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The Showa 40 select six

by Monty Dipietro

The usual reasons for the formation of artists’ groups are similarities in media, style or philosophy. But the only link for the six members of the “Showa 40″ group, who rank among Japan’s best contemporary artists, is the year of their births, 1965. There is nothing else distinctly in common among the six, although one can identify threads such as dark humor, gadget fetishism and otaku manga culture running through their work. But the 1965 time post does unite the Showa 40 gang rather well. Their roller coaster of shared history — rising from the quiet comfort of the post-baby boom to the halcyon optimism of Japan’s bubble era before delving into the hikikomori culture of social withdrawal visited on the X Generation — is, I believe, the reason the Showa 40 artists have found both their unique inspiration and their considerable success.

The Showa 40 all turn 40 years old this year, making them officially “mid-career artists,” and the exhibition “40×40 — Seven Little Samurais +1″ is something like the group’s birthday present to the next generation of Japanese artists. The show has each of the Showa 40 members introducing one or two of their favorite young artists, and it provides an indication of where they see Japanese art heading.

“Seven Little Samurais” is in the new avant-garde art, food, booze and schmooze space Anpontan in Ginza, and I must digress again and say that this is a fabulous place (if you can find it, as it is well off the beaten path). Anpontan opened on Oct. 28, with a tastefully minimal Champagne and oyster bar on the first floor and a Mediterranean restaurant on the second, along with four floors of white cube galleries and a library. It is the brainchild of owner Hiroshi Matsuo.

“I spent 17 years living in New York,” says Matsuo, “when I came back last year I realized that there are not a lot of places where adults can meet at night. People who gather here can enjoy the art, but really it is they themselves who I hope will create the atmosphere — like a contemporary salon.”

Now to the crop of twentysomething artists showing in Anpontan’s inaugural exhibition: Showa 40 performance artist Hiroyuki Matsukage has introduced Masanori Ikeda, whose large photographs see people posed in their homes and depict what the artist terms “the strange and funny nature of Japanese everyday life.” These pictures dryly address the gulf in perceptions of normalcy that seems to be opening between the young generation and their parents. Ikeda was initially one of Matsukage’s assistants, and he recently took up photography after painting in his early 20s. A painter’s eye for careful composition and some surreal interventions in the frame inform these works, which are probably my favorites in the show.

Meanwhile, Masamichi Tosa is presenting the artist Pyokotan’s video and large inkjet works featuring sexually frustrated salarymen, done in a childish manga treatment; while Parco Kinoshita’s artist, Hiromi Bandaira has contributed a colorful series of ink drawings; and Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s selection, the team of Koichi Manabe and Koichi Fujimoto are here with “Histream” (2005), a Nam June Paik-style video interference piece.

Also messing up a television is the artist Mnemon, presented by Sumihisa Arima. Mnemon has a small monitor and camera set up on the floor of the basement gallery, hooked up to stick-on sensors like those used for electrocardiograms. Visitors stoop over and watch their faces flickering in and out of the picture, in and out of existence.

Finally, we have a guest artist, Saskia Holmkvist (she is the “+1″ in the exhibition title — is it that a Swede could not be considered a samurai?), who has brought an interview-based video piece; and a couple of artists presented by Makoto Aida — Ryohei Usui, with a topographic installation piece, and Futsu Kenkyujo, who has suspended a slowly turning globe more than 1 meter in diameter from the ceiling. The globe is encrusted with a dog’s breakfast of art iconography that includes Taro Okamoto’s “Sun Tower,” and it even has a video projector inside rotating an angry young man’s face round the gallery walls. Too busy for me, this one.

I would say that the concept behind this show is good — as it is not critics or curators but other artists, for a change, showcasing emerging talent (although there is a hint of the sempai/kohai mentality at play here, and that is hardly avant-garde). The selections overall are also good and, in the end, something unexpected in an interesting new space, which, hopefully, could evolve into something of a drop-in and drink-up spot for Tokyo’s creative community.