When Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery opened “Takahashi Collection: Mirror Neuron,” it was packed with people keen to see Ryutaro Takahashi’s selection of 140 contemporary artworks by 52 artists. It’s only the second major showing of pieces owned by Takahashi, a psychiatrist and one of the most influential art collectors in Japan, who also chose the unusual title of “Mirror Neuron” for this show.

Mirror neurons — neurons that allow primates to understand the experience of another through observation — were discovered in the 1990s by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team, who found that a monkey’s mirror neurons would show activity when it was watching someone doing something. For example, if the monkey saw a person pick up a piece of food, its mirror neurons would respond as if it also had picked up some food. Neuroscientists have since hypothesized that mirror neurons are related to human empathy, skill and language.

“I believe that art is the greatest outcome of imitating nature, as Greek philosopher Aristotle once said,” Takahashi said when explaining the exhibition title at the opening. “Art has also been created by imitating others throughout history, although there’s been more emphasis on the originality of the individual as an artist since the modern age.”

Talking about Japanese art, much of which still draws from traditional culture, he went on to explain: “We take it for granted that in traditional arts and culture an artist develops his skill and aesthetics by imitating a master or by repeating a motif. The Japanese word “nazorae,” which means simulation or transformable imitation, sums up the quintessential strength of Japanese traditional art to achieve ultimate beauty.

“Japanese contemporary art, even if it is still influenced by American pop art of the 1980s, still possesses the nazorae DNA, for which I think that mirror neuron is somehow responsible.”

Makoto Aida’s “Beautiful Flag (War Picture Returns)” — a picture of Japanese and Korean girls, each with a national flag — for example, is portrayed on a pair of folding screens and imitates Sotatsu Tawaraya’s early 17th-century national treasure “Fujin Raijin-zu” (“Wind and Thunder Gods”). Yasuyuki Nishio’s giant sculpture “Crash Sayla Mass,” which is named after Sayla Mass, a female character from the popular anime “Gundam,” also transforms the character into a fierce monster-like figure with undertones of traditional sculpture. There are plans to take some of the “Mirror Neuron” works to Paris in Autumn, which, considering its scope and historical context, should add to the discourse on what the nation should be promoting as part of the “Cool Japan” campaign.

Takahashi began collecting art after opening his clinic in the 1990s, supporting young artists at a time when Japanese museum budgets were shrinking with the recession. Within 20 years he amassed around 2,000 works in an eclectic collection that ranges from the many genres of Yayoi Kusama to the avant-garde of the Mono-ha group. Many of the contemporary artists represented have since become internationally recognized, such as Makoto Aida, Akira Yamaguchi, Izumi Kato and Takashi Murakami.

“What is special about Takahashi is that he dedicates himself to the arts with a burning passion, which reminds me of his personal history as a student activist in 1960s,” said Osamu Fukushi, a senior curator of Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery. “He collects art but also develops his own theories on the state of Japanese arts, culture and society and uses his collection to express his particular view from the perspective of a psychiatrist.”

“Takahashi Collection: Mirror Neuron” at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery runs till June 28; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Sat. till 8 pm.) ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.operacity.jp/ag/exh175

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