Mika Tajima’s SAM Next exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, July 16, 2011 – June 17, 2012. Photo credit: Nathaniel Wilson.
Mika Tajima’s SAM Next exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, July 16, 2011 – June 17, 2012. Photo credit: Nathaniel Wilson.

A casual visitor to “After the Martini Shot” — Mika Tajima’s exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum — might see a room full of slick, edgy works of modern art: video monitors, photographers’ light fixtures on stanchions, sculptures, and paintings — some on the walls — several in a storage rack of unfinished lumber, as if in the back room of an art gallery. The whole installation is in fact a complex web in which works of art are part of an environment that forces us to question how we look at a work of art.

At the exhibition’s opening, Tajima discussed her work and the ideas behind it. She has mounted several solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe, sometimes using them as settings for live performances, and re-integrating video of these performances into her installations. Her work is iterative: later works build on earlier pieces. This is not unusual, many artists work in series, but Tajima literally recycles her own work, repurposing components from individual paintings to environments, and incorporating video recordings from past installations in new combinations. In this process, she questions the permanence and preciousness of art by presenting it as a commodity whose form, function, and value are constantly changing. Her work over the past half-decade can be viewed as a single mutable body of work.

Take the painting rack, a structure usually relegated to storage, here elevated to sculpture. Titled “The Extras (Seattle),” it holds several eminent pieces from the Seattle Art Museum’s collection along with several of Tajima’s own works, including a video playing on a flat screen monitor casually shelved sideways like a painting. Most of the artworks in museums are in storage; in this setting, they are products in stock (or extras awaiting their moment on camera) rather than revered artifacts on gallery walls. Two of the works from the SAM collection are by Andy Warhol, one of the first artists to appropriate the subject matter and visual style of commercial art. Tajima’s own pieces are derived from previous installations, as is the concept of the storage rack. Her video, “Today is Not a Dress Rehearsal (Close Up)” was shot at her show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2009. Tajima simultaneously reduces her own work to a commodity by recycling it, and elevates it to an intellectual concept.

The show’s title, “After the Martini Shot” refers to the last shot of the day on a movie set. Tajima develops her multi-media installations like a film director, collaborating with musicians, writers, choreographers, and performers. Individual artworks are part of the set, often unframed, casually installed, and lit with portable fixtures to emphasize their transience. These environments both evoke and distort familiar settings. In the SAM show, three freestanding panels (“Disengaged Life”, “Living Room Eyes”, and “Appearance (Against Type”) refer to office cubicles or the acoustic screens in audio-recording studios. Their surfaces are original paintings that resemble commercial wallpaper, bulletin boards, and billboards. “Furniture Art” is a group of abstract paintings on plexiglas whose collective title refers to Eric Satie’s “furniture music”, compositions intended to be played as background music. Their glossy surfaces, bright yet serene colors, and exotic titles (“Cabo,” “Bali,” “Santa Fe”) parody the lifestyle décor mass-produced by retailers like Crate and Barrel and IKEA.

“Yellow Curve (Eternal Return)” is a fragment of a photographer’s studio: a roll of backdrop paper suspended between portable stanchions and unrolled across the floor, a speaker and video projector perched on the steps of a ladder. The bright yellow paper provides a screen for “Dead by Third Act”, a 15-minute video shot in an abandoned Fiat factory in Italy. Panoramas of desolate concrete structures are juxtaposed with scenes of Tajima at a junkyard buying an old Fiat, bringing it back to the factory and smashing it with a sledgehammer. It is a brutal meditation on the obsolescence of, not just products, but whole industries, and the irony of a cheap car attaining its highest value and its demise as the subject of a work of art.

While “After the Martini Shot” is a dynamic, visually stimulating environment, the ideas within the work are what make it interesting and timely. The show will run for a year and SAM is trying to bring Tajima back for a performance in the space. Seattle could play a role in her future work.

“After the Martini Shot” shows through June 17, 2012 at the Seattle Art Museum. Call (206) 654-3100 or visit www.SeattleArtMuseum.org for more details.

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