PRINT December 2005

Midori Matsui

NOTHING HAPPENS SUDDENLY on Tokyo’s contemporary art scene. The city’s art community is relatively small and evolving, maintained largely by those few galleries representing a handful of local artists who also show outside Japan. There is no market to speak of on the home front, so these galleries survive mostly by selling work at international fairs, even as they depend on Japanese media coverage of their artists to sustain popular interest in their enterprises. Thus, any shock of the new—a recognized recipe for commercial success in the West—here stands to upset a delicate economic ecology. And in turn, for the better part of the last ten years, the Tokyo scene has revolved around the ascendance of Japanese postmodern art and a few principal practitioners—artists who, though most were born before the mid-’60s, may still be divided into a first generation (Hiroshi Sugimoto, Tatsuo Miyajima, Yasumasa Morimura, et al.) and a second (Takashi Murakami, Kenji Yanobe, Mariko Mori, et al.). One could argue that this second generation of postmodernism has still other branches—the oneiric figuration of Yoshitomo Nara and his ilk, and the drolly conceptual interventionism of Tsuyoshi Ozawa, Yutaka Sone, and the one-name Shimabuku—that have also lately received their due on the global circuit. But it may safely be said that from the ’90s until now, it is the Sugimotos and Murakamis—that is, the postmodernists proper—who have constituted the most visible face of contemporary Japanese art.

Recent developments, however, suggest that significant changes are afoot. Exhibitions in galleries around Tokyo this year have displayed a new diversity of approaches among younger artists—relational art, politically charged postcolonial critiques, and, most notably, highly subjective expressions of the zeitgeist that seem to emerge from obscure cocoons of private thought and desire. This last tendency toward individualism, even hermeticism, presents a particularly marked contrast to the collaborative sensibility of the previous generation, which gravitated toward loose collectives like Murakami’s Hiropon Factory or The Group 1965, aka Showa 40Nenkai, a cadre of artists who style themselves as a kind of absurdist anticollective.

Indeed, and perhaps most importantly, the work of these younger artists signals a departure from the strategies often used in the late ’80s and early ’90s to grapple with overblown capitalism and commodity fetishism, dense urbanization and suburban sprawl, and the proliferation of media images in public and private space—the contemporary Japanese condition, in short. The previous generation, following the lead of “classical” Western postmodernism, regularly deployed Minimalist repetition, neo geo–style appropriation of mass-produced industrial and consumer products, and the tactical intermingling of high (poststructuralist theory) and low (pop culture) in order to underscore the replacement of the country’s indigenous culture by a hybridized, imported modernity. Those artists’ use of kitsch and simulation in response to a particular historical moment paradoxically positioned them as the “originals” of their own time—a phenomenon that reached its apotheosis in the critical and institutional acceptance, both abroad and within Japan, of Murakami’s Superflat program.

The new work in Tokyo may be reasonably construed as a reaction, right on cue, against this mainstream postmodern aesthetic. While not necessarily jettisoning their predecessors’ interest in pop culture and vernacular forms, artists are turning away from both theory and coolly analytical appropriation. And, in their privileging of emotion and subjective perception, they use inexpensive materials and minimal techniques in a manner that bespeaks a culture of reduced expectations. (After all, these artists, born mostly around 1970, came of age during Japan’s extended recession.) As a kind of third wave, this new group can also be roughly divided into two camps, each indebted to one of the aforementioned alternative branches of second-generation Japanese postmodernism.

Continuing and extending Nara’s project, for example, is a new crop of figuration: Zon Ito and Ryoko Aoki (see Artforum, January 2005), and Kaoru Arima, who all make modest, delicately beautiful drawings interweaving personal and popular iconography. Also in this coterie are two artists with significant exhibitions last summer: Makiko Kudo, whose paintings at Tomio Koyama suggested a child’s dreamworld (which sometimes turns nightmarish); and Chihiro Mori, whose pictures at Kodama, while similarly dreamlike and associative, conveyed a radically disintegrated brand of subjectivity.

In the second camp, under the interventionist aegis of Ozawa, Sone, and Shimabuku, are a number of artists who react to their cultural sphere in a physical way, insisting on an apprehension of reality grounded in sensory perception—and in a body that is always contextualized (or caught) in the banalities of day-to-day life. Two of the strongest newcomers in this vein are Koki Tanaka and Taro Izumi. Last winter at the Museum of Modern Art, Gunma, Tanaka installed ten short videos on monitors within a mazelike structure made from discarded vitrines. Each video captures a moment in which everyday objects provide an epiphany of sorts. (In one, Salad Bowl Meets Waterfall, 2004, a container of vegetables and dressing is thrown over a waterfall, thus “tossing” the salad. Elsewhere, in Floater, 2004, the bubbles in a sink full of dishes take on the optical intensity of Yayoi Kusama’s “infinity nets,” demonstrating the artist’s particular attention to the geometrical forms and patterns in the world.) Izumi, in his solo exhibition at Hiromi Yoshii Five last spring, improvised simple yet obsessive actions—trying to unlock a door with a “key” drawn in pen on his hand, attempting to cut a piece of paper by making a scissoring motion with two fingers, etc.—within the gallery during the show, documenting his daily activities on video. Each of these performances conveyed a sense of suppressed anger, as if the artist were subtly annoyed by the tedium of his life and had invented these strange diversions in order to cope with impending despair.

More generally, then, the current Tokyo art scene is undergoing a shift in terms of its relationship to postmodernism. There is a newly established willingness on the part of critics, curators, and scholars to recognize the significance of recent decades’ art—whose recourse to the quotidian, including media images and commodities, enacted the dialectical inclusion of kitsch in aesthetic and critical practice. But accompanying this development is a new possibility for art’s engagement with contemporary experience. These signs of change are a welcome indication that, for Japanese art, there is indeed life after Superflat.

Midori Matsui is a Yokohama-based art critic and scholar.