Home is always where the heart is

by Emily Wakeling

Special To The Japan Times

Contemporary artists are a product of a globally minded world. While artists of past ages have had clear goals of making it in London, Paris or New York, artists of the 21st century seek stimulation from any number of locations across the planet. All they need is a passport, a place to stay, and ideally some funding. “Home Again: 10 Artists Who Have Experienced Japan”, curated by Atsuo Yasuda, is the current exhibition at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, and it features works by 10 such artists who made their way to Tokyo.

These artists all took part in the residency program of the nonprofit organization Arts Initiative Tokyo (AIT), supported by the Backers Foundation of Japan. AIT began Tokyo’s first recurring residency program eight years ago. The organization was founded in 2001 by six arts workers as a reaction to what they observed as Tokyo’s lack of spaces in which people could think about, learn and discuss art. Through the residency program, artists from across the globe have been able to experience life in Japan. Moreover, they had the chance to become involved in the local scene and ultimately to show their work in the Hara museum, one of Tokyo’s most sought-after venues for contemporary art.

The exhibition displays a wide variety of media and thankfully, the works avoid cliche — there are no paintings of geisha or sumo wrestlers or Pokemon. Instead, each artist shows a response to their Tokyo stays in personal styles.

India’s Minam Apang, an artist interested in folk tales, made an intricately detailed drawing, “Hillside Stories: A Dog Brings the Shadow, Remembering Hachiko” (2008) that was inspired by the legend of Hachiko, the loyal dog whose bronze statue stands at attention near Shibuya Station.

Argentinean artist Florencia Rodriguez Giles takes the rather transcultural theme of spirituality and prayer for her drawings. During the opening night, Giles’ installation, “Unfallen Names,” became the setting for a performance in which two actors engaged in solemn prayer while combining the aesthetics of Noh, Buddhism and ballet among other elements.

For those artists who came to Japan during or after March 2011, some chose to reflect on Japan’s widespread grief after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Indonesian artist, Syagini Ratnawulan’s white pillow with lace has the word “remember” stitched across its front. In a very personal touch, the artist uses her own hair instead of thread, but she says her surrealist imagery is designed to evoke suppressed memories in her audience. Her “Homecoming Swords” is a drawing of an empty desert road, where telephone poles are replaced with the floating crosses of gigantic swords and their handles.

Don’t miss Ratnawulan’s work in the stairwell, “L.S.,” a photograph of what appears to be figures covered in a long, white sheet. The initials of the title, she explained in a preview of the exhibition, stand for the Last Supper, after Leonardo Da Vinci’s iconic Biblical painting. The artist has kept the same arrangement of figures as Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece, but all are ghoulishly hidden from view.

Duto Hardono takes a different approach to 3/11. Although many of his conceptual works seem to pull the leg of high conceptualism, the artist spoke about his sincere empathy with victims of the natural disaster.

“People are all the same everywhere in the world. For example, everyone makes mistakes,” he said during the viewing, pointing at the postcards that make up his “28 Days from Red to White.”

The piece is an attempt to send a series of postcards in a spectrum of colors from red to white, posting them in Indonesia to the AIT office in Japan. By the actions of the international postal service, or Hardono’s own forgetfulness, the series is not in the right order. “And, like this cassette, all people have two sides,” Duto said as he pointed to “Untitled (You Chose the Wrong Side),” a work displaying a cassette and its unravelled tape.

The earliest art works in the exhibition are the 2007 works on paper by Khadim Ali. Ali trained in Lahore, Pakistan, in the traditional art of Persian and Indian miniature painting. During his time in Tokyo, he met a woman who had to leave her daughter behind in order to work in Japan. His work, incorporating fine drawings of a woman’s hair, gold foil and a background of notes in English, were inspired by that meeting.

On a much lighter note, American artist Mary Elizabeth Yarbrough presents four works that take inspiration from newspaper photographs. One of the images is based on the beaming smile of postwar singer and actress Hibari Misora, whose music Yarbrough encountered through her experiences in the karaoke rooms of Tokyo.

“Home Again” shows that, when it comes to contemporary artists, “home” can be irrelevant. In a range of methods and materials, these artists remind us that Japan is not so out-of-the-way or isolated as some may think.

“Home Again: 10 Artists Who Have Experienced Japan” at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art runs till Nov. 18; open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Wed till 8 p.m.); ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.haramuseum.or.jp .