The modern city envelops modern man so completely that he inhabits it even in his dreams — even in his best dreams. That’s the message weaving through the current exhibition at the Watari-Um Museum of Art in Tokyo’s Aoyama district. “Beautiful Cities in Dreams” is the eighth incarnation in Watari’s “I Love Art” series, a group show occurring every couple of years.
Generally, a permanent-collection show such as this is put out during a slow stretch in a museum’s calendar — curators dust off a few favorites and throw together a cheap and easy exhibition. And, usually, they are rather predictable and very missable. But in its 16 years of existence, the Watari-Um has grown into arguably the best contemporary art museum in Tokyo, infused with a heartfelt love of art. These folks do just about everything well, including a permanent collection show.
To be sure, the theme of “Beautiful Cities in Dreams” is something of a stretch — many of the 100 works from 13 participating photographers have at best a tenuous connection to the themes of metropolis, dreams, or even “beauty.” One can however, trace an influence from, and/or the presence of, the city in most of the pieces.
Robert Frank’s moody road photographs, for example, do not feature the city. But aren’t roads artery-like extensions of the city — safe escapes, leading us to roam? Why would roads exist if they were not connected to cities?
The portraits by Andy Warhol, Dianne Arbus and August Sander relate in a similar way to the theme because only an urban environment and its dense population could yield the celebrities, freaks and castaways these artists frequently took as subjects.
Am I stretching? Perhaps. If so, forgive me and forgive the Watari-Um, because, like everything at this family-run museum, “Beautiful Cities in Dreams” is informed by love, and that is good.
I remember when I was writing my first Tokyo art columns some 10 years ago, Koichi Watari told how his mother, Shizuko, had dragged him to art exhibitions all round the world when he was a child. Not surprisingly, he was both intimidated and bored by the sanctified atmosphere of the museum. Now, he helps run a museum of his own, and does so with an abundance of positive energy. That’s why this series is titled, uncooly but without pretense, “I Love Art.”
On the topic of love — was the world really so stoned just a couple of generations ago to fall in love with the silly, endomorphic poet Alan Ginsberg? Ponder that as you look at his photographs. Augmented by scribbled observations, commentary and memories, the monochrome set spans several decades of Ginsberg’s merry marriage to the city of New York. More than anything else here, this love he had for Manhattan best represents the theme of the exhibition.
In much of the work from the 1970s, steamy counterculture cachet is an ace, held tight against the chest as in a skid row poker game. Duane Michaels’ “The Fallen Angel” sees a woman on a worn-out mattress. A winged, male angel appears in the tenement flat, and the pair indulge in an otherworldly romance which leaves him sobbing. From Japan, we have legendary writer/director Shuji Terayama, whose snapshots of half-naked schoolboys and fright-wig, whiteface girls in bondage visit a long-gone Japanese avant-garde.
Other notable work includes a selection of David Hockney prints that recall the minimalist aesthetic of his earlier California swimming pool series; a wallful of Robert Mapplethorpe flower studies; some Man Ray photograms; and a neighborhood panorama by the young Japanese artist Shimabuku, documenting a conceptual project created on-site at the Watari-Um in 1999.
An extraordinary characteristic of the Watari is its equal interest in and attention to both established and emerging artists. Osaka-based Zon Ito was just 30 when the museum gave him a solo show in 2003 — three years later he is back with “Children of Veins,” a jaunty animation-based video piece he did with his wife Ryoko Aoki.
Throughout, the photographs and videos are nicely complemented by installation work, notable among these is a tall, modified Shibuya street lamp by Olaf Nicolai, and a suspended red ruby sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky. And finally, works by Rene Magritte, Robert Rauschenberg, Marcel Broodthaers, Keith Haring, Hiroyuki Oki and Barry McGee complete a lovingly curated and well-poised exhibition, which nicely fills the Watari-Um’s three floors.