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The Israel Museum's exhibition of works by 18 Japanese contemporary artists is a massive display of beautifully-crafted escapism, all of it entertaining. But there aren't any innovative visions likely to stimulate western artists and students the way the composition, line and color of Japanese woodblock prints bowled over painters in 19th century Paris.
You don't have to be Japanese to understand and appreciate the exhibits, but you would have to be Japanese to try and ring the changes on nearly everything in the show.
Despite a claim by curator Talia Amar that the show contains evidence of western influences, it would be more correct to define this as an acquaintance with the idoms of western art and technology. The overwhelming impression is that all the artists, young and not so young (few are over 50 and most work in Tokyo, where all the big galleries are located), are, despite their very varied approaches, all involved with purely Japanese traditions, from narrative scroll painting, gestural cartoons by 16th century Zen monks and 18th and 19th century ukiyo-e prints, to 21st century manga comic book novels and above all, anime, animated TV cartoons.
It has long been a convention in post-war Japan that the heroes and heroines of animated cartoons are all young teenagers with wide-eyed expressions. Their eyes are either round or vertically oval and without the Asian fold of the eyelid, but nevertheless rendered with a convention that is unmistakably Japanese. Eyes figure prominently in this show, even in an installation by Yasuhiro Suzuki of a tree that sheds leaves of eyes. (Truth to tell, some Japanese women have their eyelids surgically altered to give them a more western look).
The Japanese cartoon eye formula was born decades ago and has been followed by all animators and most painters ever since, but the real escapism of the Japanese art in this show is the way most of it it prettifies everything, even to the point of kitsch. The Japanese call this stylized cuteness kawaii and it shows no signs of going away. Apart from a few photographs, there is no glimpse here of the grittiness and even grimness of life in Japan's cities, which some teenagers try to escape by dressing up in punk or other costumes the way Brits did in the Carnaby Street era of the Sixties. As in some western cities, many Japanese youngsters have nothing better to do than to play computer adventure games in garish pachinko parlours.
Some of the kawaii paintings treat young girls as a re-creation of chocolate box fairies.However the larger-than-life portraits of girls in the extreme close-ups of Mika Kato are the best of the kawaii tradition; note that Kato gives each girl a blood spot in one eye, an insistent reference to reality in a girl who obviously isn't real (there are plenty of Japanese precedents in the frightening female ghost puppets of the Bunraku theater). But a bravura mixed-media work in cinema marquee style by Makoto Aida, entitled Harakiri Schoolgirls, combines Kabuki theater style with sado-masochist horror/fantasy; the skirted, sexy girls do not seem unduly disturbed as they insert samurai swords into their vitals; their seppuku is a prettified fantasy replete with suggested eroticism. The head prefect brandishing a samurai sword over them is their triumphant dominatrix; and perhaps the deliverer of the kaishaku, the coup de grace given to those who successfully complete their self-disembowelment.
Another reference to the Kabuki theater is Yasumasa Mirimuma's onnagata-like role in his chromogenic self-portrait as Frida Kahlo; and in his over-the-top recreation of himself as Marilyn Monroe in her famous calendar pose, complete with plastic breasts. The onnagata were the men who played (and often lived) as women in all the Kabuki melodramas; their movements and femininity were a model for the top geishas.
The show is Japanese to its core. As soon as you enter you are confronted by a bevy of Japanese telebubbies by Yoshitomo Nara, their sightless eyes raised to heaven like masks in the classical Noh theater. Their identical faces resemble the expressionless Noh masks (in fact even more so than the 18th century one the curator has thoughtfully placed on a nearby wall, for the painting of its carved wood surface has actually given it an expression; in the classic Noh play a neutral mask achieves expression when the actor tilts it just so to the light, while suiting an action to the word).
Nearby are two virtuoso oils painted by Akira Yamaguchi in the style of classical narrative scrolls painted on silk; their humor relies on the introduction of a few modern characters and devices, like suited businessmen or modern craftsmen; and the pistol used against sword-wielding samurai.
