The Best of the Fall Art Season in Japan

By any reckoning this has been a terrible year for Japan. The monstrous earthquake in March — believed to be the most powerful ever to hit the country — triggered a devastating tsunami that left almost 16,000 people confirmed dead and the nation reeling in the face of a nuclear crisis which seven months later remains un-resolved.  

And yet — as curator Shinya Watanabe has noted here previously — the atmosphere that enveloped Japan following this disaster was far from despair. Even today this spirit is the first thing that you notice when you visit the country, a gentle buoyancy and a sense that misfortune has reconnected people with their deepest values: courage, compassion, and the capacity to endure.


From the perspective of an art correspondent this sense of optimism was no more striking than at the recent Yokohama Triennale, which opened just five months after what the Japanese refer to as the Great East Japan Earthquake, and closed this weekend. The original theme of the Triennale, which had long been in planning when the disaster struck, had been the question — rendered eerie in retrospect — “How Much of the World Can We Know?” This seems to have been posed by curator Akiko Miki as a catch-all which would allow her to choose from a smorgasbord of international art (contemporary, modern, and ancient) unfettered by a tight curatorial framework. It is clearly the metaphysical dimension of art that interests Miki most, something that may have seemed unfashionable prior to the disaster but in the light of it gave her Triennale a peculiar poignancy. The international contribution was strong, but what stuck in the mind later was the exceptional quality of the work by the Japanese artists, and also the quality of the audience response, which was by turns playful, reverent, engaged and engaging, making this one of the most restorative such events this correspondent has attended.

Curator Miki’s original theme, the question “How Much of the World Can We Know?” was, after the events of March, relegated to the status of a sub-title to the more life-affirming “Our Magic Hour,” the title of a 2003 work that Ugo Rondinone re-imagined for Yohohama. The Swiss artist’s works stood almost like guardian angels over the event: a rainbow arch spelt out “Our Magic Hour” (2003/2011) atop the entrance to the Yokohama Museum venue, while his huge, playful “moonrise.east” sculptures lined the walk outside to act as honor guard and camera magnet.

Inside, the strongest impression was made by Japanese artists, from the tragic, exceptionally talented young surrealist painter Tetsuya Ishida (who died in a traffic accident in 2005 at the age of 31) to the alchemically magical Motohiro Tomii, who created a sparkling golden wall from thousands of humble, precisely-placed thumbtacks. The local work was rounded out in the Triennale’s main space by international contributions that rarely rose above the expected. A moving exception being the work “One Sentence” (2011) by Chinese artist Yin Xiuzhen. From 108 individual people she had taken one day’s clothing (socks, underwear, outerwear — the lot) and reduced it to strips of coloured fabric which, tightly spooled and enclosed in a mock film canister, described the circle of each life, their total number echoing the 108 earthly desires that — according to Buddhist belief — lie at the root of suffering.

But it was the Triennale’s other space, BankART, that curator Osaka’s choices really shone. Our pick: the basement rooms devoted to things that come from the earth. Here European duo Dewar & Gicquel’s “excavated” clay hippopotamus emerged from the floor of one room, while in a neighbouring space was a dogged and poetic installation by Mai Yamashita & Naoto Kobayashi entitled “A Spoon Made from the Land” (2009). To fashion the work, the duo spent hours on a beach with a magnet gathering tiny grains of iron from the sand. These they smelted in a little foundry and poured into a mould, which they allowed to cool, and then cracked open to reveal… a single small spoon. The utensil itself — stuck like a flag of triumph into a pile of sand — took pride of place in their installation, while the video of their labors played beside it.

As it turned out Yokohama was not a unique experience. Back in Tokyo was an art scene that also seemed to be drawing on a deep well of talent and support.

Below, in chronological order of closing date, ARTINFO brings you our picks for the 6 best ways to contemplate Japanese creativity this fall/ winter season and gives an insight into the country’s art scene for those abroad.

Light and Shadows in Namban Art: The Mystery of the Western Kings on Horseback,” Suntory Museum of Art, Tokyo

Yokohama, now Japan’s second largest city, was just a fishing village when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his American warships towards its shores in 1853 and demanded Japan open its ports to foreign trade. But as with so many sea-faring “adventures” by Westerners seeking trade, it was the Iberians who got there first. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Portuguese and Spanish traders sailed to Japan, carrying both Western goods and proselytising Catholic priests. These foreigners, whom the Japanese called Namban (“southern barbarians”), introduced not only Christianity but also the Western style of painting. Some of the artists who were taught this new style — possibly under the tutelage of Jesuit priests — went on to create what are acknowledged to be masterpieces today. Amongst the creations of these anonymous (possibly Christian) Japanese artists were superb, monumentally-sized decorative screens depicting “Western Kings on Horseback,” artefacts which are today normally split between the collections of the Kobe City and Suntory Museums but which have been brought together for this special exhibition. Here they are seen alongside other examples of Namban art, which together embody both the glamour and the danger of the West from which they ultimately derive.

