Japan learns about itself from the outside

by Edan Corkill

Corporate Japan’s high-profile purchases of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces during the bubble-economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s are generally seen as examples of senseless posturing. But imagine how those paintings — the ones that remain in this country, that is — would seem to an artist who has never set foot out of Asia. Actually, don’t imagine, read:

“I’m really lucky to be able to come to Tokyo. In Tokyo, I could see Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne. I used to think I’d have to go to Europe (to see those artists’ works). Now I have seen them here, I can go anywhere.”

Those are the words of Souliya Phoumivong, a 26-year-old from Laos who was visiting Japan in April and May on an artist-in-residence program. His trip to Tokyo was the first time he had set foot out of Indo-China, and yet after a single visit to the Sompo Japan Museum of Art in Shinjuku, he feels like he’s seen the world.

Japan has long fancied itself as a kind of “hub” to mediate between the West and the rest of Asia. One of the justifications of this belief was its location at Asia’s eastern extremity. Yet, in the art world — and most other sectors — such aspirations have been all but extinguished by the recent rise of China.

How ironic it is then that, as Japan recedes, its much-ridiculed “bubble period” splurges on Western artworks could start to bear fruit, and actually give the country the intermediary role that it sought for so long.

L ast spring, I participated in a tour of Laos’ capital, Vientiane. The trip was organized by The Japan Foundation to mark the Mekong-Japan Exchange Year, and the goal was to see facilities and people active in the local contemporary art scene.

It didn’t take very long. By the time we had seen the National Institute of Fine Arts (NIFA), a handful of commercial art galleries and a couple of Embassy- affiliated institutions, we had pretty much exhausted our leads. Needless to say, there were no examples of Western art to be seen, or even any public art museums where they might be shown in the future.

Of the people we met, the artist Souliya Phoumivong was far and away the most memorable. It was as if — in terms of art, at least — he alone was managing to ride the wave of modernity as it rises to crash over his country.

Souliya had recently become one of the first graduates of NIFA’s 4-year bachelor’s degree, which had been established in 2002. While he was still a student, he had been one of the first to take his paintings down to the markets by the Mekong River in Vientiane and sell them to tourists. That experience not only taught him English, but convinced him that there was a career to be made in selling his art (he didn’t have to follow the usual career path of NIFA graduates, which was to take government jobs making religious art at a temple).

In 2008, Souliya joined some other NIFA graduates to start their own gallery, which was named 5 Arts. Heralded as the first commercial gallery in the country to be run entirely by locals, it has attracted high-ranking government officials to its opening parties.

When I spoke to Souliya at 5 Arts in March last year, he was at pains to explain that his and his friends’ artworks were different to those of most Laotian painters because what they did was self-expression.

Sure, his works had what we discovered were the usual Laotian motifs of buffalos, flowers and human figures, but they also included nebulous, abstract matrixes on which those motifs seemed to float: patterns consisting of round paint splotches made by placing his brush on the canvas and twisting it.

“This is my own expression, my own idea — I don’t do it for anyone,” he said.

Since that time, other Western visitors to Laos have been won over by Souliya’s enthusiasm for new forms of creative expression (and, of course, his ability to speak English, which is rare in Laos’ art students). Teaching part time at his alma mater, Souliya has had the chance to meet a reasonably regular succession of Westerners who come through town — either under their own steam or at the invitation of foreign-funded bodies such as France’s Centre Culturel et de Cooperation Linguistique.

Several of them have taken it upon themselves to teach him photography and filmmaking. Last year, Marc Henrich, an American photographer who had conducted four months of workshops at NIFA, left Souliya with a MacBook computer — the last piece of equipment he needed to make what he said became the “first art video ever made in Laos.”

When the Japan Foundation — which administers part of the Foreign Ministry’s Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths Program — went looking for a Laotian artist to bring to Japan, it quickly zeroed in on Souliya.

“Japan is the country of media arts,” Souliya said. On his application form, he played up his recently acquired experience in photography and video, and said his next challenge was to learn about animation. That, no doubt, clinched it for him.

From his base at Youkobo Art Space, in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, Souliya spent his 2-month residency visiting animation schools and museums, as well as art galleries.

At one school they showed him how to make clay animation, and he decided this was something he could make on his own. The resulting work is a delightful tale of a young Laotian and his pet buffalo visiting the metropolis of Tokyo.

“At first I thought I should try to tell the Japanese something about Laos, but then I realized if I just made something about me, then they would learn about Laos,” he said.

Souliya took his clay models out into the streets, photographing them as he went, and then edited the shots together to make it look like the two were walking through the town.

The work has one very poignant moment, when the young Laotian character comes across a kamishibai (picture play) performance in a park. All of a sudden, the clay character is learning about a traditional form of Japanese animation — just like Souliya.

The artist didn’t know where to begin when asked what he had learned in Japan. As a painter-at-heart, he was thrilled to see works by European artists like Van Gogh at the Sompo museum. But, “everything (in Japan) is different,” he continued, “the buildings, the construction, the number of people. Every day in Tokyo is like a festival day in Vientiane.”

Souliya hopes to add animation techniques to the photography and video workshops that he now gives students at NIFA.

A nd of course, there is something that Japan can learn from Souliya’s visit, too — something about itself.

In addition to the idea of Japan’s bubble-period art acquisitions bearing fruit, there is another irony in all this.

Over the last few months, in particular, politicians and arts policy commentators have been harping on about the idea that from now on arts policy goals must be realized through the coordination of public- and private-sector resources.

Well, perhaps such coordination is already happening.

In Souliya’s case it was the government that brought him to Tokyo, and it was the private sector that brought the Western masterpieces from which he learned so much.

Of course, such seamless integration between private and public resources was largely a coincidence. (And no one would suggest that a few paintings in Shinjuku could really replace the direct experience of Europe.)

But, the fact is that these two notions — that Japan become a hub between East and West and that public and private resources be pooled — have been policy goals for a while now. If they are being realized — even in part — by accident, then surely those accidents could suggest ways they could be realized systematically in the future.