text of essay published in YYZine (Toronto), Spring 2002. Copyright YYZ Artists' Outlet, 2002

Shinobu Akimoto: The House Rabbit Society Project Series / BACKYARD
by Germaine Koh

For The House Rabbit Society Project Series (1997-99), Shinobu Akimoto models her artwork after the activities of a southern-Ontario association dedicated to the well-being of domestic rabbits. She translates the Society’s activities into "artistic" equivalents: their regular classified ads (providing tips on rabbit care) are rendered as fine photo-etchings; a group of finger puppets knit by one member is presented as a sort of collection; and 3-D photographs show individual puppets artfully placed in domestic settings.

One’s first reaction to the quaint activities of the House Rabbit Society might be a certain incredulity, which is not so different from the skepticism that many non-specialists bring to contemporary art: Is this for real? Who cares? By self-consciously aligning her activities with theirs, Akimoto seems to accept that hers might also seem a waste of time, perhaps carrying value only by virtue of the circular argument stipulating that what artists make must be art. By acknowledging that the artist's validation is essentially based on a lifestyle choice, Akimoto's project begins to reveal similarities between the domains of knowledgeable enthusiasts (amateurs, in historical parlance) and designated experts.

The three videos of BACKYARD (2000-01) show simultaneous but different close-ups of the flora and fauna in Akimoto’s parents' yard. Each fifteen-minute track is perturbingly slow on its own, but the vista as projected onto three walls is lushly absorbing. Sometimes all three videos focus on the same subject — a rabbit thumping, a turtle eating — to produce moments of relatively high drama. This movement into and out of visual synchrony modestly re-creates perceptual processes in which the repetition of ambient phenomena coalesces into a focus, making a given amount of information seem somehow richer.

To think of BACKYARD as a decidedly low, "garden-variety" relative of Stan Douglas's Nu'tka' (1996) might give it an appropriately pathetic spin, while revealing the ambivalence of Akimoto’s position. In contrast to the grand historical strife relayed through the precise synchrony of Douglas’s epic*, BACKYARD oscillates placidly between aimlessness and absorption. Assuming the role of amateur-toying-with-camcorder, Akimoto again leaves us considering the parallels between artistic and domestic production, and debating the pre-ordained valuation of each. In this age of ready technology and information, the difference between recognized professional authority (of the artist, for instance) and the devotion of amateurs has never been smaller — or more crucial, in some ways. As we saw in Akimoto’s IKEA Living Project Series (1999-2001), in which she lovingly created from scratch the generic designs of IKEA furnishings, the presence of care might be the decisive, value-adding factor. By creating situations in which a presence or absence of raw enthusiasm is critical, she makes issue of the disinterest affected by her chosen profession.


* Douglas visually interweaves two panoramic sweeps of a spectacular west-coast landscape, accompanied by simultaneous narrative tracks recounting opposing accounts of an 18th-century encounter between Native and Spanish leaders in the area. Occasionally the same sentences, drawn from Gothic literature, are spoken in synchrony by the two narrators as the video tracks briefly come into eerie alignment.