Tokyo’s art scene looks back at recent history

The art market, like many other businesses, has taken severe knocks from the COVID-19 pandemic, with galleries and museums having to close, some permanently, and 61% of art festivals and events being canceled worldwide in 2020, according to the UBS Global Art Market Report, published this month.

To keep track of the machinations and pitfalls of the art world economy I’ve enjoyed reading Kobels Kunstwoche, a regular column published by art insurance broker Zilkens Fine Art. At the beginning of the pandemic, writer Stefan Kobel noted with a dry schadenfreude how big players in the global art market were having their income stream disrupted. As 2020 dragged on and became 2021, however, the column started to read more like a casualty report from the front of an ongoing war of attrition.

From practical necessity, mixed with reflection on healthier times, Asian artists and curators have mobilized the recent past to help with this. The exhibition “Decades 2000_2020,” at the Kana Kawanishi Photography gallery through March 27, is a group show of 10 photographers in which the work they made in 2000 is juxtaposed with images created in 2020. In the original magazine version of the project, devised by photographic artist Ai Iwane, each series is accompanied with candid commentary by the different photographers, providing a window into the background of the work, and also their emotional and mental reactions to living through lockdowns.

While the photography covers a variety of approaches, from serene formal landscapes by Chinese photographer Luo Dan to agitprop constructed imagery by Korean artist Jinhee Kim, with photo collages and street photography in between, the overall motif is the snapshot, figuratively speaking. There are snapshots of different artists’ work, their lives and more generally, via the various social concerns that the artists focus on across time and national borders, the state of the world now compared to 20 years ago.

If there is a larger message to be gleaned from this project, it is that at any given time somewhere in the world something unconscionable is going on, and photography has a particular role in visual culture that allows for self-expression to be positively combined with the dissemination of information.

Installation view of Mariko Mori’s 'Transcircle' (foreground), Pierre Huyghe’s 'One Million Kingdoms' (background) and 'Darkside of the Moon No.1' by Yuki Onodera (left) at Gyre Gallery  | COURTESY OF GYRE GALLERY
Installation view of Mariko Mori’s ‘Transcircle’ (foreground), Pierre Huyghe’s ‘One Million Kingdoms’ (background) and ‘Darkside of the Moon No.1’ by Yuki Onodera (left) at Gyre Gallery | COURTESY OF GYRE GALLERY

An art odyssey

By chance, another show in Tokyo happens to specifically look at the beginning of this millennium in order to shine a light on the present.

The exhibition “2021 A Space Odyssey Monolith: Memory as Virus — Beyond the New Dark Age,” on now until April 25 at the Gyre Gallery, uses Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film about alien contact, evolution and transcendence as a springboard for exploring themes and ideas including, but not limited to, gravitational waves, fake news, the origins of life and transhumanism.

It’s an ambitious show, and for the most part succeeds smartly in its ambitions. Highlights are James Bridle’s 2019 video piece “Se Ti Sabir” in which the artist discusses the relationship between human and artificial intelligence, and Genpei Akasegawa’s 1964 “Canned Universe,” which does exactly what it says on the tin, so to speak.

By contrast, Mariko Mori’s 2004 “Transcircle,” while very fitting to the theme of the exhibition, does not have the intellectual or conceptual rigor of other works in the show. Mori’s pastel glowing orbs aim to invoke thoughts of death, time and prehistoric Jomon (roughly 10,000 to 200 B.C.) culture as a kind of general appeal to authority and tradition, but the work seems closer to the mini Stonehenge in the mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap” than to the enigma of Kubrick’s silent, but seemingly omniscient, monolith.

Defiant spirit

At the nearby Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, the show “Rally in the Streets — Everything Started from Ripple across the Water” hopes to tap into the energy and spatial freedom of its 1995 group exhibition “Ripple Across the Water,” which also had a backdrop of calamity, namely the Tokyo subway sarin attacks and the Great Hanshin Earthquake, as well as coming on the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Re-presenting works from that previous show, with wall drawings that review the distribution of installations that Belgian curator Jan Hoet (1936-2014) organized outside the museum in the surrounding Aoyama-Harajuku area, “Rally in the Streets,” which runs till June 6, is created in a spirit of defiance. Its title is a reference to Waseda University dropout Shuji Terayama’s book, play and film “Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets!” It is not a literal call to defy social distancing measures, however, but meant more as a celebration of art as mental and emotional freedom. The inclusion of a 2012 video documentation of art collective Chim↑Pom titled “Surviving,” in which they performatively set material on fire outside the museum, and Tokyo-based graffiti artist Diego’s 2021 “Unnamed Street” — effectively a small shanty town in the main atrium of the museum — compound the defiant spirit of the show with added scrappiness.

Of the current shows in Tokyo that are retrospective with the aim of giving us insight into our current problems, Yukinori Yanagi’s solo show “Wandering Position 1988-2021” at the Anomaly gallery until April 3 may be the most chillingly on point.

Yanagi’s work tracing the path of ants, which goes back to the days of Japan’s bubble economy, cuts through the absurdities of civilization as definitively as Kubrick’s famous match cut from bone club to orbiting space weapon in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or that time when a Texas lawyer couldn’t get rid of a cat filter during his video call.

Whatever these dips into the recent past can do to help us get through the so-called new normal, we still need new tools. It’s noticeable that, for the most part, online digital art (as opposed to art online) has yet to be embraced by Japan’s galleries and museums. One first step is the Mori Art Museum’s recently launched RAN TV, which is replacing its regular Roppongi Art Night event this year.

The field is still wide open though. Perhaps the recent frenzy over Non-Fungible Tokens being used to purchase online art is a sign that the art world is coming to terms with the fact that many of us are already spending a significant portion of our lives in front of a screen.

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