Art

The flickering of Japan's contemporary art

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Art used to be about what you could see, but now, thanks to a more “conceptual” approach, it is often about what cannot be seen. Except the artist still has to demonstrate in some way what it is that can’t be seen — in other words, to make it visible.

This is the paradox that underlies “Constellations: Practices for Unseen Connections/Discoveries,” the latest group show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT). The declared intent of the exhibition is to “introduce experiments by artists who take various invisible points that exist scattered throughout the world and discover connections that link them, grasping these as new constellations.”

The connection with astrological so-called star signs is not some casual happenstance, but very much part of the concept. After all, constellations have for millennia evoked a sense of mystery and magic, something that much contemporary art could do well to emulate.

In all, seven artists have been chosen. The number is significant, because in ancient times, seven was the number of the Earth’s satellites visible to the naked eye, including the sun and the moon and the five planets.

You could, if you wish, play something of a parlor game by guessing which artist may represent which celestial body, although I am not quite sure the exhibition’s concept stretches that far. Also, there may be something of a clash between the astrological values accorded the planets in the East and those in the West. In Western astrology, Mercury is associated with the element of air, but in the East, as the kanji in its Japanese name suggests, it is associated with water.

The first artist we encounter, Nobuyuki Osaki is more associated with water than air. His “water paintings” are video installations of figurative arrangements of color that, laid on a watery surface, start to disintegrate as the pigments drift apart. These works seems to explore a dynamic opposite to the intent of the exhibitions. Instead of connections we see disconnections, as the temporary image is deconstructed by the irreverant nature of liquid.

The next artist we come to, Takayoshi Kitagawa, could be Jupiter, the planet that seems to observe the rest of the solar system with its unblinking eye. Kitagawa may have thought up his contribution while working as a museum security guard — something he actually did according to a reference in one of his video works. Given this background, it is no surprise that his section of the show relies heavily on video. It focuses on the various functional spaces of the museum and how they connect — the vital spaces that exist unseen behind any museum exhibition.

Following this rather mundane reminder that we are in a big building with doors, rooms and corridors, the work of Nobuhiro Shimura strikes a more magical note. Shimura, who participated in Roppongi Art Night in 2012, creates light installations. His “Dress” (2012) is a curtain of ribbons that breaks up a film of a sunset projected onto it. We only see shimmering light in the shadows. Simple but evocative, it ticks the exhibition’s checklist of showing the “unseen.”

His “Fountains” (2015) is even more effective. In a darkened room, pools of light well-up in dozens of wooden bath pails. The work references the large number of public baths that used to exist in the downtown area around the museum, but such over-subtle references are superfluous to the enjoyment of his art.

But just when this exhibition seems to get going, it immediately hits the brakes again. Next, we have to walk through a large, brightly lit space dedicated to the obsessive art of Saburo Ota. This centers around postage stamps, seeds and grains of rice in various aesthetically sterile assemblages. Rather than art, these seem to reflect an obsessive compulsive disorder — a vast image of Astro Boy is outlined in stamps, the positions of which also map the locations of the Tokyo post offices where they were bought. The only thing “unseen” here is the point of the works.

In an exhibition of uneven quality, a personal favorite is Takayuki Yamamoto’s “Facing the Unknown” (2012) — a rather ludicrous, but also touching, video of two young children listening to a physics professor explaining black holes. The intelligent but confused expression of the big sister and the mixed restlessness and passivity of the younger brother, along with the condescending and cajoling voice of the professor, create a work of charm and humor.

When they created their constellations from the stars of heaven, the ancients always had to leave a few awkward stars out of the grand design. With the hit or miss nature of this show, the MOT could have done likewise.

Constellations: Practices for Unseen Connections/Discoveries at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, runs till March 22; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed Mon. www.mot-art-museum.jp

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