When visiting a contemporary art exhibition, who hasn’t heard the expression “my four year old could have done that”? Or how about the other favorite quip: “is that art, or is it trash that can be thrown away.” The fact is that both of these statements might sometimes be true – and that’s the beauty of it.
Recently, artist Michele Schuff introduced me to the Drifters Project by her friend Pam Longobardi. By turning plastic debris found in the ocean into beautiful sculptures, she is raising awareness about the massive amount of plastic drifting around the oceans, washing up on beaches and how it is personally connected to all of us.
Pam Longobardi: Drifters: Plastics, Pollution, and Personhood
In her artwork, Pam Longobardi’s encourages us to see that trash for what it is and not just walk by and ignore it. She challenges us to recognize our own role as consumers of plastic and to do something about it. By picking it up and making great art from it, she’s done her part as an artist. Now it’s our turn. Read more about the Drifters Project and The Concious Ocean on her website and buy her book Pam Longobardi: Drifters: Plastics, Pollution, and Personhood.
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:
It’s easy to get lost in Tokyo. In this city of 13 million people, street names are rare and house numbers hard to find. With addresses a mix of district, block and house numbers, even google gets lost in translation. Knowing the name of a gallery or atelier is no guarantee that you’ll wind up at the right location. So every adventure begins by exploring. Wandering the maze of mega city and urban village you’ll find a lot of interesting places to stop along the way.
Tokyo’s art spaces are spread all over. From soho like galleries in the posh neighborhood of Omotesando to traditional art houses in Chuo-ku and international gallery spaces in the touristy commercial center of Roppongi, it takes time to discover contemporary art in Tokyo. Given the high rents, it’s no surprise that art spaces come and go. A long sought after gallery may now be a hair dresser or noodle shop. If you look a little closer, the surprise can be a pleasant one.
In Daikanyama, for example, artwork is on display in a cargo freight container turned gallery inside the Bross hair salon. Aptly called “The-Container,” solo exhibitions usually last 2-3 months. In the recent group show “Multi(Multi)ples”, the retail nature of contemporary editions was taken to an extreme with small works sold from a vending machine.
This discovery led me to look further into other contemporary art spaces today. While “white cube” galleries may still be the norm even in Tokyo, contemporary spaces like The-Container are pushing the idea further. Some galleries double as event spaces such as SuperDeluxe, while others are Cafe add-ons such as My-Cafe-My-Bar by Hiromiyoshii. Perhaps the best example of the “micro gallery” is the TANA Gallery Bookshelf, which is literally just that – a gallery on a bookshelf.
Since contemporary art is about concepts and dialogue, these new art spaces invite visitors to question and interact. This can be a daunting task for newcomers in Tokyo, however, as language barriers and a tradition of subtle communication often make it difficult to feel completely at home. Luckily, it is also an international community full of sherpas to show you the way. At the TobinOhashi Gallery, for example, Robert Tobin and Hitoshi Ohashi welcome gallery visitors right into their home, where they invite you to share their own experience in “Living with Art” over a glass of wine.
Bringing art and people together in innovative spaces is how Project Art Lounge was launched with the exhibition LIGHT BREAKS at Atelier Davidseck last year in Basel. Project Art Lounge is now at the beginning of its discovery tour in Tokyo, which began at the Art Fair Tokyo earlier this year. Along the way, we will update you on interesting people and places. If you have a recommendation to share, please leave a comment. You can also follow Project Art Lounge on twitter or Facebook.
I keep coming back to the DMO ARTS stand at Art Fair Tokyo. The Osaka based gallery is bursting in color. While the middle of the stand with it’s fantastical figures and portraits seem to attract most of the visitors, I prefer the quiet outside wall and alley way separating it from the next booth. There you will find artist Hideo Anze standing next to works from his solo exhibition “FRAMING”. The carefully constructed photographs glow with color which is key to Anze’s work. While the gallery director draws a comparison to the works of Thomas Demand, I rather see the constructivism of Imi Knoebel and the radiance of Dan Flavin. Perhaps my interest is also motivated by the similar radiance found in the works of Silvia Sinha. It’s quickly apparent, that Hideo isn’t fond of such comparisons. He feels quite at home with his own personal space in the realm of conceptual art. Even with a language barrier separating us, it was clear to me that FRAMING is part of a larger discussion that is still evolving. These pieces are sure to be a milestone in the current and very personal work by Hideo Anze. His works will be part of a group show “COGNITION / RECOGNITION” at DMO ARTS from March 8th to April 19th.
