Exhibition Now Japan at KADE Amersfoort until 2 February 2014 / Publication Now Japan

Now Japan Torimitsu Momoyo Rabbit KADE museum in Amersfoort,  in the Netherlands, presents an overview of contemporary art in Japan through the works of 37 artists. The exhibition claims to analyze the state of today’s Japanese art,  after the decade long domination of Murakami Takashi c.s.  To that purpose, three directions have been selected for exhibiting the art works:  artists responding to Japan’s cultural tradition and using amongst others old techniques in the creation of their work; artists responding to the reality of daily life in Japan and lastly, artists responding to the recent developments concerning the nuclear power plant at Fukushima.

Now Japan aims to show the diversity of Japan’s contemporary art field and the works displayed are indeed diverse, ranging from video, installations, to paintings and collages. Some of the installations were created specifically for the KADE museum.

The work most often mentioned in relation to this exhibition is Finger Pointing Worker, a work by an anonymous artist, installed at the entrance to the exhibition. It is a video of the artist, who – dressed in protective clothing – was able to point his finger  to the live webcam at the premises of the Fukushima power plant for a period of 15 minutes. The finger pointing was a sign of criticizing the management of the power plant, which is thought to have acted too slow and too inefficient when disaster struck on 11 March 2011.
Robbert Roos, one of the curators of the exhibition, raises the point that the current generation of Japanese artists, the artists included in Now Japan, is the first generation that creates art which critically responds to political and societal issues,  like the Finger Pointing Worker does. Roos states that through the Fukushima disaster a more or less new genre within Japanese art has been created. I think that this statement is too strong. There are plenty artists who already produced socially committed art right after the Pacific War and in the 1950s and 1960s.

Now-Japan-Kosemura Mami An eye-catching work is the big plastic blown up rabbit, entitled Somehow I don’t feel comfortable, by Torimitsu Momoyo, who earlier did a similar installation at the Japan Society Gallery in New York. A clear example of an artist referring to traditions in Japanese art is Kosemura Mami. Her video Flowering Plants of the Four Seasons – not recorded but constructed from numerous photographs – is in fact a moving version of an Edo period (1603-1868) folding screen painting. Viewers see the four seasons passing by and snow drops are falling on the bamboo plants.
I thought it was surprising to see the zero Yen note (1967) by Akasegawa Genpei in an exhibition of contemporary art is as Akasegawa cannot really be considered a contemporary artist. He is mainly associated with artists of the High-Red-Center group, active in the 1960s. The same goes for the beautiful works of pop art by Tanaami Keiichi and the Uncle Torys advertising materials for Suntory Whiskey by Yanagihara Ryohei. These works date from the 1970s and 1950s respectively and it is a mystery why such works are included. According to Roos these works provide context to the exhibition.

Exhibition catalogueNow_Japan_cover
The small size, nicely produced accompanying publication includes three essays of which two in English. The catalogue section includes illustrations of the works displayed in the exhibition, along with extensive descriptions. The installations have been photographed in their KADE settings and thus, the catalogue presents a faithful representation or document of the exhibition.
In the first essay, by Robbert Roos, an introduction is given on how the exhibition is organized and how it came into being after two study trips to Japan. The second essay Terugblik Japan (Looking back Japan) by co-curator Judith van Meeuwen, presents a ten page sketch of Japanese art from the mid-19th century up to Takashi Murakami and his Superflat movement. Some artist names and dates have been written incorrectly and a few statements would benefit from a little more nuance: f.e. western books were already available to the Japanese long before the country opened up to other nations in the mid-19th century. In 1720 Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751) lifted the ban on the import of western books into Japan.

Ichizaki Takahashi, associate curator of the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, discusses contemporary Japanese art in relation to natural disasters such as the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and more recent, the tsunami in the Tōhoku region in March 2011 and its effect on the nuclear power plant at Fukushima.

In general, the catalogue presents a rather Eurocentric perspective towards Japanese art. It is emphasized that one should be cautious with framing art into regions, which is good, but the authors also view Japanese art as a kind of follower of things happening in the West. This implies that the art worlds and developments in Japan are of lesser significance than those in the West and also that Japanese artists were not really involved in the conception or development of these ‘Western’ movements (see p. 7; 14 and 25).

To organize an exhibition dedicated to contemporary Japanese art in the Netherlands – where there is an active collector’s community for ‘traditional’ prints, paintings and objects like netsuke – is to be applauded and Now Japan is an interesting exhibition that is certainly worthwhile visiting.

Now Japan, on display until 2 February 2014. For more information and to order the publication Now Japan, check out the Kunsthal Kade website.

Kunsthal Kade, Now Japan, Amersfoort: 2013. ISBN 9789490153199. 176 pages, with color illustrations.