One year after The National Art Center, Tokyo, and the Mori Art Museum presented the expansive “Sunshower: Contemporary Art From Southeast Asia 1980s to Now,” The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, (MOMAT) has unveiled “Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s1990s.”

Both projects were years in the making and together can perhaps be considered an indication that Japanese art institutions are acknowledging the growing importance of Asian art hubs and the fact that China now boasts the world’s second-largest market for art.

Although there is some overlap between this current MOMAT show and last year’s “Sunshower” exhibitions, the tone and intent of the two surveys is quite different. In contrast to the usual formats of large exhibitions, which attempt to make their content more easily digestible either by arranging it chronologically or by theme, “Awakenings” is described by its organizers as being split into three “propositions”: “Questioning Structures,” “Artists and the City” and “Solidarities.” These are further subdivided into groupings such as “Gender and Society” and “Body as Media.”

Confused? You should be. There are so many complex issues raised by transnational collaboration between MOMAT; the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea; the National Gallery Singapore and the Japan Foundation Asia Center that viewers will hopefully leave the exhibition with more questions than answers. Rather than wasting time trying to concoct a collective Asian identity, for example, there is a much more interesting exploration of how disparate artists and groups develop localized responses to shared problems.

In a section on art activism, we can see how the forms and imagery of socialist realism — the depiction of labor and the working class, the use of woodblock prints, murals and so on — are adapted to express dissent in different societies. Posters and paintings by the United Artists’ Front of Thailand feature Thai soldiers, sporting uniforms and weapons supplied by the United States, as enemies of the people. Filipino artist Renato Habulan’s large canvas, “Fullness of Time,” painted during the rule of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, depicts a gathering of urban and agrarian workers gazing out at the viewer with quiet defiance. The red sky above them may symbolize the twilight of the Marcos era or the dawn of a people’s uprising.

Other more avant-garde (albeit less overtly political) works in the exhibition are “The White Hare of Inaba” (1970/2012), a digest of video pieces by the Japanese performance group Zero Jigen that features surreal nudes frolicking on the beach, and Rajendra Gour’s trippy “Eyes” (1967), which is both comedic and nightmarish.

Overall, “Awakenings” portrays Asia as a region, Japan included, that has been in turmoil; its local identities, culture and communities threatened by modernism, capitalism and authoritarian regimes backed by the United States.

In this context, the majority of exhibits cannot be judged as aesthetic objects, but more as comments on the practice of art as a bourgeois pastime. Writing about the problem of squaring art and politics, Adele Tan, curator at the National Gallery Singapore, notes in her essay in the exhibition catalog that we should “remove our fixation with the art object, and to think of it as secondary to the effects and affects of what the artist can bring about in spite of the object.”

Is Tokyo’s art-going public up for this? When I caught the exhibition’s opening on a Friday night there were only four or five visitors. The situation was the same when I went to see “Sunshower” at The National Art Center last year, only at that time I had the exhibition to myself. Let’s hope this lack of interest in Southeast Asian art isn’t a trend.

“Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s-1990s” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo runs until Dec. 24; ¥1,200. For more information, visit www.momat.go.jp/english.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.