Marizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari have been collaborating since 2012 on a magazine entitled Toilet Paper. It could be called a durational art piece or a commercial art stunt. Essentially, Toilet Paper is a magazine featuring images only, no text, and many of the images are made from collaging existing visuals together. Printed in Switzerland and distributed by fine art printing presses, the publication’s sheer weight and paper quality suggests some sort of derisive coffee-table book rather than a ‘zine’. This adds another layer of complexity to defining this project as a magazine versus an art project.
I was personally excited to come visit this show, in the middle of Tokyo’s art hub Roppongi. The name Perrotin is overheard in many Asian Contemporary Art circles. Emmanuel Perrotin’s heavyweight gallery, now at 7 outposts worldwide, has propelled the careers of Takashi Murakami (he was the first gallerists to show his works outside Japan), Lee Ufan, MADSAKI, and many more. This exhibition’s line-up, with Cattelan and Ferrari, major figures of European art and fashion worlds, was also very promising. I was impressed with the production of the exhibition space, its attractive red wall design and the quality of prints on display. I was surprised to see little to no connection between the works and Japan, given Ferrrari was in Tokyo earlier in 2017 to collaborate with Japanese brand Maison Kitsuné for exclusive Toilet Paper merchandise. From my observations, the Japanese public enjoys an entry point from their insular culture to build meaningful connection to foreign artworks. The rationale from the gallerists could be that Cattalan’s and Ferrari’s collaboration possesses a quirky and risky element, with bright colored and pop imagery that would not shock a 'Harajuku eye'.
Toilet Paper's visual vocabulary takes from the fashion industry, given Ferrari’s experience as a fashion photographer. The body of 'found' images is made up of ads for lipsticks, beach resorts, featuring white blonde models in revealing clothing. But it also features a wonderful collage of lighters lifted by toe-fingers, in a hue of bright primary colors, and a dog smoking from a Magritte pipe also behind a striking red background.
Toilet Paper’s photo-collages, whether in print or hung on the wall inside imposing gilded frames, aim to comment on the state of image circulation in the digital age. Because of the bright colors and eye-catching content, each frame asks for the same amount of attention and receptive labor as the previous ones. This is the same on the internet: there is no visual hierarchy on Instagram, as everything is a JPG standard format anyway. In bright magenta, strikes of yellow, and seas of blue, no image seems more important than the other.
The setting felt quite aristocratic and opulent. The walls were painted a vibrant tomato red color, perfectly suited for Christmas and the holiday seasons. The transparent glass walls of the Perrotin Tokyo gallery reflected red and gold from afar, which coincidentally matched with the building’s decorations. The gilded frames elevated what would otherwise be fun prints on a white wall, minimally displayed in a standard modernist way. Now these Toilet Paper prints look like what they conceptually resist: commodities. Thanks to their gilded frames, they acquire the status of a luxurious antique collectable.
But this idea of image circulation in the age of internet proliferation, social media sharing, and Photoshop is – in my opinion – too important a topic today, and has had too much of a profound impact on the state of visual arts to simply be treated as another excuse to make photographic collages and call it a day. The exhibition’s installation is striking, as the viewer sees the evolution of media from print magazines to sculptural decorative object, but the content remains essentially the same. These bright images are not necessarily pushing the envelope or raising relevant social, political or cultural questions pertinent to Tokyo in 2017. Neither does the visual vocabulary, taken for the majority from European advertisements dating from at least a few years ago.
All in all, the show was well-produced but its artistic concept seemed out its time and place. This type of artwork would have been jaw-dropping and culturally relevant 15 years ago. But I find Hito Steyerl's visually violent and theoretically critical works on 'circulationism', a term she coined, much more suggestive to the state of image-borrowing and commodification of visual experience.