Through December 4.

“Metabolism, the City of the Future,” Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

At Suntory’s neighbouring museum in Tokyo’s Roppongi District, the Mori Art Museum, we can contemplate another history, that of the dreamers who made up the mid 20th-century Japanese architectural movement which called itself Metabolism. Although its heyday was in the 1960s, the roots of this movement — which proposed that architecture and cities should be able to grow and evolve organically like a biological organism — reached back into the 1930s, while its influence continued into the 1970s and beyond. Many of the Metabolist architects’ bolder plans — like the ones that envisaged highways in the sky or cities floating out across Tokyo Bay — were destined to stay on the drawing board, but others became reality. One such was the Miyakonojo Civic Center (1966), whose roof concertinas like a fanned bird’s tail. Another is the multi-celled “Grand Roof” of the Festival Plaza at the 1970 Expo in Osaka. As the Mori Art Museum’s Director, Fumio Nanjo, points out, one of this movement’s visionary ideas — for housing built ten meters above the ground — could, if built, have defeated many a tsunami.

Through January 15, 2012.

“Irving Penn and Issey Miyake – Visual Dialogue,” 21_21 Design Sight, Tokyo

This exhibition — staged at the Tadao Ando-designed museum of design of which Issey Miyake is a director — celebrates the 13-year-long artistic collaboration between Miyake and the late, great, American photographer Irving Penn. From 1987 the two men observed a twice-yearly routine, where Miyake would send selected pieces from his forthcoming collection to New York to be photographed by Penn for publication. This was no simple professional exchange, but an artistic dialogue. Miyake never attended Penn’s shoots, but allowed the photographer to work alone with the clothes and the models. The exhilarating results (to use Miyake’s words) “breathed new life into the clothes,” and gave the designer “renewed courage to go forth.” It is one of the achievements of this exhibition, which shows a finely chosen selection of Penn’s photographs of Miyake’s designs beside the designer’s personal collection of Penn’s photographs of other subjects, that it reminds you anew of what revolutionaries this pair were. In an era now best remembered for big hair, shoulder pads, and “greed is good,” Miyake’s clothes unfolded around his models like living things, in fabrics rendered dynamic by both art and science, while Penn’s personal photographs gleamed with a limpid clarity that transformed subjects as unlikely as snails and plump mozzarella di bufala into objects of desire.

The third partner in this sublime exhibition is the architect Tadao Ando, whose building was inspired by Miyake’s minimalist clothing concept — “A Piece of Cloth” — where all manner of garments are created from that one eponymous piece. The building’s sharply sloped roof is a single sheet of folded steel while its mostly subterranean galleries are lit from above by natural light.

Through April 8, 2012.

Roppongi Triangle, Roppongi District, Tokyo

The dialogue between art and architecture that is so satisfyingly on display currently at the 21_21 Design Sight museum is an ongoing event at the Roppongi Art Triangle, in what was once the raffish night club area of Roppongi. Re-imagined as a space for high-end retail, restaurants, apartments and offices by construction magnate Minoru Mori, the district is now home to a grouping of three museums: Mr Mori’s own — the Mori Art Museum, installed on the 53rd floor of the Mori Tower; the Suntory Museum of Art; and the National Art Center of Tokyo.  Each of the buildings lays claim to architectural significance, in particular the last, which was designed by a one-time member of the Metabolism movement, Kisho Kurokawa, and has a façade that billows out in an irregular wave of metal and glass. But it is the Mori Art Museum that can boast the most stunning embellishment, a bronze cast of Louise Bourgeois’ monstrous 1999 sculpture “Maman,” around whose legs the life of the district flows undeterred.


Aoyama District, Tokyo

For those who prefer to contemplate architecture meeting fashion rather conversing with art, a visit to Tokyo’s Aoyama is mandatory. There you can buy your Prada in a store designed by Herzog & De Meuron or browse Comme des Garcons enclosed in the architectural vision of the now defunct, but much admired, architecture firm Future Systems.


Tokyo’s galleries

But this concentration on museums and the streets is not to diss the galleries. Tokyo is home to a seriously sophisticated gallery scene. From the exceptional and persistent curatorial contributions made by senior galleries like SCAI THE BATHHOUSE and Mizuma Art Gallery, through to the upstart and edgy offerings of venues like Nanzuka Underground and Kodama Gallery, Tokyo’s galleries demand to be checked out. Local listings site, Tokyo Art Beat, is a good place to start when you land.




(Image courtesy Mori Art Museum, Tokyo)