“The Power of Expression, JAPAN” @ The National Art Center Tokyo

Commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Media Arts Festival, and run by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, this exhibition consists of three sections.

poster for

"The Power of Expression, JAPAN" Exhibition

at The National Art Center, Tokyo
in the Roppongi, Nogizaka area
This event has ended - (2007-01-21 - 2007-02-04)

In Reviews by Dominick Chen 2007-01-31

These are: “Japanese Media Arts from 1950 to 2006 – Chronology of Japanese Media Arts”, “Sources of Expression – Origin of Japanese Media Arts”, and “Future Possibilities – fusion of dream and technology”.

Sachiko Kodama, 'Morphotower' (2003)After going through all the sections, what I sense is violence hidden behind the utilitarian deployment of ‘arts’ and above all a national intentionality for categorizing past and present artists under the common label of “Power of Japan”. Let me explain why.

There was no English information provided, either in print or on the web, revealing how much this exhibition is targeted at the Japanese audience, as if to raise awareness toward the strength and coolness of their culture. Indeed, the lack of catalogue (which would have significantly improved the whole thing) and the probably intentional mistranslation of the title “日本の表現力” (“Japanese Power of Expression”) as “The Power of Expression, JAPAN” can be interpreted as a way of avoiding the intervention of ‘external’ criticism. This egocentric attitude sweeps aside a closer look at the multiplicity of influence that has helped shape Japanese expression: Where is there any reference to the Chinese and Korean influences on the foundation of Japanese culture? What about how the economic and cultural domination of the US affected Japan in the post-WW2 era?

In Part One of the exhibition, the description of historical background has been far too optimistically sanitized and thus sometime falsifying. All too easily and somewhat unfairly, the once damned avant-garde artists have been incorporate into the official legacy.

For example, the national authorities never accredited Hi Red Center’s activities, labeled by aesthetics as “anti-art”. Their “cleaning project”, for instance, was a form of sarcasm aimed at criticizing the hysteric atmosphere that gripped Tokyo during the 1964 Olympic games. All the more, the core brain of the group Genpei Akasegawa spent few years on trial for fabricating the infamous “0 Yen Bill” (also on display in the Mori Museum’s current All about Laughter exhibition). True, the World Expo 70 in Osaka was indeed an unseen national festival which drew millions of people who wanted to witness the realization of “progress and peace”, but at the same time the participating artists had a mixture of ambivalent and critical attitudes towards it for its lack of critical stance toward technology and the “future”. As critic Noi Sawaragi’s profound writing on Japanese post-war art reveals, the Tower of Sun by Taro Okamoto can be today considered a symbol of this ambivalence, if not an anti-thesis.

Sakakibara Kikai, ‘Land Walker’ (2005)
Katsuki Tanaka, ‘Yes☆Panorama!’ (2005)
Photo courtesy of National Art Center, Tokyo

In Part Two, Hiroshige’s great wave has the word “Manga” written on the wall by it. “Manga”, “Animation”, “Robot”, “Figure”, “Game” – these are the five keywords that the curators used to categorize works from ancient, medieval and Edo-era statues to drawings and other media artifacts. This linkage is quite interesting because it reverses the usual vector of we usually perceive historical lineage, looking at it from present to past instead of from past to present. However, the number of artifacts put on display is too small to match the ambition of this proposed comparison: this whole section deserves to have been organized independently and on a more important scale.

I felt the same applied to the following section on “Future Possibilities”: considering the much more substantial effort that has been put into the field of Japanese media art elsewhere, the selection of display is limited, and the placement of works in relation to each other seems chaotic.

minim++ (Motoshi Chikamori + Kyoko Kuno), 'Kage'

Nevertheless, despite all these criticisms, I urge all non-Japanese people to go see the show because it is still an interesting collection of the legacy in Japanese cultural legacy. While from an organizational point of view it is biased and limited, it is a chance to see some fantastic works displayed in parallel. Paradoxically, this re-appropriation of cultural production by the state happens to be a good opportunity to understand Takashi Murakami’s frustration over the “lack of fine art in Japan” (for further reference, read about the New York exhibition that he curated, ‘Little Boy’ ), or Noi Sawaragi’s denouncement of Japan as a “bad place”, where every effort to transcend art institutions and make art autonomous from any external factor has constantly been absorbed by the national logic (see his “黒い太陽と赤いカニ – 岡本太郎の日本” (The Black Sun and the Red Crab – Taro Okamoto’s Japan) and “戦争と万博” (War and World Expo) for further reference).

While the ambitiousness of this endeavor is to some extent worthy of praise, the awkwardness that characterizes it results from the traditional absence of national support for the media arts (and fine arts) in general. In other words, it could be improved with more experience. All the more, the jury institution could be opened up, both so as to appeal to a wider range of attention and to give rise to a participatory process of self-redefinition by and for the Japanese people.

While this exhibition does not want to admit it, it lets us see the recursive structure in which Japan is taught the importance of its cultural production through foreign pressures: the importation of the very notion of “Fine Art” from the Occident in the Meiji era is still haunts the public perception of art in this country today. One obvious possible breakthrough would be to make appropriate educational and cultural commitments that support art’s own value on a domain free from national bias, before going about organizing this type of self-complimenting, closed-circuit exhibition. As it stands, this exhibition is worrying in the way it aligns these artists as cultural soldiers with the national flag on their shoulders.

So, take two stone tablets and carve the following: on the first tablet: “art is not tamable”; On the second tablet: “art is supportable”.

Dominick Chen

Dominick Chen. Born 1981 in Tokyo. Citizen of the Sixth French Republic (not the current one, but the next). Originally from a Media Arts & Design and Contemporary Arts study background, he is currently conducting research into massive micro creativity through online media technology as a Fellow Researcher of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science at the University of Tokyo, Initiative in Interdisciplinary Information studies (iii). Also committed to developing a freer Internet culture, he is the Public Head of NPO Creative Commons Japan, and served as member of the International Advisory Committee for Ars Electronica 2007's Digital Community category. Parallel and on-going projects include: - HIVE, the open video archive for NTT InterCommunication Center [ICC] - DIVVY/dual: open-ended art practice platform - pri/pro: electronic circuit developed by Ryota Kuwakubo » See other writings


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