This year, the contemporary artist/provocateur Makoto Aida took inspiration from a 19th-century Kuniyoshi Utagawa woodblock print in which the 10th-century princess and witch, Takiyasha, summoned a skeletal ghost to menace the emperor’s official mystic Oya no Taro Mitsukuni.
Aida’s massive installation, “Monument for Nothing V” (2019), is a starving skeletal specter in bedraggled World War II military uniform, representing the war dead. An outstretched hand points to and touches the tip the National Diet building, modeled after a funerary headstone, apportioning contemporary complicity. The installation is one of four commissioned to dovetail with the historical sections comprising “Heroes and People in the Japanese Contemporary Art,” at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art.
As the museum’s final Heisei Era (1989-2019) exhibition, this ambitious and somewhat provocative show looks back on both the Showa and Heisei (1926-2019) eras. It considers the socio-political roles art played in the midst of the past 90 or so years through five themed sections: group action, strange figures, places of significance, war, and everyday life.
The exhibition title seemingly circumnavigates overt political issues. “Heroes” refers to factual and fictional characters with charismatic existences, like “Gekko Kamen” (“Moonlight Mask”), the late 1950s caped action superhero of early Japanese TV and film. “People” refers to the often unnamed individuals who came together in pursuit of some purpose, including the Beheiren (Peace for Vietnam) Committee that took out an opinion ad in The Washington Post on April 3, 1967, imploring the American government and its people to “Korosuna: Do Not Kill.”
Much here, however, is politically contentious, complicated and exceedingly interesting. The group action section, for example, is often about public displays of intense dissatisfaction and calls for social change, like that of Jihei Ogawa’s original drawing of “Flower of Universal Suffrage” (1921) for the satirical magazine “Tokyo Puck,” the mesmerizing coloristic schema of proletarian action in Toki Okamoto’s “Attack at the Factory by the Strikers” (1929, restored in 1974), and the suggested violence captured in Shomei Tomatsu’s youth protest photography from the late ’60s.
Larger conflicts are seen in the popular manga “Norakuro.” Here, a dog-soldier protagonist features in humorous military escapades, though the manga was eventually propagandized for the Second Sino-Japanese War, before being temporarily discontinued during a period of World War II austerity measures. Tsuguharu Foujita, Japan’s only prewar artist of international stature for his connection to the School of Paris, is represented by one of his celebrated war paintings, “Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941” (1942). In early postwar Japan, he became the disgraced scapegoat of artistic culpability for previous wartime works.
More recent works include art group Chim↑Pom, which broadcast crow-summoning calls to gather flocks that had fed on abandoned livestock in the irradiated exclusion zone in Fukushima Prefecture. The birds were then shepherded through urban areas for the video “Black of Death” (2013), a kind of macabre and surreal 21st-century version of the Pied Piper tale.
Socio-political issues have often seemed begrudgingly addressed in the wider Japanese contemporary art world. This exhibition is conceivably stimulus for further questioning of how Japanese art museums should deal with the politically sensitive and locally produced materials of art and mass culture.
“Heroes and People in the Japanese Contemporary Art” at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art runs until March 17; ¥1,300. For more information, visit www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp.