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Issue 104


Having experienced the extremes of postwar boom and economic crash, Japan continues to face new challenges. Across the vast, high-density sprawl of Tokyo, young Japanese artists are finding different ways in which to respond to both the local and international art scenes

BY Dan Fox and Mami Kataoka in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 07

I am standing in the vast East Hall of Tokyo Big Sight International Exhibition Centre. Dozens of young people bustle around me, carrying paintings and drawings or communicating via walkie-talkies with an air of concentrated efficiency. Directly in front of me is a huge white stage, flanked by enormous speakers and a video screen backdrop, across which bounce brightly coloured, animated characters. A sizeable crowd is gathering, and on stage Tokyo MXTV’s Mayuko Ueda is compèring the opening ceremony of GEISAI#10, Takashi Murakami’s DIY art fair for Tokyo’s young artists. As house music thumps from the speakers, Ueda introduces in Japanese the international judges Murakami has invited to award prizes to the young hopefuls taking part: ‘… and introducing … DOUGLAS FOGLE!’ The crowd cheers and applauds as on-stage trips Fogle, curator of Contemporary Art at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, wearing a Japanese happi (a tunic traditionally worn at festivals and celebrations), emblazoned with Murakami’s trademark smiling flower heads. Animated characters twist and twirl across the screen. Then, ‘… MARCEL DZAMA!’ Dzama duly takes the stage, followed by Samuel Kung, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai; both are also wearing happi and looking a little bemused. Everyone applauds enthusiastically. More judges are introduced. There is more cheerful clapping. The judges wave to the audience. The audience waves to the judges (who by this time now number around 30). And then we all turn around for a big, smiling, group photograph. It has just gone nine o’clock on a Sunday morning.

If the above description makes me sound like just another stupid Western gaijin (outsider, or foreigner) dumbstruck by culture shock, then mea culpa. In all the art events I’ve been to, I’ve never witnessed anything quite like it – it looked like so much fun! (And although I doubt that compulsory happi and a cheery atmosphere will be in evidence at this summer’s documenta 12, it really makes me think a few Western art events could benefit from the approach.) To the first-time visitor from the West the Japanese art scene can seem bewildering. In fact, unless you are cursed with crushing ennui, it is incredibly tempting to describe everything in Japan as initially bewildering. Yet this is to blunder into the nasty trap of Orientalism (or at least third-rate Postmodernism), which although an easy one to fall into, can be strangely instructive in understanding the Japanese art scene.

Much of Japan’s history has been defined by isolation, in terms of language (Japanese is spoken in few places beyond its shores) and long periods of self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. It was with the Meiji Restoration, in 1868, that the country began a period of pro-active engagement with the West and implemented a phase of modernization in order to break with its feudalist past. Orthodox art history has it that it was during the Meiji era that Japanese artists were introduced to art from the West, and certain new strands of Japanese art – namely, yoga (literally, ‘Western-style painting’) –
came into being alongside traditional genre forms such as Ukiyo-e, which itself was corralled under the concept of Nihonga (‘Japanese painting’), making use of traditional materials such as inks and silks. This polarization arguably came to shape much of 20th-century Japanese art, not least in terms of the idea of national identity. Even the word bijutsu (‘art’) is a late 19th-century, Meiji-era, literary term.

In the West there is a reductive tendency to lump postwar and contemporary Japanese art (gendai bijutsu) into two broad types: either the old-school version of it as a highly romanticized, gently meditative Zen activity (it was remarked in 1972 by a highly influential Japanese cultural observer that ‘Westerners may flatter themselves […] that their modern art has received immeasurable influence from Zen Buddhism and so on. From our point of view, what they are talking about is, in most cases, a soi-disant Zen, little resembling the teachings of orthodox Zen Buddhism’1); or as a kind of 20th-century anime and manga-spawned, shiny, Pop culture universe of sugary cuteness (critic Noi Sarawagi identified a further form admired by the West – ‘the co-existence of electronics and Oriental philosophy’). The truth of the matter is, of course, immeasurably more rich and complex. The development of 20th-century Japanese art was not that dissimilar to that of the West; it had its pre-war Futurist, Dada, Constructivist and Surrealist phases (artist groups such as Mavo in the 1920s, for instance), Arte Povera, neo-Dada, Fluxus and art radicalized by the social tumult of the 1960s (Mono-ha, Hi Red Centre, Gutai, Kyushu-ha), Performance and Conceptualism (as exemplified by expatriate artists famous outside Japan, such as Yoko Ono or On Kawara) and ‘bubble era’ Postmodernist cultural critique (Dumb Type, for instance). To varying degrees these arose in reaction to both the influence of the West (the after-effects of the postwar American occupation, for example) and the changing nature of modern Japanese society, increasing travel abroad and the growth of communications technology, allowing far more information about Japan and the rest of the world to flow. Curator Alexandra Munroe has argued that the development of Japan’s art scene has been a complex dance between Occidentalism and self-consciousness about Orientalism, citing what Homi K. Bhabha has called ‘the cultural construction of nationness’.2 As the critic Chiba Shigeo wrote: ‘in order to re-examine the history of modern art in Japan, we need a radical break from Eurocentrism at one extreme, pure nativism at the other, and eclecticism in the middle (i.e., trying to determine an appropriate blend of the Western and the vernacular) […] [this history] is not about Westernization or eclecticism but about an endeavour to create art that differs from both the Japanese traditional mode and the Western canon.’3 All of which brings me back to GEISAI#10.

