Between 1986 and 1995, I produced approximately 130 critical texts on art and design, the majority of which focussed on Japanese contemporary art. They were published in Japanese periodicals such as the Asahi Evening News, Tokyo Journal, and Atelier, as well as overseas art magazines such as Artforum, Artscribe, and 21C. A representative sample is being compiled into a book, tentatively titled BEFORE THE FUTURE: Japanese Contemporary Art of the late 1980’s - early 1990’s. The following sample of texts is intended as a teaser for this publication.
BEFORE THE FUTURE: Japanese Contemporary Art of the late 1980’s - early 1990’s
by Azby Brown v04 July 27, 2018
One of the advantages of involvement in a field over the course of many decades is the perspective one gains. I hesitate to call this wisdom, or even knowledge. But in a field like art, having seen a lot of contemporary work in Japan and having witnessed many changes firsthand — the emergence and growth of strong artists, the coming and going of lesser trends, the shifting social, political, and economic contexts — makes it easier to discern what is likely meaningful and what is insubstantial. This collection of writings is offered to share my own long-term perspective, and to fill in some of the context in which Japanese art of the 1980’s and ’90’s developed. As interest in Japanese contemporary art of this period grows worldwide, perhaps my contribution will lend to a richer narrative. Out of a total of over 130 articles I published between 1986 and 1995 on Japanese art, architecture, and design, as well as non-Japanese subjects, this book brings together twenty [?] that I feel give good insight into what was happening in Japanese art during this period. This was before the internet, before Japanese pop art exploded worldwide, before many important current Tokyo art venues were conceived of or many currently rising artists were born. The generation of art world observers who came of age after the 1990s may find it challenging to piece together the many threads of artistic practice that came to life during this chaotic and energetic time. It was “messy” compared to the earlier decades that gave us Mono Ha, for instance, and I believe that because of the relative lack of access and visibility it is much more obscure than the present. There are not many English-language sources to look to for guidance, and the Japanese art press of the time, in my view, had restrictive tendencies that make it difficult to receive a full account from historical sources. Consequently, this book presents my contemporaneous writing on the subject alongside new commentary that helps illustrate what was happening behind the scenes and its significance for what we see emerging today. I am grateful to my collaborator/editor Renna Okubo for suggesting this interesting retrospective project.
How it came about:
My own narrative is a winding path. I arrived in Japan for good in 1985, after having spent a few months here in 1983 performing and looking at architecture and gardens. I had graduated from Yale a few years previously with an undergraduate degree in fine art (sculpture) and a passion for creative work which crossed boundaries. I found Japan congenial, receptive, and intellectually stimulating. Though happily enrolled in the graduate architecture course at the University of Tokyo, I was focussed on developing environmental artworks rather than preparing to work in a conventional architecture office. Conversations at openings and other events soon led to requests from magazines and newspapers for reviews and commentaries. This gradually took up an increasingly large chunk of my time and energy. It was the Japanese economic bubble era, and the print media was hungry for content to feed to an international audience that was increasingly obsessed with Japan. To a large degree, the themes and character of what I wrote depended on the publication and its audience. I provided reviews to newspapers like the Asahi Evening News, where I had a biweekly column from 1989 to 1990, and to magazines like Atelier in Japan and Artforum overseas. The Asahi also published a few longer features I wrote about larger art-world issues. I published quite a few profiles of artists, architects, and other Japanese creators in corporate PR magazines, most regularly for JAL Winds in-flight magazine, which at the time was a sophisticated and well-edited publication. The corporate outlets were the only ones that paid well, at least until the economic bubble collapsed, taking that entire wing of the publishing industry in Japan with it. When Tokyo Journal was revived and reconstituted in 1990 under the innovative editorial direction of Greg Starr, I began writing a monthly art column which lasted until 1993. Tokyo Journal published a few longer pieces of mine as well, including The Great Tokyo Art Hoax, included in this collection, which had an outsized impact, about which I will have more to say later. There were a number of magazines both in Japan and abroad for which I only wrote once or twice, some of which, like Artscribe, were very interesting but lasted only a few years. In addition I was occasionally asked to write catalog essays for artists whose work I knew well.
I never intended to become a writer, and had there been much stiffer competition in Japan I may never have started. I was focussed on my own creative work, exhibiting regularly, and working on my graduate degrees. The early writing opportunities I received were symptoms of an overriding problem: there was such a need for written material at the time, on art and many other Japan-related subjects, that one needn’t be good or even knowledgeable in order to get published, particularly in the Japanese English-language newspapers. Compared to today, the Japan-centered, English-language art writing world was not very competitive, and there were very few specialists. Consequently, publishers were not very discriminating. After my first article appeared in the Asahi, an exposé about abuse of an artist’s copyright by a major Tokyo advertising company (Art and Corporate Power, included in this collection), the esteemed late writer and critic Donald Ritchie took me aside at a reception and, after complimenting me, cautioned, “Remember: Your worst is good enough for them!” It was necessary, he pointed out, to set one’s own standards and have the discipline to maintain them, and one mustn’t expect editors or publishers here to have any inkling of what good, knowledgeable writing was. Donald’s words still ring in my ears. I was, nevertheless, very fortunate to have good editors at some publications, Greg Starr in particular, with whom I have continued to collaborate until the present. To be sure, upon rereading these pieces today there are some I would do differently, but none I’m inclined to disown. It would be an exaggeration to say that my writing dominated the English-language discourse about Japanese contemporary art at the time, but I was told repeatedly by artists, curators, gallerists, and viewers in Japan and abroad that it was helpful and had a large impact. Though my language was often sharp, I believe it was fair, but there were instances where my writing engendered real and lasting anger and animosity. Some of my subjects believed, apparently, that they were above criticism. This is because they had never been criticized, at least not in the press.
As my understanding and awareness of Japanese art writing grew, my own approach increasingly became a conscious attempt to provide an antidote to it. So much of what I saw failed to live up to the basic responsibility to intelligently and unflinchingly inform the public. As early as 1987, after being asked by a leading Japanese architectural magazine to submit an article, I provided one which contained a sharp critique of a new project by Tadao Ando which had garnered fawning accolades elsewhere. The editor rejected it saying, “Our policy is no negative criticism.” The magazine depended, she explained, on advertising, and companies associated with the project were likely to take offense which would affect the magazine’s bottom line. This was overwhelmingly the case at every Japanese publication that dealt with the arts. Writers were expected to write an “introduction” to the work and encourage attention and appreciation, not to point out weaknesses or place cognitive demands on the readers. In comparison with the vigorous critical battles in Western printed media that accompanied the appearance of artists like Julian Schnabel or Jeff Koons, or the ringing and erudite critical denouncements that confronted the destruction of historic architecture in Western cities, Japanese art writing was, with a few notable exceptions, so timid it cannot really be considered criticism at all. Many people in the art world recognized this and saw it, as I did, as an abrogation of responsibility, a disservice to the public. The avoidance of pubic criticism was often defended, more often by non-Japanese than by Japanese, in my experience, as an important cultural norm that should be respected, rooted supposedly in consideration and the paramount value of preserving “face.” But it soon became clear to me that while there were no consequences for criticizing the powerless, the powerful were extremely thin-skinned and were likely to deploy a vigorous but concealed arsenal of social and economic pressure in response. Writers avoided criticizing major creative figures and institutions not because to do so violated a sacred norm, but because the existing power dynamics made it too costly both for writer and publisher. Especially in the face of generally tepid cultural support for contemporary art in Japan to begin with, writers were encouraged to become cheerleaders for one entertaining trend or another, and to simply avoid writing about art and artists they found problematic. This has not really changed. In private, however, gloves came off and still do. Particularly at gatherings where alcohol was consumed, writers, artists, curators, and other art-world participants feel free to criticize their peers openly, and long-lasting rivalries and animosities erupt. The internet, blogs, and social media have provided additional needed outlets for unvarnished criticism, particularly anonymous ones. But private face-to-face gatherings continue to provide the most unfettered venue for artistic criticism, little of which ever finds its way into print except as elliptical, winking allusions.
It is also important to keep in mind important aspects of the rhetorical style of written Japanese, which avoids the direct principle-based argument expected in the West — “because A, then B” — in favor of a spiraling string of observations and references which lead to an ultimately subjective conclusion. The use of open-ended ambiguity in Japanese language can be extremely powerful and lead to great depth, and the best Japanese art writing makes superb use of this. But this mode of writing makes it difficult to generate a clear value-based argument which will result in a defensible thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. It is rare to find Japanese art writing which says, “Based on these criteria, this work is strong/weak.” Rather, one will read, “This work brings to mind X, but I like this other one more.” Because the writer’s discussion is assumed to be rooted in subjective preference and to reflect often unstated loyalties, the act of writing itself is expected to result in an expression of approval, while a thumbs-down will likely be seen as partisan and unfair. More than once I was admonished, “Maybe you don’t like it, but by rejecting it you are insulting everyone who does!” At the same time I found that many artists themselves, particularly the more knowledgeable and worldly ones, hungered for real criticism. Without it, they felt their work was being received only superficially and even positive coverage felt hollow. By and large art in Japan at this time seemed to occupy a corner of the entertainment industry, and like trendy singers or actors, many emerging artists who benefitted from media attention saw themselves as exploitable, disposable, dismissible. Taking them and their work seriously meant subjecting it to real scrutiny and debate. I embraced this role wholeheartedly.
Japanese art education is another important aspect of the context that shaped my approach. Having been educated myself in a program in which the ability to analyze one’s own work and that of others, contextualize it historically, and describe it knowledgeably were essential, I was disappointed to find that most Japanese artists, not to mention most writers, were surprisingly weak in these areas. The Yale program from which I graduated retained the Bauhaus roots introduced by Josef Albers, and was strongly conceptual, abstract, and academic. In sculpture there was little to no emphasis on craft and technique, and the more technically adept students seemed to have obtained those skills elsewhere. While the notion of an artistic canon had begun to unravel, and an energetic re-evaluation of the potential of figurative work was underway, there was nevertheless a premium placed on knowledge and originality and an abhorrence of anything that smacked of romanticism. Japanese art education struck me as retrograde by comparison, still stuck in the Beaux Arts era. I have a much greater appreciation for the strengths of Japanese art education now and a much more nuanced view of the potential of new figurative work. But I still think most Japanese art students leave school today with underdeveloped analytical and critical abilities. Nevertheless, while a student in the West can still be considered educated without having had significant exposure to non-Western art vocabulary or traditions, for over a century Japanese have been expected to know both the European and Asian traditions. All of them emerge doubly-educated in this sense compared to their peers overseas, where courses in non-Western art remain a “option,” (albeit one increasingly embraced). Regardless, I rejected the expectation that we should be able to discern something “Japanese” in the work of artists raised and educated here, or that it is informative to describe it in those terms. The issues of vocabulary, historical knowledge, analytical and descriptive abilities, as well as the cultural resonances of material and technique became especially problematic for me when I sought to learn from artists themselves what it is they were attempting to achieve in their work. I would often ask artists something to the effect of, “How is your work different in intention from that of X, for instance, with which it bears some similarity?” All too often the response was, “I haven’t thought about it / I’m not familiar with it / Is it really important to be able to talk about it?” Rather than concepts and vocabularies, their education had encouraged them to discuss their work, if at all, in terms of images and feelings. With notable exceptions at some art schools, this remains the case today. Unfortunately, there were a number of well-known art writers, particularly for the Japanese fashion and lifestyle magazines which in the 80’s had become the dominant medium for publicizing art exhibition and events, whose art historical education was similarly spotty. Neither their editors nor their audience expected better. Once again, many artists I got to know found this state of affairs extremely frustrating.
In our current era it is difficult to grasp how limited the sources of information about art were in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Other than attending exhibitions, one had to find printed matter or luck into a rare film or video screening. While this period in Japan saw a diversification of publications dealing with visual culture, and some notable critical trends which I address in [Notes on Japanese contemporary art writing and criticism of the 1980’s], the more interesting writing about art tended to be ensconced within broader cultural observation, as opposed to art criticism for a specifically art-oriented readership. The Japanese art press itself, exemplified by Bijutsu Techo magazine, aka “BT,” introduced Japanese readers to new art from overseas as well as highlighting developments closer to home. It cannot be overstressed the degree to which magazines like these acted as filters and shaped the perceptions and understandings of art students and the wider audience. The “no negative criticism” rule policed the discourse here as well, of course, but as in film and popular music, only the most successful overseas “hits” were considered worth introducing, usually after a long delay. This meant that Japanese art students and audiences became aware of Graffiti Art, Neo-Expressionism/New Painting, Simulationism, Appropriationism, NeoGeo, and other overseas trends during this period, as they had learned about Pop Art, Minimalism, or Arte Povera in earlier decades. But these introductions were invariably superficial and focussed on form and how the art looked, as opposed to how it was intended to carry meaning. Few of the articles were long enough to provide any real depth. The most important thing from the publishers’ point of view was that the photos showed something new that was generating a buzz overseas. Foreign art magazines, like Artforum and Flash Art, were available in Japan and provided additional sources of information, but again their impact was predominately visual, as the texts tended to be too dense for all but a few Japanese readers to manage. Nevertheless in terms of available printed imagery, the overlap of the Japanese-language art press with the Western press was considerable. And during this period Japanese contemporary art became increasingly visible in overseas publications.
Reviewing my art and design-related texts from this period, I am struck by several frequently-explored themes that emerge. Though I rarely directed my writing at artists themselves, I believe I strongly advocated for them. A number of texts discussed the difficulties facing Japanese artists who violated political, social, or sexual taboos. Many discussed the limited opportunities artists faced, the problems of the art market, and the strong influence of the advertising industry, which learned during this period to utilize “easy” contemporary art for corporate promotion. I discussed art spaces and venues themselves, both programmatically and the ways in which their physical and spatial constraints drove art activity in certain directions, specifically making it difficult to show large work. There were a handful of artists whose work I revisited several times, including Kenjiro Okazaki, Shinro Ohtake, Mika Yoshizawa, and Yasumasa Morimura. I often discussed curatorial practice and the Japanese art discourse itself, trying to clarify what was being said and by whom, and the receptivity of the public to this. My writing tended to deal less with aesthetics than with describing the characteristics and context of the work I was seeing. I did not present myself as a theorist, and was sometimes criticized by colleagues for not being one. If I had any critical touchstones at the time they were the late Robert Pincus-Witten, for his observations about “importance” and the act of interpretation itself, and the late Donald Judd, for his sparse matter-of-factness. I wanted to describe what was going on and held no pretensions to being either an important writer or critic. But I truly hoped my input could help improve the Japanese art world to the benefit of artists themselves.
Ultimately, however, I gave up, and after the mid 1990’s rarely wrote about art. There were several reasons for this. As I had increasing success in my own art practice, including participation in the 1991 Sao Paolo Bienial and museum shows in Japan and the US, it became increasingly uncomfortable for me to be approached by gallerists who clearly cultivated my attention in the hopes I would write about their artists. My role as Japan Program Representative for the Asian Cultural Council beginning in 1990 brought with it the risk of conflict of interest, as did my volunteer role at Sagacho Exhibit Space, which at the time represented Yasumasa Morimura internationally. In 1995 I became a full-time faculty member of the architecture department at Kanazawa Institute of Technology, and spent much less time in Tokyo, which meant I saw fewer exhibitions, while my writing energy became increasingly devoted to architecture books rather than to articles. But most of all, the successful international promotion of new pop-flavored Japanese art exemplified by Takashi Murakami blotted just about everything else out, and as the most remarked-upon exhibitions moved in what I considered an increasingly superficial direction I saw less and less I felt like writing about. The Great Tokyo Art Hoax, published in Tokyo Journal in September, 1993, was my parting shot across the bow of this then-budding development. As I describe in my accompanying notes here, this article exploded across the art world in Japan and abroad, but ultimately did not lead to an improved wider discourse about the possible cultural significance of this art. And so I drifted away to devote more positive attention in areas where I felt I could make a difference.
Now, at a roughly twenty-five-year remove, with growing international interest in Japanese contemporary art of this transitional period, it seems like a good time to offer these texts up again for public inspection. I believe this collection will help illuminate many overlooked contextual aspects underpinning the art that was being made and shown then, and that readers will find that it uncovers a few forgotten gems, speaks truth to power, and shatters many clay feet.
— Azby Brown, Tokyo, July 2018
Azby Brown interviewed by arts editor Renna Okubo
This interview was conducted by text chat over a period of weeks.
Renna Okubo: Some first questions:
1. Who was your audience when you were writing the reviews?
2. Did you have anyone specific in mind? (This is an honest and looming question that comes from transcribing your texts!)
1) What audience?
It may be helpful to differentiate between the writing I did for specialized art magazines like Artforum and outlets like Tokyo Journal, Winds, or some of the other magazines. Each outlet had its own readership, and it was usually necessary to tailor the content to these different audiences, primarily regarding how much art knowledge I could assume they had. When writing for the Asahi newspaper, for instance, I had to keep a general readership in mind, an international, English-speaking, largely expat audience that lived in Japan. The readers sometimes revealed themselves to be fairly knowledgeable, but by and large it seemed helpful to begin each piece I wrote with a brief general introduction or “setting,” identifying a particular genre, for instance, for readers who might be unfamiliar. From the beginning my imaginary reader has been my late mother. She was intelligent, an artist herself, with broad cultural interests. There were a lot of things she was open to learning about if it was presented in a way that provided an adequate opening that could guide her past the unfamiliarity. I began writing that way in long letters home after I arrived in Japan, describing what I was seeing, and it evolved into my writing style.
