When the Mori Art Museum opened its doors almost a year ago, media attention naturally focused on its prime location atop the Roppongi Hills complex (with a dazzling panoramic view of Tokyo), the debut exhibition “Happiness,” and the talented and affable British gallery director, David Elliott. Less visible, but no less important, was the who’s who of Japan’s most established and promising arts professionals the Mori hired as staff. One of these was the young curator Mami Kataoka, who was lured away from the Opera City Gallery in Shinjuku. Although she had a hand in the “Roppongi Crossing” show this spring, Kataoka’s curatorial debut at the Mori comes with Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s solo show, “Answer with Yes and No!” currently running there — and it is a terrific success.
Spanning 17 years of the 39-year-old Ozawa’s career, this is one of the most eclectic exhibitions seen in Tokyo this year, packed with the sort of conceptually-grounded art that is so in vogue. It is remarkable that this show was programmed in less than six months and it is even more remarkable how Kataoka has managed to make what some people might term “difficult” art so easy to enjoy.
As the title suggests, the show is themed around the possibility of discovering harmony in apparent contradictions. Round every corner, the viewer is offered another playful invitation to accept things as they are not, to celebrate ambiguity, to look through the kaleidoscope of the imagination.
Ultimately, of course, the theme of contradictions contradicts itself and the real theme is that there is no theme at all. This is suggested in the installation piece “One Man Group Show” (1998). Based on a fiction by the artist in which the spirit of Japanese sculptor Taro Okamoto is reborn in eight brothers who become artists, the work represents Ozawa’s refusal to conform to any single style of expression, the brothers being a metaphor for the different personae Ozawa’s creative-self inhabits. Ozawa thereby neatly rejects the idea of the single ‘self’ in art.
“Although people seem to place importance on the idea of an artist pursuing a single theme for years and even throughout his entire life,” writes Ozawa in an essay that accompanies the exhibition, “I can’t see how such a constraint could result in happiness.”
Kataoka says setting up this show was the most fun she has ever had in a museum. There are some 130 works here, 97 from the “Nasubi Gallery” series, which Ozawa began in 1993 as a parody of the small and overpriced Ginza rental galleries. Here, Ozawa fills a small wooden box (inspired by the milk boxes that stand outside homes in rural Japan) with different objects to create what he has termed “the smallest gallery in the world.” Each box has an entirely unique character — you find here stacked tins of condensed milk from Switzerland or minimalist, Donald Judd-like installations of staples, flowing ticker tapes and Christmas lights or videos (and even bottles of milk) inside the Nasubi Galleries, a body of work fascinating in its dedication to, and exploration of, variety.
Also here is video documentation from Ozawa’s “Art Football” project, which pitted Japanese artists against their Korean counterparts during the 2002 World Cup; a diorama and interior mock-up of a faux “Soy Sauce Museum,” complete with traditional, modern and contemporary soy-sauce art; and a greenhouse with 18 large Lambda prints from the artist’s “Vegetable Weapon” event series, which involved binding the ingredients for traditional recipes from various countries into the shape of a gun, wielded by a woman, which was then cooked and eaten.
Ozawa and Kataoka have used the Mori’s open space and high ceilings to effect in crafting a show that is busy but remains airy — in one room a walkaround catwalk acts as a gallery for black-and-white pictures shot during the artist’s backpack travels, reached by scaling a five-meter-high mountain of hundreds of pink- and blue-flowered print futons.
While the breadth of Ozawa’s vision is truly outstanding, unfortunately it is this very variety that has hampered him on the international art market. The current cadre of Japanese art cool — Yoshitomo Nara, Takashi Murakami and Mariko Mori — all have signature styles, and produce work that is easily recognizable. Ozawa, meanwhile, is all over the place.
But, says Kataoka, this is one of the reasons the Mori gave Ozawa his first solo show: “When we see Ozawa in a group show, we see only one part of him. I wanted to bring all of his work together at the same time, so you can go deeper and deeper, as if you were reading a book.
“I am also very interested to see how non-Japanese people will see Ozawa’s work,” adds Kataoka. “He deals with Japanese themes like futons and soy sauce, and also nostalgic themes from my generation, the 1970s, when Japan had rapid economic growth. I wonder how people from outside Japan will see that, and I wonder in what way Ozawa could be an international artist?”
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