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>> Tour of Deutsche Bank Tokyo
>> Turn to the East
>> Miwa Yanagi
>> Naoya Hatakeyama

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Turn to the East

"Japan is different in a different way" - that, in any case, is what the hero in Cees Nooteboom's novel Mokusei claims in an effort to describe how difficult it is for a Western mind to understand the complexities of Japanese culture with all its various influences. Yet at the same time, Tokyo seems to be well on its way towards becoming the main hub of the new art of the 21st century. In this vein, Francesco Bonami presented the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami at the Venice Biennale as a key figure of today's art scene. Margrit Brehm's essay provides a sketch of contemporary Japanese art from calligraphy to Tokyo Pop.

"The world of the future might be
like Japan is today - superflat"
Takashi Murakami

Ikiro in Otterloo, Kaikai Kiki in Paris, Senritsumirai in Prato, Yume no Ato in Berlin and Baden-Baden, Japan: Keramik und Fotografie (Japan: Ceramics and Photography) in Hamburg, Weiche Brüche: Japan (Soft Breaks: Japan) in Innsbruck, The Japanese Experience in Kraichtal - a glance at the program calendars of museums and exhibition venues across Europe (and, even earlier, in America) clearly shows that contemporary Japanese art is in keen demand. One could, of course, interpret the heightened attention currently being paid to the works of the young and youngest generation of Japanese artists by international curators as just another side of the global market in search of ever newer sensations. A reference to the steadily growing popularity of Mangas in the West and the successful marketing of the fantasy beings that play the role of protagonists in this Japanese-style comic book could also serve as an argument for why Japan seems to have grown a tiny bit closer to Europe. Catchwords like globalization and changes in consumer behavior alone, however, are far too general to explain why contemporary art from Japan has met with such great interest, particularly among artists - or just what changes in the art system's structure this might imply.

Jiro Osuga, Coach Journey, 2001, Deutsche Bank Collection

In his exhibition From Rauschenberg to Murakami in the Museo Correr, Francesco Bonami, curator of this year's Venice Biennale, has indicated that this turn to the East can indeed be evaluated as a sign of a deeper-reaching shift in perspective. When Robert Rauschenberg was awarded the Biennale's first prize for painting in 1964, it crowned the young American as the "Picasso" of the second half of the century and, according to Bonami, ultimately secured America's dominance in the field of contemporary art. When Bonami promotes the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami as a key figure of today's art scene, he is also, at the same time, diagnosing a new shift in emphasis. For him, Murakami's painting stands for the future, for an art production of the 21st century. "Murakami's canvases of cyborg and cosmic characters resonate with dynamic futuristic energy that reaches the unfathomable realm of our imagination."

As yet, it's nothing more than a thesis - but the signs are increasing that Japanese artists will be assuming central importance in the further development of international art. Around a hundred years ago, European art was luxuriating in Japonisme and its attention was primarily directed towards "old Japan" - which we today recognize, at least in part, as a projection of European longing onto a country that was to a large degree unknown. In contrast, the fascination inspired today by contemporary Japanese art is due to its future potential. The works have not only awakened interest in the West, but have also prompted discussions concerning contemporary art's potential to reflect both upon its own position in the age of the global information society and upon the strategies artists use to find different locations and secure a new public presence.

At the center of attention are works by artists born in the late fifties and sixties that challenge, surprise, and fascinate our habits of seeing. Clear flat surfaces of color dominate figurative paintings whose pictorial vocabulary combines Manga adaptations and references to the personal state in a highly specific sampling method that employs references both to Japanese and Western art traditions.

This crossover, which can be particularly found in Tokyo Pop and an art movement called Kairaku Kaiga (painting of joy), also characterizes Japanese photography. It is even easier, perhaps, to see the ambivalence between tradition and innovation, East and West in the works of this "modern" medium, an ambivalence that determines Japanese thinking and the aesthetic it gives rise to.

Yutaka Sone: Her 19th Foot, 1997,
Deutsche Bank Collection

Thus, photographs that often resemble snapshots and speak of an involvement with our time, urban life in Tokyo's high-tech society, and the social environment contrast with austerely composed works whose attention to nature or city scenes devoid of human beings harbors formal references to the traditional "Zen idea" of the image as sign.

Tomoko Maezawa: Grass 8, 1999
Deutsche Bank Collection

This first glance into the production of Japanese artists today and the broad range of styles and positions involved suffices to show that it's just as impossible to speak of "Japanese art" as it is to speak of "German" or "American art." If one were to nonetheless attempt to define some of these characteristic features, it becomes clear that the majority of the works are marked by a highly distanced visual language regardless of the medium and subject matter. Expressivity, emotionality, not to mention exhibitionist self-portrayal are almost never a component of these works. Instead, a certain consistency in stylistic staging, masterly skill, and a nearly technoid-like surface smoothness are what stand out, features which to a Western eye initially appears to contradict the works' poetic strength and spiritual density, but which actually, at second glance, serves to intensify these.

Taiji Matsue: Iran 1998, 1998
Deutsche Bank Collection

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