Art

Asia in the wings of Japan’s art scene

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

“Tis the season to be jolly … circumspect. As regards art, despite suggestions from some art professionals that biennials and other recurring art festivals are an exhausted format, 2017 offered up an embarrassment of riches, some more embarrassing than others as it turned out.

The conjunction of the five-yearly Documenta, the Venice, Moscow and Jakarta biennials; the 6th Asian Art Biennial in Taipei; and a newly minted Jeju Biennale made for a particularly packed art calendar. Even Antarctica had its first biennial. Before revisiting some of the notable 2017 shows in Tokyo, it’s worth having a quick look at the two most renowned international art events to put Japan’s offerings into context.

Documenta, which took place simultaneously in Kassel, Germany, and Athens as a demonstration of solidarity with Greece’s precarious economic situation, took some heat for being too preachy in its sociopolitical engagement at the expense of the art. After the event closed in September, it was reported that a deficit of $8.3 million had taken it close to bankruptcy, and a story in Artnet News reports that “interns were asked to carry coffers full of euros” when flying to Athens so that contractors could be paid.

The event was titled “Learning From Athens,” and although by all accounts the artistic director, Adam Szymczyk, is a serious man, I can’t be the only person wondering if the German Documenta organizers hadn’t been massively punked in a meta-art intervention. For the record, it appears there were no Japanese artists showing at this year’s event.

Meanwhile, the Venice Biennale, cheerily titled “Viva Arte Viva,” was reported as being only softly political, veering toward the personally consoling in comparison with 2015’s grimmer and more on-the-nose “All the World’s Futures,” curated by Okwui Enwezor. This year, Japan was represented by Hiroshima-born Takahiro Iwasaki, whose work “Turned Upside Down it’s a Forest” was irreproachably well-produced and visually fascinating. As the exhibit of a national pavilion, though, it seemed too comfortable with established touchstones of “Japaneseness,” including meticulous detailed handiwork, a paean to nature, and referencing the atomic bomb and Buddhism/Shinto.

Yet Iwasaki’s work, curated by the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa’s Meruro Washida, was a good fit for “Viva Arte Viva,” which aimed to focus on art and artists, rather than art as a functionary medium of political activism. For the Venice Biennale’s main curator, Christine Macel, the affirmative yawp of “Viva Arte Viva” was intended to be a rallying cry for humanism in what she called “a world full of conflicts and shocks.”

In Japan, the Yokohama Triennale was also couched in terms of embattlement. Co-director Akiko Miki considered the world in which “Islands, Constellations & Galapagos” took place to be “shaken to its foundations by challenges such as conflict, refugees and immigration,” and “awash in data far exceeding the processing capacity of human beings.”

In exploring the notions of connection and isolation, the exhibition worked best as a device for examining and contrasting artistic processes. The Yokohama Triennale has shrunk in scale compared with earlier iterations, and the design of the show was engineered to present a succession of small solo exhibitions with a handful of collaborations.

While Documenta and the Venice Biennale have been criticized for being “too big to fail,” “sprawling” and “not humanly scaled,” the layout at the Yokohama Triennale, which prompted visitors to assess different artists by actively connecting or contrasting work, expanded the significance of the exhibits while keeping the experience manageable. One thing the Yokohama exhibition didn’t do, however, was to seriously address Japan’s identity as a geopolitical entity that struggles with connection, even though this was implicit in the remit it set itself. The declarative use of Ai Weiwei’s installation of life jackets and inflatable rafts on the front of the Yokohama Museum of Art aimed to be a gesture of solidarity with refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean to a better life in Europe, but it somehow reeked of self-indulgent spectacle, with little chance of having any real-life impact.

Protectionism, xenophobia and populism are normalized in Japan, and in this respect the work of Japanese artist Sachiko Kazama, whose intricate yet dynamic black-and-white woodblock prints take on gender roles, Japanese militarism and other mechanisms of social control, had more critical potential than platitudinous reminders that the world is complex, or that poor people dying is tragic.

Chim↑Pom, Kazama’s stablemates at Mujin-to Productions and the go-to Japanese dissident artist collective with an international cult following, were a group I had been eager to review and support for some time, but their April exhibition, “The other side” at SNAC/Mujin-to Production, was not easy to get behind. The group has built up a reputation as interventionists and rule-breakers, but, as its gallery was eager to point out, Chim↑Pom are careful not to actually break any laws. This, you may say, is eminently sensible, but in the context of their project of appearing to tunnel under the U.S.-Mexico border but getting local Mexicans to do a lot of it for them, and then, apparently, not actually having the nerve to cross under said border — por favor, no mas.

Besides the Yokohama Triennale, two other big dates on the art calendar in Japan were the showing of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Tower of Babel” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art, and “Sunshower: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now,” which ran at the Mori Art Museum and the National Art Center. The first of these, a massively attended show that relied on a single famous painting as its draw, was a frustrating, if standard, exhibition experience for visitors, who were obliged to appreciate masterpieces of Western art as a haptic sensation similar to being on a rush-hour train.

The second, a huge show dispersed over two of Tokyo’s biggest venues, showed the work of 86 artists from a geographical region that is home to 800 million people. At some points I was the only visitor in the room. Part of this was just a matter of timing, and I hope the attendance of this extensive survey of the energetic art scene south of Japan fared better on other days. But this eerie experience reminded me of something Singaporean arts manager Low Kee Hong had said last year in an interview about his work at the West Kowloon Cultural District: “Asians generally aren’t interested in other Asians.”

That’s going to change, and Japanese art-world professionals, the tourist board and the culture ministry will, for a variety of reasons, be instrumental in this. Hopefully the interest will be multi-directional.