Tokyo Journal was an even more focussed audience, since it was a city magazine; it was really written for expat Tokyoites. Both the readers and editors were open to social commentary and criticism, and that became a major thrust of my writing there, as opposed to reviews. Readers seemed more interested in knowing about behind-the-scenes maneuvering, and to learn what sorts of things were happening under the radar. Over time I think I developed a readership that was sincerely interested in hearing my take on things regardless of the specific outlet the pieces were published in. I think Japanese art world people, including artists, gallerists, and curators, followed the local English language press pretty closely because their work required them to collect reviews and other press mentions to add to artists CVs etc.. Keep in mind that this was before the internet, and people had to have a physical copy of some sort in order to read these articles, so they probably didn’t travel very far. When they did, it was largely through faxes and photocopies in press packages. It was definitely slow media.
The writing for Artforum, Artscribe, and some of the specific art and culture magazines was often done with an informed, even “expert” readership in mind. But even then I couldn’t assume that they knew much about Japanese art. I found myself able to write a bit more densely and compactly in those cases, however. I think now the cultural landscape has changed remarkably and it is possible to assume a lot more knowledge about Japanese art overseas.
Thank you for this! This is all very interesting! Especially how there are obvious changes over the decade plus ("slow media" vs.. well, how it is today), but there are some inherent elements like people still trying to figure out the inner workings of the art world!
So my next question. I do want to go back to ask more about how this all happened. How did you come to become an art writer for such a wide range of publications?
I guess we could talk about this in terms of how background, inclination, and opportunity all conspired together to allow it to happen. I grew up in an arty family in New Orleans. My mother was a painter, and I absorbed a lot of basic understanding of technique, composition, the drive towards originality, the kinds of psychological struggles artists often go through. At Yale, I studied a lot of art history. Ancient art, contemporary art, impressionism, Chinese painting, modern architecture, classical architecture, Celtic art, African art, as well as dance, theatre, and performance. I eventually became a fine art major, specializing in sculpture, but I was allowed to take all of the architecture courses normally reserved for majors as well. A great thing about schools like Yale is that if a student is driven to learn about something, the university will find a way to make it happen. In my case, I was extremely interested in Japanese aesthetics, particularly architecture and gardens, and unbelievable as it may seem now there were no courses offered in these subjects. So together with an advisor I developed a tutorial syllabus which occupied most of my senior year. By the end I think I had a solid art historical background that was also very broad, with a particular Japan focus. That’s what I brought with me to Japan.
What this meant for me personally is that I formed strong informed opinions about what I was seeing. Where do these ideas come from? How original is this in the broad scheme of art or architecture? What were the options facing the artist? Did they explore all of those options or take an easy route? If they expressed an interest in Minimalism, for instance, what lessons did they draw from it? If they referred to Zen or historical Japanese culture, did the work seem to emerge from deep knowledge, or was it superficial? My inclination was to really interrogate the work I was seeing, based on the expectation that good art is based in that kind of knowledge. This was probably a very “Yale” way to approach art, but I quickly learned that it was a very uncommon in the Japanese contemporary art world.
I arrived in Japan bursting with curiosity and opinions. It was 1985. As I describe a bit in the introduction, Japanese art in general, and Japanese contemporary art in particular, was an extremely poorly-covered field in the English language media of the 1980s and early 90s. English-language publishing in Japan was a very small world as well. One of the first things I was inspired to write about was the work of the temple carpenters I was researching in Nara. I had put together a book proposal with photos and some introductory text and shopped it around to publishers in Tokyo. It eventually became my first book, the Genius of Japanese Carpentry, but before that a company that produced PR magazines asked me to write a short article on the subject for Mitsubishi. That was my first published article as I recall, and it was in January 1986. That company, called Emphasis, produced some well-edited PR magazines for companies like JAL, Imperial Hotel, and others. It was the bubble period and they paid well too. My first articles, many of which were about contemporary Japanese art, were for those kinds of publications. JAL Winds gave me a regular arts feature in 1987. At some point that year the architecture magazine A&U asked me if I wanted to write short pieces for them, which I did. The architecture magazine Telescope asked for articles as well in 1988. These things worked by word-of-mouth among the publishing community, and I think that what appealed to them was my opinion, which was both appreciative and critical, bolstered by breadth and the ability to actually write articles. But things really picked up in 1989 when I started writing a regular art review column for the Asahi Evening News. I forget where that contact initially came from, but the offer came after I wrote a blockbuster piece for them about Hiroshi Sugimoto being abused by the advertising giant Hakuhodo and their client Mitsui Real Estate. That same year Kazue Kobata, who was a corresponding editor for Artforum, asked if I would write reviews for them. So I had a very regular and fairly prominent exposure with a very local English-speaking expat readership in Japan through the Asahi, and was one of the only voices in the major overseas art press writing about Japanese contemporary art. In 1990, Emphasis took over Tokyo Journal, and editor Greg Starr, who I had worked with a lot at that point, asked if I would be willing to write a monthly art column. Greg was able to turn Tokyo Journal into a provocative, well-written and edited city magazine, and he encouraged me to chose subjects that could provide insight into deeper social issues. I was getting frequent requests to write catalog essays for artists who felt I understood their work, and the Japanese art magazine Taiyo gave me a regular slot as well. Little by little I think I came to be seen as a Japan art world insider, and was contacted by overseas art publications who wanted to “cover” the Japanese scene as well. There were several cases like that in the early 90’s in particular. All of this fall into the “opportunity” category. There just weren’t many other people who were capable and accessible at the time, who knew the beat and the people involved. And we did everything by fax….
This is SO fascinating, this reflects so much of the time (the “bubble bubble toil and trouble” era..) and how people just spent so much for “the sake” of the arts..
Who were some of your contemporary art reviewers? Were there any heated discussions with them? What were they about?? (Or rather: What were people talking about back then, that didn’t get printed that you now wish had been??)
Janet Koplos was an active Japan-based art reviewer at the time. She wrote for the Asahi Evening News for several years, and now I recall that I started writing there after she left. She may have recommended me. I seem to recall that she wrote for another English-language daily as well under a pseudonym. We had an interesting history. She reviewed an exhibition I did in Ginza in 1986 (My Beautiful Chashitsu, at Suntory Art Box, which was in the Sony Building). I thought her review was both dismissive and poorly informed. I wrote a letter to the paper, which they published. I pretty much blasted her. Maybe I can find the review and letter somewhere. She replied good-naturedly complimenting my writing. We never became friends, but communicated from time to time. She published a book on contemporary Japanese sculpture in 1991, and eventually became senior editor at Art in America. Her approach was very craft-oriented, and I felt she reinforced the hoary stereotypes about Zen, purity, nature, etc. that formed the primary lens through which Western writers viewed Japanese contemporary art. She may be the only person writing about Japanese art at the time who became a full-time professional art writer.
Amaury St Gilles was another craft-oriented person who also wrote about contemporary art, for the Mainichi or the Yomiuri, I think. I thought his writing was incredibly weak. I recall one review, I don’t remember who the artist was, about an installation. St Gilles said something to the effect that as far as he knew an installation was what the plumbers did when they put in a new sink, but he had been hearing artists using the term “installation” lately and he didn’t know what they were talking about. This was probably 1988 or 1989. By then as you know artists had been doing installations for decades, especially if you include Schwitters’ Merzbau, Kaprow’s Environments, or events staged by Japanese avant-garde, like Gutai, in the 50’s. At Yale in the late 70’s when I was there, most of the graduate sculptors were doing installation-based work. So I thought St Gilles was incredibly uninformed. He published a book about mingei around 1989, which I reviewed very unfavorably. I’m not sure when he moved away from Japan but I haven’t seen anything from him since the 90’s.
There were a couple of people writing about art in Tokyo I became good friends with. Arturo Silva is one, Leza Lowitz is another. Both of them have good eyes and are great writers, but neither had a visual art background per-se. We hung out a lot and are still friends. Arturo writes fiction and film criticism, and moved to Vienna in the late 90’s. He teaches film criticism at TU Wien. I meet up with him when I’m there, almost every year, where we usually meet at a cafe that serves a Russian brunch with vodka. Leza is a poet primarily, but also publishes fiction and non-fiction. She still lives in Japan, runs a yoga school, and writes prolifically. All of us agreed about a lot of things, but I think I was more open to very astringent conceptual work than either of them was. I didn’t expect to be emotionally moved by what I was seeing, but responded to perceptual and intellectual provocation. Arturo and Leza seemed to respond more to evocative imagery, and this was the strength of their writing. So we got along, and never had any disputes really, but from time to time we would ask each other, “Why do you like that?!” I thought I had a better sense of what was original and what wasn’t, and occasionally we’d have discussions about the precedents and context of various kinds of work, what prior work pieces we were discussing would suggest to me and why. I think a lot of it was unfamiliar to them.
There were a few non-Japanese curators who occasionally wrote about Japanese contemporary art for periodicals. Alexandra Munroe is one, Dana Friis-Hansen is another. Both of them have had stellar curatorial careers since leaving Japan. Alexandra, as you know, is a giant in the field of Asian contemporary art, was at Japan Society for many years and is now senior curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim. In 1994 she put together Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky (1994–95), which opened at the Yokohama Museum, which I reviewed. I submitted it to Artforum who didn’t use it, but Taiyo published it in Japanese. Although she wasn’t based in Tokyo in the late 80’s-early 90’s, she was here frequently and we had many conversations, as well as a lot of contact through the Asian Cultural Council. She has a very deep knowledge of Japanese culture and history. From time to time I felt she supported new work which was thin but eye-catching, and told her so. In once case, after she had written a glowing review of work by Taro Chiezo, I wrote a scathing critique of the same work, and she replied to me, “Busted!” We haven’t been in touch for some time, unfortunately.
Dana was an associate curator in Tokyo for Nanjo and Associates in the early 90’s, and moved back to the states around ’95. He’s now director of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, after being at the Houston Contemporary Art Museum and the Austin Museum. We tended to agree about a lot of what we were seeing. I felt he approached new Japanese work openly but cautiously, in a good way. That said, I recall that he would be more critical in private than in his writing at the time. I think that was because curators often write from the standpoint of arguing for the quality and significance of what they’re presenting on behalf of their institutions, rather than evaluating the failings of art which should be excluded. A critic is freer to say yea or nay.
Barbara London, who was curator of film and video at MOMA for many years, is extremely well-versed in Japanese video and media art. She was in Tokyo frequently, and I often learned about new Japanese video work from her first. We’re still good friends and meet whenever we can. She was an early champion of Teiji Furuhashi and Dumb Type, and we tended to agree about most things, to the degree that we still sound each other out for reality checks about various artists and works. She didn’t write for the Japanese press, but was a regular presence.
I’ll follow up about Japanese critics….
I should add about Dana that he was the first Westerner I knew with true curatorial training who came to Japan intending to spend as much time as necessary to learn about what contemporary artists were doing. Lots of people, like Lynne Gumpert, visited for a few weeks here and there to find work for shows. But Dana had a different kind of commitment. I think he had personal reasons to be here when he did as well, but he arrived with a boatload of knowledge and experience, from the Whitney program and the MIT List Center, and was extremely conversant with contemporary art. That was very refreshing. Alexandra, on the other hand, had spent a lot of time in Japan by the mid-80’s, including at Sophia University, living in a Zen monastery, and learning traditional arts, to the degree that she was very local, with very strong international connections. But the two of them were similar in their degree of professionalism and still are.
Of course I came into contact with a lot of Japanese art writers and curators. But the Japanese and English-language art media were so separate from each other we rarely shared pages in the same publications. There were a few people, like Kazue Kobata, who were so fluent in English as well as Japanese that they moved seamlessly within the global art world. Kazue and I had a very good relationship, and as I mentioned she introduced me to Ida Panicelli at Artforum. Together with Min Tanaka she organized the Hakushu Art Festival which I attended and wrote about. It was always an amazing bacchanal. Shigeo Anzai was not a curator, at least not then, but he knew more artists, curators, and gallerists than anyone else, because everyone wanted him to take photos of their work. He was extremely international, and was great to talk to. He had seen so much art in so many places over the years that his context and awareness were very broad. If he said something was really great, it probably was. If he said it was bullshit — and he didn’t hesitate to say so — it probably was. He was extremely generous towards emerging artists, often shooting their shows and giving them the photos to use for free. This meant he was often the first to photograph many artists who later became notable figures.
While there were quite a few curators working with contemporary art in Japan at the time, there were not many people who practiced criticism in the sense used in the West. All of the curators wrote, of course, and many were quite approachable. I developed a good ongoing dialogue with the late Yukio Kondo, who was at the National Museum of Modern Art. I appreciated his eye and his personal warmth and wisdom. He seemed to know the kind of work I was interested in, and often tipped me off about emerging artists I eventually wrote about. Shirai Mio is one example. I also had a good friendship with the late Hiroshi Minamishima, of the “lets go drinking and blab” sort. When I arrived in Japan Fumio Nanjo was just moving on from the Japan Foundation, and a few years later organized the Against Nature show which toured internationally and had a big impact. We’ve had lots of conversations over the years. He and Yukio Kondo had been roommates at Keio, and I got a good sense of the “compactness” of the Japanese art world from hearing about that.
There were other curators who I was generally supportive of and who were supportive of my writing at the time. I’d include Akira Tatehata and Yuko Hasegawa among them. I was also well acquainted with Arata Tani and Toshiaki Minemura, but there was no personal or intellectual chemistry to speak of between us. I appreciate risk-takers, and looking back, I realize that curators like many other people may only find one or two opportunities to take real risks, to send a “fuck you” to the world. I think Nanjo did that with Against Nature, and though he’s had a very strong career since then, nothing he’s done has been as risky. Hasegawa also took a lot of risks early on. I admired what she did at the Setagaya museum, such as De-genderism. Both she and Nanjo were real globe-trotters, and cultivated good trust relationships with contemporary artists in many countries. It was very interesting to watch how Hasegawa later assembled the collection for the 21c Museum in Kanazawa, for which she focused on intellectually interesting work done since the 1980’s. It wasn’t super risky, but in that context it was bold.
But almost without exception, my conversations with Japanese curators then and now have been about the limitations they face. Curators here are not given a free hand. They’re not given the benefit of the doubt. That was true then and it’s true now. I would often ask curators why, considering the ostensible theme of their exhibition, a certain provocative artist wasn’t included. No matter whether they danced around it or were frank, it was always clear that they knew they had to operate within boundaries and avoided overstepping. Often the boundaries were commercial or financial, but just as often they were political and aesthetic. Things have probably improved since the 80’s, but particularly in public museums, recent episodes — in one of which Hasegawa came off badly — have made it clear that overtly politically critical work will still not be tolerated. So where’s the room for risk? Only in the private sector, I suppose.
When I think about the strongest “pure” art criticism being done in Japan back then, I feel that it only formed a subset of the work of individuals working on broader cultural criticism, particularly applying postmodern theory to contemporary Japanese issues. The writings of Akira Asada and Noi Sawaragi come to mind. Both of them are strong thinkers, and were very influential during this period. They both wrote about contemporary art, but at the time each would preface their comments by stressing that they were not art critics. I think over time that changed for Sawaragi at least. Regardless they found a lot to talk about in the art world. I didn’t know either of them well, but bumped into them often enough to chat. Sawaragi guest curated the Anomaly exhibition at Roentgen Kunst Institut in 1992, which featured work by Takashi Murakami, Kenji Yanobe, Gabin Itoh, and Kodai Nakahara. It’s regarded as a landmark exhibition for those artists and what eventually emerged as a dominant trend towards pop themes in Japanese art. I found it amusing but thin on ideas. That seemed to be enough for the audience at the time, and in many ways still is. I still have the slides of the artworks the gallery lent me.
One person who was definitely not thin on ideas was Kenjiro Okazaki. We met at an ACC event in 1988 or so and hit it off. He’s an artist, of course, but rare among Japanese artists he was also a strong theorist even at the beginning of his career, and he wrote a lot. He was incredibly underappreciated for years, but it looks like the art world has caught up with him and he’s getting the attention he deserves. From the start we talked a lot about art education and argued about both the idea of an artistic “canon” and which artists or genres should be considered essential for every artist or aspiring art professional to know. Amazingly we agreed on almost all of it, though as Kenjiro once pointed out, it was often for very different reasons. He has an incredible breadth of knowledge, and has been the one person here I could count on knowing about practically any artist or architect I wanted to talk about, from pre-Renaissance to the most obscure modernists, Asian or Western. I think that to this day we both look for art which is formally provocative and intellectually dense and hate anything that smacks of commercialism, weakness, or eye candy. We both teach in the sculpture department of Musabi, and when we’re doing student crits together the dialogue is on a very different level than it usually is. In recent years, however, half of our conversations are about our bodily afflictions as we age…
Re: What were people talking about back then, that didn’t get printed that you now wish had been?
