Kaikai Kiki Gallery

Oil and acrylic on canvas ; sculpture : sewn sails, emergency blanket 

Huile et acrylique sur toile ; sculpture : voile, couverture de survie , 2015

Tokyo, Japan / Japon

Private collection

Currently on show at Kaikai Kiki Gallery is “BLAS,” an exhibition of new works by French graffiti artists Zoer & Velvet that were created over the course of a month-long sojourn in Tokyo.

The two artists returned to the Japanese capital after a visit earlier this spring to take part in a new initiative launched by Takashi Murakami called “GEISAI infinity,” during which they

produced an entire suite of oil paintings on canvas for their “L’Etat Limite” exhibition at Murakami’s Zingaro galleries in Nakano Broadway.

Zoer sees the pair’s work as a gradual process of bricolage, of “collecting information and images, and assembling them into a puzzle made up of different fragments of reality.” This exhibition at Kaikai Kiki Gallery is inspired by the duo’s vision of a possible and plausible future world, “based on the ruins of the current one.” Identity in a world where such a concept can be either congenital and inherited, or assumed and elective, as well as migration, are strong overall themes. The world in these paintings, according to Zoer, is “a world that tries to find sense and spiritual progression in collecting signs, symbols, and objects that remain from the drama.

Known for a body of work that casts a wry eye on the urban tensions and complexities that result from multi-ethnic, racially diverse societies in transition, Zoer & Velvet’s exhibition is entitled “BLAS”: a not-so-subtle allusion to the word blasphemy, and the ideological friction that frequently occurs in a societies made up of diverse faiths. The recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris, which erupted as a result of different understandings of what political satire means in just such a city, seems to be emblematic of many of the themes explored in their work. Velvet notes that Charlie Hebdo is an important publication that offers its readers “its own vision of the complexity of the world through text and drawings,” while he and Zoer view the process of creation as a way of exploring similar frustrations and fracture lines in society. “What we’ve tried to do for this show is to ‘digest’ information, images, and speeches that we received daily over these last few months,” he says.

Zoer, on the other hand, saw the Charlie Hebdo tragedy not just as a physical one, but an ideological assault. “The symbols of culture and the freedom of speech they condemned were all illustrators who were strong references for me since my childhood,” he recalls. “Attacking culture, and artists, is an act that bears the mark of fascism. It points towards an absolutely heinous social climate, a real step backwards. I am not sure that France has really changed in terms of how it deals with its cultural and religious complexities,” says Zoer.

In this sense, Tokyo seems to have been a valuable counterpoint and vastly different cultural experience, especially in comparison with other first world capitals like Los Angeles or Paris. For Zoer, Tokyo’s apparent cultural homogeneity seems to have fostered a fundamental respect for all cultures.

“Tokyo taught me the deep importance of inner cultural development. I think the city maintains a real respect for other individualities and cultures. It might be that I still have too romantic a vision of Tokyo for the moment, but it seems to me that people here respect each other much more, compared with other big cities in Europe,” muses Zoer.

On the other hand, compared with the natural cosmopolitanism of Paris that encourages the city’s inhabitants to accept and assimilate people of diverse backgrounds, Tokyo’s culture tends to create a strong societal pressure to conform to certain mainstream expectations. “It seems to me that in Tokyo, people have to keep their ‘face,’ socially speaking,” he notes. "It’s a society organized around professional structures, where people have to work to be part of society. People who lose their job or those facing bankruptcy suddenly break all social links with that society,” says Zoer.

Likewise, although Tokyo is known for having markedly less graffiti than other huge, post-industrial metropoles in the West, Velvet feels that this situation in fact helps to clarify and give focus on the graffiti writers who are active in the Japanese capital. “For sure, Tokyo is not exactly the hottest place for graffiti, but I feel that this situation makes the few names present in this game stronger. They seem dedicated to a purer form of bombing,” he offers.

Zoer, too, appreciates the spirit within Tokyo’s small graffiti scene. “The scene looks really small, but the people that practice are real activists. I appreciate the way in which they fight for their liberty of action,” he muses. More than that, however, he sees the city of Tokyo as a potentially challenging environment that might prove an apt canvas for a form of street art tailored to the Japanese context. “I really love Tokyo for its strong culture and education, but if I had to stay here longer, I would probably seek to find different ways to paint, and adapt my graffiti to the city configuration,” says the artist.

Darryl Wee, Blouin Art Info, August 13 2015