It’s not easy to know what’s genuine and what isn’t, though, so unless you’re willing to go to the trouble of refining your taste, you have to rely on the reputation of brand names.
“The media – TV, newspapers, magazines, radio, whatever – are full of pronouncements by adults that make it all clear that all they really want or care about is money and material goods” — Ryu Murakami, Miso Soup.
Curator Midori Matsui has brought together an emerging group of contemporary Japanese artists under the umbrella of her newly coined genre in the exhibition The Door into Summer: The Age of Micropop. For Matsui ‘Micropop’ is refers to a new generation that is attempting to respond to a collective, geographically borderless cultural ‘crisis’, namely that if people are trapped within a dominant culture of ‘postmodern dehumanization’ (1), any attempt to speak in an idiosyncratic and personal way perhaps undermines this dominant culture with its simplicity of form. Matusi seems to believe that within this approach is the potential for what Suzy Gablic referred to as ‘re-enchantment’ (2). Instead of being ‘sad, cheap furniture’ everyday objects become part of an elaborate game. Reassembled with a playful logic, the artists’ intention is to create a space of reinvention and dialogue with the ordinary. In her accompanying catalogue Matsui concisely and persuasively sets out her manifesto for a reconsideration of ‘minor’ arts similar to modernist poetry in that both demonstrate a “transformation of the everyday world by placing un-poetic materials in different contexts” (3).
The exhibition appears to have a deliberately simple aesthetic: things are not crafted in the traditional sense, but rather come across as fragments from real life. TV sets, boxes, newspapers, small scraps of various things have been imaginatively reframed, imbuing them with a personal symbolism. Deliberately using materials that are often discarded or considered “low” (as defined by Clement Greenberg) and responding to them in a manner reminiscent of Art Povera, this diverse group of artists draws our attention to everything that is peripheral.
The show opens with the work of Shimabuku. Through a variety of performative tactics he creates poetic interventions. One photograph focuses on the words “A chance to recover our humanity”, which he had scratched onto a wooden panel and displayed on the roof of a house damaged by the Kobe earthquake. Located right next to the train line, the work also becomes a kind of ghost – one that would haunt the minds of passengers on passing trains, but also lingers in our consciousness. His use of photography in creating a further dialectic perhaps opens up metanymic third space between the actual and possible. This reclamation of objects is continued theme in the exhibition, picked up in the work of Taro Izumi (video installation screens) Hiroyuki Oki (video segments and map-like drawings), Masanori Handa (expo – a futuristic sculptured installation) Koki Tanaka (video pieces and installation ) and Chihiro Mori (small, incongruous clay figures set amidst various paintings and drawings).
Izumi’s video piece consists of him making the noises of various pictured animals and the dark silhouette of his hand with long fingernails hovers over footage of the his studio space. The footage shows him wandering into his studio in a variety of different outfits, at which point, in cartoon style, the hand smacks down and ‘squashes’ himself, leaving behind only empty piles of clothing. The work is both dark and humorous, perhaps capturing the sense of social control and distance that people living in large cities might feel. By contrast, Oki’s work attempts to capture beauty through a reconfiguration of scraps of video. Tanaka draws attention to the everyday through acts performed with everyday objects – shoes thrown down stairs, salad bowls set adrift down waterfalls. These playful interventions don’t necessarily hold one’s attention immediately but their impression do invite you to ask yourself questions and a instill a sense of something trying to be communicated, even if it isn’t quite clear what exactly that is.
Other artists have aimed to make a reclamation of a personal, dreamlike space: Noguchi Rika shows some truly beautiful photographs of the sun that were taken using only a pinhole camera; they appear to be mounted on light-boxes but are in fact lit by cleverly installed spotlights. Many of the other included artists follow in the footsteps of Yoshitomo Nara, also featured in the exhibition, who in the 1990s created a personal narrative that opened the door for younger artists who didn’t want to engage merely with art historical or sociopolitical references. Whether it is Hiroshi Sugito’s delicate geometric works, Kaoru Arima’s drawings on newspapers, Aya Takano’s narrative drawings involving space travel or Mahomi Kunikata’s works that convey a highly personal, symbolic and colourful world of a spiritual quest initiated by the death of her brother, all of these employ drawing as a form of exteriorizing their sometimes anarchical, sometimes beautiful interior worlds. Each artist’s work has a different nuance and emphasis but all works retain a certain relationship to each other in terms of the forms they employ.
For the viewer, the works are whimsical and challenging in so far as they all operate on many levels – decorative, conceptual, spatial and narrative – but I would question how transformative the act of viewing itself is. This exhibition is clearly one that has been organized with carefully consideration and is ambitious in its attempts to include such a diverse range of artists under one theme, however it can become a little repetitive in places. That said, all of the work on display reflects a personal sensibility and attempts to engage poetically with the phenomenological world in a unique and genuine way. It’s worth the train journey (better value by bus).
(1) p.37 exhibition catalogue
(2) Suzy Gablic – The Re-enchantment of Art
(3) p.245, interview in The Age of Micropop: The New Generation of Japanese Artists