This was the tenth edition of a bi-annual event that Murakami stages in a hulking, spaceship-like convention centre near the Tokyo docks. GEISAI is an open-application art fair for young artists to come and sell their work across a day-long event. There’s no selection panel, and each artist pays for a ‘booth’ (basically, a patch of floor) on a first-come-first-served basis. It’s a bit like a cross between a degree show and a flea market – the art by and large stylistically following that of Murakami or Yoshitomo Nara, a mixture of new Nihonga drawing and painting, and anime-influenced illustration: cute, sometimes highly eroticized, doe-eyed characters inhabiting fantastical landscapes; innocent images often also given a darker, violent twist. There were, of course, exceptions – not least the judges’ favourite, Enami Nara (who happens to make paintings in a very European, Tuymans-esque style), a sophisticated young filmmaker named Masato Ozawa, and Keijiro Niino, a performance artist whose work is directly trying to address certain social problems in Japanese society. Dzama’s personal prize went to an artist named Gluten, who dressed entirely in loaves of bread.

Murakami stages GEISAI in order to try and encourage young artists to assert themselves and bring art into the more mainstream Japanese popular culture. He himself is as well known in Japan for his merchandise (his editions of Louis Vuitton bags in particular), and as a regular TV game show guest and Tokyo FM radio presenter than for his work as an artist. Although a veritable superstar, like his contemporary Yoshitomo Nara, he is angry with the Japanese art establishment and has recently published a best-selling book about how to make a living in the art world and think on a much more international scale. He believes the Japanese museums and galleries don’t take him seriously as an artist and regard him as part of Pop culture: an otaku – slang for a manga-obsessed geek – made good. (Interestingly, he is currently working on a feature-length anime film, potentially for mainstream release.) The majority of Japanese collectors tend to buy Western rather than Japanese art (an observation partially borne out during my visit by the programmes of blue-chip commercial spaces such as Koyanagi, Taka Ishii or Tomio Koyama gallery, exhibiting work by, respectively, Luisa Lambri, Sean Landers and Jon Pylypchuk), and Murakami believes this is partly to do with extortionate and bureaucratic inheritance tax laws set up after the war. He further argues that most young creative types prefer to go into the lucrative worlds of manga or anime, and that those who don’t make do with just being ‘artists’. Murakami is trying to engineer a change in attitudes to contemporary art in Japan by pushing it in a mainstream Pop kind of way. His studio-cum-production company, Kaikai Kiki, also serves as an agency for his younger protégés, including Aya Takano and Chiho Aoshima. He hopes to raise GEISAI’s media profile by enlisting the help of the fashion, design and music worlds, inviting international judges, national TV and music celebrities and presenting the whole event as a form of talk-show-meets-pop-concert.

