The world loves Japanese design. Because of this, Design Week, coming up next month, is arguably one of the most successful international events in Tokyo. By contrast, Tokyo Fashion Week and Tokyo International Film Festival hardly generate in those fields’ fans the rabid excitement that the designers’ event does.
So it should be no surprise that “Roppongi Crossing 2007,” the Mori Art Museum’s excellent new survey of contemporary art in Japan that opened this past weekend, has succeeded by featuring Japanese artists who easily straddle the line between design and art.
“We didn’t try to analyze which artists are important to Japanese art history,” says Araki. “The first motivation was, ‘Which artist do you like best?’ It was our personal responses to the works.”
The approach has created the best group show of contemporary Japanese art that Tokyo has seen since the Mori opened four years ago. The curators have put together an excellently selected, well laid out and, most importantly, highly entertaining collection of works. It may not include some of the big name Japanese artists you might expect, but being comprehensive wasn’t the point this time. Critiques of the first “Roppongi Crossing” in 2005 complained that there was too much and too little — so many artists that there wasn’t enough of each to gain a sense of what they were about.
“The last exhibition was part of the ceremony of our opening of the museum, because it was just the second show, so it was like a festival. There were 57 artists and groups, so obviously each had a small space,” says Araki. “It was very enjoyable, but at the same time it was a little difficult to show each artist’s own world fully to the audience.”
The presentation of artists in “Roppongi Crossing 2007,” subtitled “Future Beats in Japanese Contemporary Art,” flows smoothly from room to room, each offering something new, different and enticing. The first airy white space draws you in with Yoshino Tatsumi’s giant black sculptures of humanlike dogs, Yasuhiko Uchihara’s large mashup of digital photos (look for the tiny birds) and Tiger Tateishi’s absurdist cartoons and paintings. This is followed by a small alcove for Yayoi Deki’s colorful paintings and then a blackened chamber dedicated to Chu Enoki’s room-filling futuristic cityscape “RPM-1200″ (2005), which you can view from an observation deck above and even step inside.
From such a promising start, the variously constructed rooms reveal new surprises that concisely present an art world that is not only inclusive of all genres but one that freely mixes them up — sculpture with painting, video with installations, video games operated with musical instruments. Partly, this was a shared trait among the artists that the curators only discovered after they had decided who each of them had wanted to include and were figuring out why these artists should be shown together.
“We had long discussions about ‘Why is this important?’ ‘Should we present them in this exhibition space now?’ ” says Araki. “We didn’t want to just create a survey of ‘important’ artists from different fields — one of these and one of those; that wouldn’t have been fun.”
Another trait of the exhibition’s art — regardless of genre — is a celebration of excess. Sawaragi says this mirrors the chaotic nature of the present day.
Looking out of the Mori Tower’s 52nd floor at Tokyo’s incomprehensible sprawl, this makes sense; such chaos is made manifest in works like a giant bubbly Styrofoam sculpture — that takes over a white room midway through the exhibition — by Kohei Nawa, who is also known for the “PixCell” series shown at the SCAI the Bathhouse gallery, in which he covers stuffed animals with what looks like irregular bubble wrap. Or in Shinichi Hara’s marble sculptures that waver between telling a story and losing themselves in amorphous forms.
That so many of the artists in “Roppongi Crossing” work in commercial fields is in some ways a return to the way of life of Edo Period artists — or more correctly, artisans. At the risk of running roughshod over Japanese art history, a general overview of the forces at play in the last century and a half is in order . . .
Between the Meiji Period (1868-1912) and the 1960s, art in Japan embraced Western training and methods, resulting in a new separation between “high art” and the traditional craftsmanship that Japanese artisans had always practiced. In a sense, Japanese art lost its way due to its crash course in Western styles — what was once “contemporary” in Japan, the art of a unique culture fostered in years of isolation, turned into an alien, imported set of standards that had no precedent within the country.
After years in this wilderness, Japanese artists in the ’60s once again found their footing when experimental films and music, cross-genre collaborations between architecture, fashion and art, and homegrown movements such as Mono-ha (The School of Things) appeared. At the same time, the Japanese economy had created a modern, developed society similar to the West, so that Japanese artists of today — represented by the ones at the Mori — grew up in the same world in which avant-garde movements in America and Europe, such as Pop Art, began to appropriate the everyday as art.
Put broadly, these creators, surrounded by a world overwhelmed by images and mass-produced objects, have followed an international trend in which the artist has become an editor of reality, choosing from the many things around us and reordering them to present a new way to understand the culture they came from.
This fits the guest curator Sawaragi’s theory about the vague divide between art and design in Japan. Take, for instance, Yuichi Higashionna, who takes common household items — fluorescent lights, hand mirrors, colored ribbons — and makes bright, chaotic installations. Or Ito Gabin, who literally is an editor — he has worked for the Japanese video-game magazine LogIn and published many books. His contribution to “Roppongi Crossing” is a purposeless first-person-shooter video game. It has the standard video controller and a protagonist with a gun, but if you run too long, your character slumps over panting, and if you try to shoot any of the other characters, nothing happens. He has used a commercial form — the video game — for his work, but because the game is useless — thus pointing out the ultimate uselessness of similar games — it belongs in a museum environment. If it were a real game, there would be no reason for it to be here.
Nowadays the distance between the gallery wall and advertisements is drawing closer and closer. When psychedelic ’70s style drawings of unicorns, stars and hearts bursting out of rainbow-colored cityscapes — which once were only seen in high-school notebooks and on cheesy record sleeves — arrived in galleries a couple years ago, it wasn’t long before such images were featured in ads for Microsoft’s new software. Photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto once discovered one of his well-known images of a movie theater copied outright in an advertisement.
Asked if he thought if this was good or bad for art — on the one hand it means that the art reaches a greater audience, but on the other the mass exposure depreciates the value of the original work — Sawaragi says it is both.
“To give just one example, Yookoo Tadanoi was originally a graphic designer, but now he’s a painter and has done poster design, so he has moved between advertising and art,” Sawaragi says. “Since the ’70s in Japan, perhaps, that has happened more often.”
As if to reinforce the meeting of design and art here, the next day there was a commercial on TV for the newspaper Sankei Express that seemed to directly mimic parts of the excellent installation by Iichiro Tanaka, who works for the Dentsu advertising agency. Does all this diminish the works in “Roppongi Crossing 2007″? No. What it revealed, actually, was that what the Mori has put together in a museum space are the inspirations for Japan’s popular culture.
Sawaragi says that the curators’ intention was to show the future by featuring the new methods that artists are employing to express the modern experience. But what the museum has really done is capture the best of what currently exists in our image- and media-saturated world and put it together in a single exciting display.
It’s like the contradiction of watching a video of award-winning TV ads. Taken out of the context of ads being interruptions to the programs you are trying to watch, you realize the dirty little secret that some of the most creative minds on TV are in advertising. Thus freed from normal expectations of what you should be concentrating on, you can be entertained by the heights of creativity that go into our everyday lives.
And thus if art today in Japan is in bed with design, then “Roppongi Crossing” successfully makes the argument that we are all the better for it.
“Roppongi Crossing 2007 — Future Beats in Japanese Contemporary Art” runs till Jan. 4 at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo; open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (closes 5 p.m. Tues.); ¥1,500. For more information call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.mori.art.museum