Big exhibitions at the Mori Art Museum (MAM) can sometimes be to art what Ron Howard films are to cinema — well produced, broad in appeal and exciting, but not too edgy. Above all, there seems to be a contract with the viewer that, whatever else, we will be entertained.
In the early days of the MAM, that in itself was an important cultural point. When Murakami’s “My Lonesome Cowboy” bestrode the world like a naughty teenage colossus, satire and the appropriation of pop culture were tools for attacking the history of art as seen through the work of dead white men. Perhaps in the wake of this attack on seriousness, many artists have since taken refuge in childishness, whimsy or playfulness, though these values have been carefully rationed in “Go-Betweens: The World Seen through Children,” with the emphasis being more on showing childhood as a state of vulnerability and transformation.
The first works on show are archive black-and-white photographs of New York street urchins by Jacob A. Riis. A bleak and unsentimental view of how serious adult endeavors — industry, war, sex and the like — impact children, is compounded with photos by Lewis Hine in the early 1900s of child labor in the U.S., images of Japanese internment at Manzanar by Miyatake Toyo and documentation of half-Japanese orphans fathered by Allied occupation troops post-1945. The gaping hole left by lack of attention paid to wartime atrocities carried out by the Axis powers is unfortunately par for the course in Japan, but particularly egregious in a display that attempts to challenge our understanding of innocence.
Other sections of the exhibition are less coy. Abuse, mental health, social exclusion and the transition to adulthood appear in a variety of work that runs from the visually seductive, such as the imaginary landscapes of Won Seoung Won, to the raw and unembellished. A surprising example of this is straightforward video documentation of interviews with children by Chiharu Shiota titled “How Did You Come into the World?,”which contrasts with the elaborate installations that have earned her the distinction of representing Japan at the 2015 Venice Biennale.
Most of the exhibits are lens-based, and one of the strengths of “Go-Betweens” is that it is exemplary in showing how video and photography, despite being commonplace in our daily lives, can be used and read in so many different ways. There is, for example, Tracey Moffatt’s “Scarred for Life II” series on how invidious abuses of power by our elders and betters produces lasting emotional damage. The value of these fake ’70s Life magazine pages of unremarkable domestic scenes is not achieved by gratifying us with a luscious pictorial surface, but through our reflection, as viewers, on recent history and our own memories.
This compares interestingly with the glossy saturated large-format “straight” photography of Zhang O’s “Daddy and I” series. Posed family portraits on steroids, these unsettling images showing Caucasian men with their adopted female Asian children, sometimes made up and dressed in oriental garb, lend themselves to less-than-benign interpretation. In both series, the artists use the ubiquity of a certain form of photography to hint that what we hope is aberrant or uncommon may in fact be endemic and, in some senses, “normal.”
In a section of the exhibition titled “Caught Between Adult and Child” is an immersive combination of works by Tomoko Kikuchi. The viewers find themselves in a dark room with images of old Beijing being demolished projected on all four walls. Through a separate video we are also witness to the desperation of an androgynous teenager, who, with a pathetic smile and slight body, wanders through clubs and hopeless intimate encounters. The piece hovers between distanced observation and emotional engagement as does another video work in the same section, “Tomorrow” by Fiona Tan.
Tan uses two projections: One is wall-sized, the other, about the size of a TV screen, is suspended in mid-air in front of it. Both show a line of teenagers of different ethnic backgrounds standing outside their school building in Stockholm. The larger projection is a closer shot of their faces, imparting the effect that, depending on our point of view, we can either see a group or a collection of individuals, each with their own fears and concerns.
Even if none of the works mentioned here appeals, there are many others that merit attention in an exhibition that manages to be both entertaining and provocative.
The provocation, however, is socially conscious and humane, rather than just an attempt to hype the latest artistic frippery. We are not necessarily meant to exit the show having had an aesthetic catharsis; a stand out piece in this respect is Rineke Dijkstra’s video of Liverpudlian school kids very seriously discussing a Picasso, their voices jumbled together trying to make sense of art as if it were something very important.
“Go-Betweens: The World Seen Through Children” at the Mori Art Museum runs till Aug. 31; open daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (Fri. till 5 p.m.). ¥1,500. www.mori.art.museum/jp