That’s a tough question to answer. I think most of it would relate to structural and economic issues in the art world, rather than good artists who were being ignored. For emerging artists at the time, because rental galleries were not very expensive, and there were many open competitions, it was probably pretty egalitarian in that anyone who wanted to show something could find someplace to show it. This didn’t mean it would be covered in the press of course. From time to time this would be due to taboos, which I addressed and wish there had been more open discussion of. These might be sexual taboos, which have loosened up quite about since then, or political ones, which generally haven’t. But really, only a small proportion of the art being shown ever made it into the press, and the press was increasingly dominated during this period by commercial interests which had discovered that certain kinds of art could be deployed as part of the entertainment industry. So we saw tons of the “eye candy flavor of the month” and very little that made people uncomfortable. With exceptions of course.
I wish graduation shows from art universities had been written about, but they rarely were. Curators would attend these shows, often because they were guest critics, and the buzz would begin then. I first saw the work of several artists who later developed strong careers at their graduation exhibits. Tatsuo Miyajima in particular comes to mind. He was making electronic junk assemblage, with dismembered tape recorders, LEDs, screens and what not. He showed similar work at Suntory Art Box around the same time I showed there, and a related piece was included in Against Nature. By then he had started making the LED counters works that built his career.
What people talked about a lot in private that did not get written about in public were the networks of personal relationships that made everything go around. Who was sleeping with who, who was paying for what, who hated who, who was persistently trying to make a deal with whom. This was all communicated as gossip of course, but gossip wasn’t its only significance. These hidden relationships affected the opportunities people were given in a fundamental way. Because Japan is a very cliquish, Confucian society, it is important to know who was connected to who and how. The major universities all have their “habatsu” — cliques — and early exhibition opportunities usually come from within that clique. Being outside the clique network was a great advantage for me in most ways, I think, but it took more effort to learn to recognize the many connections between people and their past histories.
The contemporary art world in Japan has been very hermetic, co-existing with other larger and usually more well-financed spheres of art with which it rarely has contact. I’m thinking of the Nitten exhibition network, the nihonga world, and the world of galleries who sell work by artists like Modigliani and Dubuffet. There worlds are seen as very corrupt. There are nihonga artists and artists who win top prizes at Nitten whose work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars but has no sales value at all outside of Japan. The prices are artificially inflated because the works are used to launder money. The same is true for the Modiglianis and Dubuffets, though they can be sold outside Japan as well. The Nitten competition was widely known to be rigged long ago, though this only broke into open scandal in 2013. An artist who wants to be included is expected to pay a hefty fee to his teacher for the recommendation. It’s a kind of pyramid scheme. The art is horrible and regressive as well, but because of its prominence it looms large in the public eye as representative of contemporary art. The exhibitions are packed. We would occasionally talk about what these exhibitions represented, but even though the nihonga and Nitten work was universally derided there was a clear understanding that attacking it openly was dangerous, since it was important to the financial interests of the political class. In retrospect I wish I had attacked it.
Dec 30, 2018
Never too late to attack... since the system is still very much in place..!
This is all so great and interesting -- thank you!! I'm going to turn the attention the audience now... Were there any interesting responses from your readers (artists and non-artists)?
Dec. 30, 2018
There was a continuous response in some form or another. But not a lot of it was in writing or recorded. Most was conveyed in conversation, including a lot of hearsay. Artists and gallerists in general were appreciative for any reviews. They preferred positive reviews of course, but any notice at all was helpful to them. There was a kind of perceived hierarchy of status where publications were concerned — with overseas outlets like Artforum of Flash Art being considered the big time, and BT, PIA, and local Japanese papers being considered welcome attention that could help a lot, but wasn’t really “cool.” Just the fact that the English-language papers here were in English tended to magnify the illusion of their significance. So reviews from Asahi Daily News, Japan Times, etc, were often posted prominently. Again, this is regardless of whether the reviews were complimentary or not.
Because I often dealt with “sensitive” subjects like censorship, taboos, militarism, and abuse of power, art world professionals, including curators and writers would often say something to the effect that, “It’s great that you’re writing about these subjects because we can’t.” With few exceptions, they were accustomed to avoiding offending anyone, their careers depended upon it in fact. So the entire time I received exhortations to continue to tackle contentious subjects on behalf of the art community and Japanese society in general. That totally exaggerates the significance and impact of what I was doing of course, but for many attentive people here my writing was a apparently breath of fresh air. At the same time some local readers said they wished I would focus on art that people could understand, why all the conceptual art and political commentary?
Some artists appreciated what I wrote enough to ask me to write essays for their exhibitions catalogs. Mio Shirai, Yuumi Domoto, and Yukinori Yanagi come to mind. Many artists told me they were glad I understood their work because almost nobody else seemed to. I spent a lot of time with artists as a peer, and I think that shaped my perspective. Most of them saw the same limitations in the Japanese art press that I did, and we would often sit around complaining about how bad art writing in Japan was. I think many Japanese artists felt I was fighting the good fight.
At the same time, if I panned something I’d rarely hear from the artist directly. Word would filter through the grapevine. When I panned the late Mikami Seiko’s “Information Weapon” exhibition at P3 in 1990, Ingo Gunther, who was our mutual friend, told me she was upset by it. I never had a chance to talk with her about that work, but her work after that didn’t have the specific weaknesses I had highlighted. Similar things happened occasionally with other artists. In fact I welcomed discussions with artists I criticized. Many of them understood my sincerity and frankness.
I heard from overseas readers as well, mostly professionals of some sort. I had a constant stream of inquiries about writing for publications, dealers who wanted to meet artists, curators who wanted to be shown around. This increased as the years passed. Reading over some of my old correspondence I feel like I probably made myself too available. Overseas art people wanted the introductions and the inside story but rarely reciprocated in any significant way. They’d just send more people who expected the same hospitality. It was complicated by the fact that I had my own art career, was working for the Asian Cultural Council, was helping Koike-san at Sagacho, writing architecture books, and working on my graduate degrees. Often I found myself wearing too many hats in the same conversation.
By far the biggest response overall was to my Great Tokyo Art Hoax piece which appeared in Tokyo Journal in Sept. 1993. It can serve as a microcosm for just about all of the power issues in the art world at the time, and how resistant the entire system is to overt criticism of any sort. I had spent a lot of time, a couple of months, interviewing art world people, including artists, writers, dealers, publishers, etc., specifically about finance, media, and promotion. From the start I told them that I planned to take a critical stance. They all agreed to be recorded and on the record. I was hoping to spark a public debate. When the article came out, it blasted a lot of people. You could call it a “exposé.” The response was like an earthquake that resonated internationally.
Most people in the Japanese art world were thrilled, and many told me so privately, adding, as they often did, “We all agree and have been wanting to say something about it for a long time, but none of us are in a position to speak out.” In the end, however, none of them backed me up publicly. I think only Okazaki did. Someone, in Murakami’s circle, I believe, made a samizdat translation into Japanese which circulated by fax and xerox. It was a pretty bad translation which changed the entire tone of my writing into something nasty and derisive, as opposed to blunt. But almost all of the non-English speakers based their opinion on that. There was a sense that I had betrayed not just the targets of the article, Shiraishi mainly, but the entire Japanese art world, by saying publicly what everyone usually only said in private.
Jon Kessler told me he had faxed it to art people overseas, including Jeff Koons, and that they all thought that my portrayal described their experience perfectly. So that circle was patting me on the back. All of them had had bad experiences with Shiraishi and had a very low opinion of the artists I talked about. I heard from a couple of overseas curators, including Alexandra Monroe, who said that the article had such a shocking impact because I had written it, meaning I suppose that people trusted me and cared about my opinion. I heard that another curator in New York had told the ACC that I had “burned a lot of bridges.”
The only person who actually used the public forum to respond was Shugo Satani, who represented Kohdai Nakahara. I knew him well and we’re still on good terms. I ran into him at an opening and asked what he thought of the article, and he replied that he thought I was wrong to lump Kohdai’s work along with Murakami and Taro, that he was a serious and sincere artist. I suggested he write a letter to Tokyo Journal saying so, and that we’d be happy to print it. In the end he wrote the letter, which I proofread for him, very collegially, and it was printed. I think there were two other letters, one anonymous. But that was the extent of the public debate. The rest reverted to whispering in private.
Nakahara told me he thought I was right regarding the exploitation of artists I pointed out, and that he had been thinking of quitting showing art because of it even before my article appeared. He was tired of being considered the “Lego artist,” but was constantly feeling pressured by Japanese curators to focus on that kind of work, because it was an easy image to sell internationally. As I recall he stopped for a while and reemerged with very different work, very personal videos etc.. My relationship with Murakami had never been close, but certainly shifted after this. I had seen his work pretty much from the beginning, and thought he was clever, and skilled, and extremely driven on the one hand, but immature and intellectually unformed on the other. We both showed at Hosomi Gallery in Roppongi, which is where he showed his randosel pieces. I saw his show at Mars Gallery, which was the little plastic army men glued to fiberglass boxes I discussed in Art Hoax. I saw his early Tamiya pieces. I saw the Anomaly show. I told him on a few occasions that he would never receive the kind of criticism he needed to develop his work into something really strong if he stayed in Japan, because he was surrounded by fawning admirers and media that would gush no matter what he produced. As early as the randosel exhibition I suggested he apply to the ACC for a residency at PS1. He declined. He was happy with how things were going.
As fate would have it, Murakami and I were both in the Art Today ’93 group show at the Sezon Museum in Karuizawa which opened about a month after the article came out. As I recall his installation included a Bokan skull/mushroom cloud wall painting, maybe a Bakabon wall painting too, some Seven Star cigarette packages with holes poked where the stars were and red blinking LEDs stuck in them, and a very interesting and uncharacteristic nihonga-style painting of a grotesque Amazon fish, which had been his graduation piece from Tokyo Geidai. It was clear to me that everything I had seen from him until that time centered on very disposable and meaningless objects and images he didn’t care much at all about, but that he cared about that fish painting. It was a labor of love. I told him that if he poked a hole in the eye of the fish and stuck a blinking LED in it, I’d write a review telling everyone what a great artist he was. His reply was, “Anta kirai!” — “I hate you!” Shortly after that he applied to the ACC for the PS1 fellowship and got it. What he didn’t know, and maybe it’s ok to reveal after 25 years, is that I recommended him. Both ACC and PS1 were extremely skeptical, but I argued that he had greater talent and potential than he had shown so far and time at PS1 was exactly what he needed. As for that fish painting, it seems to have disappeared from sight. I can’t find any records of it anywhere except in the original exhibition catalog. I asked Murakami about it at the 500 Arhats opening at Mori Museum a couple of years ago, pointing out that the erratic line quality of the Arhat images was very similar, and he said the fish painting was “apparently gone.” He also thanked me for noticing the similarity. I speculate that the painting is one of his prized personal works.
Anyway, I guess you could say that one of the responses to the Art Hoax article was that Murakami went to New York. The rest is history.
In your opinion, how do you think those artists that you wrote about stand today? Have they withstood time?
If you’re referring to the artists I critiqued in Tokyo Art Hoax, rereading the piece for the first time in many years a while back I felt that it held up very well. Even prescient, perhaps. I can address those artists individually in a moment. Looking back at my entire body of writing from the time I think the same generally holds true. Artists I devoted particular attention to and singled out for positive critiques have almost without exception continued to do consistent, strong work since then. I’m thinking of Ohtake, Okazaki, Yoshizawa, Yanagi, Shirai, Morimura. They’ve all avoided following trends. Okazaki and Yanagi have built provocative art institutions and mentored younger generations of creators and curators. Most of the others have become influential teachers and organizers as well. Yoshizawa teaches at Tamabi. Ohtake seems to be an exception in that regard, he pretty much makes his art without being a formal teacher or organizer. I could point to other examples as well. There are certainly a number of artists from the same generation who I didn’t pay as much attention to who developed strong bodies of work. The fact that I was Tokyo-based and didn’t spend much time in Kansai looking at art certainly influenced that. But I can’t think of any artists I saw and dismissed, or did not see at the time, who proved to be a truly strong and consistent creator over the following decades. I also tried to highlight the work of artists who I felt were under-appreciated at the time, like Yoshiko Shimada, and I’m happy to see that society has caught up with her message, and is more receptive to it. She is having a greater impact than she was in the early 90’s even though her message is the same. I think that’s often the case. Changing reception to particular artistic thinking and language often has has more to do with changing social and economic contexts than anything else. We’ve certainly seen a lot of that in Japan since the mid 90’s.
How should we gauge “strength”? It’s easy to use the financial metric, saying that someone is obviously a “strong” artist because there is a large market for their work. I’ve always believed that’s a false metric. Of course the market is a sphere of comparative information that can help reveal some informative dynamics. It’s suggests “appreciation” in a limited sense, and it’s interesting to see instances where perviously “less marketable” work becomes “highly marketable.” The trajectory of Okazaki’s career is a good example. His work was considered too “difficult” for years, decades really. But largely through his own efforts to teach a younger generation of the art world how to see and interpret art, the Japanese art world eventually caught up with him. Now he’s quite sought-after. And he has never compromised his principles or pandered.
It’s not like there are boxes we can check off to systematically evaluate the strength of artworks. Much less the impact of an artist’s body of work. I respond to knowledge and originality, rigor and freedom. I notice visual impact of course, but ultimately that’s less important me, because even the most superficial eye candy can have that. I look for work which sets off an internal chain of thought and reaction. It has to do with visual language and the way the work speaks. Does how it speak allow it to reach into underexplored but important aspects of the human condition? I generally don’t give a fuck about how an artist “feels.” I care about what they understand well enough to guide me into. I’ll acknowledge that it’s possible for an artist to use their own psychological and emotional condition to represent something bigger, however. So I wouldn’t dismiss autobiographical work automatically. In terms of long-term impact, though, I think we should pay attention to what emerges from the work, what positive and interesting things it nurtures and how. I’m not talking about whether or not it spawns imitators, like Superflat or Micropop. That’s almost always a superficial metric, one that’s reflected in the market and media perhaps but which rarely “sticks” if you know what I mean. It’s more like, what is the breadth of potential artistic approaches which this body of work paves the way for? What does it anticipate? How does it give permission — set precedents — for others to take similar or greater artistic risks? Is there a well-considered core set of values and concerns underpinning it which can tunnel through changing external contexts intact? Bodies of work for which this is true are very rare. That said, a lot of work can be somewhat interesting now and remain somewhat interesting years from now. For all of these reasons I think the strongest and most enduring work from the period we’re discussing is work which addressed common intellectual and cultural human themes rather than which focus on exploring “Japaneseness.” And to the degree that work played the “Japan card” as a marketing strategy, I think it’s insubstantiality will ultimately be recognized.
To look at what’s happened with the work of artists I discussed in Tokyo Art Hoax, I think it’s pretty much how I laid things out. The artists were Taro Chiezo, Gabin Ito, Kenji Yanobe, Kodai Nakahara, and Takashi Murakami. To look at them one-by one:
I think I reserved the strongest criticism for Taro Chiezo, for a number of reasons. Looking back at what he’s done since then, I’m struck that recently he’s been making abstract paintings. I’ve only seen them in photos, so I can’t really evaluate them, but they appear to represent a total abandonment of his earlier approach. Like he really grew out if it. The old work seems to have peaked with his large Superlambanana sculpture in Liverpool, around 1998, which became controversial, and then evolved into a kind of love-to-hate local cultural icon. He’s living in Berlin, and still showing regularly. From what I can tell, a lot of what he’s showing is the old motorized dresses etc from the period we’re discussing. I think I was right to suggest that what he was doing in the early 90’s would ultimately be an exploitative dead-end. It eventually brought him to abstract painting it seems, which is surprising in a way, but may mark a growth towards maturity.
I didn’t talk a lot about Gabin Ito, but noted the work he showed at the Anomaly exhibition. From the start he was straddling the game world and something we might call “shared entertainment.” And he seems to have continued generating commercially successful “fun” experiences, which sometimes are still exhibited in an art context. I’d say he migrated out of fine art quickly and into the entertainment world, which looks like it was a good fit. In that sense, I think I was right that in terms of expectations of fine art, what he showed at Anomaly proved to be a dead-end.
Kenji Yanobe has continued to show in art contexts, and has good representation at Yamamoto Gendai. The “survival” theme he was already exploring in the early 90’s is potentially powerful, and he’s continued to plug away at it, keeping it “kawaii” the whole time. The technical qualities of his work improved, maybe with help from professional fabricators. But I think it’s been a one-trick pony. He’s tackled the stories of Chernobyl and Fukushima, for instance, and there was controversy over his large “Sun Child" sculpture — a child in a radiation protection suit — which was placed in front of Fukushima Station and then removed due to public outcry against it. It’s hard to adequately address disasters, particularly radiation disasters which have extremely nuanced human and scientific aspects. The deceptively easy way is to nominate people and groups to take the roles victims, villains, and heroes. This is what the media does almost instinctively. But in fact the reality is a lot messier. People living though the consequences know that and it’s a source of deep pain and conflict. The victims are also often culpable, and there are few real heroes. Although Yanobe claimed that he doesn’t intend to stress the victimhood aspect of people who were affected, in fact he plays all of those tropes. I’m not surprised people didn’t like the sculpture. It may well be that he has a lot of knowledge about radiation issues and the social aftermath of disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl. But his approach strikes me as knee-jerk, hedged by a satirical edge which suggests that he’s kind of kidding. What appears to be a need to keep his work looking “cute” seems to be what’s hobbling its ability to probe these kinds of issues in depth.
