If children’s songs are known for their easy melodies and lyrics, the exhibition Go-Betweens: The World Seen through Children demonstrates that the lives of children are all but simple. The Mori Art Museum in Tokyo has put together an impressive collection of artwork depicting a complex world, in which children are challenged to endure, transgress and bridge cultural, personal and family conflicts and other borderline situations as they are growing up. A common theme is how children uniquely master these challenges through their ability to move freely between the worlds of reality and imagination.
Through creative cardboard cutouts, drawing tables for kids and placement of many works at child-eye-level, the exhibition is a summertime invitation to the whole family. Content-wise, however, the orchestration is clearly tuned to the adult visitor. The works of 26 artists are divided into 5 thematic categories, which at times feels a bit overdefined, but helpful nonetheless.
The title of the exhibition stems from the Danish-American photographer Jacob Riis, whose works in the first section of the exhibition show the plight of children confronted by cultural and economic division. Images of Japanese-Americans in internment camps by Toyo Miyatake are particularly impressive. Prideful large format photographs by Kim Insook of Zainichi Korean families in Japan are juxtaposed against oddly disturbing pictures by Zhang O showing young Chinese girls posing with their adoptive American fathers. Set among garden flowers and trees, the latter pieces suggest something both natural and unsettling about these relationships.
After raising questions about cultural ambiguity, the next two sections deal with sources of isolation, pain and conflict that children face in their everyday lives. The video loop “Eight” by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler show the infinite, “rainy day” loneliness of the child in a adult world, while an impressive mixed media piece by Christian Boltanski portrays the almost faceless anonymity of young people in a world full of evils as unimaginable – even for children – as the holocaust.
Luckily, Tracey Moffat’s edgy photographs with lighthearted tag lines add a welcome irreverence to ease the mood before we move on to the fourth section which is dedicated to the trials and tribulations of emotionally insecure pubescence.
The depiction of teenagers in search of their own identity is surely no easy task. An important film by Tomoko Kikuchi portraying the sexual exploration of a young tom boy in China gets drowned out by a larger surrounding piece showing the downfall of a Chinese town as if the teen’s soul searching was simply the fate of a decaying society. The pictures of Kayo Ume and installation “Tomorrow” by Fiona Tan are further interesting attempts to go inside the adolescent psyche. Unlike the highly charged photographs of Larry Clark and Ryan McGinley in other exhibitions, though, the world as seen through the eyes of “the fourth sex” here comes up short.
If you were expecting to enjoy childhood fun, fantasy and cheer, you’ve so far been disappointed. In the fifth and last section entitled “Moving between Different Dimensions,” you’ll finally be rewarded. Whether listening to kids explain how they came into the world in Shiota Chiharu’s video series or the fantastical fairy tale collages by Won Seoung Won, this is where kids finally get their say. One of my favorite pieces in the whole exhibition is the video “The Weeping Woman” by Rineke Dijkstra, in which school kids give their own interpretations of a painting by Picasso (it’s actually more fun if you don’t know what they are looking at).
As if too much good cheer is a bad thing, the final room of the exhibition is a display by the artist Yamamoto Takayuki from her series “New Hell.” In response to the question, “What kind of hell will we go to?” children created sculptures depicting fantasy filled monsters and machines to devour and eradicate the bullies and bed guys (and presumably themselves if they don’t watch out). With these prospects in mind one is left with the ambiguous feeling that even a fantastical world weighs heavy on children. If it weren’t for their honesty, creativity and ability to bridge differences as “go-betweens,” our world would be a lot worse off. This exhibition will not make you reminisce about or long for a warm and innocent childhood, but to the credit of the exhibition’s curators it will leave you with a good question in mind: why do we subject children to so many “evils” and force them to deal with unsettling realities they didn’t create. Instead, we should encourage them to do what they do best: imagine things as they ought to be.
*On that note: here’s a TED talk by Korean novelist Young-ha Kim to cheer you up: