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Friday, Jan. 9, 2009

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Candy-colored jumble: "Train in Vain" (2008), an installation by Jim Lambie is showing till March 29 at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. © JIM LAMBIE, HARA MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART

In the space

British artist Jim Lambie turns the Hara Museum into a riff on the curve

Special to The Japan Times

Synesthesia is a condition in which stimulation of one sense triggers sensation in another. While very few people have it, most of us are able to understand it at the level of analogy. Musicians, for example, use "chromatic" scales (derived from the Greek word for color), while visual artists routinely employ musical terminology such as tone and harmony.

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Jim Lambie with curator Masami Tsubouchi MARIUS GROMBICH PHOTO

A contemporary incarnation of this cross-fertilization of the senses is the 2005 Turner Prize shortlistee Jim Lambie. His latest solo show at Tokyo's Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, "Jim Lambie: Unknown Pleasures," openly flouts the division of the senses.

Lambie, who was once in a rock band called the Boy Hairdressers, which later went on to become the more well known Teenage Fanclub, finds it hard to separate the visual from the aural, as he revealed at a gallery tour last month at the opening of the exhibition.

"A lot of things in my work speak about music," he said. "Of course I still DJ and mess around with music, and a lot of my friends are musicians, so there's a lot of involvement in my day-to-day life with music. But I never really start a piece of work trying to describe or express music through sculpture or painting. It's something that seems to feed into the work for me."

This is evident in the new installations that Lambie has created in each of the Hara's five main rooms. Although replete with musical references, music was not their starting point or inspiration. Instead, this was provided by the unique, delicately curved space of the Hara Museum itself, a Bauhaus inspired building constructed in 1938.

"There were a couple of things that I found interesting about the space," the artist revealed. "One was the architecture of the space, and the house built on a curve, and the other thing was that it functioned as a family home until 1979. So these were the two things that seemed interesting to me, and the things that I thought that I could maybe suggest through my own practice."

Lambie's practice in this case is his trademark technique of applying thin strips of tape — sometimes brightly colored, sometimes black and white — to the floors of spaces to create visually stunning installations that trace or "echo" the architectural characteristics of buildings and visually "amplify" them. As well as referencing the effects of Op-Art (which makes use of optical illusions), there is also a hint of the '60s Mod aesthetic in the sharp, straight, cool lines.

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The rhythm of rooms: Jim Lambie took his inspiration for the installations in "Unknown Pleasures" from the unique Bauhaus structure and family history of the Hara Museum.

For this exhibition, Lambie altered his basic tape technique to apply patches of curved, black and white, parallel lines that "sampled," rather than directly reflected, the gentle curve found in the Hara building. He also threw in another musical analogy. "These curves suggest to me the grooves on a record," he said. "Also, there's a kind of suggestion of a Zen garden in this pattern."

Accenting the gentle wavelike energy created by his floor, Lambie has placed several of his trademark "Sonic Reducer" sculptures. These are selections of old vinyl LPs encased in concrete blocks. In this case, the corners have been cut off so that they can be placed tilted to create the feeling that they are drifting or floating throughout the space.

"I guess these two elements are like the bass line and drums on a piece of music, and then the other sculptures are floating on top of that, almost like the vocals and the guitars," Lambie explained.

The other sculptures referred to are a selection of treated found objects: old chairs cut in half and repainted, then assembled into chaotic piles; ornamental and hand mirrors, wrapped with eyes cut from magazines and arranged into clusters; handbags covered with pieces of broken mirrors and more. There are also some two-dimensional works using flowers cut from old oil paintings collaged over posters of rock stars such as Chuck Berry, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

While the "vocals" and "guitar" in these visual compositions are not particularly inspired, there's no disputing the resonance of Lambie's distinctive "bass line" and "drums." His main innovation as an artist has been to invert the relationship between space and artwork. Instead of the space holding and presenting the artwork, Lambie's art installations instead seem to hold and present the space. This creates the kind of ambiguity on which contemporary art flourishes, an ambiguity that is valued because it gives the individual viewer the choice to consume the art on his or her own terms.

"I guess there are a number of things I do that sort of exist in the space between sculpture and painting," Lambie said. "With the floor, I fill a surface, but I also make a space at the same time. So there's a kind of point there between those two ideas. The floor exists by filling the space and emptying the space at the same time."

"Jim Lambie: Unknown Pleasures" runs till March 29 at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, 4-7-25 Kita-Shinagawa, Shinagawa-ku; a 15-min. walk from Takanawa Exit, JR Shinagawa Station; admission ¥1,000; open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Wed. till 8 p.m.; closed Mon). For more information, call (03) 3445-0651 or visit

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