Kodai Nakahara is to me the most interesting artist of the lot. I had more interesting conversations with him at certain inflection points over the years than with any of the others. The main point I was making in the Art Hoax piece was that he was being pressured to keep making the childish Lego pieces because they were a hit and could make money for other people, but in fact he was feeling exploited and unable to move on to the other work he wanted to make. I think I was totally correct about that. He’s continued to show and evolve. When I talked about the artistic potential of autobiographical work, I was thinking about Nakahara among others. What I take away from things like his Headgear pieces of 1991, or the videos from a few years later, is a questioning, “Why are people like this?” Underlaid with pain and an admitted recognition of the limits of his own self-knowledge. He had a large retrospective in Okayama in 2013 which appears to have been pretty interesting. I didn’t attend it. He had lost almost all of his work in a studio fire a few years earlier, so he attempted to recreate some of it, which became a comment on the futility of trying to do the same thing twice. There are more recent pieces like “Fruit Graph,” which is a humorous but also creepy short-circuit of the whole idea of enumeration and evaluation where living things are concerned. I spoke to him most recently at the large three-person exhibition he was in along with Okazaki and Shitaro Tanaka at Bank Art in Yokohama in 2014. He showed some early 90’s pieces, including some remade ones, but also had a set of extremely austere large paintings of solid black circles. That’s what we talked about. They were about abstraction, with all the resonance and early-abstraction baggage that includes. They were somehow meticulous with so little evidence of fabrication they felt as if they had been simply willed into existence. So, yeah, I was right that Nakahara was heading towards a dead end in 1993, in fact he had already hit it and was suffering from the impact, but then he moved away from that totally, focussed on self and humanity, and ultimately on thought. I say bravo.
Murakami continues to pander and I think his work is still as superficial as it was in 1993. On the one hand, I think the organizing and curation he began around 1993 with Ginburart, later with Geisai, the Superflat and Little Boy exhibitions, all deserve notice. The same for KaiKaiKiki gallery. He’s provided forums and support for a number of younger artists over the years, and also opportunities for selected peers and elders. He’s collected a lot of contemporary art himself. Good for him. But I think his work rarely rises above eye candy. It can be spectacle, it can be entertaining, it can be technically adept. But ultimately it’s about making money with the production of visual artifacts. In fact the ambition evident in his work now lies primarily in technique and the production system, and the studio economics. But the approach invariably bounces off of any ostensible themes that require depth of thought. It’s not work of intellectual ambition, nor of depth of language. Instead it’s “fun.” I think the whole "Superflat" project shows a lack of real understanding of Japanese art history, for instance. It’s very selective and oversimplified, in order to justify Murakami’s own works and art business. Yes it’s been clever and successful. But it’s so conceptually flimsy.
The 500 Arhats exhibition from 2015 is an illustrative example. For one, the work he produced for that exhibition is only peripherally related to Buddhist art, particularly the arhat painting tradition which it claims to have continued and re-invigorated. I’m speaking in terms of spiritual motivation, embodied cognitive aspects, and iconography, which are the most essential aspects of Buddhist art. They’re intended as tools for psychic transport. Murakami has said that he doesn’t believe in any of that, in fact he thinks spiritual traditions - religion - are mere lies intended to pacify children. Fine. I’m an athiest myself. But then why do a series of monumental paintings and call them “arhats”?
Murakami often picks up and freely distorts or reconfigures idioms, which is the kind of thing artists are free to do. But his arhats could be Pokemon or baseball teams — a series of characters all of whom have specific visual attributes and iconography — and the work wouldn’t be substantially different. It’s simply surfaces peopled with characters. This and other works he’s shown that toy with art history use history very much like decals in a similar way. This is a characteristic that was shared by many Japanese artists who emerged around the same time: the assumption that nothing would mean anything to anybody.
I prefer work that challenges my assumptions about what it means to be literate, that makes me feel inadequate. Much Buddhist art does. This doesn’t, and one reason is what I would call a lack of perplexity. The reasons for everything are too clearly evident. It’s intricately untroubled, devoid of either sorrow or anger. We’re left pondering the craft and production of it, and as I said, the money behind it.
Murakami told me in 1991 something he’s repeated often since then, basically, that his work is motivated by a traumatic childhood recognition that America was a victorious and powerful country, and Japan was only a "follower." I though he was bullshitting me, because I didn't see any of that in the work. I still think he's bullshitting about that. He’s totally skirted the issue of Japan as an aggressor, the causes of the Pacific War, what happened to people in the region including Japan, and what they wanted afterwards. Murakami seems to have tried to approach the war experience and afterward with "Little Boy," but he avoided the truly difficult themes of Japanese violence and suicidalism, and avoided any sense of shared responsibility. That would require deep introspection and asking, "How could Japan, my own family, do that?" Many strong works about war from American or European artists, including filmmakers, and especially Germans, begin with the question, "How could we do that?" And at least two generations of postwar Japanese artists, including visual artists, writers, performers, and filmmakers, tried very hard to come to grips with this experience, often producing very strong, unique, and original works. I was particularly disappointed that Murakami, who paraded his “trauma” around, in his early “Polyrhythm” series pretty much ripped off Shuji Terayama, an exemplary artist of trauma, without acknowledging it. That was then, but I think his work is still pretty superficial for similar reasons. I think he is actually not an artist with that kind of depth, or even enough historical knowledge, to address it adequately. Except in rare works like the fish painting I mentioned earlier.
I think Murakami once was capable of painting works which somehow deeply approached the experience of war and defeat. If he had used his sense of humor and irony to paint war paintings like that excellent fish painting he now keeps hidden, that might have been great. But instead he's run away from his trauma. That fish painting embodies the trauma he talks about now! His entire body of work beyond that strikes me as a corporate simulation of an emotional response to trauma.
It's kind of like Chiezo, who said, "My works are robots!" But they were robots only in his imagination. In reality they were just doll dresses on remote-controlled cars. Murakami has said: "My work deals with the trauma of defeat!" But only in his imagination. In reality, they are escapist decorations.
I see Murakami as an artist on a treadmill. Despite the impressive production and marketing, it looks pretty empty and unfulfilling. What else could he do? He doesn't appear to be really enjoying it, and only occasionally picks up a brush or spray can himself in order to recapture some of the joy of art. He speaks of being forced to crank out easily salable works in order to cover his studio overhead and payroll, finding it difficult to escape from an aesthetic rut of his own making. We can reflect on the difference between the mind of an artist versus a carefully curated public persona. This is overwhelmingly the latter, though he hints at the existence of the former through occasional toothless self-parodies.
So, yeah, although back in 1993 I failed to anticipate the future scale of Murakami’s financial success and visibility, even though I shoved him in that direction, I think I was right about the weakness of his work. His support activities for others are commendable. But has anything remotely passionate or engrossing, wondrous in a human sense, emerged from his art practice itself? Maybe we’ll see something in the future from someone in his circle who may be able to internalize some aspects and develop a more meaningful synthesis. But I think that would almost certainly require rejecting most of what Murakami has emphasized.
THE GREAT TOKYO ART HOAX
Tokyo Journal, September 1993
by Azby Brown
Are the nation’s most talked-about artists all they’re cracked up to be? In Tokyo’s art world, all that glitters is not gold.
“Have you ever talked to him? The guy’s a total fucking moron!” A leading American dealer is talking about a young Japanese artist who s currently the toast of the Tokyo art scene. But similar derision can justifiably be aimed at almost any member of the new art “brat pack.” After all, their names — Takashi Murakami, Taro Chiezo, Nakahara Kohdai, Kenji Yanobe — crop up in any discussion of contemporary Japanese art. Their work is exhibited at big-budget shows and feted by noted critics. If exposure dictates success, then they are evidently the nation’s most successful contemporary artists. So why the derision?
Because the predominance of the brat pack also symbolizes much of what is rotten in the Tokyo art scene. Viewed from the outside, our city boasts a substantial art world. Dealers in BMWs prowl through the streets to lavish openings at slickly designed galleries; young artists are household faces and art critics become TV hosts; large exhibitions are promoted in television commercials, glossy catalogs and magazines; and the millions of yen that supposedly circulate throughout give the capital’s art world the shimmering, emerald aura of Oz.
The view from inside, however, is vastly different. Tokyo’s art world is not Oz. It is a Potemkin Village: a giant, glittering facade that scores of people — among them editors, critics, dealers, and curators — spend their energy propping up. In this Potemkin world, contemporary artists don 't create art that challenges and provokes; they produce novelty goods. The rich and influential don't promote worthwhile works; they only back these novelties. And the critics one expects to define what is good and bad do neither; they merely take these trinkets and puff them up into experimental, cutting-edge artworks.
Who is responsible for perpetrating this hoax and, more intriguingly, why are they doing it? To find out, we must first dismantle the complex and efficient machinery of hype that supports Tokyo’s Potemkin art world.
The Brat Pack
What the members of the brat pack have in common are their youth (their ages range from mid-twenties to early thirties), their promotional back-up and their artistic style. Take the work of Takashi Murakami, who was recently awarded a solo retrospective at the Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art a scant five years after graduating from Tokyo University of Fine Art. Among the first of his works to receive attention was a series unveiled during the Gulf War in 1991. The show consisted of plastic models of G.I.s glued to sand-colored vertical plastic panels.
Was this a topical critique of, say, militarism and the conditioning of children to play with violence-related toys, or the pervasive American influence on postwar Japan? Murakami clearly hadn't thought very deeply about it; he merely observed that every boy owns plastic models and that Japan 's postwar prosperity is linked to the G.I.s’ presence. The artist's inability to intelligently discuss his work didn't seem to bother the major art magazines, whose adoring reviews and photo spreads encouraged mass-circulation lifestyle publications to follow suit. No one mentioned that artist Yukinori Yanagi had used plastic models the previous year with clear ironic intent, or that Murakami's constructions bore an uncanny resemblance to Nobutaka Kotake's stage designs of the mid-seventies.
By the rime Murakami had completed his next major work — set of hideously expensive elementary school backpacks crafted from pelts of endangered species — he was more prepared. He claimed the work tackled both the environment and Japanese militarism, adding that since the backpacks were modeled on those of the elite Peers School attended by the Imperial family, the work was also a damning criticism of the emperor system.
Brat packer Taro Chiezo also stretched one amusing idea a very long way. He stiffened doll dresses and mounted them atop whirling remote-control model cars, then suggested the work's debt to robotics and biotechnology. Yet he was clearly ignorant in both these fields. ''At the present time, all values of binomial confrontation are unable to maintain themselves," his accompanying text read. "The dualism outlook now fails to analyze anything." In gushing counterpoint, his promoters insisted that the work was a peculiarly Japanese expression of everything from the socialization of women to the aimlessness of individuals in mass society. All these works display a muddy understanding of history; serious issues are reduced to catchphrases , leaving a veneer of controversy. They also show little sense of self. It is as if the art has been created by emotionally stunted adolescents who have retreated, otaku-like, into a pseudo-futuristic world where simply recalling a favorite action hero is regarded as an artistic epiphany.
What Murakami was doing with his plastic soldiers, and Chiezo with his motorized dresses, was merely aping recent conceptual art in the West. Like most of the brat pack, Murakami attended art school when so-called "commodity art” (sometimes called "Simulationism”) was all the rage overseas. The best Western artists in this genre — Jeff Koons, Ashley Bickerton, Haim Steinbach-use either commercially available everyday goods or fabricated items that resemble them to reveal the insidious intent behind their design and promotion.
By flicking through art magazines, Murakami 's generation grew aware that these artists were international stars. Unfortunately, they were unaware of the often vituperative criticism that greeted the works, since most could not read much of the perceptive English-language criticism and the press in Japan wasn't following or interpreting the debate. All the artists had to go on was the look or style of the work. Couple this with the Japanese art school practice of teaching only technique, and the result is a new generation of formally gifted artists who create work with the look and feel of contemporary Western art, bur are incapable of exploring its possible meaning or content. Unfortunately, the applause has been loud enough to convince the brat pack that they are accomplishing something original, meaningful and provocative. In our Potemkin world, the orgy of adulation begins in the art press.
[inset] Takashi Murakami
Far from being the "eco-political" statements the promotion claimed, Murakami's 1991 backpacks say nothing coherent; they merely piggyback on topical buzzwords such as militarism and the environment. Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach and many others have explored the idiom of idiosyncratic goods more thoroughly and provocatively.
Murakami's 1992 doll work (bottom left) capitalizes on the controversial sale of Black-stereotype "Dakko-chan" dolls, but has only the veneer of subversion. The artist might have recast the doll as a Japanese caricature or as a member of a minority group in Japan. Instead, he simply turned black into caucasian (implying that racism is only a black-white problem) and kept cute cute.
Murakami's soldiers, unveiled during the Gulf War, did not break a longstanding taboo against tackling militarism in art; critics had merely stopped writing about it 15 years ago. The work's arrangement tells us nothing about the relationship between the artifacts and the themes they represent; it is merely decorative. Compare this to the mid-seventies work by Nobutaka Kotake, which is intended to be worn as a mask, forcing one to view the world as a model militarized zone. Kotake's work is simpler, scarier, better conceived and predates Murakami's much-hyped "original."
Of the specialist monthly art magazines, only Bijutsu Techo (BT) and Atelier devote substantial space to contemporary work. Stocked by almost every art-related institution and read religiously by most artists and students, these low-circulation magazines (10,000 to 13,000 issues per month) are influential — after all, they're the only games in town — but only among the art set.
Regardless of how often art magazines rave about artists like Murakami, true status only comes from being picked up by the so-called "lifestyle" magazines. Publications such as Brutus, an an, Ryuko Tsushin and Pia all devote sections to art. The readership is both huge (Brutus claims a monthly circulation of half a million) and overwhelmingly young, and artists featured in their pages consider it major exposure. Erimi Fujiwara, a former BT staff writer now covering art for Brutus, believes the laws of marketing dictate that art is approached in the same way as fashion, films, books and music — that is, primarily as entertainment. "It’s a snob thing, " she explains. "People here have a sort of intellectual inferiority complex, and feel they always have to be on top of what's trendy. That is what they devote their intellectual energy to."
The main thrust of Brutus' art coverage is simple: to offer ideas to readers primarily interested in visibly upgrading their lifestyles. It is not concerned with provoking deep discussion or social change. Commentary must be lightweight and accessible; jargon is unacceptable, except when explaining certain new key words such as "appropriation" or "postmodern. " And it is assumed that the audience will tire of an artist, no matter how talented — a built-in obsolescence that creates a constant demand for new, easily grasped work. "It doesn't matter what's new," says Fujiwara, "just that it is new."
She makes no apologies for this approach. "The biggest problem is the weakness of Japanese art itself," she explains. ''A person can be considered an 'artist ' by the media, have people comment on his work, and appear regularly on TV, and none of this will be directly connected to his actual work." "Although artists like Murakami and Chiezo aim for media stardom, they will be discarded like used tissue paper," adds Mana Katsuura, Fujiwara's colleague at Brutus. "They all kid themselves that they won't end up like Hibino."
Katsuhiko Hibino, whose work was prominent in the eighties, is one of the brat pack's spiritual ancestors. His career took off when major advertising companies decided that new products could be marketed by associating them with ''Art" and with the young, free-thinking personalities involved. Hibino still
appears occasionally on commercials for cigarettes, but his marketing value has clearly waned. It is no coincidence that despite his efforts to shift his work into a more fine art vein (he held an exhibition last month), the art world here also ignores him.
Hibino learned — the hard way — that the main currency in Potemkinland is fame, nor art. But gaining media recognition depends upon explaining art to a general audience, and the young artists have proved themselves unequal to this task. Help, however, is at hand.
Enter Noi Sawaragi, a baby-faced intellectual in his early thirties who is chiefly responsible for drawing attention to Takashi Murakami and, by establishing a new critical genre, to Taro Chiezo as well. He is well-read, boasts radical musical tastes (Negativeland, Sick Puppy, Hendrix bootlegs) and is techno-literate. Since 1990, his middleweight ruminations in the lifestyle press have won him a devoted following. He was the first to back Murakami and continues to write regularly on his peers. Where he goes, the brat pack follows.
Sawaragi admits that his knowledge of visual art before 1980 is hazy. "I've never claimed co be an art critic," he explains. "Most of my writing analyzes social trends, and I have been using visual art as a representative example of current ways of thinking. " At this, he has been stunningly successful. Sawaragi left BT to find a ready demand for his articles in the lifestyle press. His 1991 book Simulationism: House Music and Appropriated Art is in its fourth printing, and he has hosted a regular TV show in which he introduced his favorite artists. His commentary has been featured in the European magazine Flash Art and he has curated exhibitions at foreign institutions such as the New Museum in New York.
