More than a few favorite things

Genre-bending exhibition reveals outgoing MoMAK curator's 30 years of achievement

by Andrew Maerkle

Museum curators are usually in the position of assessing an artist’s career, but rarely turn that same critical lens upon themselves. However, the exhibition “My Favorites-Index of a Certain Collection: Selections from the MoMAK Collection,” which opened to the public on March 24 at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, was an opportunity to do just that for Shinji Kohmoto. Kohmoto has been employed at MoMAK since 1981, first as a curator and then, since 2006, as chief curator. Retiring this April, Kohmoto has turned his parting exhibition into an oblique retrospective of his own storied career and a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the museum system.

“My Favorites” takes as its point of departure the museum’s practice of categorizing works in its collection by type, such as painting, sculpture or photography. In addition to these conventional classifications, the museum also has a catchall classification of “non-category,” which was fittingly added in the fiscal year 1978-79 after MoMAK acquired a version of Marcel Duchamp’s portable retrospective “La boite-en-valise” (1931-41/1955-68), a leather case filled with miniature reproductions of the artist’s representative works.

While the idea of the non-category suggests an antiquated system struggling to keep pace with developments in contemporary art, Kohmoto told The Japan Times that over the years he found in it a sanctuary. “Museums are by nature interested in categorizing objects so that they can be precisely tracked and grouped into a knowledge-based framework,” Kohmoto said. “But I worry that in doing so we rob artworks of their authentic aura.

“As the labels we assign to artworks become evermore precise, the non-category has been a kind of shelter to preserve the ambiguity of the art experience and values that cannot be defined by language.”

As he reviewed the works he had personally acquired for MoMAK, Kohmoto realized that an overwhelming majority fell under the non-category classification. Thus, while revisiting all of Kohmoto’s major exhibitions at the museum, “My Favorites” is also an homage to subjectivity and idiosyncrasy. The exhibition opens with a room full of Duchamp’s iconic readymades such as the urinal, “Fountain” (1917/64), and the vial of air, “50 cc of Paris Air” (1919/64), as well as “La boite-en-valise,” and then mixes together works by both currently active and historically significant artists.

Transforming the moving image of film into a physical environment, Tadasu Takamine’s brooding installation “Baby Insa-dong” (2003) comprises a long row of photographic panels circling four walls of a room. Featuring photographs of the artist’s wedding bordered by colored bands and overprinted with Japanese, Korean and English texts, the panels describe how Takamine came to marry his Japanese-Korean wife and the conflicts about identity raised by their relationship. The work also includes a small monitor with footage of a rousing, celebratory belly dance by a trans-gendered friend.

Known for self-portraits that combine aspects of photography, painting, stagecraft and performance, Yasumasa Morimura is represented by several works in “My Favorites.” In one gallery, Morimura’s mixed-media piece “Portrait (Nine Faces)” (1989) replaces the figures crowding over a cadaver in Rembrandt’s painting “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632) with the artist’s own image. Perhaps justifying its non-category classification, Morimura’s large-scale photographic color print is presented in a baroque gilt frame, while traces of varnish on its surface evoke the strokes of a paintbrush.

A collection of archival materials related to Dada, Futurism and Fluxus also stretches the boundaries of convention. In particular, the numerous Fluxus-produced broadsheets on display feature scores for conceptual performances that can potentially be realized by readers, while also revealing a subtle misanthropic streak to the postwar experimental movement. Entitled “Audience Piece No. 1, 1964,” one such score proposes, “Audience is locked up in theatre. / Piece ends when they find a way out.”

Also notable is a group of works related to currency, gifted to MoMAK by the Toshioka Bill Art Collection, which includes Genpei Akasegawa’s “Invitation for Katsuhiko Akasegawa’s solo exhibition ‘On the Ambivalent Sea’ ” (1963). Intended as an invitation for a solo exhibition by the artist, the work features a one-sided monochrome reproduction of a ¥1,000 note, with exhibition details printed on its reverse, which was then mailed out in a cash envelope. However, it ultimately resulted in an indictment against Akasegawa for counterfeiting, and a sensational trial in which debate over the meaning of art included performances by the artist’s peers in the courtroom.

Such works reflect Kohmoto’s own idiosyncratic curatorial practice. His background in mathematics and engineering — as opposed to art history — helped him to pursue intellectually driven exhibitions such as 1996′s “Project for Survival,” with many works from that exhibition reappearing in “My Favorites.” Addressing difficult social issues, the show was largely unpopular and met with resistance when it traveled to the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, but Kohmoto considers it to be one of his most important exhibitions.

“The museum director in Tokyo was very hesitant about doing the show,” Kohmoto reflected. “He could not understand the Japanese word for project or venture, touki, used in the title.

“I was so shocked by that. I came from an engineering background but he came from literature and had never heard of the word. I suppose he got the feeling that the work was too political, and he wanted the museum to be neutral, maintaining a safe, happy art fiction.”

Kohmoto also said that when he joined the museum, he was skeptical of acquiring works for the collection, but he happened to come on board right as Japan’s postwar economy was reaching its fever pitch. He said that the acquisition of the suite of Duchamp readymades in the fiscal year 1987-88 was made possible in part due to U.S. pressure on the Japanese government to improve domestic consumption, which resulted in the development of a special budget to acquire works from abroad.

With his career now winding down, Kohmoto cited Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s video installation “De Novo” (2009) as standing out among the works in “My Favorites.” Originally made for the 2009 Venice Biennale, “De Novo” features the artist seated at a table recounting her four previous projects for the biennale since her first participation in 1990. As she recounts each project, Gonzalez-Foerster takes viewers deeper and deeper into her frustrations as an artist and the divide between creative ideas and their realization.

“This work I love very much for its monologue about Venice and the many times she has been invited, the failures in confidence and the mental exhaustion of coming up with new work for the biennale every time,” Kohmoto said. “That sentiment synchronizes perfectly with how I often feel as a curator.

“It is my personal favorite.”

Kohmoto, who will remain with the museum for a year in an advisory capacity, will be succeeded by Hidetsugu Yamano, MoMAK’s specialist in yoga Western-style painting and late 19th-century and early 20th-century avant-garde art.

“My Favorites” at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto runs till May 5; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (till 7:30 p.m. on Fri.), closed Mon.; admission ¥850. For more information, visit www.momak.go.jp/English