Art

Weaving in and out of a century of art

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

After nearly three years of renovations, the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, situated at one end of Kiba Park in Koto Ward, has re-opened its doors with “Weavers of Worlds: A Century of Flux in Japanese Modern/Contemporary Art.”

It’s an ambitious exhibition that, in order to span an entire century’s worth of art, literally runs through the majority of the museum building — with viewers traversing four floors to see the entire show. Allow yourself ample time to make your way through it.

“Weavers of Worlds” posits Japan’s 20th-century artists as “weavers,” selectively “editing” disparate artistic elements into a chimera-like whole and pursuing individual expression even while absorbing the Western art movements du jour — cubism, dadaism, surrealism, art informel. This act of “editing” a creative vision becomes, in many cases, the motif of the art itself; the executive decisions of what to include — or not — taking on additional significance.

“Weavers” begins with the advent of World War I in 1914, a time when Japan was moving out of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and into a period when, rather than simply absorbing Western ideals, it began to re-interpret them. The exhibition is broken down into an almost overwhelming 14 “chapters” related to large-scale disasters and subsequent social changes or artistic themes of the time, rather than being broken down into exact decades.

The section “Before and After the Earthquake Disaster” displays the paintings in its main room in staggered, upward-moving lines, manipulating the positive and negative space of its gallery walls to maximum effect, encouraging visitors to compare works of diverse styles and topics. For instance, Takeshiro Kanokogi’s “1923 Great Kanto Earthquake” (1924) shows survivors with their scavenged belongings trudging through the wreckage of Tokyo, with half-melted lamp posts mimicking the warped remnants of burned trees and lingering fires glowing in the distance. It’s juxtaposed with Torao Makino’s Eden-like paintings of the lush garden outside his studio, painted around the same time, and the contrast between wreckage and verdant green is a shock.

Works in “During and After the War” grapple with Japan’s World War II experiences. “Still Life (Pheasant)” (1941) by Ai-Mitsu depicts birds and vegetables entwined and dangling like a disembodied vascular system, while Masao Tsuruoka’s 1949 “Heavy Hand,” whose central figure of a hunched-over man being crushed from behind by a huge hand is said to have been inspired by the postwar homeless in Ueno, is an eerie blend of expressionism, surrealism and cubism.

In contrast, Ay-O’s “Pastoral” (1956), in which a virtual army of puffy, monochrome orange figures march against a striped background reminiscent of Imperial Japan’s Rising Sun flag, is almost aggressively cheerful. Scattered throughout the section, pioneering avant-garde artist Yuki Katsura’s tactile multimedia pieces are little jolts of whimsy and astute satire.

“Weavers” continues with pieces that address such heavy topics as regional resource management, disaster preparation, environmental planning, globalization, the breakdown of society and Japan’s international presence. Red is a prevalent color, and the artwork overall is full of an almost frenetic, pulsing energy. It concludes with a series of photographs by contemporary artist Taiji Matsue — bird’s-eye views of the canal along which the museum itself is located, illustrating Japan’s state of constant flux.

You can’t help but feel somewhat fatigued when reaching the end of the artistic century; perhaps the curators could have done a little more “editing” of their own.

There are plenty of well-known Japanese artists — Yoko Ono, Kohei Nawa and Tadanori Yokoo among others — represented, but it’s the lesser-known artists, like the aforementioned Yuki Katsura, who carry this exhibition. But as executive summaries of Japanese contemporary art and related social movements go, this one is pretty epic.

“Weavers of Worlds: A Century of Flux in Japanese Modern/Contemporary Art” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo runs until June 16; ¥1,300. For more information, visit www.mot-art-museum.jp/eng.