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New Year’s is about endings and beginnings. People we’ve lost, places we’ve discovered, what’s gone and what’s to come. Some thoughts as we cross over:

This last year saw some satisfying shows at Tokyo’s galleries and museums. Particularly impressive were the visions of “Woman Surrealists in Mexico” at Bunkamura; the childlike embroidery of Zon Ito at the Watari-Um; the Hara Museum’s Patricia Piccinini show with its lovable/repulsive family of genetic hybrids; and, of course, the Show of the Year: “Happiness” — the tour de force that opened the Mori Art Museum.

And so, let’s give Person of the Year honors to David Elliott, Mori Art Museum director and “Happiness” co-curator. As the first foreign-born director of a major Japanese museum, the rookie gaijin got “Happiness” up more or less as he had envisioned it (according to insiders who prefer to remain nameless). The show runs till Jan. 18 at the top-floor Roppongi art space, and if you have not done so already, get out and see it.

Of course, the Mori wasn’t the only art venue to open this year. Ota Fine Arts, Hiromi Yoshii, Taro Nasu and Rontgenwerke all inaugurated new galleries in the Complex building, not far from the Mori. Meanwhile, over at the Shinkawa Building in Chuo Ward, veteran gallerists Tomio Koyama, Taka Ishii, Shugo Satani and Atsuko Koyanagi opened new spaces. Elsewhere in Tokyo, art impresario Johnnie Walker, the NICAF (Nippon Contemporary Art Fair) people, and Command N also opened galleries.

Internationally, top Japanese artists stayed in favor with the beau monde. Both Yoshitomo Nara and Takeshi Murakami set new records at auction in 2003. Nara broke the $100,000 mark for the first time when “The Little Pilgrims (Night Walking),” (1999) from an edition of 10, went for $130,700 at Christie’s in November. At the same sale, the hammer came down at a whopping $623,500 for Murakami’s 2001 “Lost Child Returned by Myself,” an 80-sq.-cm acrylic-on-canvas work that featured a collection of the artist’s trademark toadstools and morphed eyes set on a gold background.

Murakami’s exposure ballooned when his huge installation piece “Reverse Double Helix” landed in the courtyard of the Rockefeller Center in New York in September. Although the lay press generally treated the busy installation with amusement, there were some rumblings from previously supportive art people that Murakami’s 15 minutes of fame may soon be up. After a photo of a Shinto priest blessing the 10-meter-tall mixed-media sculpture appeared in the New York Times, an intelligent debate on one Gotham arts Web board centered on whether Murakami had finally overplayed the “Mystical Asian” card.

Also in New York, more than 5,000 submissions were accepted for the planned World Trade Center Memorial. Last month the Lower Manhattan Development Council announced the eight finalists, and one was Toshio Sasaki, a relatively unknown Brooklyn-based Japanese artist. “Inversion of Light,” Sasaki’s proposal for the site, features a glass curtain with the names of all the victims, along with a park, trickling waterfalls and a reflective pond.

Giving form to terribly painful feelings is in itself an excruciating process. The impression one gets in looking at the eight light and airy WTC memorial proposals is that none of the artists were willing or able to assert a central form that can stand as a response to the events of Sept. 11. Instead, what we get here is avoidance.

It might be wise for New York to leave the area allocated for the WTC memorial empty for some time. Consider the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Known simply as “The Wall,” it is an imposing expanse of black marble engraved with the names of Americans killed in action in Vietnam. Widely accepted as a fitting memorial, it was first proposed in 1979 and dedicated in 1982, a full seven years after the end of the Vietnam War.

Moving over to Europe and Italy, this year the youngish artists Motohiko Odani and Yutaka Sone represented Japan at the Venice Biennale. The coveted Golden Lion Award for best work in the 50th incarnation of the respected international exhibition went to Peter Fischli and David Weiss of Switzerland, while the best national pavilion award went to Luxembourg and Su-Mei Tse.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the 2003 Turner Prize for contemporary art went to Grayson “Claire” Perry, a transvestite potter whose works, on close inspection, are patterned with disparate scenes of exotic topography, lonely people and child abuse. With his wife and daughter applauding from the spectator’s gallery, Grayson, appearing as his alter ego “Claire,” accepted the prestigious award dressed in a purple Little Bo Peep dress. One wonders whether the Turner Prize hasn’t become a parody of itself.

Back home, sadly, this year saw the passing of performance artist, painter and collector Robert Theiss. The longtime Tokyo resident was a regular on the avant-garde scene in Chicago for many years and never failed to turn heads when he appeared at Tokyo openings. A big-hearted man who was affectionately known as “BL” (the “Bearded Lady”), Theiss was one of those warm and open souls the world could use more of.

The Tokyo art community also lost inspirational butoh dancer Akiko Motofuji. The widow of Tatsumi Hijikata (who pioneered butoh as an art form), Motofuji was the force behind the young group of dancers known as Asbestos Kan. She was 75.

Let’s end with a beginning. Honors for the Breakout Artist of the Year go to Tabaimo, whose room-filling video installations reflect on a changing Japanese social landscape. Tabaimo doesn’t pander, she doesn’t snicker and she doesn’t even look or talk anything like an artist. Tabaimo had a number of solid shows this year, and at just 28 years of age, she can be expected to build solidly on these successes in the future.

Be good to people in 2004, give love.

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