The latest Roppongi Crossing exhibition, the Mori Art Museum’s triennial survey of Japanese contemporary art, opened on March 26. The Mori has positioned itself as an international venue from the start, when they assembled a very professionally managed English language PR department and made sure that their new existence was document abroad as well as at home. Thus the Roppongi Crossing surveys are a fantastic way to broadcast the art practices in Japan that are not always apparent to observers abroad.
The first two, held in 2004 and 2007, were comprehensive affairs that made the variety of trends in contemporary art here clear. Featuring 57 and 36 artists respectively, they had a lot to work from. The latest, unfortunately, suffers from too few artists on show — only 20 in 2010 — and a lack of an engaging curatorial vision. Looking back to the influential 1990s performance group Dumb Type, the exhibition tries to present socially conscious art, but the results feel dated rather than fresh and forward looking.
I discuss this at length in The Japan Times this coming Friday, but I wanted to mention here an alternative vision of what contemporary art in Japan looks like: The “Koh-Jutsu” exhibition at Spiral in Tokyo’s Minami-Aoyama. Arranged by Tsutomu Ikeuchi of Roentgen Werke gallery, “Koh-Jutsu” focuses on skill and technique, “the unique discipline of Japanese art”: “Koh” captures the meanings of adept, masterful, eloquent, while “Jutsu” — the second character in “bijutsu,” the catch-all term for fine arts — is an art or science.
Ikeuchi has selected 12 artists (Katsuyo Aoki, Seiji Aruga, Satoshi Uchiumi, Sakan Kan-no, Hideki Kuwajima, Yoshihiko Sato, Yoshihiro Suda, Atsushi Suwa, Akiko & Masako Takada, Tetsuya Nakamura, Haruo Mitsuya, Takato Yamamoto) to demonstrate this quality of Japanese art, resulting in a fantastic display of work. Kanno’s glossy globes in green, red and orange great visitors, revealing the intricate organic patterns that he paints in white across their bulging surfaces. Opposite these works is what appears to be the skeleton of some species from an unknown future stage of evolution by Tetsuya Nakamura. Both sets of works aptly show a care for craftsmanship and a perfectionism in execution.
Delicately cut paper works by Akiko & Masako Takada and Seiji Aruga, fascinating x-rays by Hideki Kuwajima, and realistic wood-carvings by Yoshihiro Suda complete Ikeuchi’s argument. (There is a good selection of images here.) Most importantly, while these works are intricate and celebrate craft, they all feel as if they are in the camp of contemporary art rather than being purely decorative. They are in conversation with the past of Japanese art while trying to find new ways forward.
While the exhibition is not comprehensive concerning the trends in contemporary art in Japan — which is not its intention — it could easily have been a gallery or two of Roppongi Crossing’s selection.
I put forward in Friday’s Japan Times that Japanese art is at a cross roads, shaking off the manga/anime influenced work of the ’90s and the MicroPop trends of the 2000s and moving into new territory. Ikeuchi-san has done an excellent job at Spiral of pointing out one of the new directions we can expect to see contemporary art in Japan thrive in. (Unfortunately the show is only for four days, so not enough will see it — but hopefully its influence will be felt in future surveys in Tokyo. )