Tomoko Takahashi's work embraces chaos, order and paradox. Her large-scale installations typically focus on the things that pile up around us: bikes, toys, street signs, clocks. The work can look like a trash heap to some people, but in part, it's about the accumulation of things and what that suggests about us. For some people, a chaotic environment creates opportunities to make relationships between objects; for others, it signifies that someone is too disorganized to pick up after herself.
Takahashi's installations can be compelling and infuriating, yet they're often paradoxically inert and sterile in spite of their homey messiness.
Takahashi, who was born in Tokyo and now works in London, was short-listed for Britain's prestigious Turner Prize in 2000. The Kemper Museum's installation, "Abstract No. 2," is part of the museum's permanent collection.
Originally part of a group exhibition titled Organizing Chaos in New York's P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, "Abstract No. 2" is small compared to other Takahashi installations that have filled entire galleries, covering walls and floors. It's about 22 feet wide and consists of two major elements — a wall piece and a floor piece — and it's much tidier than Takahashi's room-sized installations. On the wall hangs a large wood panel covered with color photographs. Takahashi has bent and stapled them so that they have a 3-D effect, then arranged them in a pattern that changes from light to dark to almost black. On the floor below is a skirt of facedown photographs, archival boxes, photograph sleeves and film boxes.
The items look carefully placed, producing an unintended effect that's curiously neat and seems to neutralize what we expect the piece to represent. And that may be the essence of Takahashi's work: It adds up to something different from what we expect. Because the work actually imposes order onto randomness and chaos, it presents an aesthetic in which archiving emerges as a primary idea.
Some of the photographs have what we presume to be the artist's handwriting on them, giving the work a personal touch. In the photographs stapled to the wood panel, Takahashi has included images of her own installations and of her own notes to the museum crews: "Do not clean my area and steps. I'll do the cleaning myself after the pre-view. Thanks." Or, "Please, please do not distarb [sic] till I get up," which likely refers to a piece in which she's spent the night, as she sometimes does with larger installations. This self-consciousness seems an attempt to place herself into a fragment of an ephemeral moment — to impose order.
Takahashi's approach is both gratifying and discomfiting. She trades on our Western cultural concern over how much stuff we have and what to do and make of it, and she toes a line between chaos and structure. She constructs chaos, but there is nothing to evoke a world out of order or out of place. Instead, the piece suggests that someone will be back later to get those photos and those boxes.