BEIRUT: The centerpiece of Emi Miyashita’s first solo show at the Running Horse Contemporary Art Center in Karantina is an installation of nearly two dozen tiny drawings tucked into dainty, antique-looking frames. Clustered together and hung haphazardly on the wall, they look like a life’s worth of family photographs crowded into the narrow hallways and tchotchke-stuffed salons of an elderly grandmother’s apartment.
The drawings are further embellished by an arrangement of eight old-fashioned, elaborately stemmed magnifying glasses, all strung from gold chains and so placed to invite viewers to take a closer look at what are, in the end, rather mischievous erotic miniatures.
Adherents to the Running Horse will remember Miyashita’s work from two of the young gallery’s previous group shows – “Desires, Nightmares and Dreams II,” in 2011, which brought together the work of five young artists exploring the body, humor, sensuality and the emotional undergrowth of contemporary art; and “Counting Thoughts,” in 2010, an exhibition of work made by women, about being women.
Besides the fact that her work consists almost exclusively of delicate pencil drawings on heavily textured, cream-colored paper, what is most obvious and striking about Miyashita’s art is the vast imagination and palpable obsession with which she depicts a woman’s disembodied breasts, an occasional vulva and male genitals, over and over again. Her imagery is clearly childlike, seemingly innocent and totally fanciful. There is a sinister edge to the work, of course, but it remains subtle and subdued (and most often represented by a kitchen knife).
In Miyashita’s drawings, and indeed in what would appear to be the elaborate interior world of her art, breasts double as snow globes, adobe dwellings, gentle hills in a landscape, cupcakes, pudding, salt and pepper shakers, hot air balloons, a merry-go-round and other amusement park rides. Penises, meanwhile, appear as trees, grilled sandwiches, stewed vegetables, bundled goods and a season’s harvest.
While most of Miyashita’s scenarios are drawn from purely personal fantasies, a few of them are based on crystal-clear references to blockbuster art historical pictures, such as a drawing from 2011, which transposes Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” to the intimacies of the artist’s anatomical landscapes.
This is just one among many clues in Miyashita’s oeuvre to suggest that more is going on in her work than idle playfulness. The artist takes that playfulness seriously and explores it on several levels at once.
The old-time atmosphere of Miyashita’s installations echoes the archaic nature of her settings. Her intimations of place suggest country fairs and carnivals, the circus, nudist colonies and other vaguely utopic projects that are only hazily defined but unmistakably vintage.
This is the stuff of the past, and indeed, the artist describes her drawings as “documents of explorations” that reside firmly in memory.
That this is also the stuff of psychoanalysis, and that Miyashita is palpably interested in using her drawings to delve into the writings and research of Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein, adds another spin to her work. This is particularly true in Beirut, where the application of psychoanalysis in art has tended more toward war trauma, political allegory and the literary lessons of Jacques Lacan.
Miyashita, who was born in Japan and is currently based in London, is after something else: “the structure of curious sexualities,” she says, of homosexuality and bisexuality alongside the classic cases of the field, such as hysteria, obsession, penis envy and the Oedipal complex.
What Miyashita’s work proposes, then, is a kind of test. Can joyful and humorous depictions of both orthodox and unorthodox sexualities shift the perceptions of viewers who might otherwise find them embarrassing, shameful, deviant, pornographic, threatening or simply inappropriate for an art gallery? How do we respond to this work? What does our reaction say not about Miyashita – whom we barely know – but about us, as a society, or a handful of gallery-hopping individuals grappling with each their own issues?
Entitled “Carnal Aspirations,” Miyashita’s show does not offer much that is new in the artist’s body of work. Sure, there are dollhouses adorned with cutouts of breasts and penises, a few collages that add a shock of pink color, and a handful of larger drawings. The latter serve only to reaffirm the effectiveness of her work on a micro scale. Her images do not gain much from being rendered in to a larger size. Ditto the installation of a metal chair placed before one drawing in particular, a trio of breasts, which isn’t likely to knock anyone off his, or her, feet.
That said, exhibitions like this at the Running Horse are proliferating. More and more galleries and art spaces are opening in Beirut to put forth a different aesthetic, another constellation of influences and interests. Like “We Hesitated Between Arrangements, Modulations and Maneuvers,” curator Amanda Abi Khalil’s recent show at Mkalles’ Minus 5 space, or “Crisis Practice” the current exhibition at the Workshop Gallery attached to the design studio Wondereight, Miyashita’s show appears apolitical until one considers how central sexuality and gender (and with them property and personal status) are to the heart of political problems in a country like Lebanon.
“Until this day, the Lebanese visual arts world remains remarkably ‘virile,’ populated by – and biased towards – men,” writes the curator and film programmer Rasha Salti in a recent essay for the journal Tate Etc on the pioneering artist Saloua Raouda Choucair. “Most artists are male, as are the majority of critics, writers and collectors ... Unlike Syria, Egypt, Iraq or Palestine, and in spite of a so-called historically liberal disposition, Lebanon was not a vanguard home to feminist movements, discourse or activists.”
It still isn’t, and perhaps for that reason, Miyashita’s drawings resonate in unexpectedly relevant ways. They are a keen reminder of the many worlds – political, imaginary, artistic, geographic, psychological – where sex and gender are both a playground and a battlefield.
Emi Miyashita’s “Carnal Aspirations” remains on view at the Running Horse Contemporary Art Center in Karantina through July 25. For more information, please call 01-562-778 or visit www.therunninghorseart.com.