Since the emergence of conceptual art in the 1960s, artistic skill and superlative craftsmanship came to be derided as almost artistic embarrassment, a suspect accusation leveled at the supposed old guard who took pride in their technical proficiency. Think of Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol, their artistic factories where the artist oversaw but did not make, or the word-instruction “poems” of Yoko Ono, performed by others.
The best, recent contemporary Japanese art has almost entirely eschewed this, instead reveling in myopic and superlative artistry with occasional forays into transforming seemingly moribund traditions.
Tetsuya Noguchi, whose work is on show at Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of art, is exemplary. He makes relatively small-scale figurines of samurai warriors that play into the Japanese subcultural fetish for such objects, though the expectation that such a description suggests should quickly be abandoned. His works are mostly imaginary figures sculpted in plastic and resin. But it is his visual and historical research into samurai armor, helmets and weapons, and his comical improvements, that keep the viewer entirely absorbed. Labored, miniature and perceptive in detail, the 90 or so works, some paintings, have an outsized impact that defies their often-diminutive statures.
To an unaccustomed contemporary eye, many of Noguchi’s armor designs, especially the helmets such as that which sits upon the bust of “Umi no Sachi” (2003) with its crab design and upheld claws, look entirely eccentric. If one returns to the eccentricities of the Momoyama and Edo (1573-1867) periods, however, Noguchi’s sculptures are entirely consistent with the over-the-top shogunal helmets that sported rabbit-like ears, antlers, sea monsters and skull designs. His samurai, however, don headphones as if to chill out, stand beside modern-day fire hydrants, shelter under umbrellas, wear sneakers and fashionable shoulder bags, and even sport Chanel military headgear.
As such, his work is archival, historical and yet happily contemporarily comical. It is an oeuvre mostly uncommon in contemporary international art.
One of the contemporary spins on his meticulously sourced past, is the sign of world-weariness. The samurai were an expendable class put to use, and so they show the ravages, resignations and exhaustions of their profession. They are tired inhabitants of their worlds, and nobody smiles. About the most optimistic emotion in evidence is an upward gaze to the sky as if heaven might prove fortuitous.
While these are the samurai of old, they are also the disaffected and exhausted of today’s everyday life, sporting their modern day accessories. Technologically updated, might these withered warriors of the past be analogies for contemporary mankind, stationed in society as they are, disaffected, resigned and always lone, single figures? Are they, too, expected to face inevitable, unceremonial deaths? Noguchi’s archival retrievals speak to a modern malaise. Resentment is not in evidence. But there are no signs of possible contentment.
“Tetsuya Noguchi: Historical Odyssey” at Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art runs till July 27; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥900. Closed Mon. www.asahibeer-oyamazaki.com/english