BY Sam Thorne in Reviews | 05 MAR 14
Featured in
Issue 161

Mingei: Are You Here?

BY Sam Thorne in Reviews | 05 MAR 14

‘Mingei: Are You Here?’, 2013, installation view

What does a ‘museum-quality’ exhibition look like today? The phrase is usually deployed by a select group of commercial galleries – Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner most prominent among them – to signal a particularly ambitious type of show: often guest-curated, reliant on a raft of loans, accompanied by a catalogue of some heft. To take Gagosian as just one example, think of their 2009 survey of Picasso’s late paintings in New York, curated by the artist’s biographer John Richardson, or their 2010 James Turrell show in London, which beat a not dissimilar LACMA retrospective to the punch by three years. So the term is also misleading, even sadly ironic, in that these shows typically require resources that are just not available to publicly funded institutions today. It might not be overstating the case to say that the museum-quality show has become the temporary domain of the commercial gallery.

The press release for ‘Mingei: Are You Here?’ described the exhibition as ‘museum-quality’. However, though compact, it was wayward and personal, inventive and even funny, in ways that museum surveys can rarely afford to be. Curated by Nicolas Trembley, and comprising around 80 works by 25 artists, it entailed a highly associative exploration of the legacy of Mingei, a Japanese movement and ideology that began to flower in the 1920s. This anti-industrial tendency emphasized simplicity and craft in ways that are in the air again today, from the current rash of art-plus-tapestry surveys (last year’s ‘Decorum’ at the Musée d’art moderne, Paris, and ‘Soft Pictures’ at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin) to a young generation’s possibly fickle embrace of ceramics (Exhibit A: this year’s ‘New Contemporaries’, ten minutes’ walk away from Pace at the ICA, London).

According to the movement’s founder, the theorist Soetsu Yanagi, ‘all that is natural, sincere, safe and simple – these are the characteristics of Mingei art’. Though Yanagi and his peers, mostly potters, such as Shoji Hamada, were included here, Trembley also noted the central role that Isamu Noguchi played to the show, in its ping-ponging between East and West, as well its presentation, which purposefully dissolved design into art, craft into architecture. Chairs shown in the same way as sieves, 16th-century lacquerware and vases produced by the German studio Sgrafo Modern in the 1960s (the subject of an excellent 2012 show organized by Trembley at Alex Zachary Peter Currie in New York). There were many wonderful things squeezed in between: a skinny slab of blue stone by Trisha Donnelly; an acrylic weaving by Willem de Rooij; a kettle by Naoto Fukasawa, who, as creative director of Muji, was an influential evangelist of Mingei-tinged affordable simplicity.

The exhibition proceeded by chains of connection. So we had work by Yanagi’s contemporaries, Anni and Josef Albers, who met at the Bauhaus before moving to the Black Mountain College, where they taught Ruth Asawa, whose basket-like sculptures hung close by. There were also paintings by the Korean minimalist Lee Ufan, co-founder of the Mono-Ha movement, who as a young man was greatly influenced by Yanagi, as well as twisting columns by Hiroshi Sugimoto, who during the 1980s ran an antiques gallery in New York called Mingei. Some of these dialogues were not about the shape of influence so much as its anxieties or even irrelevance: next to a glazed vase by the Hong Kong-born St Ives potter Bernard Leach was Simon Fujiwara’s Like Father, Like Son (2013), a smashed attempt to reestablish contact with his estranged dad by throwing some Leach-style pots in Japan.

Most of this was artfully corralled into a single mise-en-scène, crowded along a two-tiered platform that ran the entire length of the main gallery space. This kind of frontal arrangement, a staple of dusty ethnographic museums, has become familiar in the last few years. For example, in ‘All of the Above’ (2011) at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, John M. Armleder lined up works from all of the preceding year’s exhibition onto a small stage, while the Mark Leckey-curated touring show ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ (2013) took a similar approach but with a greenscreen tableau. Leckey’s interest was, I think, in following a search-engine-type logic to convene a single ‘screenshot’ out of many objects. But I wonder what this strategy meant in Trembley’s show. Was it a harmless pastiche of the pitfalls of ethnographic display, which smoothed out difference while dramatizing otherness? Or, in this context, did it feel closer to a marketing strategy? After all, if you’re in the business of marketing objects as frictionless JPGs, as Pace clearly are, then if you can squeeze 80 works into a single image then so much the better. But then I guess that a gallery is only museum-like, never a museum.

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.