Koichi Watanabe, Maplecrest, New York, USA, 2007
This text was originally published by our sister publication, art-agenda
Koichi Watanabe’s “Moving Plants”
THE THIRD GALLERY AYA, Osaka
December 15, 2015–January 23, 2016
An ambitious metonym wants to give us a glimpse of what Jorge Luis Borges called “the Aleph,” that place from which everything in the world can be seen simultaneously. While keeping its gaze fixed on one thing, a metonym is also speaking of many others, seen in something like peripheral vision. Contemporary art—often a kind of oblique and esoteric visual poetry—is drawn to metonymy because it wants to speak of many things, but can only look at one thing at a time. It needs a part which can stand for the whole, a particular which slips in the direction of universals. In some cases there’s also a need to be critical and political in ways that don’t seem bombastic, simplistic, or didactic.
Japan, a collectivist society built around Confucian ideas of harmony, is uneasy with art’s potential to examine things with too much critical or political acuity: even amongst the most serious contemporary art galleries there’s a tendency to show work that’s twee, cute, childlike, and uncontentious. So when a compelling metaphor or metonym does emerge in an exhibition here, it has the feel of something rare and subtly subversive.
For a decade Koichi Watanabe has been traveling the world photographing the Fallopia japonica plant, called itadori in Japan and known in the West as Japanese knotweed (and a host of more sinister names including fleeceflower, elephant ears, monkeyweed, monkey fungus, donkey rhubarb, and Hancock’s curse). To make “Moving Plants” he travelled to the United Kingdom, Poland, Holland, and the United States to photograph the species with his 6×6 camera. At Osaka’s Third Gallery Aya, his C-prints are supplemented by video projections of plant markets, botanical trading floors, and scans of vintage plant inventories. The stills are mounted in black frames which sometimes divide the picture plane of a single image. There are shots of museums dedicated to Dutch-Japanese maritime commerce, of industrial estates in Leiden devoted to the sunflower trade, and of Japanese knotweed spreading its green fingers across Europe’s streets, buildings, and gardens. The plant’s visual presence as it seems to grow across all surfaces in the small gallery is simultaneously restful and sinister.
Brought to Europe from Japan in the mid-nineteenth century by the German botanist Philipp Franz von Siebold, itadori is now branded an invasive species: feared, banned and, if possible, exterminated. Australia and Scotland have made its propagation illegal. When Canadian authorities gouged the plant’s roots out with excavators it grew back the following year twice the size. In Poland it encroaches on wheat fields. In England its discovery on a property is enough to disqualify a prospective buyer from a mortgage. The plant can crack asphalt roads and damage buildings, its complex rhizomic root system resisting all attempts at eradication.
The history of itadori is rich symbolic soil: a couple of decades ago it could have stood for the seemingly unstoppable spread of Japanese cars, electronics, and management philosophies in the West. Today the alarmist language of alien invasion, confinement and extermination has a different implication in a West dealing with a refugee influx of its own making. But the allegory cuts both ways, as a quote from Charles Darwin, included in the book Seigensha has published to accompany the exhibition, makes clear. Writing in 1832 of the impact of Cynara cadunculus on Argentina and Chile, Darwin stressed that invasive species can be botanical imperialists, erasing indigenous diversity: “Over the undulating plains, where these great beds occur, nothing else can now live. Before their introduction, however, the surface must have supported, as in other parts, a rank herbage. I doubt whether any case is on record of an invasion on so grand a scale of one plant over the aborigines.”(1)
Like Andreas Gursky and the late Allan Sekula, Watanabe is interested in finding photographic correlatives for globalized logistical flows. And like Wolfgang Tillmans—whose recent book The Cars (2015) showed the increasingly lupine look of car headlights—Watanabe is as focused on the physical form of his chosen subject as its metaphorical implication. He allows some ambivalence to enter the frame; even evil things might also be beautiful.
In an international art world which often seems narcissistically fixated on coming up with visual metonyms for its own global span—a borderless reach which mimics and follows that of international capital itself—the work of this Osaka artist might seem like just another branch in a quickly spreading forest. But in the somewhat saccharine and provincial Japanese art scene, Koichi Watanabe stands out as a rare plant indeed.
(1) Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches (Penguin Classics: London,  1989), 59.