At the opening press conference for “Roppongi Crossing 2010,” the U.S-based French artist Jules de Balincourt said that he was impressed how the exhibition revealed to him that the contemporary art being produced in Japan could just as easily have been created anywhere in the world — that trends in art here were the same as elsewhere.

Many of the artists at this year’s “Roppongi Crossing,” who were selected by Chieko Kinoshita (a lecturer at Osaka University’s Center for the Study of Communication-Design), Kenji Kubota (an independent curator) and Kenichi Kondo (associate curator at the Mori Art Museum), are young and use unusual materials and presentation methods. More importantly, the works they are creating show fresh new concerns: Neither influenced by manga/anime, nor fitting into the MicroPop theory of personalized, insignificant gestures, they appear instead to be more engaged with the world around them.

Aki Yahata’s strange quasi- documentary video installation of individuals who exist on the outskirts of society — for no identifiable or “curable” reasons — obliquely addresses issues of death, love and the beauty of life in an earnest manner that never lets the audience in on whether this is all for real or not.

Similarly, Yosuke Amemiya’s custom-built room off to the side of Yahata’s work creates an imaginary space that puts viewers into a parallel reality. The artist himself is part of the exhibition for the duration of the “Roppongi Crossing” — which will you watch? Him or his video?

Lieko Shiga makes richly colored, sometimes gory, often alienating photographs that are the antidote to popular photographer Mika Ninagawa’s “Oh isn’t that pretty,” bright flowers and fish.

Whether they are simply pranksters or social commentators is still up for debate, but art collective Chim ↑ Pom have aggressively tackled the practice of contemporary art and the state of society in Japan in messy installations and amusing performances that would be at home in the most avant-garde of spaces in New York, Berlin or London.

But most of those who go to “Roppongi Crossing 2010” (showing till July 4) will walk out remembering Ujino’s noisy robotlike Rube Goldberg installation and the skateboard ramp in the same room decorated by Kami and Sasu of HITOTUKI. These pieces are both fun enough, but unfortunately, they distract from the more ambitious — and subtler — questions that the leading exhibition of contemporary Japanese art could investigate.

“Roppongi Crossing” was established in 2004 as a survey of Japanese contemporary art that the Mori Art Museum would hold every three years. The first one featured 57 artists and artist collectives with the purpose of creating for the first time, according to senior Mori Curator Mami Kataoka, “a directory of Japanese contemporary art.” While some complained that this led to cluttered galleries, the first exhibition’s inclusiveness and scale presented a compelling showcase of the variety of creativity in Japan.

The second “Roppongi Crossing,” in 2007, put forward a clear curatorial vision in response: It was an exploration of “genre-crossing” in contemporary art, as the curators Amano Kazuo, Araki Natsumi, Sato Naoki and Sawaragi Noi focused on works and artists showing how interconnected art and design in Japan is (for better or worse). The works by the “36 artists you must see now” revealed an eclectic range of practices and styles confirming the curators’ thesis.

“Roppongi Crossing 2010” is a different affair. Suffering first from a serious reduction in the number of artists being shown — there are only 20 this time — the exhibition is also weighted down by an awkward title, “Can there be art?” and the five disparate themes used to determine what works to include: Reference to society, creativity of genre-crossing, significance of collaboration, expressions of the street, and aesthetics of the new generation.

The title, “Can there be art?” comes from a question asked by the late Furuhashi Teiji of the artist group Dumb Type after the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy in the 1990s. Despite a similar, ongoing economic meltdown now, the answer is a bit of a no-brainer: “Yes, there can” — witness Roppongi Art Nights, the opening of the new alternative space 3331 Arts Chiyoda, and this exhibition itself.

As for themes, it would have probably helped if they had been narrowed down to just one. The need to point out “the creativity of genre-crossing” is much less urgent as the Mori has already done a great job educating the public about trends in the physical production of contemporary art. Exhibitions ranging from its first in 2004, “A survival Guide for Art and Life,” to “Africa Remix” (2006), “A Retrospective of the Turner Prize” (2008) and the two previous “Roppongi Crossings” have shown how many artists embrace multiple media in a single work. The same could be said about the “significance of collaboration.”

As to offering a “reference to society,” the question of socially conscious art is a difficult one; one I will wade into just to show my bias. As a quote from the 20th-century German artist Joseph Beuys posted on a wall in the exhibition points out, “Art does not exist to be understood.” Beuys fully believed in art as a social activity that could change the world, yet he was frequently far from comprehensible: the sole work he performed in the United States, titled “I like America and America likes me,” involved him sharing a room with a wild coyote for three days.

Unfortunately, all too often socially conscious art — if its message is strong — suffers from a simplicity that turns it into an editorial cartoon masquerading as an artwork. Though his Yoko Ono-worthy “Upside Down Hinomaru” flag is an exception, this is true of the work of the artist who leads off the exhibition, Yuken Teruya. Teruya’s delicately formed trees cut from corporate paper bags show remarkable craftsmanship. But their point is obvious: Disposable paper bags are made from trees. OK, check, let’s move on.

Satoru Aoyama’s glow-in-the-dark embroidery works avoid these problems through their ambiguity. Though they often feature political subjects, by juxtaposing such images with ordinary scenes Aoyama avoids preaching or hectoring, creating something much more mysterious. These pieces have been shown at least twice before around Tokyo, at the Echo exhibition in Yokohama in 2008 and the Mizuma Art Gallery in 2009, and appear more spectacular each time.

So, of the themes presented, which is the one that most urgently needs to be explained to the broader public? Japanese contemporary art stands at a crossroads today, thus my vote is for the “aesthetics of the new generation.” The history of art is a dialogue of ideas, and what the Japanese art world needs is an exhibition that casts a critical eye toward artists’ production and asks: “What is Japanese contemporary art adding to that dialogue in 2010?”

There are indications in “Roppongi Crossing 2010” of what these aesthetics might be in the works of Shiga, Yahata, Amemiya, Chim ↑ Pom, Tsubasa Kato, Rogues’ Gallery, Koganezawa Takehito and contact Gonzo: these include ambiguity, the use of documentary methods and a willingness to play with traditional artistic conventions. But such tempting hints are overwhelmed by the breadth of the exhibition’s vision, undermined by the dearth of artists on show and marred by an orientation that looks backward as much as it looks forward.

Japan’s art world could use a clear survey to show what is coming next. Another quote in the exhibition, by the 20th-century English painter Wyndham Lewis, states, “If you want to know what is occurring inside, underneath, at the centre, at any given moment, art is a truer guide than ‘politics,’ more often than not.” That’s great — it makes clear that “Can there be art?” is the wrong question to ask. The right one, instead, would be “What is art telling us?”

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