In Tokyo, a German Artist Investigated Human Alienation in the Era of Constant Connectivity
Erik Schmidt was in New York at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Afterward, he created a series of paintings called “Postoccupy” (2013). “What originally sparked my interest,” he has said, “was the fact that this was an experience unfolding in my immediate vicinity.” That sense of immediacy, and the impulse to document events as they occur, is embedded within his practice.
Schmidt’s oeuvre reads like a series of travelogues, with each exhibition capturing his experiences and observations in places as varied as the streets of Manhattan, a vineyard outside Jerusalem, and the forests of the German artist’s native Westphalia. His latest body of work, “Rays around you,” now on view at carlier | gebauer in Berlin, is a painterly record of the months he spent in Japan during an artist residency in 2015.
But don’t expect peaceful scenes of temples and bridges. Much as Schmidt’s portrayal of New York exposed an urban underbelly that would never make it onto a postcard—Postoccupy featured homeless people, gritty city streets, and ugly conflicts between police and protesters—his depictions of Tokyo are far from idealized.
Schmidt’s Tokyo is a tangle of electrical wires, tall buildings, and telephone poles. It’s the view you’d see if you looked up from the street to the sky, contemplating the public systems that make technology possible. The exhibition also features the view you’d see underground, on the notoriously crowded metro, where bleary-eyed office workers scroll through their phones and overworked salarymen slump, half-asleep, against train car walls.
It’s an intriguing juxtaposition: above ground and below, the culture of constant connectivity and the physical infrastructure that supports it. Similar themes—human alienation, tradition versus modernity—run through Cut/Uncut (2016), a short film Schmidt created during the same stint in Japan. The film stars the artist, wandering through Tokyo in a business suit that he later cuts open, creating a loose Japanese-style garment. At the end of the film, he casts off the clothing and walks into the sea.
No matter what you wear, the film suggests, a tourist can never really understand the places he visits, let alone fit into them. It’s the same with the metro commuters in Schmidt’s paintings: No matter how much time they spend staring down at their phones, scrolling through news and social media, a more essential kind of connection is missing.
“Erik Schmidt | Rays around you” is on view at carlier | gebauer, Berlin, Oct. 30, 2016–Jan. 7, 2017.