César Pelli’s extraordinary subterranean National Museum of Art in Osaka, Japan sets the scene for an exhibition of contemporary art curated from its expansive and impressive collections. Imaginatively entitled ‘Collection’, the expansive and exquisite basement 1st floor hosts an exhibition divided into 6 sections, each with a complementary theme.
Out of all my visits to Japanese contemporary art shows in Japan recently I chose to write about this for two reasons; firstly, the extraordinariness of the space itself, and secondly because I felt that the curation of the show highlighted an important dilemma for jobbing, resident curators, who struggle to make new propositions from existing stock. In this case, some of the works on show had not previously been exhibited, so the problem was not that of tired combination and permutation, but the works themselves and the sections of the show demonstrate a rigidity of thinking that frustrated and disappointed by turns.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some stunning works in this show, and it’s not the names one might think. In sections 2 and 6 of the show, entitled ‘Minimal and Potential’ and ‘Surface and Depth’ we see the segregated works of artists from outside of Asia. Richter’s (Strip 926-6 2012) recently purchased from Marian Goodman is, well, Richter, but it is lost in a simply cavernous space, this despite its considerable size.
The other Euro/US selections sound amazing, Anthony Caro, Imi Knoebel, Ed Ruscha, Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly, Willem De Kooning reads like a veritable who’s who, but unfortunately the names alone belie the fact that the work present are not the best of the outputs of those greats. Agnes Martin’s Untitled #10 is the stand-out piece out of all of the aforementioned, and Caro’s ‘Table Piece’, presented near a wall, looks simply wrong.
Beyond the issue of segregation by continent/nationality, the big problem with this show is that it has been curated on the basis of ‘keywords’, regardless of visual and chronological considerations. The titles of the six rooms, or more accurately bays created within the gallery gives the unhelpful impression that there is contemporary Japanese art and then the Rest of the World. The titling for bay 5 is the most problematic ‘Ordinary and Artistic’ – I will let you draw your own conclusions from this.
All the above being said, I was completely knocked out by the quality of the photography in this show; Naoya Hatakeyama’s stunning ‘underground/River series (Tunnels) 1999 and ‘Blast’ series (2013) steal (at least some) of the limelight in room 3, but Toshio Shibata’s incredible photographs of monumental civil engineering projects in remote Japanese landscapes are extraordinary, poignant and strangely moving. Shibata’s ‘Yasuharu Town’ and ‘Taketa City’ and his ‘Water Colour’ series are sublime within the context of this museum and this City, in an underground gallery, on an island between two rivers (literally Mesopotamian).
Rika Noguchi’s ‘Man and Some Birds’ series are similarly impressive, but entirely different of course, yet they capture the spirit of Japan and an innate empathy with nature. I say this because Japan is changing and has already changed; I have been visiting Japan for the past 25 years and speak with some experience, (and of course I have changed in that time also), but I fear for the future of this unique heritage which is full of strange contradictions between Bushido, a reverence for nature and the increasing embrace of the West.
This show is an uneasy alloy, a show which hasn’t found itself, but has clearly understood the value of individual works within it. As a curatorial project it is simply odd and disjointed, but the highlights save it, and the photography is worth the visit alone.