Metrotainment: Seeing double

Contemporary Japanese art 'Double Vision' on view at Haifa Museum of Art and the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, presenting 30 Japanese artists.

‘I’m Here, But Nothing’ 521 (photo credit: courtesy Haifa Museum of Art)
‘I’m Here, But Nothing’ 521
(photo credit: courtesy Haifa Museum of Art)
‘Double Vision” is the title given to the exhibition of contemporary Japanese art presently on view at the Haifa Museum of Art and the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, also in Haifa. The exhibition presents 30 significant Japanese artists and is themed around the concepts of Reality/Ordinary World and Imaginary World/Phantasms. It is the world of the imagination that dominates.
Curated by Kenjiro Hosaka of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and Elena Yaichnikova, an independent curator based in Moscow, the exhibition presents an overview of the Japanese art scene with more than 150 works of art in the mediums of video, installation, painting, photography and sculpture.
This is a particularly large exhibition and one cannot help but feel that a more selective curatorial process might have better served the needs of the artist and the general public. There is also a lack of women artists; out of 30 exhibiting artists only three are women. Artists such as Chiharu Shiota, Tabaimo and Tomoko Yoneda would have helped the curators’ cause, although there are usually good reasons for an artist’s absence.
There are some good works despite the gaps in the exhibit, and the artists succeed in providing a glimpse into some of the social, cultural and political issues that preoccupy Japanese society.
From the 1950s onward Japan has been strongly influenced by American culture; at times this has produced a tension reflected by Japanese artists, who grapple with the problems posed by their society’s high-impact brand of capitalism, consumer culture and seemingly endless predisposition for all things “cute.” The art on display in Haifa is anything but cute and at times expresses strange, bizarre and disturbing scenarios.
It was in the 1990s that Japanese art asserted itself on the global market. The fusion of traditional Japanese aesthetics, manga and anime with Western influences resulted in works that were highly d r a m a t i c and rendered in sensational colors. Japanese art became “hot” and for its artists, the future had never been quite this bright.
Two of the most significant artists from that period, both still at the height of their powers, Takashi Murakami and Makoto Aida, are represented in this exhibition. Harakiri Schoolgirls, one of Aida’s best known works, is a darkly comic vision of a group of provocative schoolgirls engaged in the ancient samurai suicide ritual, harakiri. The scene, dominated by lurid pinks, yellows and reds, of the girls seemingly happily mutilating themselves with Japanese sabres, is both wildly grotesque and perversely attractive.
Japan’s teenage culture has developed its own brand of “cute” and “cool,” fueled by pop culture, manga and anime.
The culture, however, has increasingly developed a dark side, a noticeable rise in suicide rates and the phenomenon known as hikikimori, teenagers who refuse to leave their rooms and live a hermit-like existence. Aida’s work, laced with biting irony, is a comment on a culture not necessarily confined to that of its young, but one that could be interpreted to be mutilating itself.
Some of the artists have incorporated political themes into their work using different approaches.
Murakami’s sculpture, Polyrhythm, and Kenji Yanobe’s Yellow Suit combine a conceptual approach with pop art influences. Yanobe’s work, made from hard metal and plastics, is protective suits of a kind that reflect the artist’s preoccupation with nuclear war and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.
A somewhat more subtle and traditional approach is seen in Yuken Teruya’s decorative kimono, You-I, You-I. Using centuries-old dying techniques, Teruya created a series of intricate patterns of flora and fauna on linen and color pigment.
However, a closer look at the delicate and interlacing patterns reveals images of jets and paratroopers, a reminder of the American military presence on the island of Okinawa, where the artist was born.
Some of the strongest works in the exhibition are in the medium of video, and there are also two wellcrafted animated works by Takashi Isida. Of particular note are the video works of Yasumasa Morimura and Hiraki Sawa, whose wonderful Going Places Sitting Down is now a part of the Israel Museum’s permanent collection.
Morimura has three works on display, and all are part of his Requiem series. He is generally considered to be an “appropriation” artist, a term usually interpreted as one who “borrows” from other aspects of visual art.
For the purposes of the series, he adopted personas such as the Japanese author Yukio Mishima, Vladimir Lenin and a dual persona of Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler.
Morimura’s works are particularly cinematic. For this series he has picked key historical moments and figures and convincingly acted out their parts, which involved delivering a speech, either to the camera or to a crowd of onlookers.
We see the artist as Mishima deliver his famous speech to a self-defense forces camp just before he committed harakiri, and Lenin delivering a speech to Russian workers. In the work Requiem: Laughing at the Dictator/Schizophrenic, which is shown on a large-screen format, Morimura plays with the role Chaplin made famous in the film The Great Dictator. On one half of the screen we see Morimura, dressed in army uniform, assuming a demonic personality; the next moment, on the opposite side, the character is its virtual opposite, gentle and reflective.
Morimura’s work takes a look at 20th-century history, although it is also a form of self-portraiture.
Commenting on his work, Morimura has said, “For me ‘requiem’ means to inherit something deceased as memory, and the desire to seek connections in that memory. In my view, connecting past, present and future in this way encourages an openness, a freedom and flexibility of thought and expression.”
Other works worth seeking out in this exhibition are Akira Yamaguchi’s excellent graphic work Underground Railway, Yayoi Kusama’s magical installation I’m Here, But Nothing and Tetsuya Umeda’s kinetic, sculptural installation Was Moving At First.
The exhibition will run through October 21.
Haifa Museum of Art, 26 Shabtai Levi Street, Haifa, (04) 911-5991, Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, 89 Hanassi Avenue, Haifa, (04) 838-3554,