Even in high-density Tokyo, where land is at a premium and where any one building may contain a plenitude of bars, restaurants and shops, galleries are spread right across town, and there is no equivalent of a run-down area where artists congregate, as there is in Berlin, London or New York. The district of Roppongi, once down at heel and now replete with expensive restaurants and designer shopping outlets at the foot of the enormous Mori Tower (which houses the Mori Museum), is, for all the talk of the area as a cultural ‘quarter’, home to only a handful of galleries, among them Taro Nasu, weißfeld and Gallery Min Min. Where in North America or Europe a city’s landmark new buildings are more than likely to be museums, in Tokyo signature buildings by name architects are found in upmarket shopping districts such as Omotesando, home to Herzog and de Meuron’s Prada shop. (With its honeycomb structure and Cremaster-esque white moulded interior, it is possibly one of the most extraordinary retail premises I’ve ever seen.) Young artists looking to stage shows have to rely on forking out to use tiny rented gallery spaces in expensive areas such as Ginza in order to get noticed – there are no scuzzy warehouse spaces or disused edge-of-town office blocks for use. It is important to remember that, despite Murakami and Nara’s disproportionately high profile, their form of supercharged Nihonga and immaculately surfaced Japanese Pop is only part of the picture. A good deal of well-informed, smart young artists, curators and writers do not consider that Murakami or Nara represent all that Japanese art is about. Work by collectives such as Command N or Exonimo, for instance, explore performance, installation and technology with an energy far more redolent of the work of avant-garde groups of the 1960s and 1970s; older artists such as Chu Enoki have been making work since the 1970s in the vein of Vito Acconci and Mike Kelley; and publications such as the long-established and influential Bijutsu Techo, the bi-lingual ART-iT, and the more irregular, satirical Void Chicken have a highly critical, international perspective. Non-profit organizations such as A.I.T. (Arts Initiative Tokyo) are active in generating curatorial, educational and residency programmes. A.I.T.’s Roger McDonald also runs the English-language blog site Tactical Museum Tokyo (www.rogermc.blogs.com/tactical/), which provides useful information and opinion on the local and national scene.

Tokyo is an extraordinary fast-moving city, and its art scene one of kaleidoscopic complexity. Nam June Paik, reminiscing about his time in Japan, once said: ‘the Japanese economy and society is geared to catch up with the West. Therefore, Japanese society also expects its artists to catch up with the West. But maybe catching up, or down, is not culture’s business.’4

1 Bert Winther, ‘Japanese Thematics in Postwar American Art: From Soi-Disant Zen to the Assertion of Asian American Identity’, in Alexandra Munroe, Japanese Art after 1945: Scream against the Sky, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1994, p. 55
2 Alexandra Munroe, ‘Hinomara Illumination: Japanese Art of the 1990s’, ibid., p. 348
3 Shigeo Chiba, ‘Bijutsu as Genus’, ibid., p. 389
4 Nam June Paik, ‘To Catch Up or Not to Catch Up with the West: Hijikata and Hi Red Center’, ibid., p. 81

Mami Kataoka
Senior Curator at Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

Many foreigners only realize that their mobile phones cannot be used in Japan after they arrive in the country. Likewise, many Japanese mobile phones cannot be used overseas. This seemingly minor detail encapsulates the essence of this small island country: Japan is not only geographically distant from Europe and America, it uses a language only understood within its own borders, and has a history and culture that has never really been colonized. The example of the mobile phone is a symbolic one. While boasting excellent features and services, and topping the world with the annual amount its citizens spend on the mobile phone ($932 per year), Japan does not conform to international standards, as the domestic market provides enough business without having to confront international competitors. In this multicultural era, the percentage of foreigners registered as living in Tokyo, which has a population of 12 million, stands at less than three percent, signalling a very different reality from that in America and many countries in Europe. Having lived through the extremes of a post-war boom period and the bubble economy of the latter half of the 1980s, Japan has created a moderate society, where everyone is said to be middle-class. Although the country continues to face many new issues – such as the widening social divisions that followed the economic crash of the 1990s – in general, things on this mature island nation just tend to be self-contained. If one didn’t consider its global position objectively, Tokyo could easily seem to be little more than a big city in its own isolated world.

So, how does Tokyo’s art scene measure up? In Japan, where the market, collectors, audience – everything, in fact – is small in scale, even Tokyo, which is widely held to be the epicentre of the Japanese art world, cannot hold a candle to the art scenes of New York or London. Tokyo, which was at the forefront of the Asian art world only a short time ago, is now completely overshadowed by the dynamism of its rapidly expanding neighbour, China. In fact, even during the boom times of the 1980s, Tokyo did not witness the steady stream of gallery launches funded by Europeans or Americans that are taking place in Beijing or Shanghai now. Despite the emergence in Tokyo of galleries with global networks in the latter half of the 1990s, less than 30 venues are currently advertised in the ‘New Favourite’ listings map, which lists contemporary art spaces in Tokyo. Scattered as they are across the city, it is difficult to visit ten venues in a single day, and, if your timing is bad, there might not even be any exhibitions worth visiting. One reason for this lack of a vibrant art scene might be that, since land is expensive in Tokyo, the venues in the city centre are only places to show, not places to create – in other words, you will not run into artists on the street corner because almost all of them live in the suburbs. Nonetheless, pockets of creative activity have sprung up throughout the city. For instance, when the Mori Art Museum was launched in Autumn 2003, a few galleries also opened in surrounding buildings in the Roppongi area. After that, other exhibition spaces, artists’ bars and publishing companies also assembled there. With the new National Arts Centre, the new Suntory Museum, and 21_21 Design Sight operated by The Issey Miyake Foundation all set to open in Spring 2007, the area is fast becoming the city’s most prominent area for arts.

