Ryosuke Cohen's Fractal Portrait Series, 2003-2004
Ryosuke Cohen, a Japanese artist, discovered Mail Art rather late in life. He was over thirty when he came across and fell in love with Mail Art. By that time, the world-wide system of contacts, or as Robert Filliou had coined it, the Eternal Network, had already passed its heyday, wherever it had gained a footing, even in the less developed parts of the world. During the 1980's, when Cohen joined in the circulation of Mail Art, the movement had already entered its Mail Art Conferences era: its participants had become bored with mere correspondence, and true stimulation could only be found through some form of physical contact. Some of the more well-to-do "weavers" of the web took to the road to meet their local networkers at conferences, putting their heads together to discuss their common quandaries, like internationalist party activists, adamant about creating a future. It was at that time that they had come up with the slogan, "After futurism there is tourism". More than likely, this was the final romantic era of today's Mail Art, for now it attracts far less interest, thanks in part to the ever-expanding Internet-based system of contacts.
Cohen initially gained attention with the unique sensitivity of his montages, the Brain Cell Folios. He mobilised his mail art contacts so that he could collect significant individual visual emblems from the global network's zealous agents - generally in the form of
rubber-stamp art, artist's stamps or stickers. Once he received the materials mailed to him, he started cutting and pasting and fusing them. With a slightly chaotic stylistic approach - a mélange-technique of Babel-like overtones - he created a peculiarly unified context of overlappings, in which there were no main titles, subtitles, headings, or footnotes, with each element finding its due and equal place within the gigantic mosaic. Then he mailed his fellow artists the A3-size folios with his specific assemblages - the collective artwork that encompassed a wide colour spectrum. Thus, the artist colleagues were able to experience a unique sense of togetherness, or were made aware of their common ties - the fact that each of them was a small part of a collective brain (that Cohen aptly compared with a neurone).
Ryosuke Cohen's Brain Cell Folios have slowly been layered on top of one another, and from their accumulated, complex ideological-linguistic layers, they have discharged visual galaxies. Quite characteristically, Cohen has never attempted to introduce his Brain Cell Folios to the world of art galleries, nor to the well-trodden paths of the art system. He was the collector, the compiler and the distributor in one person. Such a collective artwork could only be accessed by those who had actually been home-workers for Cohen's workshop.
In a further elaboration on the above outlined project, and perhaps in reminiscence of Mail Art conferences and tours, Cohen launched a new series under the name of Fractal Portraits . It is basically about Cohen travelling from one country to another, creating portraits, i.e., full body or head silhouettes of the artists he visited in their personal environments. Back home in his own studio, he filled in the drawn silhouettes with visual elements of his familiar Brain Cell iconography . Like a portrait painter or photographer of days gone by, he was roaming the fertile lands of the Eternal Network, pouring into his anthropological studies all the iconographic residues of the global network, with all its microcosms - the concentrated material to be contained within the silhouettes that still appear to be exhaling the scent of human bodies.
His first distant journey led him to America and Europe in 2003, where he made silhouettes (from the heads or bodies) of 47 former or still active mail artists. In 2004 he revisited Europe in the company of a collaborating photographer, during which he called on 14 Hungarian artists with the same aim.
Through the uniqueness of the body outlines, Cohen attempted to let the physical constraints of the given silhouettes control the synthetically extracted residues of the global language, which in his previous work had only been limited by the paper's rectangular edges. On the other hand, in a creative and simple manner, he intended to fuse the potentials of classical visual representation with the manifestations pertaining to the contemporary visual art forms and techniques found in the fringes of art, which we may encounter in our everyday lives, i.e., subcultural art in urban public spaces, on public toilet tiles, on electric poles, signposts, or on benches in parks. In short, wherever creators of subculture are concentrated in great numbers, leaving their marks in the forms of scribbles or bits of paper. Actually, this time, Cohen also made mega-collages, filling the surfaces of his folios almost to the brim, with only the areas beyond the human silhouettes painted over in black. The heads and bodies are thus enveloped in darkness, but observing it more closely, you will notice that hidden under the black layer of paint, there are tiny iconic images visible.
These drawings of the human body outlines may remind us of the Canadian artist Richards Hambleton's anonymous street action, in which he left patterns resembling the chalk silhouettes drawn at crime scenes or accidents, signing them as Mr. Reee. In the 1980's in Canada, both the artistic circles and the spheres beyond it spent a certain amount of time pondering, who on earth might have left those chalk drawings as marks within the concrete jungles of several metropolises. Even the police had to communicate its position on the matter.
Cohen's lying figures are obviously more unambiguous, created on a different impulse. The fundamental idea by all means is uniquely his own: Cohen visits his models one after the other, as if he was a family portrait painter, to make "blueprints" of them, with one exception, that the unique facial features of his models are left out. Thus, his models are in a sense like private soldiers of Mail Art: they all serve in the same corps, fighting for the same aim and ideology. Somewhere, on the boundary between Art and art.