Situations that end up spoiling the artistic landscape

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Imagine you went to a movie theatre that insisted on doing anything other than showing you an actual movie, or to a restaurant where the waiter did all he could to stop you having an actual meal. This is a situation I sometimes find myself in when visiting art museums, especially if it is a show of contemporary art. I found myself in exactly this situation once again at “Making Situations, Editing Landscapes,” the latest annual exhibition held at Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOT).

Yes, I know I’m starting to sound a bit fuddy-duddy, but I’ve also been to plenty of contemporary art shows that are far from traditional in their approach and that work splendidly, such as the “Anonymous Life” show now on at the NTT Intercommunication Center.

Notice the use of the word “show” as a synonym of exhibition. This is something that has crept into use because quite often exhibitions do try to put on an actual show, something dynamic and moving instead of static and fixed. Usually this takes the form of performance art, video installations, audience participation, or just a sense of something unfinished. There is much of this approach in the present MOT Annual, a group show that the museum present to “introduce the latest trends in Japanese art.”

The big difference between conventional art exhibitions and more avant-garde shows is that, when they fail, the traditional art exhibition is still an art exhibition and the museum that hosts it is still a museum, but, when an avant-garde exhibition goes seriously awry, as this show does, there is instead a sense that some gang of feral, nocturnal entities has broken into the building and defiled it so that it is no longer an art museum.

This is certainly the tone set by the first of the seven unknowns that visitors to the MOT encounter, Hiroaki Morita. But, before I go any further, I have to declare an interest, as it is a well-known fact that art writers tend to write favorably about artists whose works they own. I should say here that I own a piece by Morita and that my view of his art may be slanted by my own desire to see the price of his art rise.

Morita has done a couple of things. One is an installation made up entirely of bits of normal household garbage strewn over the gallery floor. It fleetingly put me in mind of the devastation wrought by the tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake, but then I realized that there was no need to be so profound as it was merely the typical, low-key anti-art that Morita specializes in. One of his more famous works was a Coke bottle filled with Pepsi and a Pepsi bottle filled with Coke, which is at least mildly funny — unlike this smorgasbord of trash.

The other thing Morita has done is to create a series of paper sheets with maps of the museum and words designed to make people narcissistically view banal aspects of their presence in the building as some kind of art experience.

One of them reads, “There is a place where you can charge your mobile phone battery.” Another hints at some pointless, unscheduled act of performance art: “A knock will suddenly come on the emergency door.” It seems that Morita’s main ambition is to be some kind of avant-garde poltergeist.

It was thanks to these sheets that I also acquired my masterpiece by the artist. One of the sheets read, “Once a day, a Hiroaki Morita artwork is placed in the waste container. Feel free to open the container and take the artwork.” A map showed where the trash can was. Driven by duty, I tracked it down and found the so-called artwork lying at the bottom.

Others had perhaps seen it but assumed it was a piece of trash and that the artist had merely been having a joke at their expense, because it was merely a cardboard toilet roll with a screw glued to the inside. Sad to say, this was the highlight of the exhibition.

Among the other artists, Yuki Okumura seems cut out to be a kindergarten teacher. His contribution consisted of dozens of pictures drawn by children showing what they think is inside the human body. Koki Tanaka offered a few videos that could just as well be hosted on YouTube. The worst of these involved some pretentious discussion by art insiders on the theme of what the artist’s future project should be. Alas, the suggestion that sprang to my mind on this occasion was unprintable.

Other works were essentially assemblages of junk (Nadegata Instant Party), worthy-but-dull photos (Motoyuki Shitamichi), or works that tried to look “happening” by being unfinished (Shun Sasa). The main achievement of the exhibition was to make me forget that the Museum of Contemporary Art was actually an art museum. For the sake of the people who work there, let’s hope that the artists don’t accomplish this same trick on the people who fund the establishment.

“Making Situations, Editing Landscapes” at the Museum of Contemporary Art runs till Feb. 3; open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. and Jan. 15 (open Jan. 14). www.mot-art-museum.jp.