Suga Kishio, Linked Space, 2010, Wire, cement, 220 x 323 cm PHOTO: Watanabe Osamu Courtesy of Mori Art Museum, Tokyo
Suga Kishio, Linked Space, 2010, Wire, cement, 220 x 323 cm
PHOTO: Watanabe Osamu
Courtesy of Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

“Roppongi Crossing 2013” is the fourth triennial survey of trends in contemporary Japanese art at the Mori Art Museum. The curatorial team of Mami Kataoka, Reuben Keehan, and Gabriel Ritter have maintained a balance between the domestic and the international in their strategy. The objective, however, is clearly to show off the many facets of the Japanese art world, perhaps owing to the fact that both the Japanese curator and the two foreign curators boast a strong knowledge of Japan and its art.

The show focuses on young artists born in the 1970s and 80s who are currently working in Japan, and also includes some artists who are living and working outside Japan or are foreign nationals of Japanese descent. They have also included artists such as Hiroshi Nakamura and Genpei Akasegawa—major figures in postwar Japanese art who took part in this year’s “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde” at MoMA.

What is “contemporary art” in Japan, a country already deeply postmodern? Is it even possible for an exhibition to draw any conclusions about a largely disparate body of artistic activity and the environment upon which it is commenting? This is the challenge in curating this exhibition. As a result, in addition to the main title “Out of Doubt,” the curators have also divided the exhibition into sub-themes like “Revisiting Social and Historical Contexts,” “Nonsense,” “The Japanese View of Nature and Invisible Energy,” and “Post-Object.”

An exhibition with so many different themes is somewhat unsatisfactory. Aiming for balance and neutrality often intensifies the shortcomings and dilutes the overall message.

Furthermore, the first and second halves of the exhibition are of greatly different quality, seemingly two separate exhibitions, a fact evident from the reviews on social media. The first half is directly concerned with the sociopolitical and consists mainly of critical and interventionist works. In contrast, those in the second half of the exhibition focus on establishing a connection between art and cultural history and individual history and formal language. Most of these are installations or performance art created in different media and from readymades. Naturally there are other types of artwork too, but the viewer’s sense of incongruence comes from these. The division between artists who deal in social intervention and artists who deal in the construction of art history and formal language is not at all new. But in a modern Japan where the sociopolitical consciousness of its citizens is on the increase, the exhibition needs to be more ambitious if it wants to synthesize these two kinds of art and use the exhibition to put out a message. Setting aside the quality of the artworks themselves, the second half of the show smacks of snobbery.

Still, when viewed individually, the artworks in “Roppongi Crossing 2013” are not without substance, and very worth seeing. The ones that impressed me the most are: Sachiko Kazama’s series of large-scale manga-style woodcut prints depicting symbolic scenes relating to Japan’s nuclear energy policy and postwar politics; Meiro Koizumi’s fast-cut video montages of both quotidian and abnormal Tokyo scenes; and Takashi Arai’s series of daguerreotypes of the Fukushima area taken after the earthquake in eastern Japan, “Tomorrow’s Islands.” These works combine imagined elements with actual issues and situations in Japanese society to create a new modern history, and with a warning message. Their different objectives and intertwining contexts might give rise to contradiction and conflict, yet you are able to sense the artists’ poignancy and persuasiveness. Rather than pointing out a particular idea or fixed ideology, the artists in this half of the show are more interested in how to translate complex networks of relationships into their work.

Taro Izumi, Caramel, 2013, Video installation, dimensions variable PHOTO: Watanabe Osamu Courtesy of Take Ninagawa, Tokyo and Mori Art Museum, Tokyo
Taro Izumi, Caramel, 2013, Video installation, dimensions variable
PHOTO: Watanabe Osamu
Courtesy of Take Ninagawa, Tokyo and Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

Putting the young artists’ work alongside Hiroshi Nakamura’s “reportage painting” of the 1950s and Genpei Akasegawa’s manga from the 1970s, the connection between the two generations is obvious. Although they were made in very different times, they both produce a space filled with tension, and the issues they raise are thought-provoking. Although the level of anxiety in contemporary Japan and the enormous social capacity of rapid economic growth in postwar Japan are two completely different contexts, there are still many points of similarity.

Among these artists, Taro Izumi and Yoshinora Niwa stand out for the humor and seriousness of their subtle interventions. In Caramel (2013) Izumi himself plays the mad scientist role, while those playing the subject of his experiment are required to sit on a bench without moving their heads and watch the scientist’s actions in front of them. Next to this video documentation are the props used in the work, as well as a display board covered with photographs of different kinds of animals. Each has one eye gouged out, replaced by a recording of the participants’ eye movements. The video installation is therefore at the same time absurd while revealing the blurred boundary between experimentation and interrogation and the potential for violence.

Yoshinori Niwa’s Proposing to hold up Karl Marx to the Japanese Communist Party (2013) demonstrates how far the Japanese Communist Party has departed from the communism espoused by Marx. As the title suggests, Niwa took portraits of Marx to branches of the Japanese Communist Party and negotiated to put them up in their offices. It is impossible to tell from his facial expression whether he is trying to educate or just wants to make mischief. He encountered a range of reactions—some branches took the portrait, some refused, some explained the policies of the Communist Party to the artist. This gives us an insight into the position of the Communist Party in contemporary Japan, and is what makes Niwa’s work meaningful.

Other artists represented here include Ei Arakawa, who is already very active overseas, and Kishio Suga, who was at the center of the Mono-ha movement. If you want to understand contemporary Japanese art, this exhibition should not be missed.