When political agenda hinders aesthetic pleasure

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

One of the artworks at the latest exhibition at Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art raises a question that is important to any public building — the question of accessibility.

But, alas, Fernando Sánchez Castillo’s “Architecture for the Horse” (2002) is not about making a public museum of contemporary art more appealing to Tokyo’s masses. It is instead a comment on Francoist Spain, when university buildings, such as the School of Philosophy at the Autonomous University of Madrid, were designed to enable Spanish riot police to enter on horseback in order to quell student riots.

In this video installation work, the artist rides on horseback through the School of Philosophy, accompanied by the echoing clip clop of equine hooves.

Despite the rather heavy-handed didacticism of its message, the work nevertheless has a certain charm. If only I could say the same for most of the other works at “The Marvelous Real,” a show that presents contemporary Spanish and Latin American Art from the collection the Museum of Contemporary Art of Castile and Leon in Spain.

The title of the exhibition is a clear attempt to evoke the idea of “magical realism,” a literary genre that has been particularly associated with Latin American literature. The essence of this was a rejection of the dichotomy of realism and fantasy, and a wilful blending of the two in a neo-baroque stew

This was expressed in the novels and short stories of writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez, with a cultural hybridism that resonated with the racial mixing for which South America is also known.

But, apart from one or two works, the exhibition doesn’t live up to the rich expectations raised by the title. The main exception is Javier Téllez’s “Oedipus Marshall” (2006), a video work featuring psychiatric patients playing Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” in cowboy outfits and Japanese Noh masks, a truly surreal and transcendent work.

But all too often what we get is standard-issue contemporary art with a heavy-handed, Euro-leftist spin that is sure to be lost on most local visitors. For example, Sergio Belinchón’s video work “Avalanche” (2007) has a typical strident pro-immigration “message.”

Poorly filmed in bad light, it shows a fence, toward which a large group of people surge with homemade ladders. They then clamber over the symbolic barrier and disappear on the other side.

We are supposed to feel sympathy for them in their desperation to illegally cross the fence, and in the process side with all those from the Third World who wish to breach the borders of “Fortress Europe.” As the explanation says, “Spain represents the entrance to Europe for people from Africa.” In true masochistic style, Belinchón seems keen to embrace a definition of his own country as the doormat of Europe.

This work could be seen as incendiary in view of the high youth unemployment, public indebtedness, ethnic tensions and rising political extremism increasingly common in Europe; except that here in Japan any points pro or contra the message are likely to be lost, leaving the work to be judged on its rather weak aesthetic merits.

The battle between didacticism and aestheticism also enters into a number of other works. Looked at with an open mind, Cristina Lucas’ video work “You Can Walk Too” (2006) is an enjoyable bit of whimsy. It shows a town where the all the dogs, one by one, start to stand up and walk around.

So far, so good; but unfortunately a simple work of pleasantry like this is not considered sufficient for the purposes of “cutting edge” contemporary art. It must have a “message” and be perpetually nudging us toward some imagined social utopia.

Accordingly, “You Can Walk Too” also comes with an add-on bit of preaching. The video is prefaced with a passage from a Virginia Woolf novel, and an explanation card is there to hammer home the message: “… it is clear that these dogs walking on their hind legs is a reference to the discriminatory attitude towards intelligent women who act like men (humans).”

The effect of this is to make you feel as if you’ve just been brow-beaten or covered in spittle by an overenthusiastic political-correctness preacher, which rather detracts from any charm the work originally had.

The curators at the Museum of Contemporary Art clearly wish to maintain Japan’s standing in the world of publicly-funded contemporary art. But this means that they often end up channelling the more politicized art ethos of places like Spain in a way has little relevance to Tokyo audiences.

The result is that the museum has plenty of empty space — not just for Spanish horses but also for white elephants.

“The Marvelous Real: Contemporary Spanish and Latin American Art from The MUSAC Collection” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, runs till May 11; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.mot-art-museum.jp