Surreally, it's a joke

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2007, 12:00am

The good citizens of Liverpool in Britain woke up one morning a few years ago to find that one of the city's monuments had disappeared behind what looked like a giant garden shed.

Somebody had built a hotel room around the five-metre statue of Queen Victoria: the monarch stood on a plinth inside, overlooking not an empire on which the sun never set, but an en suite bathroom and a red-carpeted room. The visual gag was topped off with a sign informing visitors that they could 'sleep with the queen'. Victoria, presumably, was not amused.

The man who pulled off that stunt was Japanese artist Tatsuro Bashi, alias Tatzu Nishi. One critic dubbed his contribution to the 2002 Liverpool Biennale a 'surreal displacement' that demonstrated the 'blurring of public and private space within contemporary capitalism'. Others probably thought it was belittling to the late queen of the realm.

Nishi, 47, thought it was funny. 'It wasn't political at all,' he says at Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, which will unveil his latest project this month. 'I hate political art. I want people to laugh.' In pursuit of that goal, Nishi has taken over public spaces from Cologne (his home since 1987) to Los Angeles, constructing rooms and houses around street lights, monuments and whatever else he finds around the place. Usually he pulls it off, but the Nagoya-born artist says it can be touch and go.

'My projects are very large and involve famous objects in the middle of public spaces, so the reaction before each show is usually about 50-50. Half of the people think, 'Who is this guy and why is he making fun of our queen or whatever?' But once they see the exhibit they usually come on board - usually.'

One project that provoked more reaction than most was his attempt to enclose a well-known Chinatown monument in Yokohama two years ago. 'That was rough,' he says.

Despite his disdain for politics, there's a democratic strain to Nishi's art. He says he decided a long time ago to make art for people who don't go to galleries. 'I had to think about how to attract and interest them. I try to make art that's humorous, sexy and violent.' Violent? 'Yes, not like hitting or breaking stuff. But you're bringing things to people they've never seen before, so if you don't have that kind of violent power in your art you should quit.'

But Nishi doesn't want to compromise with junk art either. 'Art should challenge but not compromise. I'm not into getting attention with naked pictures of Madonna.' Among the artists Nishi thinks should take up other work is Damien Hirst, whose formaldehyde sheep, sharks and cows he describes as 'useless' and 'worse than bad'.

'It's just scandalous nonsense anyone could think up. It reminds me of religious art: sacrificing goats to appease the gods.'

He's infuriated by most of the art exhibits he sees. 'Art should move the heart and the mind, but most of what I see is just boring.'

Nishi's audacious street exhibits only come into life after what's often a protracted struggle with bureaucrats. In Dublin, his plan to suspend a makeshift cafe 30 metres above one of Ireland's toughest neighbourhoods was met with horror by city officials even before they learned that 16 people would be squeezing inside, along with a coffee-maker. 'It was a tough area,' Nishi says. 'There were burning cars, drug killings ... I had to think of something that would connect with those local kids, something thrilling and a bit dangerous.' Somebody higher up the bureaucratic food chain loved the idea and pushed it through.

Tokyo won't be as easy. The city where he studied art in the early 1980s and spent much of his 20s before moving to Germany is the world capital of fussy, regulation-spouting bureaucrats. Nishi's plan to build an installation around the statue of nationalist hero Saigo Takamori went down like the idea of a tribute to US President George W. Bush in Baghdad.

But after two exhibitions, including the Yokohama Triennale in 2005 and the surreal Cheri in the Sky (2006), when he built a boudoir around a statue of a cavalryman on the roof of Maison Hermes in Ginza, even he was surprised by the rejection of about 20 other ideas.

'It is so tiring fighting with them. The city officials kept saying, 'No, no, no'.'

In the end, Nishi got permission to build a giant clock on top of a private building within sight of the Mori. Visitors will be able to see the exhibit from the museum's 53rd floor window - once it's built.

'I hate nature and prefer looking at the things humans have built. Even in a city like this where the people think the buildings are ugly, I love thinking about the imagination and thought that went into human constructions. But it wears me out after a couple of weeks.'

Tatzu Nishi Exhibition, Mori Art Museum. Ends Sept 24