Among the Japanese contemporary artists who currently have international careers are such established figures as Yayoi Kusama and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Then there are artists like Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, who have taken Japanese contemporary art forward, and have steered the unique qualities of Japanese culture away from their historical roots and towards the present day. There also seems to be a disproportionate amount of international attention currently focused on a small group of artists whose works are highly collectible – a not uncommon occurrence in a world that tends to equate artistic value with art-market success. The artists who developed their career in the wake of Nara and Murakami, include many who have a wealth of experience of participating in international exhibitions: Tsuyoshi Ozawa, Makoto Aida, Yutaka Sone and Shimabuku, for instance. But personally I do not think the international recognition these artists have received has been enough to give a more diversified or polyphonic view of the Japanese art scene.

This generation of artists born in the 1960s sought to carve out an international position for their national identity, while maintaining an awareness of their heritage. Murakami’s ‘superflat’ theory was his way of providing an answer; Ozawa, Aida and the rest, while their work differs from that of Murakami in form, are also aware of their Japanese identity to some extent. Ten years on, however, and the enthusiasm of the latest generation of artists to engage with the question of national culture has waned – as has their relationship towards America’s influence. The majority of this generation – these children of baby boomers – lacks fighting spirit, detests collectivization and is basically low-key. Having grown up in times of severe recession following the collapse of a boom period, surrounded by a sense of global instability and a gloomy vision of the future, these artists, in response to such experiences, have tended to cultivate intensely private and restricted inner worlds.

The works of Manabu Ikeda, Etsuko Fukuya, Koichi Enomoto and Yayoi Deki, for instance, are characterized by an extreme intimacy and an obsession with surface, as if the art amounts to a visualization of the artists’ inner selves. Ikeda’s latest works – his first for a year and a half – mix various viewpoints, blend reality and surreality, weave fragmented sceneries and eras, and invite the viewer to peer deep into the artist’s inner world. These depictions are frequently realized by a number of young artists as drawings – a tradition that can perhaps be traced to the drawings of Yoshitomo Nara, which combine childlike images and text, or Ryoko Aoki’s delicate-looking, girlish images. The intimate nature of these artworks also shares something of the sensitivity and tactility found in the embroidery techniques of Zon Ito and Satoru Aoyama, or the brilliant professional craftsmanship of Motohiko Odani, Yasuyuki Nishio and Yoshihiro Suda.

Other areas of Japanese popular culture – fashion, design, music, architecture – remain dynamic, however. Indeed, international and home-grown fashion brands are so avidly supported by Tokyo’s deep-rooted, consumer-driven culture that many stores in the Aoyama and Omotesando area can boast designs by some of the world’s top architects – Dior by SANAA, Omotesando Hills by Tadao Ando, Louis Vuitton by Jun Aoki, TOD’S by Toyo Ito, Prada by Herzog & de Meuron – making this area seem like a life-size museum of architecture. In terms of fashion design, as well as leading labels such as Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto, Japan has produced many of the brands driving street culture, too, such as NICO or Undercover.

On the surface at least, Tokyo, with its maturity and its moderate scale, is a very convenient and accessible city. Even if overseas visitors cannot use their mobile phones, they can thoroughly enjoy the myriad opportunities for shopping or the recent resurgence of interest in Japanese food that has left the city overflowing with consumables of every type. And many elements of traditional Japanese culture can still be found in the downtown area. Even though a huge sense of insecurity about the future remains, it is also true that Tokyo’s comforts and general affluence has resulted in a lessening awareness of bigger problems. And perhaps, more than anything else, the one thing that could encourage this positive spirit – not just in Japan, but the world over – would be a small group of artists.