In a vast room with white walls and wooden floors, a lone man crouches in the corner holding a spouted container that releases tiny white crystals onto the floor in a carefully controlled flow. Making sure not to disturb the meticulously crafted lines around him, he works steadily and with great resolve. Onlookers watch in silent awe as he adds one line after another to an intricate and flawless maze that spans the entire breadth of the room. Like drawings made in the sand, the work that unfolds is a painstaking exercise in the ephemeral. After all, this particular work of art is made of salt, and come April, all of it will be swept away.

The piece in question is “Labyrinth” by Motoi Yamamoto, an installation that is part of the “Neo-Ornamentalism” exhibition now showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT). Every year since 1999, the museum has selected a theme that reflects contemporary society to hold an “MOT Annual” — a group exhibition designed to introduce young contemporary Japanese artists to the world. This year, the show took “ornamentation” as its 10th-anniversary theme.

For most, the term ornamentation has a direct correlation to the decorative arts. Perhaps it brings to mind pottery with an elaborate surface design, or the hand-carved finishing touches on wooden furniture. Unfortunately, with a caste system in the art world that places ornament and craft at the bottom of the creators’ food chain, most artists avoid labels like “craft” and “decorative art” at all costs.

However, the show at MOT offers a new interpretation of the ornamental, not merely as surface embellishment, but as a connection to a higher consciousness.

“Ornamentation is not only an important element of art creation like form and color; in many cases it gives expression or representation to a spiritual realm transcending material existence,” says a spokesperson for MOT. “The geometric patterns of Jomon pottery or decorated tombs and the ornamentation of Baroque and Rococo architecture are not simply expressions of what people held to be beautiful in different ages; they embody a particular world view that questions the nature of time, space — and even individual human existence.”

This summary of the exhibition theme may sound a bit lofty, and it certainly seems like a stretch to include murals, installations and kinetic sculpture in a show that supposedly finds its inspiration in the decorative arts. However, the intricacy and process used to create many of the works do find their roots in craft, and the pure power and beauty of much of the art on display leaves viewers feeling more inclined to forgive the artistic license exercised by the curators as they developed this year’s theme.

Not far from the entrance, Junichi Mori’s wooden sculptures seem to defy physics in their pure ethereality. Seemingly weightless, his sculptures and wall pieces look as if a force of nature had gathered sawdust into prearranged patterns. Around the corner, Tokolo Asao’s work invariably draws a crowd as visitors line up for a turn at transforming his kinetic sculptures. A complex weight- and-pulley system allows the works to be seen not only in their dormant state and fully hung form, but also to be frozen in every stage in between.

Next up, Katsuyo Aoki’s monumental porcelain works perhaps best fit a more traditional interpretation of this ornamentation theme. Aoki clearly spends countless hours on her surface designs, attaching minute handcrafted porcelain details to mold-cast counterparts to create skulls, swords and elaborate wall pieces that reference Baroque porcelain in a contemporary context.

In the final showroom, Atsuo Ogawa’s engraved soap sculptures demand attention. With titles like “Cutter Knife Skating,” Ogawa’s incomprehensibly intricate surface designs look like they were made by machine, but in fact they were made in a method that could best be described as, well, cutter-knife skating. Like Yamamoto, Ogawa links the ornamental to the ephemeral, and the choice to use soap as his canvas is testament to this.

As you exit the exhibition, the crowning jewel of this eclectic ensemble finds its home in a separate room to the left. Entering the space where Tomoko Shioyasu’s “Cutting Insights” is housed, viewers are greeted by what looks like three giant tapestries hanging from the ceiling. Upon closer inspection, the truth reveals itself as one giant paper cutting with two warm shadows cast behind it by projectors hanging from the entrance walls. The paper cutting itself, which the artist reported took several hours per square foot to complete, is mind-boggling in its size and complexity.

All in all, “Neo-Ornamentalism” has its highlights and its pitfalls like any group show, but don’t let the name fool you. This exhibition is not a contemporary exploration of the decorative arts. It’s simply a cross-genre showcase of some of the most talented and exciting artists Japan has to offer today.

“Neo-Ornamentalism” at the MOT runs till April 11; closed on Mon. (except March 22) and on March 23.; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. For more information, visit www.mot-art-museum.jp

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.