"Sawaragi became famous because he discussed visual art in relation to popular music, pointing out the similarity between sampling in music and the appropriation of earlier masterpieces in visual art," notes Yuko Hasegawa, a young curator at the Setagaya Museum. "This idea was commonplace in the overseas discussion of eighties art, and was even hinted at as early as the thirties. But no one had done it here."
Although Sawaragi is not saying that brat pack art is superlative, he believes the work is representative of a fragmented, superficial society obsessed with images — a point, he says, that has been lost on most. Like other critics, Sawaragi has claimed that the very inability of these artists to directly challenge questionable aspects of society is, in fact, the intended subject of their work. Others would consider this a fashionable cop out. As Whole Earth guru Stewart Brand has put it, "The claim
that the crippling limitations of one's art is its real message is pretty pathetic. "
The deadening academicism of most critics is largely responsible for priming young readers for someone like Sawaragi, who appears to speak their language. "Having him write about artists like Murakami is very convenient," says Mana Katsuura at Brutus. "His writing has the right tone, he's in touch with young trends, and the artwork has impact in photos. This doesn't mean it’s necessarily the best art around, bur it fits our needs." It also fits Sawaragi's needs. “I’m less interested in art per se than in the works as an opportunity for analysis," he says. "I don 't think many people — very few in the art world —actually read what I write very closely."
True, not all critics value the commentary of the lifestyle critics so highly. "Nobody has ever bought artwork because it was featured in Brutus," says Kenjiro Okazaki, a visual artist and influential teacher. Okazaki, who tags the work of the brat pack as "disappointingly shallow, but not empty," believes that much criticism fails in its lack of understanding about an artwork's context. "Even if a work isn't unique, if most people don't know the historical background — which they don't — it can safely be labeled 'original,’”he says of Murakami 's unacknowledged borrowing of Kotake's model soldiers. "Younger artists can therefore ignore all art history, even that of only a few years before, and no-one will challenge them. This forgetting is good for the status quo because rapid change has made it difficult co establish new standards of value in any area of society. There are no external criteria."
All this makes it less likely chat hype will be seen for what it is. Instead of art that builds on the
past, is demanding of itself and has the potential to profoundly affect viewers, the result, Okazaki believes, is a proliferation of shallow "substitute art." "The fact that our society can be satisfied with this," he adds with a sly grin, "must be very interesting to foreigners…”
There are no "Japanese Only" signs in Potemkinland. Indeed, the glittering facade could not have been built without the muscle of foreign critics and curators.
The West has only recently begun co show serious interest in contemporary Japanese art. Beyond the "Japonisme " fad of a century ago, postwar work — inspired, for example, by emigres such as Shusaku Arakawa and On Kawara, who carved out impressive niches after leaving Japan — has received only token coverage. Relatively few artists or writers could communicate effectively in Western languages, and even fewer Western art people considered it worthwhile to master Japanese. Besides, many foreigners assumed that when the artists weren't busy copying the West, such a yawning gap separates the cultures that there was little reason to suspect that what was being created here had any relevance overseas.
By the late eighties, however, Japan had established itself as a major buyer of blue-chip artwork, reinforcing international art contacts. The decade also saw the emergence of a new generation of better-educated, multilingual Japanese curators such as Fumio Nanjo, who has collaborated on several important international exhibitions, and Akira Tatehata, former curator of the Osaka Museum of Modern Art. Furthermore, a handful of Westerners, such as curators Kathy Halbreich and Lynne Cooke, devoted the effort necessary to raise the level of discourse about Japanese art in the West, just as others had been doing with Latino, Eastern European, African and Middle Eastern art.
At the Aperto section of the 1988 Venice Biennale, Yasumasa Morimura raised eyebrows and expectations with his reinterpretations of Western art masterpieces. In 1989 an influential group show called "Against Nature, " put together by Fumio Nanjo, began a two-year tour of the U.S. to great critical acclaim. Among others, it included the work of Morimura,
Tatsuo Miyajima , Katsura Funakoshi and the performance group Dumb Type, all of whom soon received significant attention from Western collectors, galleries and curators. A collection of recent Japanese sculpture called "The Primal Spirit" enjoyed similar success the following year. A precedent was set, a new market identified and tapped. These forces coalesced to call attention to the increasing number of Japanese contemporary artists capable of stepping onto the global stage.
As import ant as validation by overseas critics is the support of foreign collectors and curators. After hearing of an artist who is much-talked about in Japan, a foreign curator might attempt to set up an exhibition in the West. A Belgian curator named Jan Hoet, for example, traveling through Japan in late 1991 in search of artists for the Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, saw photos of Murakami 's work. Hoet did not select Murakami for Documenta but did include him in two small exhibitions that he curated in Fukuoka and Tsurugi. Even this superficial foreign patronage was enough to boost Murakami’s reputation as a potential international player. (When asked why he included Murakami's work , Hoet replied: "Because it has wheels.")
Both overseas critics and curators have been snagged into the hype machine. They are too ready to believe that an artwork's exotic formal qualities and its references co popular culture — its "Japaneseness " — hide layers of meaning inaccessible to Western minds, rather than seeing it for what it is: a packaging of thin ideas. When they pay attention to the art at all, even the best foreign critics tend to discuss it primarily in nationalistic terms, especially where the brat pack is concerned "Murakami will say 'these backpacks are a criticism of the emperor system,' and a foreign writer will print it ," observes Okazaki. "If I tried, I could extract tons of meaning from this kind of work, as representative of this or that aspect of society. But I could do the same with this Bic pen."
The blessing of foreigners is vital to the brat packer's success. But at some point the artist needs at least one powerful backer at home
Masami Shiraishi has been referred to as "an octopus piranha," and is as widely feared for his influence as he is admired for his charm. As the primary promoter/representative of Chiezo, Murakami and Murakami-clone Masato Nakamura, and head of Shiraishi Contemporary Art Incorporated (SCAI), he has pinned his fortunes so firmly to the brat pack's that his name is almost synonymous with the trend.
Over the years, Shiraishi's tentacles have touched every corner of the Tokyo art scene. After establishing his reputation as a dealer at Fuji TV gallery, he directed in the late eighties two quasi-non-profit art spaces of the sort only found in Japan: the Touko Art Museum in Omoresando and the ICA in Nagoya (no connection co the original institution of the same name in London). He also organized the Nippon International Contemporary Art Fair (NICAF) in Yokohama, an event intended to kick-start the Japanese contemporary art market and one for which his showmanship and business skills are ideally suited.
This year Shiraishi was appointed director of the new Penrose Institute, originally envisioned as the Tokyo branch of the nonprofit Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in London. The ICA initially opposed the appointment on the grounds that Shiraishi's extensive commercial activities conflicted with the institution's non-profit nature, and that his reputation was as a promoter of commercial art, rather than the experimental, risky work upon which its reputation was built. Yet the Institute's Tokyo backers insisted that only Shiraishi possessed the necessary fund-raising prowess. So far, they have been proved right: Shiraishi is reported to have had success in wooing major corporations.
ICA was willing to overlook a conflict of interest rarely tolerated in the West. Shiraishi's various posts have allowed him to introduce dozens of leading foreign dealers to the artists he promotes. At a reception for trustees of a major American art museum, Shiraishi privately expressed a desire to exhibit the work of the three artists in his stable, Chiezo, Murakami and Nakamura, at the Penrose and the London ICA. How does Shiraishi view his various roles?
"I think like a producer," he explains over a blue-collar snack of draft beer and fried chicken, his face a disarming mask of receptivity and vulnerability. "My job is to create a place to exhibit art of a higher quality than what we have been seeing in Japan, to widen the audience, to make contemporary art a more powerful influence in Japanese society." Shiraishi insists that since he has done very little dealing — an assertion blankly contradicted by individuals both in Japan and abroad who claim to have done business with him — such activities present no conflict of interest with his curatorial duties.
He is less comfortable talking about the basis for evaluating the quality of the artists and cannot explain why he represents the artists he does. “I’m not a critic,” he begins. "In sales talk, I point out the general characteristics of the works that are attracting attention and focus the discussion on what it is the buyer himself is responding to in the work . Collectors themselves are rarely influenced by art criticism." Shiraishi also takes a pragmatically uncritical view of the media's role. "The only sensible course is not to fight the way media portray art, but simply to support art properly and exhibit it advantageously."
Stories abound about Shiraishi's aggressive tactics. He once, for instance, "borrowed" several of Murakami 's backpack works from Hosomi Gallery to "display" at NICAF '92, where he then sold the lot for a reputed $30,000. Murakami must have been delighted — it was his first significant art sale — but, in the West, Hosomi Gallery would have been able to take legal action. Shiraishi dismisses such incidents as "misunderstandings." Add the influential role of a promoter such as Shiraishi to the curators, foreigners, critics and media, and the supporting case of Potemkinland is complete. The meteoric rise of one artist provides one example of how these forces combine co produce ...
[inset] Kohdai Nakahara + Kenji Yanobe
In this typical work (1990-91, below) by Kohdai Nakahara, the "favorite childhood toy" is combined with a sculptural style (largely derived from the sixties work of European sculptor Nikki St. Phalle) to create an endearingly "dumb" attempt to "be an artist" by using toy blocks. Other recent work by Nakahara takes the form of isolation tanks in which, according to the accompanying drawings, the artist visualizes himself floating naked and shitting like a baby. This wish to return to the womb pairs him quite closely with Kenji Yanobe, who had exhibited a nearly identical isolation tank a couple of years earlier. Like Nakahara, Yanobe's art (like the homemade body armor above) manifests a true Peter-Pan syndrome; all of his sculptures are roughly realized dreams of super-hero power. These naive desires, best summed up as "techno-infantilism,” underlie and link the work of the various brat pack artists and largely account for their popularity
[inset] Taro Chiezo
Do Taro Chiezo's motorized doll dresses (1991) subvert the national obsession with cuteness? Or do they, as the artist claims, suggest the impact of cybernetics on society? One strongly suspects that Chiezo experienced a childish pleasure when mounting dresses on remote controlled model car chassis, and that the critical interpretation was largely invented after the fact. Too much of this work's impact is derived from the simple pleasure of the cuteness: where is the subversion? Like his 1992 motorized ostriches, this art has as merit only as a visual one-liner. But Chiezo insists on calling both works "robots" (a potent buzz word), although they are mechanically flawed and are not based on any knowledge of cybernetics. To the average Westerner, what could be more "representative" of contemporary Japan than cute robots? The artist has clearly found a niche-and exploited it.
Taro Chiezo is a very nice young man. He is 31, slight of build , and clearly pays much attention to his impeccable dress and hair. Sitting in a quiet Italian restaurant in Omotesando, a fashionable rendezvous for Tokyo art trendoids, he name- drops conscantly. "Jeff Koons came to my wedding in Switzerland last summer," he says nonchalantly, more for the benefit of a German art book publisher who sits with us. Rumor has it that Chiezo held his wedding in Switzerland because Koons was already there, making it hard for him to decline the invitation.
Truth or fiction? It's hard to tell with Taro Chiezo. His career illustrates just how much hype can accomplish — although being born wealthy undoubtedly helped. Chiezo's father is the successful designer Shozo Tsurumoto, whose company, Tsurumoto Room, established itself as a major Tokyo art event producer through PR-related art promotions at Parco. With his father's financial support, Chiezo headed for New York after graduating from high school in 1980 to study film criticism at NYU — a move that distinguished him from the rest of the homebound brat pack. In 1982, his early videos were shown at the Asian American Video festival. During this time he also changed his surname to "Chiezo," after the popular star of the cult classic The Man with Seven Faces.
When school ended in 1984, Chiezo aborted his New York career and returned to Tokyo. Here he found a similar lack of interest in his work; hip-hop (graffiti art) and neo-expressionist painting were big at the time, and he did neither. His resume of exhibitions from 1985 to 1991 is entirely blank. He was able to land his friend Steven Pollock, the son-in-law of film director and ikebana school owner Hiroshi Teshigawara, a gig organizing a New York art show at the Laforet Museum (which Tsurumoto Sr. had founded and still retains an interest in) but his own visibility was zilch. So Chiezo decided co move back co New York — this time with a new angle.
At the peak of the bubble economy in 1988, Chiezo's father teamed up with an equally rich fashion maker to found the Marimura Museum in spacious premises in Harajuku. Chiezo was made the de facto curator, with an ample budget for bringing new artists to Tokyo. For the next three years, he was a wealthy curator at a time when every Western gallery and artist was seeking a way into the Japanese market. "Basically," says the leading American dealer, "Chiezo hung out in New York long enough so that when people in the art world there began to warm to the idea of showing Japanese artists, he was in place."
Chiezo refuses to discuss his curatorial activities for the Marimura Museum, insisting they are "family matters that are unconnected with my work," but admits that running the space may have helped his career. Before long, Chiezo, who had stopped making videos in 1987 and begun mounting baby clothes on canvas, was having his favors returned in the form of exhibition opportunities in New York.
Chiezo arranged funding for artist Suzan Etkin's solo show at the Marimura Museum in 1991. Etkin's boyfriend Alan Jones, a moderately influential critic and curator, included Chiezo in two small New York group shows. In the same year, along with dealer Natalie Rivera, Jones helped organize a low-budget group show held in New York hotel rooms called "48 Hours," in which Chiezo unveiled his motorized doll dresses. His overseas press, promotional copy aside, was (and remains) almost uniformly negative, or at best skeptical. But back in Tokyo, it was assumed that because he had won opportunities in New York, Chiezo must be worth serious attention.
This initial success got the log rolling. In 1990, according to sources intimately familiar with the interaction, Chiezo introduced Masami Shiraishi to Jeffrey Deitch, an influential New York-based independent curator and critic who was instrumental in building Citicorp's renowned art collection. (Deitch claims he met Shiraishi long before 1990.) Shiraishi then invited Deitch to curate a highly publicized (and, some critics believe, overhyped) exhibition of American art at the Touko Museum in 1991 — a connection which led co further joint projects.
Close observers of this partnership were not surprised when Chiezo was among the three artists selected by Deitch for the "Post Human" exhibition currently touring the globe. The show's promotional material prominently features Chiezo's work (the same headless dolls he has been making since 1990). Shiraishi's company SCAI repeated this material in its PR for the artist, evidendly hoping to reinforce its claim that the artist it represents is a major force in Japanese arc. Recently, Tsurumoto Room rewarded Deitch with an offer to head the Curators' Seminar in Hokkaido , which Tsurumoto established with funds from JAL, the Foreign Ministry and other organizations.
Deitch's support of brat pack work on aesthetic grounds is unequivocal. "I am interested in these artists not because they are Japanese, but because I believe that they are among the best young artists working today," he says, adding the baffling claim that Chiezo is "a really interesting thinker — he's taught me a lot about how to interpret recent Japanese art sociologically." Deitch's career success has been built on promoting new artistic trends; he has found one here, and is doing everything in his power to ensure that market success will follow.
Meanwhile, Chiezo's gravy boat, the Marimura Museum, folded in 1991, giving him more time to concentrate on his creations and flit between Tokyo and New York. This year he enjoyed his first solo show in New York at the Sandra Gering gallery, which, he says, "now provides half of my sales income." The local press was skeptical: The New Yorker
noted that "the show has a carefree spirit, but the ideas are not terribly original," while Village Voice spotted a conceptual dead end: "Where do these robotic curies go from here?"
Yet other voices were strident enough to sustain the illusion of artistic success. One Western critic has claimed in Flash Art that the motorized doll dresses "are among the best kinetic artworks this reviewer has seen . .. a unique vision," while admitting that "as one searches for a common thread of meaning , a feeling of unease sets in." Even Alexandra Monroe, possibly the most knowledgeable foreign commentator on post-war Japanese art, wrote lyrically in Flash Art of how Chiezo's work "sums up the identity and contradictions of Japanese popular culture, where violence is swept under the rug and the sweet lies of kawaii keep the ship afloat.”
Critics are, of course, entitled to their own opinions. But in cases like these, one must assume that the writers are new to Potemkinland. Either that, or they are making a shrewd political investment in its future.
And so the whole sparkling illusion of Tokyo's art world is constructed and maintained. There is, however, something very rotten in this make-believe state. For, incredibly enough, it is hard to find anyone who admits to benefiting from the Hoax .
For all the hype powering their careers, none of the brat pack artists can be considered truly successful. Their work is artistically dubious, and their profiles at home and abroad have fallen far short of expectations. "When compared to people like Hibino, artists such as Murakami, Chiezo and Nakahara have not achieved a high status in the media here," argues Noi Sawaragi. ''And they're not making nearly as much money."
Unless one is born rich like Chiezo, it seems, being a brat packer is a fast track to penury. The Western system, whereby an artist can fund his work with a cash advance from the gallery, which then deducts the sum from future sales, is rarely applied in Tokyo. Most artists here must pay for exhibition space; those who are given it for free consider themselves blessed — doubly so, if provided with a budget for fabrication.
But since the appeal of brat pack art is based on large, glitzy works, audiences have come to expect such grand spectacles that holding an exhibition means spending millions of yen to fabricate the art. Even if the gallery provides money— as Tokyo's Rontgen Kunst Institute Gallery did last year for the big-budget "Anomaly” show curated by Sawaragi and featuring Murakami, Nakahara and Yanobe — the artisct muse shoulder the burden of debt. If work is sold, fine; but even the big names of ''Anomaly' failed to attract buyers. As Deitch puts it, collecting such work "requires a big commitment. These are not easy works that can hang on the wall over the sofa."
