If you like controversy with your contemporary art “Postwar Art in Close Up” at The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT) may be the wrong exhibition to visit. Though it is tentatively presented as a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II — with all the pitfalls that may entail — it’s at “An Art Exhibition for Children,” a different show a few rooms down, where the real controversy has been kicking off.
It has been widely reported that artist Makoto Aida is embroiled in a dispute with the museum over his video mocking Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and a banner that he created with his son and wife. In the video piece, he stands in for Abe and apologizes for Japanese war-time aggression, while the banner protests textbook screening. Aida claims that he was asked to remove his work from the show, while the MOT has rebutted, saying that it only asked him to remove the Japanese subtitles to the film, which would in their view make it, “more appropriate for children.”
As luck would have it, while I was taking in “Close-Up,” which was open to all ages, I found myself standing next to a mother and her very young child as I watched documentary footage of an anti-Expo ’70 and anti-Vietnam war campaign. A clip of an event organized by Tamio Suenaga, one of a series that popped up around Tokyo between 1968 and ’69, shows one of the activists with a length of tubing strapped to his privates, which he uses to slap the faces of semi-naked acolytes kneeling around him, who also jokingly pretend to perform acts of … well … what you’d expect art activists to do in late ’60s. I overheard the girl ask her mother what they were doing, but she didn’t get a response.
The rough hand-held video documentation of the Expo ’70 Destruction Joint-Struggle Group’s performance is a kind of high-water mark of frenzy in this exhibition, which opens with a section devoted to the avant-garde painting of dentist-turned-artist Minoru Nakahara, and ends with the cool flickering digits of Tetsuo Miyajima’s 1998 LED installation “Keep Changing, Connect with Everything, Continue Forever.”
With 12 sections in total, each with its own theme, this wide-ranging assembly of works from the MOT’s permanent collection sets itself the remit of covering a fairly long time span without being pushy about presenting an overarching narrative. There is, however, something poignant in the fact that Nakahara’s work is shown to subtly change from the ’20s to the ’30s, becoming less surreal and more allegorical, to return to his pre-war sensibility after 1945.
If there is an inkling of progression revealed in the dipping in and out of focus on particular artists, it is mainly in the contrast between the domination of paintings, prints and drawings during the immediate postwar period in Japan, and the objects and installations that took over from the end of the 20th century.
Shigeo Ishii’s finely detailed ink-and-pencil drawings of the ’50s urban landscape as a claustrophobic nightmare compare interestingly with Ishikawa Naoki’s more recent photographs of snow-covered landscapes, and Koichi Kurita’s fetishistic mounting and bottling of pebbles and soil. The significance of this comparison is not that they show off an enduring love of nature in different ways, but that the latter indicate how visual appeal and neatness, to a large extent, trump protest, critique or discomfort in the current art scene in Japan.
Somewhat paradoxically, even though the exhibition self-consciously proclaims “enjoyment” and “joy” to be its goal, one of the strengths of “Close-Up” is that it reminds us that the function of art as a palliative or leisurely distraction has its limits, historically and socially. Nobuya Abe’s grim 1951 canvas “Myth A,” depicting two earth-colored skeletal figures in a grotesque embrace, or Jiro Asazuma’s bloated red figure in “Boy with Bandaged Hand” (1949) may not have the power to shock and disturb as they once did, but the task of imagining why they might have done, however, is one reason why the airing of these works is worthwhile.
Another benefit is being able to re-evaluate the relative contribution of artists to the period in hindsight. The inclusion of the cartoonish, and sometimes sardonic work of Yuki Katsura and Hideko Fukushima from the early to mid-’50s, for example, is an intriguing contrast to the blunt despair of their male contemporaries.
“Close-Up” is elliptical and oblique in its commemoration of the war, since it mainly deals with art after 1945. With its final rooms filled with works that are cool, aesthetic and restrained, it almost satirizes its own lack of engagement with the horror and evil of war. There is acknowledgment of social discontent and resistance, but if Makoto Aida is being pressured to tone down his work, then the MOT is in the untenable position of claiming that freedom of expression is worth celebrating, but only when it’s unlikely to make any difference.
Of course , the MOT is not the first art museum to face this problem, but isn’t it at times like this that the fun starts; when the art really starts to mean something? Surely that’s a suitable message for kids.
“Postwar Art in Close-Up” at the Collection Gallery, 1F and 3F of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo runs until Oct. 12; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. until 9 p.m. until end of Sept.). ¥500. Closed Mon. www.mot-art-museum.jp