While walking through the courtyard of the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art and interviewing critic Midori Matsui, a frog hopped out of the darkness, stopped for a moment in the light and then slipped back into the night. Matsui, who curated the Hara’s current exhibition, “Micropop,” had just been explaining in front of paintings by Tam Ochiai that what she looks for in works of art are things that disappear.
“I love the idea of a process captured by a static medium like painting,” said Matsui, one of the foremost guides to Japanese art for the rest of the world. Referring to Ochiai’s “a gentleman in the forest,” an abstract painting of broad green brush strokes, she explains, “It’s like in the book ‘The Little Prince.’ You have a box, and someone says there is a sheep inside, so there is a sheep inside. You must be the kind of person who sees the sheep. You must be able to see the gentleman in the forest — he’s dressed in green.”
With the full title “Winter Garden: The Exploration of the Micropop Imagination in Contemporary Japanese Art,” (on till July 20), Matsui has set out to define prominent trends in contemporary art in Japan, and therein made it apparent that one of the biggest deals with ephemerality.
In the first room of the Hara is perhaps the most direct example. Lyota Yagi’s “VINYL” (2006) is a performance that is presented several times a day with a toy record player and 45s made of ice. Removed from the silicon casings that imprint pieces by Chopin and Bach, as well as “Moon River” and other music, the frozen singles have a limited time before their sound melts away on the turntable into a fuzz of nothingness. What you hear will never be heard again.
In video installations by Taro Izumi that Matsui has placed around the Hara, the young artist gives himself arbitrary, absurd rules for actions. In one, he does live drawings of images on a television screen, turning a passive medium into an interactive one. As the TV images change, he tries to erase the drawings and start new ones, creating a mess on the screen that turns into an abstract work.
You could read the piece as showing the impossibility of trying to capture a moment in time, and that, the more you try, the more confused things become. But actually it is simpler than this. Matsui says, “He doesn’t really have a message, he just tries to do a performance,” and by setting his rules, he inadvertently channels advances in art history such as automatic drawing, abstraction, performance and conceptual art.
“Tapping into the unconscious is very important for the ‘Micropop’ exhibition,” emphasizes Matsui while discussing Izumi; moments later, explaining “The Sun,” an installation by Ryoko Aoki, she compares the hidden nature of the unconscious mind to other natural phenomena: “The activity of microbes is a central metaphor of this exhibition. The activity of microbes is invisible but constantly works on existing structures in order to create new things. Your human mind works in the same way.
“When something disintegrates, known structures of meaning and recognizable forms disintegrate into meaningless fragments that elicit new combinations. It’s not evolution, because there is no development, only an accumulation of moments.”
So don’t expect the artworks to necessarily take you somewhere definite, rather they should simply sweep you up. Compared to some of the Hara’s brash shows of artists such as Pipilotti Rist and recently Jim Lambie, “Micropop” is much quieter, even wispy. While the “Neoteny” exhibition across town at the Ueno Royal Museum, which presents a number of representative Japanese artists of the 1990s from the collection of psychiatrist Ryutaro Takahashi, goes for the gut with big gestures, “Micropop” melts before your eyes, and requires that you make real effort to see it.
Which is befitting of Matsui’s purpose. In the end, she says that she is looking for the “deliberately insignificant gesture” more than anything else. “My exhibition takes up the same challenge (since the 1950s in contemporary art) of destroying or deconstructing accepted forms of beauty and rationality, or accepted means of communication,” she says.
This can obviously make connecting with visitors difficult, so Matusi, who worked with The Japan Foundation to put the exhibition together, has thrown in some crowd-pleasers that don’t require such analytical considerations.
Figurative works by Mahomi Kunikata use images from comics to delve into the search for your spiritual double and the nature of being a woman in Japanese society. Rabble-rousers Chim↑Pom play with fire in a video in a corner.
Still, Matsui says that “this exhibition actually chooses its audience. Even though many works look accessible on the surface because they are figurative, it is kind of difficult for a general audience to respond to it. Sometimes maybe it is easy for them, but you have to be the kind of viewer who doesn’t have baggage about what is and isn’t artistic. You have to respond to it like a child, like you are responding to natural phenomena.”
Natural phenomena, such as the action of microbes or the thoughts in the mind, all vanish before our eyes. If these artists aspire to present a state of pure phenomenon, then the works are pointing beyond themselves.
Avant-garde composer John Cage famously tried to break down the wall dividing artistic creations and the world around them. In “4’33,” perhaps his best known piece, a single note is played for 4 minutes and 33 seconds — not to highlight the note, but to make audiences aware of all the other sounds that could be heard at the same time. “Micropop” suggests the same thing can be done with art works; the concentration of the viewer should not be on the object itself, but on how they themselves view it. Art becomes a way to experience the world, a way to focus or perceive.
If the works at “Micropop” don’t reach out and grab you like some of the spectacles that other exhibitions present, that is not a sign of failure. Its purpose instead is to make you open your eyes to the world around you, whether it’s the TV flickering in the corner, the view out your window or the frog vanishing in the darkness. In the end its not the work that is important, but the looking that is.
“Winter Garden: The Exploration of the Micropop Imagination in Contemporary Japanese Art,” is showing till July 20 at the Hara Museum of Art in Shinagawa; admission ¥1,000; open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Wed. till 8 p.m.; closed Mon.). For more information, call (03) 3445-0651 or visit www.haramuseum.com