By the end of the show — which, in terms of sheer publicity, was a smash hit — Murakami (whose father is a taxi driver) was reported co have run up a debt of nearly ¥10 million. He continues to pay heavily from his own pocket to fabricate more dazzling art works to keep up appearances. At this moment, the most famous young Japanese artist alive teeters on the verge of bankruptcy. In fact, the brat pack can't make substantial sales on their work because there is still no real significant domestic or international market for Japanese contemporary art.
If the well-oiled hype machine was not built with the artists' welfare in mind, then someone else is reaping the rewards. Right? Masami Shiraishi claims he makes little cash: "Everyone seems to think I have money, but in fact I'm struggling." But it is positioning, not profit, that is the name of the game for Tokyo's dealers. By artificially creating and promoting a nonexistent market, dealers have put themselves at the center of contemporary art. If and when a real market begins to thrive, Oz-like figures like Shiraishi will be perfectly placed to clean up. Meanwhile, the rest of the art world has good reason to support the illusion. "If Shiraishi wants to help build a market for Murakami's or Chiezo's work, it's a good thing," says curator Yuko Hasegawa. ''At this point there's so little interest in contemporary art that everyone will benefit from any increase in the market."
Why does any of this matter? Why not let the dealers, critics, promoters and pseudo-artists backscratch and logroll? After all, nobody is forcing the public to attend their exhibitions. It should matter, though, because Japan is a country that needs much and has much to offer. With a compliant press and secretive authorities, there are precious few outlets for exploring taboos or tackling emotive topics; contemporary art should serve as a medium for confronting such issues and encouraging individuals to question and understand.
Supporting artists who really have something to say is a step toward realizing this potential. But the very rewarding work of nurturing real art can only begin when the shallow, public orgy of status-seeking finally exhausts itself. "Do you know the Chinese expression, 'A dog barks at nothing and ten thousand others spread it as truth’?” asks Kenjiro Okazaki. "There's much more interesting art being made today, yet the artists shrivel for lack of attention. It's an absurd, tragic situation."
Tokyo's Potemkin art village should be burned down. Only then can a hidden generation of more talented artists build something more meaningful and lasting on its ashes.
A Primal Spirit
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Artscribe, January/February 1991
By Azby Brown
“A Primal Spirit: Ten Contemporary Japanese Sculptors,” reached the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago having been seen at the Hara Museum ARC in Japan and the LA County Museum earlier this year. There is some good work in the show, and it is true that some dominant recent tendencies are highlighted. However, the reading of this work suggested by curator Howard Fox in his selection and his lengthy catalogue essays is disappointingly shallow, poorly informed, and, perhaps worst of all, guaranteed to perpetuate some of the most inaccurate and damaging myths about Japanese culture in general and its art in particular.
In short, by reviving the by now rightfully discredited notion of Japanese “uniqueness,” bolstered by the hoary “Shinto-and-Zen-are-the-dominant-determinants” myth Western inventions both, but widely accepted even in Japan Fox falls into a series of elementary traps, dragging the viewers’ perceptions of the work with him. It may well be that even the work shown here which is not interesting as sculpture is significant as an illustration of the continued importance of adhering to conventions, particularly those which deal with “nature,” within Japanese artistic practice.
Due to the central role played by Confucian notions of order, ethics, and obligation, much about Japanese art to this day has been hierarchical, conservative, macho, formulaic, anti-inquiry, anti-invention, and primarily concerned with the repetition of conventionally-determined themes and motifs expressed through stereotypical symbols. Much contemporary sculpture suffers under the weight of these conventions, clearly codified in ikebana, garden design, bonsai, and so on, in which beauty has strict rules and is therefore predetermined. In “A Primal Spirit,” such contrivance is painfully evident in Fujii’s bent logs, Tokushige’s vessel-like wrappings, and Tsuchiya’s decorative assemblages of driftwood and twigs. This may also partly account for the strongly picturesque, even sentimental bent, in the work of Kuniyasu, Kawamata, Wakabayashi, Kenmochi, and Ebizuka. In fact, so much of the work in this exhibition is picturesque, wood-based assemblage, that it could well have been the work of a single artist. Rather than evidence of a unique “structure of consciousness different from that of Westerners” (Kuniyasu), this speaks primarily of the acceptance of the Western notion of assemblage into the body of Japanese artistic conventions. It also indicates a failure of imagination.
It is quite true that art in Japan in the twentieth century has followed a sequence that diverges considerably from that of the West, and yet the convergences are undeniable and extremely significant. This is why artists like Toshikatsu Endo, whose charred wooden rings may well be the best sculpture in the show, can attest to having learned to “remove superfluous elements” not from Zen rock gardens or the Great Shrine at Ise, but from Minimalism. Similarly, even Kuniyasu, who justifies his undeniably obsessive but nevertheless dull stacking pieces with mystic/racist Japanese pop rhetoric, has said that it was Brancusi who showed him the possibility of these activities as art. And Kawamata, who admits a great affinity with the work of Christo, uncategorically rejects the tenet, central to this exhibition, that “there is a ‘Japanese’ quality in Japanese art,” correctly seeing it as “something countries other than Japan have invented.” Contrary to the curator’s claim, there is no contemporary art in Japan which has emerged from purely Japanese roots.
Furthermore, given the obviousness of the “nature” conventions in Japanese art, it is impossible for an intelligent artist there to engage them without a great degree of self-consciousness. The work usually either becomes quite precious, as in Ebizuka’s lifeless pseudo-traditional carpentry, or increasingly artificial. A prime example of the latter would be the spectacle of Fujii laboriously bending large logs with steel cable winches and slicing the ends off with a gas-powered chainsaw in order to achieve a “natural effect.” Much of this work, presented as evidence of “closeness to nature,” upon close examination reveals itself to be machine-based. Wakabayashi, whose metal and sulphur constructions are the only works included which imply that nature includes things other than trees, is in some respects the “purest” of the lot, for however contrived and sensual the results may be, he has really let nature do most of the work.
Seeing this show and reading the justifications, one is inclined to wonder why art based on nature should be seen as the special province of one nation. Surely, there is an extensive body of related and often more successful work by such non-Japanese practitioners as Penone, Laib, and Nash (who has influenced many Japanese artists himself). There is, no doubt, much to be learned from pre-modern Japanese culture about mutually beneficial coexistence between man and environment. Unfortunately, little of it comes through in the works of “A Primal Spirit.” It is, quite simply, blocked by convention.
SCREAM AGAINST THE SKY
by Azby Brown, Artforum/Atelier, 1994
Is it possible now to conceptualize and present a full and complete exhibition of postwar Japanese art? And, if not, how many different interpretative exhibitions will be needed to adequately illuminate the complexly interlinked manifestations of visual art produced in this tumultuous and dynamic period? More than anything else, these are the questions raised by Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky, recently held at the Yokohama Museum of Art. Guest curated by Ms Alexandra Munroe of the United States, this exhibition is the result of over a decade of serious research on her part, and may be seen partly as a test run for this fall’s major scheduled venue, the Guggenheim Museum Soho. In addition, Ms Munroe has written a comprehensive study of postwar Japanese art to be published this year by Abrams; the catalog of the present exhibition includes sections taken from the book. From the outset it should be said that both exhibition and catalog set a new standard for foreign commentary on Japanese contemporary art, and will do much to raise the level of subsequent discussion.
Despite the curator’s insistence that Scream Against the Sky is an individual interpretation, not a survey, and is primarily intended for the New York audience, many Japanese viewers were able to come away from it with new knowledge. On the other hand, viewers not already somewhat familiar with the field may emerge feeling, unjustifiably, that they have seen everything which was significant in the period covered. Although this is partly due to the effectiveness of the curator’s presentation and argument, in itself this could pose a problem. Perhaps the exhibition’s title is misleading.
To be sure, Munroe’s take on postwar art is unorthodox, and this may generally be regarded as a strength. Due to her position as an “informed outsider,” she has been able to propose alternative readings to several bodies of work, to provoke where insiders have been either unwilling or unable. However, for the Japanese run, several “judgement calls” seem questionable. For instance, the inclusion of potters such as Onisaburo Deguchi and Kazuo Yagi in the context of a native “Japonisme” (in which Noguchi is included) may seem to overstate their significance. What happens to this lineage later is unclear, though its prewar roots are all to evident. Similarly, the large section devoted to Japanese members of Fluxus was both enlightening --partly because of the predominance of women, such as Yoko Ono, who is represented by more works than any other artist, and from whose work the exhibition’s subtitle is taken-- and frustrating because, once again, the impact of these artists within Japan is never made clear. In another example, the paintings of Naoto Nakagawa seem to be forced unwarrantedly into a section on metaphysical abstraction; one wonders if they deserved inclusion at all.
Despite the fact that this is not a survey, one misses several major figures, most notably Taro Okamoto. Munroe has stated that his exclusion was based on his aesthetic having been formulated during the prewar period, and yet, the same can be said for several others who were nonetheless included, including Noguchi. In fact, there are almost no works from the period 1945 to 1954 (notable exceptions being Shimamoto Shozo’s “Work, holes” from 1950-52 and several of Deguchi’s bowls from the late 1940’s), and the exhibition begins with the Gutai movement of the mid-1950’s.
In actuality, the immediate postwar years in Japan witnessed an incredible efflorescence of political art, particularly the under-appreciated genre known as “Sur-reportage,” which commented on current events in an emotionally charged, surrealist-influenced manner, and which formed the foundation for the abstract iconoclasm which would come later. The work of Kikuji Yamashita in particular comes to mind. It may be true, as Munroe has indicated, that this genre --with its obvious debts to Dali on the one hand and to Siquerios and the Mexican muralists on the other-- would be regarded as regressive if not derivative by the New York audience; but perhaps clarifying the significance of this dynamic, risky, and uninhibited work is a challenge which needs to be accepted.
Despite these questions of focus, and the fact that the most recent decade is represented by only a handful of “stars,” already well known overseas (was the challenging work of Kenjiro Okazaki excluded because of Japanese art world politics?), I would like to suggest that Munroe has succeeded in her stated aim of illuminating the many continuities, the nagare, which underlie this seemingly chaotic and unstructured era of Japanese art. For one, she has concentrated on the tradition of aesthetic, not political, radicalism (though it is obviously not simply a matter of choosing one or the other), and convincingly suggests that much of the best Japanese postwar art has been conceptual. The irony is that there is a gap between Japanese artists well-regarded abroad and those appreciated at home, particularly during the 1960’s and 70’s, and this exhibition tends to include a lot of the former, most of them conceptualists. One may justifiably ask whether seeking “Japaneseness” in contemporary art is not folly in the first place. So, what is a “Japanese artist,” anyway?
Of course, there are many works on view here which rarely get exposure-- such as Takahiko Iimura ’s film of the 1962 Yomiuri Independent Exhibition, Miyawaki Aiko’s thickly textured “paint spot” paintings from the early 1960’s, the films of Hijikata dancing, plus reconstructions of early Mono-ha works. Munroe’s conceptual continuities are generally clear and firm, and override chronology in several instances. At times, however, particularly where recent work is concerned, the curator seems too ready to accept oft-repeated rhetoric concerning content and motivation rather than probe more deeply or hazard more original interpretations. In particular, the illuminated numerals of Tatsuo Miyajima are rather predictably spliced onto the lineage of On Kawara (who in fact refused to allow his work to be included), whereas, arguably, in their essential theatricality ( “lights! action!”) the work is diametrically opposed, and in this sense much closer to the stagelike three-dimensional tableaux of Yasumasa Morimura. In fact, all of the recent work shown in Yokohama -- pieces by Dumb Type, Kohdai Nakahara, and Yukinori Yanagi as well-- shares this strong theatrical element, which goes unremarked.
In summary, Munroe has done an admirable job with unwieldy material. Despite being an “outsider,” she has demonstrated an enviable mastery of the subject, and her excellent text will do much to fill the huge gaps that exist in Western commentary on Japanese contemporary art. That her conclusions have created a stir inside the Japanese art world is not surprising, but one could argue that a more radical statement is not only possible and defensible today, but necessary. In this sense, and because of the limitations of interpretive exhibitions in general, it is best to consider “Scream Against the Sky” an exemplary introduction which calls for successors.
APRONS AND OTHER DANGEROUS THINGS
By Azby Brown, Tokyo Journal, (1993)
I have heard that in the past there were certain images which had the power to make people blind or cause them to go mad. We all know the stories about music, too, which laid waste to a great city, and of novels which cause readers’ hearts to stop. Television news reports cause suicides. And, in ages past in Japan, the mere sight of a mother’s apron, it seems, had the power to inflame young men’s lust for blood and conquest. These are very peculiar phenomena.
From time to time we hear that the work of this or that artist is “dangerous.” In the United States of today, this usually means that it displays overtly sexual content or is insensitive to the rights of a minority. In Japan, however, one usually hears this adjective applied either to sexual work or work which might offend the sensibilities of nationalists. Where, then, is the danger in a work such as “A picture to be burnt” by Shimada Yoshiko? Assuming that the exquisite etching of a faceless Emperor Showa was in fact burnt, in itself not a crime, the greatest danger of course is of violence or harassment by nationalist groups. In reality, such violence doesn’t happen too often, but the possibility is real enough to discourage Japanese artists from dealing with political and historical themes and to prevent galleries and other institutions from showing such work. There are a few exceptions, however. The work of Shimada shows that artwork which deals sincerely with the Japanese wartime experience need not be sensationalist. It might, however, make people cry.
Of course there are people who harbor different fears. The fear that lack of respect for national images will lead to anarchy is found in many parts of the globe, just as rock music is believed by some American conservatives to make teenagers communist, or atheist, or car theives. Of course, people who are afraid of such developments obviously believe a world of anarchists, commmunists, atheists and car thieves would be worse than what we have now, which is a world of much greater thievery and selfishness disguised as government and industry.
By concentrating on the experience of women under nationalism and exploring the visual symbolism through which wives and mothers contributed to the war effort, Shimada helps to illuminate the “homey,” domestic side of mass mobilization. As the normal housewife’s apron became the official uniform of the Dai Nippon Fujinkai, mothers became not just mothers, but instruments of the state. The notion of state as parent, exemplified by the figure of the Emperor as father, was always quite explicit under the Meiji Constitution. To some today, the notion of state as simply state and parents and simply parents without being clear reflections of each other must seem like a miserable, inhuman condition. These people, I believe, are longing after magic aprons. To me, aprons now seem dangerous.
Kenjiro Okazaki Exhibition
Spiral Garden, Tokyo, November 1994
by Azby Brown
In this recent series of paintings exhibited at Tokyo’s Spiral Garden, Kenjiro Okazaki has proven himself to be the most thoughtful and deeply provocative painter working in Japan today. His work represents a great synthesis of thought, and is the product of a formidable intellect. And yet, it is relatively unknown overseas.
Okazaki has developed a truly “new” type of painting, one much more closely aligned with constructed sculpture or verbal composition, though not in the Bauhaus sense of shared elemental form nor the transrat of the Russian avant-garde. It must be said from the outset that these works are unphotographable, that their essence lies in a level of informative detail apparent to the naked eye at full scale but undetectable in photographs. In photographs, these works appear to be gestural, a sort of derivative Abstract Expressionism, but in fact they are not; they appear to be expressive strokes laid upon a ground of bare linen, but they are not. They are, in fact, densely interrelated structures, carefully placed marks applied by means of intricately shaped stencils, accumulative sequences of action and experience spread out over an entire body of work. True, they may be considered an elaboration on Newman’s Stations of The Cross, or, to a lesser degree, the Rothko Chapel; but perhaps the method of denotation and patterning --though not the forms themselves-- can better be understood in light of the work of Donald Judd, who was both the artist’s mentor and friend. These works are largely determined a priori, the system being the content, and they represent the mapping of the visual mechanism.
This is an attempt to posit painting as knowledge, in which the author himself is absent but represented by a fictional “stroke maker” who must be destroyed before understanding is reached. In fact, absence plays a very large role here; the areas in which color is not found tend to be more significant than those in which it is. Or, more specifically, this is a painting about informative edge conditions, about boundaries between the composed and the uncomposed, adding up in sum to an essay on the blank field of potential meaning itself.
To describe these works formally in more detail, one might say that these are paintings which have swapped parts with each other; the meta-painting from which they are all derived does not exist. The areas of color rarely overlap; instead they maintain a visible space of separation, of isolation, as if zones of identity are making room for each other. The color, though sensually rich, and often applied with the palette knife, reinforces this isolation and is primarily denotative; Okazaki’s use of paint here represents the initial steps toward a new theory of denotative color which builds upon those of Goethe and Wittgenstein, and includes such aspects as texture, translucency, and the three-dimensionality of the stroke. Between two canvasses, or even within the same canvas, identical boundaries can be discerned, though only after the initial desire to read “emotion” into the paint and its handling is overcome. In fact, two of the paintings, “A soft permanent please. As soon as I told it, what a surprise--her speedy and skillful work! I was just like a kitten. But I don’t need hair oil.” and “It’s so soft and spongy, I can’t help letting my fingers through it. There’s soft white fur that feels cool to the fingers,” though quite different at first glance, were hung in such a way as to allow, if the viewer noticed the possibility, a visual parallax effect in which the images appeared to overlap, in much the same way that 3-d images are contrived. (It should be noted that the artist’s titles generally reflect the structures of the works themselves; in this case, their thematic interrelation is apparent. In the past, Okazaki has shown groups of painting and sculpture which share titles and similarly exhibit identical internal structures, yet another nod to Wittgenstein perhaps).
