Shiseido’s Tsubaki-kai questions the nature of art

by Stuart Munro

Special To The Japan Times

The Shiseido Gallery’s group exhibitions, or Tsubaki-kai (the group is named after the company motif of the camellia flower), date back to 1947 when, following World War II and the reopening of the gallery, artists were brought together to pursue a mutual approach or theme. Now in its seventh incarnation, the most recent Tsubaki-kai is the first group formed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and it has added to its concerns the meeting of personal preoccupation with contemporary art’s wider relevance and meaning.

Despite an ever-changing cultural landscape, there are no strangers here. Painter, writer and founder of Rojo Kansatsu Gakkai (The Street Observers Society) Genpei Akasegawa is the eldest at 77, a chief exponent of postwar Dadaism and founding member of the wonderfully provocative and avant-garde Hi-Red Center collective. His contribution this year is an array of pencil drawings of classic cameras published in old photo magazines, marked, numbered and lovingly cataloged with delicate precision.

The two works by Iwate-born photographer Naoya Hatakeyama — the first, “Untitled (Electric)” (2005), a sequence of photos of a quarried landscape displayed along the gallery’s mezzanine entrance, and the second, “Val Bedretto” (2005), of the Swiss valley framed through an unnamed lattice structure — point toward Zon Ito’s drawings in the middle of the gallery, as if both sets of images somehow refer to each other. Ito, for his part, places his “New Drawings For the Building of Invisible Landscape” (2014) on stands made from tree branches, appearing as if he were sketching Hatakeyama’s images of industrial earthworks and tracings of light at night.

An ambiguity shared by sculpture, drawing and even the sharper realism of photography is a recurring theme throughout. Scenes of wildlife and overgrowth by painter Ryoko Aoki face the floor and painter-sculptor Rei Naito’s “Human” (2014), a miniature carving of a figure, is dwarfed by her large white paintings “Color Beginning” (2013-2014).

This year’s subtitle, “shoshin” or “beginner’s mind,” refers to that sense of starting something afresh; always seeing the beginning, not the end, of an adventure or exploration. Seen in this context, Akasegawa’s chair, “Hagu 2″ (1998-2013), which overlooks the gallery, alludes to looking forward — by picking up the pieces and starting over again — a sentiment that reverberates through all the work on display.

However, the dry humor of Akasegawa’s illustration and the stark imagery of both Hatakeyama and Naito resist any notions of idealism or the artistic idylls usually suggested by nature in art. This year’s Tsubaki-kai doesn’t shy away from commenting on the fraught relationship we have with our environment, or on our general reliance on and fascination with technology, despite how it can affect us and distort our viewpoint. As the drawings, photography and sculpture on show suggest, this relationship simply happens in a way that is far more fundamental and elemental than had been previously expected

“Tsubaki-kai 2014″ at Shiseido Gallery runs until May 25. Open 11:00-7 p.m. (Sun. till 6 p.m.). Free admission. Closed Monday. www.shiseidogroup.jp/gallery