From Sophie Calle’s Heartbreak Diary to the Myths of IKEA, the Best Exhibitions in Tokyo

Ahead of Art Fair Tokyo, here are the exhibitions not to miss in the Japanese capital

BY Andrew Maerkle in Critic's Guides | 05 MAR 19

Sophie Calle, ‘Exquisite Pain’, 2018, installation view, The Hara Museum Collection, Tokyo. Courtesy: Sophie Calle, ADAGP Paris and JASPAR Tokyo; photograph: Keizo Kioku

Sophie Calle: ‘Exquisite Pain’
The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art
5 January – 28 March

Befitting an artist whose works often turn on recursive narrative conceits, this exhibition revisits a solo show Sophie Calle held at the Hara Museum in 1999–2000, which in turn revisited events that occurred when the artist first came to Japan in 1984. Divided between ‘Count Down’ and ‘Count Up’, the exhibition, which is installed exactly as before, hinges upon Calle’s unexpected breakup with her partner. Beginning with a blurry Polaroid snapped at a send-off at Gare du Nord, and ending with a scrawled message stating that her partner has had an accident and won’t be joining her in Delhi, ‘Count Down’ is an inventory of images and artifacts retracing Calle’s 92-day itinerary, from love to heartbreak. ‘Count Up’ exorcises the trauma through storytelling. Here, fabric panels embroidered with Japanese text alternate between Calle’s recounting of her relationship and testimonies by anonymous contributors who share the most painful events they have ever experienced – many involving the death of a loved one. The work takes on added poignancy considering the show takes place in the privately-run Hara Museum, which will be closing down in 2020. 

Themes of mortality and remembrance are continued in concurrent solo shows at Calle’s Tokyo galleries. Gallery Koyanagi features photographs in handsome wood frames equipped with felt covers embroidered with French texts that may or may not relate to the images behind them. Viewers must lift the covers to see the photographs – an almost votive act that is both a violation of the work by the viewer, and a test of endurance imposed on the viewer by the work. The format neatly inverts conventional relations between image and caption, surface representations and the deeper intents behind them. Works at Perrotin Tokyo meanwhile reflect on the deaths in recent years of Calle’s mother, father and cat, and include an album of songs the artist commissioned in memory of her cat Souris.

Leiko Ikemura, Our Planet - Earth & Stars, 2019, installation view, The National Art Center Tokyo. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Shigeo Muto

Leiko Ikemura: ‘Our Planet – Earth & Stars’
National Art Center, Tokyo
18 January – 1 April 

The Berlin- and Cologne-based Leiko Ikemura marks a triumphant return to Japan with this large-scale exhibition that will tour to Kunstmuseum Basel. Possessed of both muscular physicality and a deft touch, Ikemura is a protean artist’s artist, equally comfortable working on canvas, as she is handling ceramics, sculpture, photography or any other medium. Through it all, she has developed a unique language in which abstraction, figuration and landscape converge and diverge – think Paul Klee executed on a bigger, more vigorous scale, as in a group of vertiginous ‘war’ paintings that depict conflagrations as though seen from great heights across vast expanses of water and space. 

One of the highlights of the show comes early on with ceramic works presented on a wavy, lime-green stage. Among these we find the stylized figure of a girl in a frock repeated in several colours, from yellow to blue to mauve, and sometimes shown headless, so that the figure becomes a vessel. Other semi-figurative forms could be representations of buildings or plant life, a minaret or narwhal’s horn, balustrades or ancient funerary objects, each glistening in hues that evoke the acid swirls of Tang-dynasty three-colour glaze or the almost colourless sheen of Korean celadon. Poetic texts punctuating each section of the exhibition give insight into Ikemura’s worldview. Regarding her use of an anthropomorphic rabbit figure in the monumental bronze Usagi Kannon II(2013/14) and other works, Ikemura writes that the rabbit is not ‘the rabbit of Beuys / not a symbol’. Conversant with a dizzying array of antecedents, Ikemura is clearly not beholden to any of them.

