and machinery, which I called “backyard” above, are specific spaces of mystery for outsiders. One of the major attractions of conducting ethnographic research on contemporary institutions is that it provides a rationale for sneaking into such organizational backyards, which are largely invisible from the outside. In fact, the physical act of stepping into such a place is challenging. For instance, the entrance to the emergency medical center that I visited does not open automatically; it opens only when someone steps on a small pedal hidden on the wall close to the floor beside the door. Without this specific knowledge, a visitor would stand aimlessly in front of the door, like Joseph K in Kafka’s novel The Trial.
The doctors’ waiting room was behind the main space of the emergency center, where I heard plenty of doctor chatter inaudible to those outside. Occasionally, I witnessed those doctors jumping out of the room upon hearing screaming from the medical monitors, informing them of the rapidly worsening condition of a patient, a scene vaguely reminiscent of the documentary films of Frederick Wiseman (5).
The popular TV programs that follow these activities in the backyards of various occupations intend to present the reality of such scenes, which are mostly hidden from our everyday lives. This “backyard” concept can be translated into the technical aspects of infrastructure, and I have long advocated for the significance of exploring the beauty inherent to infrastructural aesthetics (6).
That said, however, these backyards and infrastructures can be an Achilles’ heel for artists who try to use them; on the one hand, these entities are the source of inspiration for artists, while on the other hand, they surpass the artworks in impressing spectators through their specific atmosphere and charm. From the perspective of the infrastructural aesthetics that I advocate, a large gas tank that stands out as urban cubism against a town’s landscape does not require any further artistic ornamentation. When my wife and I visited the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field in northwestern Japan, we drove through the whole field—in part through steep mountains—to see the diverse varieties of artworks there. My wife’s summarizing comment at the end of our journey was that she was impressed with the mountains. Alas, the charm of the artworks there could not prevail over the power of Nature with her engulfing magic.
Specific places or “sites” have their own history and atmosphere, which a number of architects have called the genius loci, the spirit of the place, an idea they have deployed as a lens to re-examine the present theory of architecture. Meanwhile, in Javanese that I am familiar with, a ghostly entity in a specific place is called dedemit, a potentially malicious spirit that may make ill the visitors of the place (7). Given that historical sites are often imbued with specific powers of varying kinds, a sort of grit is needed to resist the magic of the place when one tries to exploit the power of such sites. Meanwhile, the types of spirits present may differ significantly according to such places as the deserted military hospital that was the site for the Gwangju Biennale in 2018 on the one hand, and as the more hygienic white-cube rooms in a museum of contemporary art on the other.
Umeda’s most perceptible strength lies in his use of multiple tools and techniques to domesticate the power politics of the sites; such techniques may spring from a certain specific attractor, such as his talent of improvisational music or his interest in the ethnomusicological practices of tribes like the Ami and the Bunun in Taiwan (8). Another attractor is constructing mechanical gadgets in a manner reminiscent of the artworks of Peter Fischli and David Weiss (9). Umeda himself is probably not very conscious of which attractor may start to work on the spot where he will initiate a new work. In an interview, he disclosed that he did not work toward a goal when creating artwork because otherwise he would soon be bored (10). This observation is understandable as a normal process of creative activity freely pursued.
The reason his work is occasionally described “hard to comprehend” is likely that it is an almost accidental outcome of the struggle between the various powers that reside in him and in a specific site that he visits. No artist can possibly recognize the kind of power that resides in a site without visiting it in person. Then, the emergence of one’s own power may synchronize or antagonize with the magic of the site, developing from the workings of the artist’s multiple personal attractors vis-à-vis the power on the spot. That being so, spectators of the artwork are invited and even entitled to perceive and to imagine the struggle of these diverse powers arising both from the very site and the artist. This is exactly the source of joy for visitors to such site-specific artworks as those of Tetsuya Umeda.
(1) Interview: Tetsuya Umeda—Thinking only on the small voices and time on the spot (The following sources are all in Japanese)
(3) Floor 0, Tetsuya Umeda
(4) There is nothing special in making an artwork
(5) Masato Fukushima (2022) Ecology of Learning: Risk, Experiment, and High Reliability, Chikuma-bunko.
(6) Masato Fukushima (2022) “An Invitation to Infrastructural Aesthetics”
（7）In Java, there are quite a few different spirits beyond the spirit of place above. Yasuhiro Morinaga and Masato Fukushima (2019) “Satan, Sounds and Desire: A pretalk on Setan Jawa by Garin Nugroho.”
(8) To Reflect on the Present and To Look for the Origin of It.
(9) Robert Fleck, Beate Söntgen, Arthur C. Danto (2005) Peter Fischli, David Weiss, Phaidon
(10) See (4)
Untill Sat. 17 December, 2022 *exhibition period extended
Closed on Mon., Sun., Holidays
Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo