Mori Art Museum towers 53 storeys above a vast crossing of roads, rails and pedestrians in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. Its current exhibition, ‘Roppongi Crossing 2013: OUT OF DOUBT’, is the fourth installment of its triennial survey of contemporary Japanese art. Catalyzed by Japan’s weakened political and economic climate, and its meteorological climate since the Great East Earthquake of 2011, doubt is unavoidably a major theme.
Having visited Tohoku, the region most devastated by the disaster, curators Mami Kataoka, Reuben Keehan and Gabriel Ritter were affected by a sense that, post-Tohoku, the Japanese landscape has tragic resonances – but also chimes of reconstruction. Presenting work from an uncertain position, after the disaster, many of the artists selected here share that sense. ‘OUT OF DOUBT’ therefore signifies both uncertainty and our attempts to escape it. Thinking in terms of landscape brings us to the exhibition’s Japanese subtitle, which reads ‘For a Landscape to Come’. With so many art works looking at shifting social and physical terrains, and the strong Japanese tradition of presenting landscapes as critiques of social power, both subtitles are useful weathervanes.
Yoko Asakai’s 2013 series, ‘Pace’, captures remote Japanese islands known for their volatile weather. Asakai photographed each vista before and after rushing tides, which completely alter their topography. Each pair of photographs forms a diptych of compressed time and movement. Asakai’s series ‘Passage’ (2011), is also on view, beside a radio that broadcasts weather reports. ‘Passage’ comprises colour photographs of unremarkable roads, clumps of trees and, crucially, overhanging LED weathervanes reporting wind speed. Taken in an area subject to frequent monsoons, these photographs elliptically evoke the patient vigilance required for living in such changeable climates. Though Asakai does not photograph Tohoku, her work invites the comparison.
Allusions to Tohoku also flash through Meiro Koizumi’s double-channel film, Death Poem for a City (2013). A staccato relay of Tokyo street scenes plays on one side of the screen. Sound is as splintered as the images, with the din of arcade games cutting into sirens, electronic advertisements and conversations. Sometimes the handheld camera capsizes, drowning us in a muddle of streetlights. The reverse side of the projection screen shows people Koizumi sourced from Facebook and filmed in masks as they answer probing questions he delivers off-screen. In a sense, the figure of the artist embodies social media, which demands increasing amounts of personal information from us. Indeed, privacy is no option in Koizumi’s world: on either side of the screen, street and subject blare at each other. One masked man recalls seeing human remains while volunteering in Tohoku. The omnipresent disaster haunts Koizumi’s masked subjects, and in their disturbing moments of recollection, contextualizes Tokyo’s urban and technological malaise within the wider national crisis.
Motoyuki Shitamichi’s photographic series, ‘Remnants’ (2001–12), also invokes remains. Though looking back two generations prior to Koizumi’s survey of social media, Shitamichi also explores how society adapts to new elements of its surroundings. Inspired by Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archaeology (1975), he photographs vacated World War II military architecture across Japan. Once evidence of international conflict, it is now assimilated into the landscape and reused as cafes, garages and farm sheds.
Integrations of foreign bodies is also what interests Yuta Nakamura, whose installation Tofu and Aburaage (2013) explores the conflict between traditional and modern Japan through domestic ceramics. Tiling the section of the gallery leading to the toilets, Nakamura encourages us to consider the impact of Western domestic and sanitary design on Japan. Inspecting the tiles more closely, one can decipher in the enamel glaze excerpts of Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’, in which he criticized the modern Western importation of tiles to Japanese homes as ‘gaudy’. The book, a specimen tile, and a floor plan of Westernized Japanese housing are framed opposite the toilets. The title of Nakamura’s installation refers not to tiles, but to another crossing of West and East, namely an 1877 painting by Yuichi Takahashi, which depicts tofu – a damp, textured and peculiarly Eastern food – in a Western style. Like the tiles, the title indicates historical imports and integrations, their doubtful reception, and the changes they caused.
Nakamura’s and Shitamichi’s interest in historical moments of doubt and assimilation, alongside Koizumi’s and Asakai’s portrayals of climatic and social anxieties in contemporary urban and rural Japan, suggest a process of working out of doubt towards a post-Tohoku future. In grouping the work of these artists and others, ‘Roppongi Crossing 2013’ forms its own landscape of propositions, 53 floors above the ground.