So then, this is definitely an art of relation, to be decoded through analysis and grasped through unencumbered vision. The individual canvasses are real-time diagrams of each other, and are about the act of painting itself. The artist himself cites Titian and Poussin as inspiration for this series; one would say that with its careful and intricate structural placement, the work of Poussin is more in evidence here than that of the former. However, what Okazaki is attempting is an essay on the necessity of contradictory if not antagonistic ordering systems within a single artwork. The artist’s own comments point to Titian’s independent use of color, space, and figure/ground relationships and the resulting eccentric, multi-structured composition as bearing greater significance to the current work. Beyond this is the question of distrust of the senses and the reliance on artifice to achieve understanding. How far does this distrust reach? Is it the outcome of a distrust of self, or its cause?
For all this, that Okazaki entirely eliminates improvisation and subjectivity in his work can neither be asserted nor proven. The systems he gives form to are inherently contradictory, predetermined enough not to be spontaneous but not so far as to end with closure. This open-endedness, I believe, the gap where the fracture can be witnessed, is where the essence of this work lies. Okazaki’s work knocks at the bedrock of Japanese art, at the problem of individual vision within a culture which relies on shared unspoken assumptions to carry much of the weight of communication, while attempting to maintain an openness to outside influence and alien form. It is about the arbitrary assignment of meaning on the basis of relationships which come about through the staggered appearances of ideas and images within a culture over time. Though this would seem to be the richest single field of exploration facing those who work with culture and visual imagery in Japan today, and as the Japanese culture of the late 20th century is emerging as a primary paradigm for global culture in a broader sense, it is surprising that only Okazaki is prepared, both intellectually and by temperament, to tackle it. That he does so masterfully in these paintings, when coupled with his outstanding accomplishments in static sculpture, electronic media, and text, all uniformly of great depth, coherence of thought, and unified structure, would seem reason enough to recognize him as the leading Japanese artist of his generation.
FURUHASHI TEIJI'S "LOVERS"
By Azby Brown
Furuhashi Teiji, founding member of the Kyoto-based art collective Dumb Type, recently held his first solo exhibition, entitled Lovers. The work, sponsored by Canon's Art Lab and held at Hillside Plaza in Tokyo's Daikanyama, not surprisingly shares many characteristics with Dumb Type's previous large scale performance works, installations, and other media. Dumb Type's use of the human figure is an outstanding characteristic, and in Lovers it is even more so. But whereas Dumb Type's humans are types, not so much individuals as nameless possessors of physical and group characteristics, in Lovers the people are individuals, the relationships personal. And it is here perhaps that Furuhashi the collaborator diverges from Furuhashi the solo artist. It is not just that the focus of Lovers is personal; though it deals with phantoms and fear, it is also markedly not a confrontational work. It is about emptiness, loss, and absence, and ghostly embraces. It is a dance of death.
To describe the work itself objectively, then, knowing that words cannot capture the essence of the experience, and in fact may be dangerously misleading, it should be said that it surrounds the viewer. It is a dimly lit room, but not totally dark, walls shrouded by black curtains. A large, elegantly spare, tower-like gadget stands in the center, holding several projectors of various types, whose rotation and movements are carefully timed. Initially, one sees the projection of a phantom-like, nude figure walking around the room. Several more figures appear, some walking, some running, some merely standing. These are both men and women, of various races, but all adult, and they occupy the entire 360 degree panorama. At certain intervals, they stretch out their arms in a gesture of open embrace, and many appear to hug each other. Significantly, though, many hug only the emptiness. The figures are, in fact, entirely independent, their overlapping images only appearing to connect, their contact purely illusory. One figure, that of Furuhashi himself, his arms outstretched as if in a welcoming embrace, noticeably Christlike, is linked to an infrared sensor which locates a single viewer, towards whom the image is then moved. His embrace unmet, he falls slowly backwards into the darkness, disappearing silently. From time to time a circle of text --itself taken from NYC police barricades the artist noticed during an AIDS protest parade--large enough to surround a viewer appears in an unexpected location on the floor, admonishing :"Do not cross. Do not cross the line or jump over." Thin vertical lines similarly sweep around the walls of the room, at times separating the projected figures, and often moving across the bodies of the audience themselves as if seeking targets. In effect these crossings refer both to sexual lifestyles and the passage from life to death. Words and symbols also appear on the walls. The sound of water droplet-like "pings" and muffled voices emanates from a number of unseen speakers. We are, perhaps, in purgatory, en route to Hades, or living a page from the Book of the Dead.
This slow, measured work repeats itself in 15 minute cycles. And though its power is unique, it is not entirely without precedent, either in imagery or technique; the direct and inescapable links to Dumb Type aside, one recognizes in the work an awareness of the photos of Muybridge, Bauhaus experiments with environmental dance, and the recent video installations of Gary Hill, among others. Similarly, Furuhashi's excellent technique may be too seamless, the reliance on machinery open to question, for what may seem to be a statement of the dependence of intimacy on media and mechanics may in fact be no more than a necessary compromise with existing technology. It seems clear that the projected images are much more important than the projectors themselves, but here the gadgets are fetishized just enough to be forced to become participating characters, but as such they pull less than their weight (It would seem that this work would ideally be done without visible machinery, and in the future this may be possible). Finally, this work is sure to resound differently for those who are aware of Furuhashi's personal situation and therefore inclined to read Lovers as an autobiographical final statement, as opposed to those who encounter the work as a more generalized comment on the human condition. But, ultimately, the things one can speak of easily in this fashion are all peripheral issues. Most people leave this work speechless. It is, quite frankly, deeply disturbing. And yet it is significant that Furuhashi himself has chosen to make his first --and perhaps last -- solo work something so overtly emotional, to attempt in this way to embrace his viewers with an unexpected sentiment, when irony and provocation have been Dumb Type's stock-in-trade for so long.
Furuhashi has achieved much up until now, and Lovers is work of rare power, of a quality and depth rarely seen in Japan. It deserves to be seen abroad, where it is sure to resonate with a larger, more diverse audience.
Teiji Furuhashi is an innovator's innovator. Adept with moving imagery, technology, visual language, text, and the use of the body in performance, his work serves as a comprehensive and perceptive commentary on the state of humanity in this apocalyptic age. And in many respects his mastery is matched by his humility. As reserved in manner as his work is provocative, he has not sought the limelight nor geared his work towards the press, but he has earned recognition nonetheless based on the quality of his thought and his attention to detail alone.
This is an apt metaphor for society's warning to potential sexual transgressors, and also speaks volumes for the voices of fear and inhibition inside us, thwarting our attempts to form bonds with others, to cross outside of ourselves, to love unconditionally. In this important solo work this artist emerges unexpectedly as a truth-teller, a wise man, even a voice of comfort. And technically, through its seamless use of controllable devices, it has set a new standard.
ZONES OF LOVE: CONTEMPORARY ART FROM JAPAN
TOUKO MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, TOKYO
By Azby Brown 9/5/91
"Zones of Love" was a rather unusual exhibition for Japan in some respects, primarily in that it ostensibly represented a foreign curator's choice of significant new Japanese contemporary art. To be sure, this exhibition was put together primarily for Australian consumption, and the Touko stint was primarily a preview. To what degree curator Judy Annear was guided in her choices by Japanese colleagues is difficult to ascertain -- the talented and perceptive curator Akira Tatehata contributed a catalog essay and is listed as a committee member. But, the result was a show in some ways predictable, in some ways idiosyncratic, and in many respects representative of the more prominent tendencies of recent contemporary Japanese art. One could hope for a little more original selection, however.
Yasumasa Morimura, for instance, while undoubtedly one of the strongest figures in postwar Japanese art, has also been included in just about every major group show of Japanese art to been seen overseas recently, and has a number of other important exhibitions under his belt as well. Other writers have spoken of his "devastating eye" for the excesses of icon-based myth-making; here he is represented by a pair of modified traditional Japanese "nature" paintings, in which the artist himself is metamorphosed into fish, octopuses, and a crab. "Let's all stop being humans," Morimura has suggested in the past. He is succeeding in a way.
Another artist included in nearly every show of this kind is Tatsuo Miyajima, here represented by a signature numerical l.e.d. piece entitled "Time Bar." Miyajima's talent extends far beyond this body of work, which is starting to show signs of falling into a rut. But these are undoubtedly compelling works, the more so for being both icily sensual and impenetrably intellectual. Don't be fooled; they're not about "zen;" they're about numbers.
Complesso Plastico is a duo who dabble, ever so lightly, in homoeroticism, iconoclasm, political incorrectness, and slick, striking presentation. But for all their technical skill, one can't escape the feeling that they have nothing to say. They were at their best here, where the centerpiece of their installation was a very vague, overexposed, fuzzy video of undefinable human actions which was somehow disproportionately suggestive of broken taboos.
Of all the artists included in "Zones of Love,"the least predictable is Kohdai Nakahara; here he showed a used trampoline and a massive construction of Lego blocks somehow reminiscent of Nikki St. Phalle. Nakahara often deals with the residual traces of obsessive and/or energetic activity. One is led to assume he used the trampoline for something.
Emiko Kasahara is also a "presentation" artist; her chosen themes are sentimental without being ironic, and include carved marble roses, tiled cabinets redolent of both hygiene and cosmetics, and wall slogans like "Didn't you know that/people hide love like flowers/too precious to be picked?" There is, as I said, not a trace of irony here; however it is possible that the words and letters somehow form part of a numerological game.
Toshikatsu Endo is a rather traditional post-minimalist sculptor -- he constructs largish rings, often of wood, and chars them; he also, as here, works with metal and other materials, often very nearly approaching transmetaphorical transcendence, but his self-consciousness betrays his hand. He deserves more attention than space allows, but his inclusion in this show poses difficulties. He has so little in common with the others, and in fact belongs to a different artistic generation.
Another surprising choice is Mitsuko Miwa, a painter who reproduces black and white photos of famous mountains. To be sure, these works force a double-take, like any trompe l'oeil; one also becomes a bit engaged in the iconographic power of the mountain as image -- often nationalistic. There may be something here. That Miwa is hardly known in Japan, especially when compared to the others, may be a chip in her favor.
Ara Atsuko paints impressionistic Mickey Mouses; Kaoru Hirabayashi paints/sculpts expressionistic Chinese/Japanese ideograms; Yumiko Sugano sculpts soft abstracts, some biomorphic, some mechanical/architectural, most very Deco, usually in sanded and gessoed wood. These are not bad artists; each has her quirk, her "hook", her "thing", but all have fallen too quickly into a limiting style. But then, much of the work here is about style.
Finally, the very promising interdisciplinary group "Dumb Type," is included in "Zones of Love." Being primarily a performance group, very technotic, funny, and excellently visual, their work was viewed concurrently with the static art component of this exhibition, but at a different venue. They are among the least predictable and most interesting teams currently working in Japan, and often work as "pure" sculptors, musicians, writers, etc., as well. They are also unique in that they are an international group ( a fact which has caused them to be disinvited from at least one overseas festival for not being really "Japanese.")
At any rate, group shows of contemporary Japanese art like this will probably be seen overseas for some time to come. On the one hand, this is a good thing beacause more people will have the opportunity to see and assess this work for themselves. On the other hand, it is time that the better artists be recognized primarily as "good artists" rather than stressing their Japanese identity. If there's anything "Zones of Love" taught viewers, it's that, quite simply, there is no "Japanese" art.
Notes on Japanese contemporary art writing and criticism of the 1980's
Azby Brown, Nov. 2009
I've spent time reviewing documents about Japanese art of the 1980's and talking to colleagues, as well as recalling impressions and events from my own memory, paying particular attention to art discourse: writing about art, discussions about art, art education, art theory, and the role these played in shaping the aims, language, and methods used by artists working then.
As far as the role of criticism and texts are concerned, there seems to be consensus that it was an odd, or even bad period for art writing. Partly this is due to contrast with writing that emerged during the period immediately prior, particularly related to Mono-ha and Bikkyoto. These were periods that generated texts that are widely accepted as having been influential on artists, curators, collectors, and other writers. In contrast the 1980's seem theoretically insubstantial. Who was writing about contemporary art during the 1980's? Why were they writing? Who were the audiences? In what other ways were ideas about art formed and communicated? How did the cultural status of text in Japan in general change during this period? The 1980's were marked by an what might have been an unprecedented variety of types of art in Japan, of venues, of styles, and modes of appreciation. Identifying strong trends is difficult; there were quite a few artists and modes of work that garnered a lot of attention at one time but which vanished quickly afterward. The following is a summary which tries to identify some of the dominant characteristics, and potentially help identify potentially fruitful avenues for further investigation.
It's been helpful to have access to Takeshita Miyako's collection of art magazines dating back to the '80s. Her comment expresses in a nutshell the viewpoint of an experienced Japanese art professional who was trained in the period prior to the 80's and who has continued working in the field until the present:
"There were no art texts that had a really wide influence in the 80's. Reviewing many catalogs and other sources, almost nothing is memorable. Instead a lot of energy in the art world was expended on making places where discussions could happen, and in that sense the art culture shifted away from text and into private discussion. Insubstantial articles introducing exhibitions in a way that was easily understandable by casual readers became very widespread, but it's hard to find any that are of lasting interest. But texts by artists themselves became more interesting, like Ohtake Shinro, who wrote for Taiyo, Art Vivant, and Yuri-ika; and Yoshizawa Mika, who wrote her own exhibition texts. In fact, artists were usually expected to explain their work somehow, to tell viewers how to interpret it. Many female artists became established and accepted, especially compared to past eras, but this wasn't based on any real critical foundation, feminist or otherwise. It was just a trend, and the work was presented as overtly childish "fun art." The few artists inclined to work theoretically were influenced by philosophy, history, literature, music, etc., as much as by art. "
Bookends: One way to look at is is to say that the period began when Mono-ha had matured to the point when it was considered predictable, and when the oppositional stance of Bikkyoto seemed to have generated a sense of fatigue. We might say it ended at a point when several Japanese artists found strong markets for their works overseas (Morimura, Miyajima, Kawamata), and the succeeding generation began to strategize their work with international appeal in mind. (Japanese appropriationism, Murakami, Nara, etc.)
"Against Nature" (1989) was as much of a summary of recent, i.e. past , trends, or at least highlights, as it was forward-looking. We can consider it a bookend as well. It obviously had a big impact overseas, but the accompanying texts had little influence in Japan. The same is true for "A Primal Spirit." Neither exhibition reflected a developed theoretical stance or drew upon a firm body of thought. If anything each pointed to the lack of strong discourse in the decade before.
In contrast, the period immediately before the 80's had a lively discourse, including a number of specialized, short-lived journals devoted to contemporary art. These seem to have disappeared as a cultural phenomenon during the 80's, but re-emerged in a different form in later decades with the advent of the internet. It has been suggested by some (including Okazaki Kenjiro) that while much writing about Mono-ha concerned itself with aesthetic questions, Bikyoto attempted to shift the discussion to social issues instead, which had a stifling effect on the discourse in general. It affected how people thought about art and what they expected from it. It is possible that the generation of critics who came of age during that era continued to be affected long after, well into the 80's. Few of them wanted to discuss social issues, and often lacked context for discussing the aesthetics more broadly, and much writing devolved into very personal impressions and ruminations.
Homes for writing: These include art magazines (particularly "Bijutsu Techo"); general readership magazines ; newspapers; exhibition catalogs.
There was almost no media which focussed on contemporary, or even Japanese art. Most art media attempted to cover all bases. Bijutsu Techo during most of the 80's (and until recently) seemed to have taken an "educational" stance as opposed to a critical one. That is, while it devoted considerable space to contemporary art, the writing was not critical, being instead "introductory." The same was true for the articles it published relating to historical art from Japan and abroad. One important exception was the Bijutsu Techo "Geijutsu Hyoron Sho," or Art Criticism Award, a prize given by the magazine for strong critical essays on contemporary art. I will touch on it further below. On the other hand the Japanese architecture press was very focussed on contemporary work, the community seemed to be actively rethinking and discussing architecture and its weaknesses and potential, and the writing was probably more influential (Isozaki, Ito, and others).
Critics who wrote catalog essays for contemporary art exhibitions usually did it for a fee, and the writing often did not reflect their strongest thinking. For most it was more of a side job. Leading critics tended not to be involved in the more adventurous publications. Okazaki pointed out that few critics at the time (and even now perhaps) had what we would call a wide compass. Their frames of reference tended to be very narrow. He pointed out that whereas he personally read widely about history, music, literature, etc., read Krauss, Greenberg, etc., few other critics included these kinds of references in their writing. There seemed to be an assumption that contemporary artists did not need to be very aware of past art, and critics seemed to avoid attempting to put contemporary trends into a broader historical or cultural context.
