It is a shame that Ilya Kabakov was not feeling well enough to make the trip to Tokyo for the opening last Friday of his Mori Art Museum exhibition, “Where Is Our Place?” I met the New York-based Kabakov and his wife, Emilia, years ago when they were involved with the now-defunct Satani Gallery in Ginza, and they are the sort of people — conceptualists with a sense of humor — who make the contemporary art world a warmer, friendlier and more “human” place. We missed you Ilya, get well soon.

“Where Is Our Place?” is a collaborative installation by Ilya (b. 1933) and Emilia (b. 1945) that shares the Mori’s lower floor with a concurrent exhibition by the 35-year-old Vietnamese-Japanese video artist Jun Nguyen- Hatsushiba. Both shows opened May 28.

Upon entering the roughly 700-sq.-meter room that houses the bulk of the Kabakovs’ installation, viewers are confronted by three scales of space. The first, a natural scale, involves some 130 works, all 50 × 64 cm, presented at eye level. Framed in standard art-gallery black, the works juxtapose black-and-white photographs on the left side of the frame with equal-size text on the right. The pictures are found snapshots and news-style photographs from the former Soviet Union, while the texts, also appropriated, are romantic poetry. (Though there are 130 pictures here, there are only 87 poems, so some of the poems appear two or more times.)

The second scale in the room takes the form of 17 portions of huge oil paintings, executed in the classical style. Only the lower portion of each painting is visible — the canvases and gilded frames are cut off at a point roughly a quarter of the way up from the bottom, creating the illusion that they extend upward beyond the gallery’s ceiling. There are also several sculptures of giant pairs of human legs, which stand in the center of the room. With shoes measuring 160 cm in length and trousers and hems suggesting the 19th century, the legs meet the ceiling at thigh level. The implication here is that somewhere outside our field of view, up above the contemporary art space, hover the grand old paintings of yesteryear.

The third scale is realized by Perspex-covered cutaways in the gallery floor, below which are tiny seaside scenes, aerial views of bluffs and beaches, automobiles and people, and so on. Looking down, we are giants.

So, where is our place? The classical paintings, shown in Europe’s courts and salons hundreds of years ago, had, as the Kabakovs point out in their artists’ statement, “pretensions of an eternal existence as an unchanging model.” Now, most are forgotten. Some have endured, but they are, all of them, old. The swirling postmodern notion of the “contemporary” has accustomed us to art appreciation without moorings — we are freer, but where is our freedom leading us? To look down on others? The exhibition communicates that question well.

One problem with the exhibition that the partial views of the oil paintings are little more than caricatures of oil paintings (glowing cherubic limbs, that sort of thing), devoid of clues or deeper meaning. Similarly, the view under the Perspex is more model railroad scenery than “Gulliver’s Travels” — an ant colony in the park would be more interesting to watch. The found photographs and texts, meanwhile, seem to be a sarcastic swipe at contemporary art. While I don’t doubt that an Artforum magazine critic could construct an essay on the deeper meanings of any one of these works, they are, essentially, random juxtapositions, all this suggesting that for art today, interpretation is valued more than intention.

And so, thinking about this installation afterward is more interesting than looking at it. But you have to look at it to think about it later. So there you are: “Where Is Our Place?” is a catalyst, and a pretty good one.

The adjacent Jun Nguyen- Hatsushiba exhibition, the second in the Mori’s “MAM Projects” new artists’ series, comprises two major video works, “Memorial Project Minamata: Neither Either nor Neither — Love Story” (2003), and “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas: Battle of Easel Point — Memorial Project Okinawa” (2003).

I liked these works, both filmed underwater — an environment the artist astutely likens to the dream world.

The four-screen Minamata piece addresses the poisoning of Minamata Bay in southern Kumamoto Prefecture by chemical firm Chisso Corp. in the 1950s and ’60s. The mercury waste released into the waters caused more than 1,000 local residents to die horrible deaths and affected tens of thousands more with chronic blurred vision, slurred speech and fetal deformity. The artist and a team of assistants dived into the bay where they were filmed struggling to assemble a huge plastic sphere called “Life Force.”

That image is cross-cut with shots of Minamata City, blurred disco dancers and a woman reposing beside (but not inside) a mosquito net; overdubbed with the laughter of children and a New Age-meets-choral Debussy soundtrack; and includes oblique visual references to the use of the herbicide Agent Orange by American forces during the Vietnam War. The 16-minute video is one hell of a ride.

These are two worthwhile exhibitions to complement the Mori’s ongoing “Modern Means” show of highlights from New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.