Making sense of cultural nonsense

In today's complicated world of mass media and communication, contemporary British artists are finding new means of expression

by Stuart Munro

Special To The Japan Times

Life’s a mere distraction before death, an “unbearable lightness of being” to quote Milan Kundera. Art is part of this distraction, viewing the comedy of daily strife and the thought of mortality through an aesthetic frame. It’s popular culture at its very best.

Britain, following World War II, was shaped by pop culture: Through years of introspection, comedy, anger and resentment, the nation was equally criticised and eulogized by it in all its forms — literature, painting, sculpture, film and music.

“Private Utopia” at Tokyo Station Gallery brings together 120 works by 30 different artists, now ambassadors for the cultural development of postwar Britain. Established in 1935, The British Council’s ever-expanding modern and contemporary art collection comprises works by over 1,650 artists. This marks the first time in over 10 years that a show of this kind has made the way as far east as Japan.

The show is split into themes — stories, humor, landscapes real and imagined, slogans and banners, the individual and the community. Artist Haroon Mirza uses music and found objects to reveal the visual wealth of multiculturalism, while the distorted images of Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin describe a backdrop of celebrity culture and mass media, the politics of Thatcherism, and the economic recession of the early 1990s.

Other works dig further. Marcus Coates is known for “becoming animal.” His self-portraits of human molluscs cocooned in shaving foam and dough highlight the contradiction of human progress at the expense of the animal world. David Shrigley laughs at any such progress. Strangely his “Dead Dog” mirrors the figure of a taxidermied dog at Intermediateque, the museum at the nearby JP Tower Kitte building. Unlike this Japanese counterpart though, Shrigley’s dog, knows his place only too well with a placard in paw declaring his state of being.

Ryan Gander retells the tale of a forged tropical bird at the hands of two English gentlemen. The “forged” discovery of the bird along with a historical record are both on display but Gander makes it deliberately hard to tell what’s real and what’s imaginary, something the artist describes as an “exercise for the imagination.”

Elizabeth Price takes a very different approach with memory and imagination. Her Turner Prize-winning film “The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979″ depicts, through assembled text and imagery, a shop fire in her native city of Bradford, an event that killed 10 people. Images of people trapped by the fire hanging out of windows and throwing tea cups to the street below provide a strange motif of survival that admits tragedy, showing the lengths some people go to in the face of danger, however ridiculous those lengths may be.

The show travels Japan for a year. After Tokyo Station Gallery, it visits Itami City Museum of Art, Kochi Museum of Art and finally Okayama Museum of Art, where the the tour concludes early 2015. Each museum co-curated the show alongside The British Council’s Visual Arts department, with Japanese curators visiting London and some of the artists studios.

Although the shows at times appears fragmented and ambiguous, its wealth of imagination and inventiveness present a reassuring profile of confidence in British art today. While Facebook profiles and Instagram streams confuse trivia for something monumental, the artwork here exposes the value of this confusion. As the catalogue to “Private Utopia” reads, “there is a delicate equilibrium that makes sense of nonsense.”

“Private Utopia. Contemporary Art from the British Council Collection” at Tokyo Station Gallery runs till Mar. 9; open ¥900 (General). www.ejrcf.or.jp/gallery