Out of Doubt: An Interpretation on the State of Japanese Contemporary Art
December 26, 2013

Mori Art Museum's 10th anniversary exhibition, Out of Doubt: Roppongi Crossing 2013, features a diverse group of Japanese artists, and portrays an interpretation of the current state of Japanese artists working today.  29 artists are included, many of whom were born in the 1970s and 1980s, but it was exciting to see artists from much earlier periods also featured, including Akasegawa Genpei (b. 1937), one of the only living artists tried (and unfortunately convicted) for free speech concerns (more on that here), Nakahira Takuma (b. 1938), and Suga Kishio (b. 1944).
Works in the exhibition appeared to reference certain historical moments, modern and post-modern global perspectives, and social awareness of historical events.  While varied in mediums, the display of the works often featured the end results of process-based experiments.  Each work chosen to represent the artists in the exhibition effectively helped the viewer to navigate such larger questions as 'what is art' and 'what role(s) should art play in society.'  Seems rather heavy, but the exhibited works themselves often displayed levity, wit, and absurdity.

Shibuya scramble © Wally Gobetz

Take for example, Kazama Sachiko's Nonhuman Crossing (2013) (detail below).  Working in the traditional medium of woodblock prints, Kazama creates arresting images of contemporary Japan in manga-like detail.  Nonhuman Crossing features Shibuya scramble, one of Tokyo's busiest intersections (photographed at left). Kazama depicts modern-day individuals willfully participating in a world of control and surveillance--humans are policed not just by external forces such as the military, the police and structured religion, but also by their own willingness to participate in the virtual reality of the internet.  Kazama seems to imply that participating in such a realm makes us feel safe while simultaneously being spied upon.

Nonhuman Crossing, by Kazama Sachiko (detail)

Featured in the same room as Kazama were paintings by Nakamura Hiroshi (b. 1932), active in the 1960s.  Resonating with Kazama's work, Nakamura's paintings also evidence a concern with top-down control and limitations on civic freedoms.  Pictured below is The Sacred Fire Relay from 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics.  In preparation to be in the international spotlight, Tokyo had rapidly modernized, perhaps at the risk of forcing its citizens to conform.

The Sacred Fire Relay, by Nakamura Hiroshi

Other works directly referenced Japan's recent history from the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  Arai Takashi (b. 1978) photographs modern subjects using daguerrotypes, an antiquated photography format.  Referring to different, yet equally harrowing moments in Japanese history, images of fishermen from the Fukushima area post-3/11 are exhibited together with photographs that, among others, feature a Japanese fishing boat that was exposed to fallout from U.S. nuclear tests in 1954.

Not all of the works in the exhibition directly reference sociopolitical or historical issues.  One of the last works in the exhibition is an installation by Ryui Koji (b. 1976).  Ryui is a sculptor that imbues three-dimensional objects with an animistic sense of life and movement.  In one portion of an installation entitled HAVE A NICE DAY (Horizon, Untitled, Bachelors, Mirrors, Emoticon) (2013), lumps of clay are wrapped up in ubiquitous smiley-face plastic shopping bags, ready to liquify and wiggle around on readymade IKEA shelves.  Simultaneously creepy and playful, these creatures are caught in a suspended moment within a microcosmic universe.

Installation view, Ryui Koji

No survey can ever hope to capture the full spectrum of artists working in a region, but this exhibition is thought-provoking and energizing in its variety.  While the selection of artists and the particular works exhibited are well curated, perhaps one of the exhibition's strongest qualities is its ability to allow the viewer to contemplate the potential power inherent in art to effect social change.  

Out of Doubt: Roppongi Crossing 2013 is up until January 13, 2014.