Dokuyama Bontaro, My Anthem, 2019, video installation, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Courtesy: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; photograph: Kioku Keizo 

Roppongi Crossing 2019: ‘Connexions’
Mori Art Museum
9 February – 26 May

The Mori Art Museum’s triennial survey of art in Japan, Roppongi Crossing can be a mixed bag. The zeitgeist is tough to capture in an environment where so many strains of art exist together in at-times complementary, at-times uneasy tension. Organized by curator Reiko Tsubaki with Hirokazu Tokuyama and Haruko Kumakura, this year’s edition makes a notable commitment to technology-related themes, starting with Takehiro Iikawa’s Decoratorcrab – Mr. Kobayashi, the Pink Cat (2019) installation at the show’s entrance. A giant, hot pink sculpture of a cartoonish cat, the work initially looks like selfie-bait, but is deliberately scaled and positioned so as to be impossible to photograph clearly. Nearby, Justine Emard’s eerie short film Soul Shift (2018) documents the interactions of prototype androids, while Chiho Hayashi’s immersive multimedia installation Artificial Lover & True Love (2016/19) depicts the artist being romanced by a robot.

One of the strongest contributions, Bontaro Dokuyama’s video My Anthem (2019), features interviews with elderly Taiwanese people who were educated under the Japanese colonial regime and still speak the language fluently. Singing popular war songs for the camera, or reciting the Imperial Rescript on Education from memory, Dokuyama’s subjects offer testimony to the tenacious effects of state ideology.

Yet for all its forward-looking elements, the exhibition’s inclusion of only six female participants among its 25 artists and groups, and the placement of an ‘explicit content’ warning before the display of Kai Maetani, who photographs himself posing nude in capsule hotel bunks, are reminders that, however we wish to define it, art is always on contested ground once it is brought into an institution.

Meiro Koizumi, We Mourn the Dead of the Future, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and MUJIN-TO Production

Meiro Koizumi: ‘We Mourn the Dead of the Future’
Theater Commons Tokyo/Kitasenju BUoY 2F Gallery
22 February – 10 March

An annual programme that commissions Japanese and international artists, filmmakers, dancers and dramaturgs to produce interdisciplinary performances at venues across Tokyo, Theater Commons is one of the highlights of the city’s event calendar. This year’s lineup is anchored by Meiro Koizumi’s multimedia installation We Mourn the Dead of the Future (2018/19), on view at BUoY.

Koizumi is known for tackling issues related to Japanese nationalism that few others are willing to address. Initially produced as a performance workshop for Theater Commons 2018, We Mourn is a 50-minute-long multichannel video installation. Shot in the middle of a muddy field, the footage shows what appears to be a pantomime of a mass execution, only out of sequence. It begins with a pile of inert bodies which are then taken up one by one by officials in raingear and seemingly resurrected. Throughout, officials and ‘victims’ alike intone chants in Japanese. At the moment of their ‘resurrection’, each victim also makes a statement into the camera, to the effect of either ‘I will never sacrifice my life for anyone . . .’, or ‘I sacrifice my life for . . . ,’ before stating the reason why. 

Then the footage is suddenly reversed. What initially appeared ambiguous is now unmistakable, while the spoken words, muffled by the rain and wind, take on an unsettling foreignness, a bit like speaking in tongues and, indeed, a bit like the highly formal, courtly Japanese of Emperor Hirohito’s grainy 15 August 1945 radio broadcast announcing Japan’s acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration. The work is not an easy watch, but it raises tough questions about how violence is mediated through social norms, and what we can do to resist it. 

Mario García Torres, Falling Together in Time, 2018, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo  

Mario Garcia Torres: ‘Falling Together in Time’
Taka Ishii Gallery
23 February – 16 March

Comprising an ambient sound installation, a group of enigmatic monochrome paintings, and a 15-minute-long video, Mario Garcia Torres’s latest exhibition in Tokyo is an absurdist essay on the synchronicities between suicide, Muhammad Ali and pop music. Upon entry, visitors are met by massive speakers that fill the gallery with a low, expectant thrum. The title of this analogue synthesizer piece, produced in collaboration with composer Tetsuji Masuda, says it all: This Sound Makes Me Think Something Great Is about to Happen(all works undated). Painted the same Durex black as the speakers, and each equipped with a small, blinking red light, the monochromes lining the walls have titles such as This Monochrome Was Made While Listening Repeatedly to Van Halen’s Jump, or . . . Michael Jackson’s Beat It