At the end of the first day at Art Fair Tokyo 2014, it’s too early to pick favorites or draw conclusions about the Japanese contemporary art scene. One thing is for sure, though: with plenty of refreshing young artists around every corner, tradition is never far away. Art Fair Tokyo combines the classical with modern and contemporary art like few other contemporary art shows. While one museum manager told me this is simply the result of the limited size of the contemporary art market in Japan (and the need to fill the booths), the fair’s curators paint a broader picture. In a section titled “Artistic Practice: Modernity, Created by Japan” the emergence of modernity in Japanese Art is chronicled over the decades of the last century, suggesting a continuity between the old and the new. In an interview with BlouinArtInfo, curator Hozu Yamamoto goes even further saying “We need to spread the message in Japan that art is precisely a commodity where historical awareness and knowledge is indispensable.”
With all this historical peer pressure, the contemporary spirit was everywhere. At an evening talk session, it was not a Japanese artist – but Hong Kong based Pak Sheung Chuen – who summed up best the aspirations of a contemporary artist unapologetic about his break with the past. “Real art,” to paraphrase his words is both deeply personal and completely of the moment. As I understood him, it’s about overcoming limitations, not being defined by them.
With that breath of fresh air, I am looking forward to day two of Art Fair Tokyo!
When I first visited some Japanese galleries at Art Basel a few years ago, a few of the gallerists I spoke with were reluctant to talk about the state of contemporary art in Japan. With traditional Japanese art still strongly rooted in modern culture and superstar contemporary artists from Yayoi Kusama to Takashi Murakami interweaving the worlds of art and fashion, it’s hard to define the clear guideposts in the Japanese art scene. One gallerist even told me, “these are great artists, just not really from Japan.”
For a better perspective on the current state of Japanese art, Project Art Lounge will be spending the next three days at Art Fair Tokyo, self acclaimed as the biggest art fair in Japan with over 150 galleries and partners. We will be talking to galleries, artists and meeting other art enthusiasts to talk about their views. After a sneak peak at yesterday’s preview, it looks like a busy three days ahead. The show runs until Sunday, March 9th. If you would like to meet up, visit the contact page and leave us a message.
Last summer I visited Kapoor in Berlin with my friend and Atlanta based artist Michele Schuff. Conveyor belts and cannons discharging hot red wax projectiles, splattering them on the walls and floors of the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Anish Kapoor’s Symphony for a Beloved Sun. The breathtaking size and scope of Kapoor’s work on display made me ask myself: how in the world can anyone create art on such a scale? As an extremely successful artist with the institutional resources and staff to support him, there really are no limitations to Kapoor’s creativity.
When I asked Michele how she recognizes great art and what appeals to her as an artist, she answered “when it feels authentic.” In a contemporary art world full of successful artists who have turned their ateliers into factories, appropriating the work of other artists and creating amazing art out of everyday objects, it can be hard to differentiate between art and avocation, between the authentic and the deceptive. And what if deception is precisely what the artist intended (see “Exit through the Gift Shop“)…don’t worry, you are not alone in asking: is that art?
Who better to explain the (r)evolution of contemporary art than Japanese artist Morimura Yasumasa, who has been “appropriating” the work of other artists for years and has been appointed artistic director of the 2014 Yokohama Triennale. At Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum annual cocktail party for new members, Morimura gave an honest reflection about the current Andy Warhol exhibition. A teenager at the time of Andy Warhol’s rising popularity, Morimura recalled how obscure Andy Warhol and his pop art was in the mid to late 1960s. In contrast with conventional wisdom that painting is a window to the innermost thoughts and feelings of the artist, Morimura quoted Warhol’s famous saying: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” In other words, it is what it is – take it or leave it. In fact, Morimura concluded, there is much more behind Warhol’s work than first meets the eye. He sees an homage to the concealed advertising artist (Brillo) and the insightful eye of a discerning art director well attuned to the iconic imagery of his day (Marilyn Monroe). Whether you appreciate Warhol for his aesthetic use of color and form on the surface or for a deeper – and perhaps nostalgic – and concealed context, it is impossible to deny Warhol’s authenticity as an artist. Morimura, whose self-portraits also include projections of himself as Marilyn Monroe, knows as well as anyone what it means to test new waters, while paying tribute to the artistic past.
So the next time you find yourself asking “is that art,” it is worth taking a step back for a moment. In contemporary art – as in life – it often makes sense to reserve judgement and simply “take it all in” before drawing a conclusion, because contrary to conventional wisdom, beauty in art is not only in the eye of the beholder, but foremost in its creator.