Few Japanese artists would be caught dead in a suit, the symbol of the enslaved salaryman. In one of the more ironic works in the show, a lifelike sculpture of a suited salaryman lies prone on the gallery floor. This figure, by Momoyo Torimitsu, is a lifesized robot, which, when in motion, crawls along the floor, presumably in search of the lower rungs of the company ladder. Made a decade ago, it is on loan from a private collection in Santa Monica, indicative of the connection of many Japanese artists with American galleries.
Less realistic but just as ironical are the stylized sculptures of cartoon dogs made by Yoshiromo Nara
Of the several installations on view, one of the most extraordinary is Labyrinth, a huge site-specific maze made of even layers of salt by Motoi Yamamoto, who spent weeks here on the job. In the background are marvelously formed mountains of salt which pour down into the sources of the rigid geometric maze, evocative of Japan's carefully organized rice paddys.
Salt has a special spiritual value in Japan, a value which derives both from its usefulness as a preservative of fish and vegetables but also from its appearance of pristine purity. For the last 1500 years sumo wrestlers have been tossing handfuls of salt into the ring in order to purify the arena before the tussle. Yamomoto's amazing maze also bears witness to the high value Japanese place on superb craftsmanship and presentation.
Another remarkable installation (a present to the museum from the American Friends), is Tabaimo's Japanese Bathouse, which documents in cartoon fashion the nature and use of a vanishing part of Japanese culture, one that once brought men and women, members of villages and neighbourhoods and even wrestlers, together for a good hot soak in a communal pool (after they had first washed in another section).
At the end of this display, the pool plug is pulled and everything, including the walls of the bathhouse itself, symbolically vanish down the outlet pipe. This wonderful illusion/allusion is made with the aid of three coordinated DVD projections, music, a wooden floor, wooden washing bowls and a real Japanese bathhouse door.
The sexual element in the Japanese penchant for nubile innocence and pretty doll worship is nowhere so upfront as in the work of the oldest participant in this show: 65-year-old photographer Noboyoshi Araki, Japan's pioneer of bondage shots of naked young women, derived in great part from the nudes of Man Ray. Curiously, Araki's set pieces are rather dead; his young women betray no enjoyment, only a sense of apprehension. In a rather vain attempt to vary matters, Araki juxtaposes some of these studio poses with shots of the drearier parts of Tokyo.
There are many Arakis on view, located outside a whole room of shunga, pornographic woodblock prints by famous 18th/19th century ukiyo-e artists. There are just too many of these rather repetitive prints on view; they constitute a complete separate exhibition. This display is marred not only by overkill but also by excessively protective lighting.
Shunga prints were usually unsigned, for they were declared illegal by the administrators of the Shogunate. The prints depict young samurai, each equipped with an enormous member, pleasuring young and not-so-young ladies of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter (a colorful mini-suburb of Tokyo which was still open in 1947, when it was finally closed down because of the high incidence of venereal disease among American occupation troops; its closure had no effect on the VD rate).
During the Shogunate, the upper classes could enter the gate of the Yoshiwara only in disguise. Though money changed hands, Japanese romanticism viewed many of these encounters as the beginning of a permanent relationship between devoted lovers, many of which traditionally ended in tragedy because of the dictates of the Shogunate's rigid class distinctions.
One of the clients in these prints is a European ship's captain, a familiar figure in both Japanese and Indian pornography. All the particpants in these encounters are clothed; only their genitals are exposed, but the ship's captain has not even removed his hat, an item that helps confirm that he is a foreigner. Some of the females bite strips of cloth, thus indicating the moment of orgasm.
Also on view in the shunga room are "pillow books" of ukiyo-e woodblock pornography, sometimes presented to young couples before their wedding night.
Scattered throughout the main exhibition are a painting and hand-colored woodblock prints by famous ukiyo-e artists like Utamaro, Kiyomasu, Toyonobu, Hokusai, Shigemasa and Kuniyoshi, none of them pornographic. They are a timely reminder of sources; and of a tradition that has not been bettered. Curator Amar has done a remarkable job in securing all the loans that make up this often fascinating show. (Cummings Pavilion, Israel Museum). Till June.