Watching the video at the back of the room helps make sense of these works. Spliced together from desaturated old news clips and oversaturated music video footage, Falling Together in Time identifies the Oberheim OB-Xa synth as a sinister influence that extends backwards and forwards across time and space. Thus the iconic hook of Van Halen’s 1984 hit ‘Jump’, the lyrics to which, we learn from the deadpan voiceover, were inspired by a news segment about a potential suicide jumper, links both Hall & Oates’s 1980 smooth crooner ‘Kiss on My List’ and House of Pain’s 1992 rap anthem ‘Jump Around’, while a January 1981 incident in which Muhammad Ali attempted to talk down a jumper on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles anticipates a failed suicide attempt by a woman, who was born in 1981, that took place on a Manchester highway in January 2010 – moments after ‘Jump’ finished playing on the local airwaves. At once macabre, romantic, and subtly Heideggerian, the ‘falling together’ of the title hints at a horizon beyond which all time past, present and future collapses into a unified now. That’s what art can be, Torres seems to be saying – it just takes a leap of faith to get there. 

Hajime Nariai and Satoshi Hashimoto, Audience's, 2018, audience, camera, photograph, self levelling laser, microphone, performer. Courtesy: the artists and Talion Gallery, Tokyo 

‘Re-curating of existing exhibitions etc: RECALLS’
Talion Gallery
23 February – 24 March

Billed as a re-curation of ‘preexisting things and past events’, curator Hajime Nariai and artist Satoshi Hashimoto’s ‘RECALLS’ adapts strategies of the Situationist International, conceptual art, institutional critique and Relational Aesthetics to the particularities of the Tokyo context. As related through numerous wall texts and captions (all in Japanese), the premise of the exhibition involves a fictive corporate partnership between the Olympics and five of the top museums in Tokyo. Posters lining the walls represent this by combining the slogans of the five games from Athens 2004 to the upcoming Tokyo 2020 with the titles of current exhibitions at the museums. Among them, Beijing 2008’s ‘One World, One Dream’ is matched with Leiko Ikemura’s ‘Our Planet – Earth & Stars’ at the National Art Center, Tokyo; and London 2012’s ‘Inspire a Generation’ is linked to Roppongi Crossing 2019: ‘Connexions’ at the Mori Art Museum.

But the centrepiece is the conversion of the gallery into a temporary IKEA showroom, with LACK wall shelves, a POANG armchair and a set of REKO drinking glasses, among other items, all on sale. A long broadsheet, pasted in the middle of a NISSEDAL mirror, expounds on the founding myth of IKEA as a vehicle for democracy and the similarities between the Swedish furniture company’s products and minimalist art, concluding archly that the ‘do it yourself’ in DIY is, strictly speaking, not an empowerment but a command. Knowing that IKEA’s first Tokyo outlet in Tachikawa is built on the site of a famous postwar-era land struggle between citizens and government over the expansion of a US airbase brings home the show’s critical edge. An investigation of the intersections between modern art, modern sport and capitalism, ‘RECALLS’ asks visitors to reconsider their readymade notions of how cultural values are made and circulated.

Lieko Shiga, ‘Human Spring’, installation view, Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, Tokyo. Courtesy: the artist and Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, Tokyo

Lieko Shiga: ‘Human Spring’
Tokyo Photographic Art Museum
5 March – 6 May

One of the most intriguing artists working with photography in Japan today, Lieko Shiga breaks the mold of ‘pure’ photography for which the country is famous. She frequently stages the events she photographs, uses coloured strobes, and experiments with displaying photographs as sculptural or spatial objects that activate the somatic aspects of the viewing process. 

Made for the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, ‘Human Spring’ deposits visitors into a phalanx of 180-centimetre-high freestanding, rectangular structures that have been covered on all sides with large chromogenic prints. Viewed from the front, the structures show a diverse array of subjects and situations, from a middle-aged woman reclining on a bed in a cluttered room to figures seated for a banquet at a massive round table or the ruins of a burned-out house. Slivers of surreal scenes also appear on the sides of the structures, many of them showing groups of people engaged in vaguely ritualistic activities, but cropped so that it is impossible to place the action. Evoking a kind of dispersed infinity mirror, the backs all feature the same haunting image: a young, shirtless man, his neck and face covered in red paint, who has been shot in soft-focus from the chest up against a shoreline. As visitors navigate among the images, the lighting periodically dims, and soon enough even other people start to seem like apparitions.

Based in the Tohoku region that was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011, Shiga operates out of the abyssal zone – the twilight, as it were – where everything that is familiar to us in our daily lives is upended and becomes alien. But her works are no elegy, and instead look unflinchingly at the continuities linking life and death.

Main image: Justine Emard, Soul Shift, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

Andrew Maerkle is a writer, editor and translator. He lives in Tokyo, Japan.