Mercedes Benz Art Scope is an exchange program that allows Japanese artists to spend time in Germany and German artists to visit Japan. The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art has been a partner in this project since 2003, and in this year’s group show, Stuttgart-based artist Menja Stevenson and Tama Art University 2002 MA graduate Taro Izumi are joined by guest artist Tokihiro Sato, a luminary of Japanese art photography.
Stevenson and Izumi show work that has resulted from recent sojourns in Japan and Germany respectively, while Sato’s images are mainly a selection of diptychs that combine photographs of Tokyo from his late 1990s’ “Photo-Respiration” series alongside photographs of the same scenes, taken earlier this year.
With a sub-title of “Wandering to Wonder,” the exhibition ties the three artists together through their use of movement and observation.
Stevenson’s work features beautiful and subtle photographic transparencies; abstract polychromatic prints taken from the accumulated markings etched into the work tables of woodblock artisans; and a series of shirt collars with German adages stitched on them, based on the sight of a girl’s blouse in Tokyo on which the text “I want to be come a cat” (sic) can be read.
Izumi’s work includes a room-sized installation that mimics the interior of a passenger plane, with rows of screens playing different movies; and “Cloud (Reversed Stretching to Change the Flow of Dream),” which is an array of video screens, set around a defaced map of Berlin, showing people looking up at smears of black lines in the sky.
Sato is an alumnus of the Art Scope program from when the residency allowed Japanese artists to spend time in the south of France. However, rather than showing archive work exclusively from his time there in 1993, Sato’s “wandering” in this exhibition shows him revisiting Shibuya, Tsukudajima and Shinjuku, where he once used flashlights and mirrors to fill unpeopled urban nightscapes with numerous spots of luminescence.
Re-photographing these scenes with the same large-format camera, but this time using film that undergoes color shifts when exposed for times beyond its intended limits, Sato’s diptychs can be seen as evidence of an increasing interest in photography as process, rather than finished art object. The acceptance of “faults,” like chromatic aberration, lack of sharp focus and false color, contrast strongly to the technical perfection of his earlier work. The diaphanous mist caused by people moving through the frames of the latter work also makes an interesting counterpoint to the sharply defined pinpoints of light that mark the momentary presence of the younger Sato in his “Photo-Respiration” images.
As reactions to being residents in foreign countries, Stevenson and Izumi’s works both feature negotiations with cultural displacement. Stevenson’s is more obviously sympathetic than Izumi’s — delighting in the light, colors and visual culture of Tokyo, which, channeling Lafcadio Hearn, she described in an email to me as “Inspiring in all aspects.”
“There is no end to inspiration. Around each and every corner something unexpected comes your way,” she continued. “The discretion and friendliness of its inhabitants make Tokyo a huge sace to wander around in total freedom and safety — it is like strolling around in wonderland.”
Izumi’s dark stains on the skies of Berlin and wry look at the absurdity of modern air travel are more prickly and provocative. Other projects, however, may better represent his fantastic and beguiling blend of nonsense, wit and technical ingenuity, as the “Art Scope” pieces come across as a little overworked and self-consciously wacky.
“Mercedes-Benz Art Scope 2015-2017: Wandering to Wonder” at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art runs until Aug. 27; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed Mon. www.haramuseum.or.jp