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Thursday, April 30, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Post-Apocalyptic Playground -- Sculptor Kenji Yanobe's Absurdist, Cartoony Creations Frolic In The Shadow Of Nuclear Holocaust

Seattle Times Art Critic

------------------------------- VISUAL ARTS REVIEW "Survival System Train and Other Sculpture: by Kenji Yanobe" Through June 20 at the Center on Contemporary Art, 65 Cedar St., Seattle; $4, 206-728-1980. Hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. Sundays. -------------------------------

Kenji Yanobe is a 32-year-old Japanese artist whose life-sized "atomic-radiation survival suits" and bigger-than-life-sized Godzilla sculptures have already earned him an international reputation among those who follow the latest currents in Japanese contemporary art.

As part of the "brat pack" of Japanese artists born in the '60s and weaned on Japanese comic books, animation and pop culture, Yanobe's humorous, sometimes absurdist work reflects all those influences as well as a more disquieting concern: the possibility of a nuclear holocaust that would turn the earth into one big, radioactive ruin.

It's a credit to the current management of the Center on Contemporary Art that it was able to snag this engaging, highly original show between international stops. It was shown at the Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco last year, and is likely headed to Europe after this. Part of this exhibition and other related work by Yanobe has been shown since the early '90s in Berlin, Paris and Tokyo.

The exhibition consists of a couple of "radiation suits" equipped with Geiger counters; some World War I-vintage gas masks retrofitted to detect atomic radiation; a couple of "escape pods" big enough to carry one person out of radioactive fallout; and a train engine - the "Survival System Train" for which the exhibition is titled - that actually chugs along a set of tracks taken from a coal mine. Though it's meant to be a train, the round engine looks equally like something from Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

Yanobe makes all his sculptures from industrial scraps and scavenged machinery, and his junkyard engineering is impressive. His aesthetics come from '50s and '60s sci-fi and "manga otaku," the dizzyingly action-oriented Japanese comic-book and animation culture. There's also a heavy dose of absurdist theatricality in this show, with its many whirring, whizzing and wiggling parts. During a visit here last week, Yanobe demonstrated the train system as well as the kinetic qualities of "Foot Soldier (Godzilla)," which is a pair of cobalt-blue, 5 1/2-feet-tall Godzilla legs that Yanobe can ride and manipulate like a "Star Wars" robot.

Yanobe was born in Osaka, site of a world's fair in 1970. He said that as a small boy, he often played on the deserted fairgrounds. "After the fair, there was left a very futuristic pavilion and in my memory, it looked like the destroyed future," he said. "My friends and I would play around it and it made a big impression on me. Kind of like a time trip."

Yanobe was also impressed by the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear accident, in 1986. After building an "atom suit" resembling a deep-sea diver's outfit, he traveled to Chernobyl in 1997 to engage in a little performance art and conceptual theater. He had himself filmed walking around Chernobyl as the Geiger counters in his "atom suit" recorded the level of radioactivity still present at the site. Stills from the film are included in the CoCA show.

"Chernobyl also looks to me like a symbol of the ruins of the future," said Yanobe, adding that despite the zany, cartoony quality of his work, it also is about nuclear apocalypse.

The one piece that doesn't seem to fit precisely into the survival-system theme of his show is the Godzilla sculpture, which Yanobe says is about political and physical power and therefore is indirectly related. "When I was making this piece, it was about the corruption of world power and world conquest," he said. "I wanted the piece to be an extension of my body. So I took a small toy Godzilla and took it apart and made it larger."

This is a rare chance to see an engaging show in Seattle by one of Japan's hot young artists. And if you have a 12-year-old who's even vaguely interested in comic books and Japanese action figures - including the classic "Atom Boy" character who's the inspiration for a piece in this show - he or she will get a kick out of the exhibition. This is one show to bring the kids to. They'll love it.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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