Art on the brink of fragmentation

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

You can’t go wrong by calling a show “Fragments,” as the curators of this year’s “MOT Annual” exhibition have done. With a name like that, whatever bits and pieces visitors encounter at the annual group show of Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art, they can’t say they were cheated because a name like that lowers expectations.

Lowering expectations seems to be something that the curators here are refining into an art. Last year’s show, I remember, was a master class in removing enthused anticipation from all future installments of MOT Annual.

Accordingly, as I approached the museum this year, my expectations could have been squeezed into a metaphorical thimble, which is sad because, when the Museum of Contemporary Art was built around 20 years ago, it was created on a large scale and in a style that expressed expansive ambitions. The building stands as a testament to the once existing belief that Tokyo could become one of the world capitals of contemporary art.

There was still some of that ambition when I visited the 2006 show. This featured a crop of breathtaking neo-nihonga (new Japanese style) artists, including Fuyuko Matsui and Hisashi Tenmyouya. But after that high point, there seemed to be a growing realization that Japanese contemporary art had been eclipsed on the international stage by its Chinese competitor, leading to a downsizing of ambition and a trend toward quieter, more inward-looking art.

“MOT Annual 2014″ fits neatly into this trajectory as it would be hard to imagine any of the works here appealing greatly to foreign audiences, although some of them — for example Akiko and Masako Takada’s embroidered playing cards — seem particularly adapted to a Japanese sensibility that prizes the small, delicate, and intricate.

The Takadas have a range of other tiny works from small sculptures of Roman ruins made from pumice stones carved in soap dishes to photographs of small moss gardens grown to create tiny mazes. But charming as these are — the embroidered playing cards look like tiny Persian rugs — they represent an obvious ebbing of artistic ambition.

This retreat into the miniscule is also apparent in Naoya Fukuda’s work. He uses stationery materials and obsessive, time-consuming methods to create “micro-art.” One work is simply dozens of sheets of paper from which thousands of tiny squares have been painstakingly cut by hand. It is unnerving to think about the mind-numbing process that created this.

In another work he has painted over pages from girls’ comics to leave only a few eyes peeping out. Then there is “The Bones of Smoke” (2007-2014), which represents several years’ effort carving the leads of colored pencils into tiny sculptures. The only “point” these works appear to have are the original ones of the pencils, which are somewhat whittled away.

Thinking back a few years, one of the most disappointing MOT Annual shows was the one in 2011, which I saw in the aftermath of the March 11 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, although it opened prior to that cataclysmic event. It also had its fair share of overly twee, timid and inward-looking art that tended to conjure up a mental image of the artists involved as obsessive introverts bordering on hikikomori (recluses).

At a time when the country was facing several emergency situations and was clearly in need of vigor and dynamism from its people, artists included, such a show could not fail to create a particularly unpleasant impression. This year’s show reminds me of that show — art with an extremely faint heartbeat.

Nowhere is this heartbeat fainter than in Shinya Aota’s plastic bottles, which are simply recycled plastic bottles of various colors, stripped of their labels so that viewers can appreciate their rather banal aesthetic qualities. Yes, it’s got a vaguely “green” message, but not enough of one to impose on the public in this way.

The best work at the show was the room decorated by art partnership Paramodel. These two artists use materials from various toy or hobby goods to create works that reference the otaku (geek) culture, but often with a fine aesthetic sense. Some large wall panels decorated with blue tracks from toy train sets were particularly effective.

Last year’s MOT Annual was a bit of a mess, both artistically and — with garbage strewn over the floor — literally, but it nevertheless had a degree of rough energy. This year’s show, while more aesthetically pleasing, completely lacks that energy.

What is most worrying about these shows is when you see them as some kind of barometer of the national spirit. If this show is representative of the present generation then it seems that whatever Prime Minister Shinzo Abe does to stimulate the economy the nation is doomed. The poor attendance when I was there, however, suggests that the artists here may not be representative of the present generation after all.

“MOT Annual 2014: Fragments — Incomplete Beginnings” 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/eng