Among the more interesting magazines and journals from the period in terms of their coverage of contemporary art are :
--"Yuri-ika" ( spanning the 70's and 80's),
--"Gendai-shi Techo" ("Modern Poetry") which also regularly featured articles on art;
-- "Studio Voice," which focussed on contemporary culture and often had writing on art (and gained influence in this area toward the end of the period with the contributions of Sawaragi Noi).
--"Art Vivant" which was published by Seibu;
--Atelier Peyotl, run by Konno Yuichi, was involved in several interesting publications, and was the vision behind the journal "Wave," also published by Seibu.
-- "Kikan Hermes" featured writing by Isozaki Arata, Oe Kenzaburo, Ooka Shin, and others associated with the "New Academicism."
--Under the guidance of Murata Makoto, "PIA" became a good source of information on exhibitions and often had good articles about contemporary art.
--"Atelier" under the editorship of Ogura Masashi featured a lot of new art.
--"Asahi Journal": Toward the end of the 80's Chikushi Tetsuya, as editor, introduced youth culture leaders; this writing influenced commercial art, advertising, and product development,
Newspaper writing covered all types of art being exhibited, and rarely assumed strong knowledge on the part of reader. As was the case for film and other culture, art-related articles were intended from the start to be more of an "introduction" ("shokai" ) than criticism. The same was true for general readership magazines (such as "Asahi Journal," "Brutus," etc). And this was especially true as fashion magazines such as "Ryuko Tsushin" began to devote space to contemporary art.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact that lifestyle magazines aimed at young people had on the art discourse, especially the products of Magazine House ("Brutus," "Olive," "Hanako," etc). On the one hand they did a lot to popularize art viewing as an entertainment, and increase the audience, On the other hand the writing reflected lowered expectations in terms of content and depth. I believe this trend mirrors the influence of large advertising companies such as Dentsu and Hakuhodo, who effectively colonized a large portion of the contemporary art sphere during this period by producing heavily promoted art "events" on behalf of corporate clients and ensuring that they would be reported in the lifestyle press. Not only did corporate promotion-related funding become one of the only sources of sponsorship available to young artists, the contemporary art "specialists" inside the ad companies exerted a strong influence on what was shown in these venues and thereby publicized. Some artists embraced this ambiguity (Hibino Katsuhiko, Tanaka Noriyuki), for which Yokoo Tadanori's switch from graphic design to fine art in 1981 seemed to provide a precedent. And some sponsors were farsighted enough to give event directors fairly free rein in their projects (Heineken's art support projects come to mind). But by and large the result was the emergence of an unchallenging, lively, and entertaining mode of work, unsupported by critical texts of any sort but very visible in the media.
Education: Artists in general were not trained to talk about their work, or to analyze it. This seems to set them apart to some degree from the previous era, and this attitude remains widespread in the present. It seems that very few art students were reading criticism, and what criticism they did read -- as class assignments, etc. -- had little effect on their work. Students did not discuss art writing, and rarely referred to it when talking about their work.
On the other hand, as Takeshita pointed out, a number of popular artists, including Yoshizawa Mika and Shinro Ohtake, wrote about their own work, either in magazines or their own exhibition catalogs, often in the form of little anecdotes and observations. These texts are largely autobiographical, and attempt to illuminate personal motivations, associations, and though processes. Young artists and students seem to have been more receptive to this kind of writing, and influenced by it.
During a recent conversation, Yoshizawa mentioned that although Tono Yoshiaki included her in several shows early in her career (when he invented the genre "Cho Shojo" -- "Girls' Art," or actually "Supergirls") she never really paid attention to his writing or talked to him about art. She mused that it seemed that critics then were writing mainly for each other, that no-one else was really paying attention, certainly not artists themselves.
In the absence of a larger, public discussion of theory, aesthetics, and artistic ideals, art classes became the real, if not only, formative locale for young artists (although the spontaneous, informal discussions that occur in art galleries and spaces, which tended to be welcoming to young artists and students, undoubtedly played an important role as well). I suggested to Okazaki that although he wrote a lot back then he had almost no audience. He replied that his texts were required reading for his students at B-Semi, and that was where the formative discussion took place. He feels he was able to influence a small, select group very strongly. I think a similar phenomenon occurred in many places in Japan, at many art schools. It reflects an atomization on the one hand -- no large dominant "schools" of thought, no big bandwagons to jump on -- and a very traditionally Japanese form of teaching and discussion on the other: a wary coexistence of many small circles of influence, each Socratic and hierarchical.
The 80's did see the start of curatorial education programs at several art universities. In 1984 Tono Yoshiaki founded a program at Tama Art Univ (Tamabi) which led to the annual student-curated "Tama Vivant" exhibition. Minemura Toshiaki joined the program later. Musashino Art Univ (Musabi) started a similar program. (Keio's continuing education Art Management Course, which is probably the best designed and most influential, started somewhat later, in 1991). The thrust of these courses seems to have been exhibition planning. Students researched work and wrote essays, but there is no sign that any attempt was made to build a strong critical foundation. Instead, the emphasis was on individual vision.
(It would be interesting to look a little deeper at the educational backgrounds of the more prominent critics. Tono, Taki, and Minemura, all graduated from Tokyo Univ. dept of Art History, as did many others; Nanjo and Kondo from Keio. Others shared similar educational experiences.)
CRITICS and CURATORS:
The more prominent critics and curators can be loosely divided into generations based on when they started working. These groupings are not precise, but the generational affinities are evident:
Those that began in the 50's and 1960's:
Those that began in the late 70's, mid-80's: (many are now in their 60's)
Tani Arata (was the Japanese commissioner for the 1982 Venice Biennale)
Asada Akira (not an art writer per se, but gained influence through his 1983 book "Kozo to Chikara" -- "Structure and Power."
Okazaki Kenjiro (possibly the only "artist-theorist" who emerged during the period)
Those that began in the late 80's:
Sawaragi Noi (not an art writer per se, but a cultural commentator; he ended up having a large influence on the "appropriationists" through association with Roentgen Kunst gallery and his writing for Studio Voice)
"Geijutsu Hyoron Sho":
Many prominent critics, including most of those in this list, got their start by winning the Bijutsu Techo "Geijutsu Hyoron Sho." It is the most prestigious Japanese award for art criticism, especially intended for young critics. Most critics who gained prominence had received the prize, beginning with Tono Yoshiaki in 1954. The award is not annual, but has been given14 times to date (usually more that one award given each time).
Awardees include: Tono Yoshiaki, Nakahara Yusuke, Taki Koji, Miyagawa Jun, Huga Akiko, Okada Takahiko, Lee U Fan, Tani Arata, Kobayashi Yasuo, Akita Yuri, Nishijima Norio, Matsuura Toshio, Tano Kinta, Shinoda Tatsumi, Kurabayashi Yasushi, Shimizu Tetsuo, others.
1983: Matsuura Toshio (a close collaborator of Okazaki) won with a text entitled :"Kaiga no Politique" ("The Politics of Painting"). It was an extremely unusual example of the subject being presented in this way in the mainstream art press during this period.
1986: Kurabayashi Atsushi won with a text entitled "Postmodern, or Anarchy of Images" in which he discussed 80's art phenomena in context of Postmodernism. He opposed Hibino Katsuhiko's work, for instance, saying it wasn't art. This was unprecedented, and the kind of writing that could only find an audience in the context of this award.
The judges that year were Tono Yoshiaki, Taki Koji, Nakahara Yusuke. The magazine published a discussion they held in which they expressed the opinion that art magazines were becoming primarily visual, with thin texts and criticism, a trend all felt was dangerous. It was considered controversial too for opinions like this to be published in the most prominent art magazine.
Critical anthologies and books:
"Kaiga Ron," ("Theory of Painting") by Usami Keiji, 1981. This was a compilation of this artist's earlier writing (from the 1970's), It was a significant theoretical text. Usami taught at B-Semi, and Okazaki was his student; he assisted in the preparation of this book.
"Kozo to Chikara" ("Structure and Power") Asada Akira, 1983. This was an introduction to structuralism and post structuralism for general readers. It is often credited with fanning the buzz in Japan concerning post-modernism. It sold over 100,000 copies.
"Gendai Bijutsu Itsudatsu-shi 1945-1985" ("A Deviant History of Contemporary Art 1945-1985"). Chiba Shigeo. 1986. This was a general history of postwar art in Japan. The author attempts to separate Western ideas from fundamentally Japanese ways of making and thinking about art. It covers Japanese art up to the 70's very well, but only stabs at the emergent trends of the 80's like New Painting, which the author opposes. It is worth reading nevertheless.
"Gendai bijutsu/paradigm lost" Nakamura Keiji, 1988. This is a collection of articles from 1978-1988, focusing on the Kansai region, more documentation than criticism. No real attempt to unify or tie things together, but it provides a sense of changes over time.
"Nihon--gendai--bijutsu" Sawaragi Noi, 1998. Looking backwards from the 90's, this is a collection of articles Sawaragi wrote for BT. For instance, looking at the profusion of wood sculpture in Japan from late 70's and 80's, he says that it shouldn't be regarded as a sign of deep Japanese cultural understanding of nature, and opposes the often unquestioned notion of "deep Asian awareness" of nature in general. He suggests that not enough criticism has looked at the popularity of wood sculpture at in the context of the destruction of nature in the country since Meiji and during the postwar economic boom. He further suggests that political involvement and opposition in art up to the 70's should have been re-evaluated and discussed afterward in a way that could give direction to art in the 80's, but wasn't. Instead "New Painting" was embraced. At the same time, he says, critics and art specialists did not produce criticism but became conduits for information about the latest trends from overseas; they tried to outdo each other on being up to date. For these reasons, he says, it was an era in which criticism could not thrive.
There has always been a great variety of art spaces in Japan, even looking only at Tokyo. For the most part they are small galleries, and during the 80's rental galleries far outnumbered commercial galleries in Tokyo. With the exception of a handful of extremely appearance-conscious commercial galleries which were somewhat intimidating to young artists and students, most galleries were inviting, casual, and cozy, and this made it easy for young artists to meet established artists, participate in discussions, and establish an art-centered social life. A few spaces stand out in the degree to which they encouraged people to gather. Kobayashi Gallery is one, as is Lunami. When Kazuko Koike established Sagatacho Exhibit Space in 1983, providing space and an atmosphere conducive to hanging out was one of her highest priorities, and she took that into consideration when laying out and expanding the space. Similarly, Parallelogon Gallery, which opened in Kanda in 1982 under the direction of Fujii Masami, was conceived with meetings and gatherings of artists and critics in mind. Again, in light of the dearth of substantial public discourse about contemporary art in general, art spaces themselves became increasingly important venues for discussion, places where people could say what they really thought.
This can be contrasted to new spaces like Aoyama Spiral, arguably the most visible venue for ambitious new art in Tokyo at the time. The space was fantastic, it was well run and well promoted, it was forward looking, it had a cafe, but it never really became a gathering place. At the end of the day it was corporate promotion, and although many memorable exhibitions were held there, they reflected no curatorial policy or critical stance. The careers of several Japanese artists stalled after having exhibitions at Spiral, because no further opportunities to work on that scale or with such a large budget were available for them in Japan; no matter what an artist did afterward it seemed weak in comparison. Spiral still exists and still hosts art, design, and performance events, but cuts in support funding by its parent, Wacoal Corp., have left it a shadow of its former self.
More about Parallelogon gallery:
A group called Gemba Kenkyukai (Kitazawa Noriaki, director) has been active since 2004, and in 2008 held a symposium on 80's art in Japan which focussed on the activity of Parallelogon Gallery. The proceedings make interesting reading, and are available (in Japanese) on the web:
Main page for this symposium:
Excellent chronological chart of key exhibitions, media, etc. of the period:
According to Fujii Masami, founder and director of the gallery (paraphrased from his comments at the symposium):
The 80's was a bad era for art, and looking back it appears ghostlike, and hard distinguish its salient features. But it was not a worthless era. In the 80's the standards of modern criticism in Japan disappeared, and a postmodern sensibility blossomed. In the "New Wave" of every creative genre, variety and diversity replaced unified value, and that is the root of everything interesting in the art of the 80's. Still, looking back it is difficult to characterize. Parallelogon was place for students, artists, and critics to gather. The first exhibition held there was a series of 50 "new wave" artists, spread over 8 weeks, "Gendai bijutstsu no saizenenten." ("Exhibition of the Front Line of Contemporary Art").
re: Usami Keiji: in the 70's modern values in Japanese art were pushed to the limit, and hit a dead end. At that point new art had become very theoretical. Usami Keiji published "Kaigaron" in 1981, and in one essay called "Shitsu gasho" ( "Pictures" ) he told of students who reported not being able to find a reason to paint. So the 80's began in this atmosphere of "no clear reason" for art, and the limits themselves became a possible reason or subject or condition for art. Fujii believes this was true of literature, music, high art, etc. (but why he didn't think this was true before that as well?).
The 80's saw a pop culture explosion in Japan: idols, arty commercials, designer brands, and other fashion phenomena became common. Much of the pop vocabulary derived from the counterculture of the era immediately prior, which was heavy with opposition to mass culture. In this sense, the 80's in Japan saw a huge co-optation of subculture by mass culture. Cultural hierarchies were largely dissolved, especially between art and commercial design. This is one of the characteristics of 80's "new wave" art in Japan.
Fujii points out that in terms of discourse, philosophers and other thinkers replaced art critics. They appear to have had a better ability to grasp the overall cultural conditions that prevailed and to give them context.
Another participant in the symposium, Kuresawa Takemi, went on to describe this "New Academicism," otherwise known as "New Aka":
--"Gendai shiso" ("Modern Thought" magazine, which still exists), edited by Miura Masahi, gave a forum to key figures of the New Aka movement in the early 80's:
--Asada Akira's essays were later published as "Kozo to Chikara." This was hugely trendsetting.
-- Isozaki Arata
(and a few others)
--Asada was the most famous New Aka thinker/writer, and was its public face.
-- Miyagawa Jun (art critic), Kasumi Shigehiko, and Toyosaki Koichi introduced French lit-crit-- Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, Deleuze -- which had a strong influence on some parts of the Japanese art world.
It seems very odd in retrospect that so much of the contemporary art world was not affected by these ideas. If we seek a theoretical stream and strong texts, as a whole the discourse of this group is extremely robust, and characterized by a deeper historical knowledge and awareness of emerging cultural conditions than is reflected in art-specific writing. It is equally local and international. But the only visual artist clearly associated with the movement is Okazaki. When asked about his own early influences, he mentioned:
--Usami Keiji, who was his teacher.
--Karatani Kojin, the philosopher.
--Takahashi Yuuji, the composer
His association with Isozaki was also a big influence.
On the one hand, New Aka represents a very rich body of text and theory, whose long-term vitality is probably only now becoming clear. But it was very abstract and not easily accessible intellectually (Asada's sales figures notwithstanding). One way to frame the question is, "What influence did New Aka have on Japanese art of the 1980's?" The answer seems to be, "Very little direct influence, but the ideas began percolating around and trickling down." New Aka seems to be cultural theory with very little art to represent it.
On the other hand, the rest of the contemporary art world was very energetic and inventive (if derivative in most cases), learning how to promote itself, making deals with the corporate world and media, and doing it from inside a critical vacuum. It was art with no theory behind it.
These are vast oversimplifications of course. One possibility is that the critical world underwent a changing of the guard as the 80's began, and the older generation was unable to pass on ideas or frameworks strong enough to either be continued or opposed by the next generation. Many critics, who spent time "on the ground" so to speak, did not like the conclusions of New Aka thinkers, few of whom were really deeply knowledgeable about art itself. Had the older generation of Japanese critics taken a stand then we might a have seen some lively public arguments about art. But this did not happen. Meanwhile new types of art were growing in visibility -- video, photo, digital, performance, collectives -- and few if any of the established critics engaged them.
This leaves us with the art itself as the only significant statements in most cases. Like moviegoers voting with their feet, the artists voted with their hands and eyes. What can be positively described as a vivid "mosaic" of methods and intentions can also be described as an "atomization" wherein the droplets grow farther apart over time, many to evaporate quickly. The decade began with "New Painting," saw "Uma-heta," "Girls' Art," "Mix," decorative art, woody art, techno-dystopian visions, and commercial design-art. The latter forms one lasting legacy, a receptivity to work which seeks to be coextensive with commercial design on a mass scale (Murakami and his followers), but a potentially more lasting legacy is the nearly total rejection of all of it in favor of photo, video and digital work that occurred within art schools over the course of the 90's and continues today. Seen in that light, several artists who were considered forward-looking during the late 80's have ultimately proven to be highly influential on the following generation. I would include Furuhashi and Dumb Type in this group, as well as Morimura and Miyajima, each for their own reasons. There are others of course. Okazaki is the sleeper of the era: vastly underrated for years, he stuck to his guns and now appears poised to become an even more central figure.
There is much more to be said, of course. After speaking with so many friends and colleagues, it became immediately clear that lots of people have been having the same conversation, reevaluating the 80's. And when asked what texts they considered influential personally or on the art world as a whole, the replies were always preceded by a long pause. Everyone had to think a long time before answering, because none came immediately to mind.