The collapse of the Sasago Tunnel in Yamanashi Prefecture three weeks ago put a spotlight on the state of Japan’s infrastructure, and how many of the bridges and tunnels that were built during the period of rapid economic development in the 1970s and ’80s have not received proper maintenance. Much of Japan’s art-world “infrastructure” was built during that time, too, but the good news is that efforts to update Japan’s museums have been going on for a while now, and in 2012 some of the fruits of those labors became apparent.
The most visible change was at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno, which reopened in April after a massive, two-year renovation.
The renovation was impressive not just for what it did, but for what it didn’t do, which is destroy the charm of its original building — a deceptively low-profile series of red-tile-clad rectangular prisms built in 1975 by Kunio Maekawa, a Le Corbusier pupil and one of Japan’s most famous modernist architects. Nevertheless, the renovation allowed for an increase in the ceiling height of the main galleries from 3.2 meters to 4.5 meters. It also enabled the creation of three brand-new restaurants, a doubling in the size of the museum shop and more.
In other words, the old facility has been thoroughly modernized. The increased ceiling space will allow for more diverse types of contemporary art to be shown, and the new restaurants and shop will make the museum compatible with the habits of contemporary museumgoers.
Similar efforts have been made at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MOMAT), which celebrated its 60th anniversary this year. While some of those efforts involved improvements to its now 43-year-old building — redesign of the top three gallery floors — important changes are also evident in aspects of the museum’s management.
The museum has always owned the most important collection of 20th-century Japanese art in existence, and yet visitor numbers to its permanent exhibitions have perennially been low. Good to see, then, that MOMAT took the 60th anniversary as an opportunity to plug the collection. As well as holding a highly satisfying collection exhibition titled “Art Will Thrill You!” showcasing its holdings, it also held a public vote on the best work of art in the collection, and other events, too. (Shoen Uemura’s “Mother and Child,” 1934, amassed the most number of votes.)
Another key change that kicked in this year was the introduction of the new national indemnity system. This means that museums no longer have to pay the full cost of insurance for artworks they borrow from overseas. Viewers who enjoyed the very good “Two Hundred Selected Masterpieces from the Palace Museum, Beijing” exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum, and MOMAT’s “Jackson Pollock, A Centennial Retrospective,” should bear in mind that both shows would not have been possible without this new system, which was a good 20 years in the making. (It is modeled on a similar program adopted in the United States in 1975.)
And there is another reason why Japan’s generally maligned art museums deserve credit this year: They produced some very good solo shows for Japan’s often-neglected mid-career artists.
Rinko Kawauchi’s solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Photography was stunning, particularly the large “Ametsuchi” works, some 2 meters across, depicting controlled burning off of the grass on a hill in the city of Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture. They seemed to capture the idea of death and rebirth in a single image.
Meanwhile, Yokohama Museum of Art presented a solo show for Yoshitomo Nara, the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi did Makoto Aida and Art Tower Mito did Tadasu Takamine. All three shows provided insights into how some of Japan’s biggest artists were reacting to the events of March 11, 2011 — the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.
Nara allowed only hints of post-disaster confusion to infiltrate his trademark portraits of children. (At the same time he gave his blessing for one of his earlier works, of a child holding a “no-nukes” sign, to be used in rallies against nuclear power.) Aida reveled — as he always has — in depicting yet another type of Armageddon. Takamine, whose exhibition has only just opened, digs the deepest into the national psyche, suggesting through a series of videotaped interactions that Japan’s problems stem from a kind of unspoken, overwhelmingly numbing form of peer-group pressure.
Art Tower Mito also deserves credit for producing the first general survey of art to emerge in response to the 2011 disasters. Its “Artists and the Disaster: Documentation in Progress,” held in October, was flawed for its confusing inclusion of artists’ volunteer-minded activities (Noboru Tsubaki’s project for sending bikes to the tsunami-affected northeast, for example,) in addition to their “art-minded” activities (Yuken Teruya’s newspaper-cuttings forest), but, it was still a worthy first-attempt at a task that will undoubtedly continue for many years to come.
Also worthy of note in terms of museum exhibitions was the National Art Center, Tokyo’s “Gutai: The Spirit of an Era.” This exhibition about a group of artists who, from the 1950s till the ’70s, provided Japan’s contribution to a then-global movement to focus on materials in their own right, was the kind of academic show that Japan’s museums do best. It was thoroughly researched and benefitted from dozens of loans from throughout the country.
If only many more home-grown efforts could have been mounted for other aspects of Japan’s postwar art before foreign institutions jumped in to fill a very obvious void (see the New York Museum of Modern Art’s “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde,” which opened last month).