If you’re going to see big cartoon characters in an art gallery, the Mori Art Museum (MAM) is a good place to do it.

The museum’s voluminous spaces lend themselves well to visually dramatic works that catch your attention in a flash before taking you aside to impart their particular concerns at greater length. For the 15th anniversary of “Roppongi Crossing,” the venue’s regular survey of contemporary art in Japan, the museum has decided MAM’s gotta do what MAM’s gotta do, and curate the exhibition completely in-house — a first for the event.

The result, titled “Connexions,” is a collection of works that is bold and coherent as a complete show, but also has plenty of untameable oddity that makes it worthwhile to take your time over each piece.

Putting Takehiro Iikawa’s “Decoratorcrab — Mr. Kobayashi, the Pink Cat” as the opening work of this year’s exhibition is very MAM. It’s flamboyant and accessible. If it only had this going for it, that would be disappointing, but the monumental crab-disguised-as-a-cat is also a tease. The installation, which is claustrophobically squeezed into a space that only just contains it, is meant to be impossible to photograph in its entirety. Iikawa also explores the issue of not being able to see the whole picture with additional works of beautiful night photography of spot-lit objects surrounded by blackness.

Nobuaki Takekawa also invokes cats and cuteness for subversive ends in his “Posters of the Cat Olympics” and installation “Cat Olympics: Opening Ceremony,” which features hundreds of colorfully glazed ceramic figurines. The rubric for Takekawa’s work describes the artist’s motivation for pairing cats and the world’s foremost international sporting event as being the trauma of his cat getting killed in a traffic accident, mixed with anger at the shady politics behind the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Sadness or anger may not be the first emotions evoked by these playful and seemingly comedic works, but considering that social and political issues have been consistently prominent in Takekawa’s art, there is pathos and abjection behind the cheery images of cats at play.

Bontaro Dokuyama

Questions about the moral standing of Japan’s leadership are also behind Fukushima native Bontaro Dokuyama’s collaborative community project “Over There” and video piece “My Anthem.” For the first of these, Dokuyama conducted workshops with people displaced by the 2011 tsunami and radiation from the Fukushima No. 1 power plant meltdown. Dokuyama worked with the them to create masks using scraps of newsprint, photographs and wrapping paper. These masks are displayed alongside video portraits of their creators pointing toward their lost homes. In “My Anthem,” Taiwanese seniors who grew up during the Japanese occupation recount their experiences of having to learn Japanese as the official language and sing some of the Japanese songs they were obliged, or happened to memorize.

While the works of Takekawa and Dokuyama seem to be driven by a strong will to engage with social issues, they are ambiguous rather than confrontational. This fits well with the exhibition theme of connecting, as does the two artists’ juxtaposition of disparate topics, though whether the ambiguity is useful for truly advancing discussion on the Olympics, disaster mitigation or the history of Japanese colonialism is debatable.

Yuichiro Tamura

Ambiguity and odd juxtapositions, however, do work unambiguously well in Yuichiro Tamura’s “MJ.” The piece combines several screens showing footage from Apollo 8’s 1968 orbit of the moon, a video explaining Michael Jackson’s signature moonwalk dance move, a static video night view over a Tokyo childcare center that Jackson visited in 2006 and a scaled-down school theater stage.

It sounds very silly, maybe even a bit psychotic; like a fan that has built a creepy amateurish shrine to their idol in their basement. Tamura is no amateur, though. The combination of a banal view of Tokyo rooftops, cheesy projection of a Michael Jackson silhouette on the theater stage, plodding description of how the moonwalk is done and audio of astronaut Jim Lovell reading bible verses from lunar orbit caused the hairs on the back of my neck to rise.

Fumiaki Aono
Fumiaki Aono’s ‘Mending, Substitution, Consolidation, Serial Arrangement, ‘Restoration of a Mercedes-Benz,’ Tokyo/Miyagi (a car buried in the ground of the Satohama Shell Mound in Okumatsushima)’ (2018) et al. | KIOKU KEIZO, PHOTO COURTESY OF MORI ART MUSEUM, TOKYO

Why? Broadly speaking, for similar reasons that Fumiaki Aono’s assemblages made from cars and junk and Nobuko Tsuchiya’s installation “So This Cell is Made of Strawberry Ice Cream! …. Hmm …. What?” are so brilliant. Aono uses junk and detritus gathered up from the mud left behind by the 2011 tsunami and has made monumental but forlorn objects that counterpoint the grandiosity and cleanliness of the museum’s big, white spaces. Tsuchiya’s flaccid pink rubber sack connected to a metal bucket with a thin bit of tubing is similarly evocative of our partial and fleeting ability to connect to a greater cosmos. All these works are composed with precision and intelligence. They are cryptic, but also eloquent about the absurdity and contradictions of the human condition, or to put it another way: They are sublime.

The pink cat merchandise in the MAM store is also pretty good.

“Roppongi Crossing 2019: Connexions” at the Mori Art Museum runs until May 26; ¥1,800. For more informaiton, visit www.mori.art.museum/en.

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