As is befitting of an exhibition of a corporate art collection at Tokyo’s premier corporate gallery space, the Mori Art Museum has decked itself out in office chic: cool, understated spaces that feature the height of contemporary art to tickle the tired mind. Like the most privileged of office workers from the moneyed realms of the banking world, visitors to “Art is for the Spirit: Works from the UBS Art Collection Exhibition” are treated to some of the best works that cash can buy.
“Art is for the Spirit,” showing at the Mori till April 6, brings together 140 works by 60 artists that are normally shown in 50 offices of the Swiss investment bank UBS that are located around the world. The opportunity to work with such financial backing and such a collection must surely have been a dream come true for the Mori’s Mami Kataoka, the show’s lead curator.
“The collection wasn’t really made according to art history or following any particular movements,” says Kataoka, “so I had a lot of freedom to make connections between works from different times, different regions and different media. Nevertheless, it was a challenge to make it work well.”
Kataoka has created a continuous series of juxtapositions that highlight certain stylistic or conceptual similarities between artworks, regardless of the context in which they were created. Viewers are presented with two artists’ takes on the same figure: Andy Warhol’s scribbled pencil portrait of Chairman Mao next to the ghostly gray blur of Gerhard Richter’s “photo painting” of the Chinese leader; the detached portrayals of man’s mindless consumption in Andreas Gursky and Massimo Vitali’s photographs; or the interlocking geometry of Sean Scully’s oil on canvas paintings pitted against the soft textural depth of Gunther Forg’s lead works.
A big challenge for Kataoka was in making a display that was appealing to the uninitiated who seek a highly visual and easily comprehensible introduction contemporary art, and to specialists who will be after more elusive, conceptual narratives.
“I am aware that some people may find some of the juxtapositions a bit too obvious and direct,” Kataoka says with good humor. “For example, Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura are always being compared with each other, and showing their work together with one of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s historical portraits may be even more obvious a comparison. But in the end, people really like this combination of three works.”
On a purely aesthetic level, most of the juxtapositions are smooth, but when it comes to more weighty issues, others can be jarring. Displaying the multicolored grid of Chuck Close’s “Self Portrait” (1991) next to Oscar Mun~oz’s “Pixels” (1999-2007) only works well in terms of their superficial resemblance — after all they both are “pixelated.” But Close’s distinctive style of painting with multicolored loops was the result of a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and forced to reinvent his technique within the limitations of using a special arm brace, whereas Mun~oz’s work deals with the deaths of innocents in the political turmoil of Colombia — to display them next to each other undermines the integrity of each.
Whatever you make of the connections between works suggested by the exhibition, you cannot go wrong with the individual pieces, especially if all you have seen until now are reproductions in art books, newspapers and magazines. At the Mori, the dirty roughness of Lucien Freud’s brushwork reveals itself in the figurative “Double Portrait” (1988-90); the vast scale of consumer excesses — almost an infinity of products — depicted in Andreas Gursky’s “99 Cent” (1999) is vigorously apparent; and in the darkened final room of the exhibition, you can revel in the depths of Vija Celmins’ enchanting graphite depictions of galaxies.
Cao Fei’s entrancing three-part video work “Whose Utopia” (2000) is a highlight of the show. After distributing a questionnaire asking workers in a Chinese lighting factory to tell her their dreams, Cao Fei followed them through their working environment. One woman dances through aisles of storage shelves with the grace of a ballerina, while another man snakes from side to side with tai chi-like poise. Otherwise harnessed like workhorses to power China’s relentless industrial growth, they momentarily indulge themselves in physical liberation, revealing their irrepressible individuality. At the end, the workers line up with the words “My future is not a dream” on their shirts.
Overall, while the quality of the UBS Art Collection is indisputably high, it feels as though something essential is lacking. This is unavoidable: A great collection is built up out of the passion of an individual who has an eye for great works (and great investments) and is willing to take risks and make mistakes, incorporating the untested works of lesser known artists. The UBS Art Collection is directed by an advisory board, fed with the input of independent curators and managed by committees. Hence, it feels safe; the product of consensus, it brings together a sterile overview of artistic expression, saying simply — with no defining narrative — “Here are modern and contemporary art’s undisputed big names.”
But Jean-Christophe Ammann, a member of the UBS Art Collection Advisory Board, said at a lecture at the Mori on Monday night that these works are meant to be seen as individuals. He points out that in UBS’ office spaces they stand alone and that the current exhibition is fascinating exactly because this was one of the few times that these pieces actually “had a chance to meet one another.”
“A corporate collection (in comparison to a museum’s) is not about the curator, it is not about public, it is not about the history of the art,” he continued with evident passion for the subject. “It is only about the art!”
Kataoka herself has decided to capitalize on the cold embrace between the Mori and UBS, turning it into one of the central concepts of the show. To encourage viewers to consider how it would feel to have such artwork in their office spaces, she has designed the exhibition rooms as they were part of a corporate environment. You find yourself in the whitest of white cubicles, some dotted with super-sleek office furniture.
Whether such a design will have the intended effect — especially in light of the workers and factory lines portrayed in Cao Fei’s work — is debatable. Certainly the exhibition effectively captures the mood of a large corporation’s lobby or waiting room, but this idealized vision of a gallery-like office space is greatly disconnected from the reality of the average person’s every day working environment.
Take, for example, Norman Foster’s Greater London Authority building on the south bank of the River Thames. Intended as an architectural expression of the transparency and accessibility of democratic process, at weekends the public is allowed to visit the roof deck, and, as they walk down a central spiral staircase, look into the offices. Even there, regardless of how stunning the building is, the offices inside remain like any office in almost any other building, characterized by desks cluttered with pens and paper, the paraphernalia of inescapable bureaucracy.
Nevertheless, while the Mori’s exhibition design may not be an effective means for connecting with the average office worker, it does succeed on another level. In the second section of the exhibition there is a long white desk with two uniform rows of iMacs. Surrounded by the predominantly cold and detached photographic work of students of Bernd and Hilla Becher, who taught at the Dusseldorf Academy in the 1970s, the the room feels like a computer showroom and one’s initial instinct is to look but not touch. But the terminals are full of information about the works, cataloged in a user-friendly interface. While the setup is contrived, the practicality of offering visitors somewhere to sit and access information does allow them to spend more time with the art, proving that somewhere beneath this exhibition’s cold skin there is a generous heart.
Though Ammann proclaims that the collection is “only about the art,” he does point out that it is dedicated to “The Future” — literally, the next generation. Despite reaching back decades, the works in the UBS Art Collection are relevant to the present day. And while it’s impossible to sum up the whole of contemporary art in a simple way, seen through the prism of the UBS-Mori exhibition, there is one prominent and recurrent concern in much of the work: a deep-seated sense of unease and anxiety about our place in the world.
Additional reporting by Donald Eubank. “Art is for the Spirit: Works from the UBS Art Collection Exhibition” is showing till April 6 at the Mori Art Museum; admission ¥1,500; open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (Tues. till 5 p.m.). For more information call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.mori.art.museum