In Japan, Ornaments from the Avante Garde
By Lucy Birmingham
Published by Artinfo (now Blouin Artinfo): February 23, 2010
TOKYO—For an insider's look at Japan's rising contemporary art stars, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo "MOT Annual," is one exhibition you shouldn't miss. Started in 1999, the 10 young artists in this year's version titled "MOT Annual 2010: Neo-Ornamentalism from Japanese Contemporary Art" (until April 11), do not disappoint. Their works blend crafted precision, sheer perseverance and originality, despite the mystifying 'neo-ornamentalism' theme.
Porcelain artist Katsuyo Aoki reveals a reverence for the über-ornate 18th century German Meissen and Rococo French Sèvres porcelain styles. But her astounding works are closer to a chinaware parody — symmetrical objects, and shapes in a frame that surround a painted surface. Each molded piece is hand garnished with fragile rows of tiny round points, hooked extensions, curly cue crevices and other surprises. "The work is about the beauty of the porcelain," explains Aoki, who prefers the classic shimmering white to a colored version. Aoki created "Trolldom" (2010), a 350 x 220 cm frame and painted work specifically for the show. "It took me about a year to make," she admits with a genuine smile. "Tell the Story" (2006), a 2-meter long staff resting on its narrow tip, points to the intense fragility and strength of her work. "It looks like it could fall and break at any moment which can make the viewer feel very ill at ease," says Aoki. "It's a reflection of our modern age as we teeter on the edge of so many world issues. But it's also borrowing from the past."
Award-winning painter-dyer Kentaro Yokouchi has also borrowed from the porcelain past by tracing the origins of Meissen and European porcelain from 17th India, China and Japan. Transferred onto the satin canvases are pictures from old auction-house catalogues, including Nagasaki Port where Japanese Kakiemon ware was first exported to Europe, and Meissen imported into Asia. Using a remarkable dyeing technique reminiscent of Japanese traditional sumi ink painting, Yokouchi has literally bled those pictures with an array of translucent colors soaked into the satin. An abstract painting at first glance, the theme and technique whispers of times past. "Nagasaki was Japan's door to Asia and Europe," explains Yokouchi, referring to Japan's isolationist period (1641-1853) when Nagasaki was the only port open to international trade. "India, China, Japan and Europe mixed naturally through the porcelain trade," he emphasizes. "The decorative patterns were shared by all."
Also shared by all and refined in the exhibition is: salt. Motoi Yamamoto, known for his ephemeral salt sculptures and installations, reveals the depth of his creativity and endurance with "Labyrinth." A 180 square meter installation "drawn" on the museum's wood floor with 300 kilos of refined salt, Yamamoto worked non-stop for over two weeks while the space was between shows. A small plastic bottle with a fine tip, borrowed from his parent's motorcycle shop, is his tool of trade. Salt in Japan is imbued with spiritual powers. It is used in purification rituals and at funerals to banish harmful spirits. Yamamoto was moved to create his intricate salt labyrinth, reminiscent of a brain, after his younger sister passed away from brain cancer. It was the salt used at her funeral and subsequent gravestone visits that motivated him to work with this element — a way to keep her memory alive in death and a symbol of life itself. Salt, like sand, can also speak of impermanence and letting go. Zen Buddhist monks draw in the sand as part of their practice of learning to let go as they watch their drawings wash away in the rain or sea. Tibetan sand mandala's are a spiritual universe of impermanence, also released back to nature. Yamamoto explains that while his installations are impermanent, they also live on as he returns the salt back into the sea at the end of every exhibition. "The salt regenerates the sea life," he explains. "Back into the cycle of life."
Impermanence is difficult to grasp. And, even more slippery when formed into soap. Atsuo Ogawa's six translucent 58 x 58 x 5 cm soap sculptures, with intricate lacey patterns he engraved with a needle, test this transitory, cleansing concept. Titled "cutter knife skating I~VI" (2010) they are, says Ogawa, "like 'ichigo-ichi'" the Japanese phrase, 'one moment in a lifetime.' "The value is not in the work itself because it disappears," says Ogawa. "The value is in that moment of exchange between the viewer and the artwork. "The work changes depending upon who's looking at it."
Changing, intricately cut patterns can be witnessed on a magnificent scale in one curtained off room, darkly lit to accentuate the shadows portrayed by the work. "Cutting Insights" (2008), a 6.5 x 3.5 meter conquest of dragon and phoenix figures cut by hand into a single roll of photo studio paper took artist Tomoko Shioyasu about 5 months to complete. "Yes, you could call it powerful," whispers the shy Shioyasu. Paper cutting, called "kiri-e" has a long tradition in Japan. "I started paper cutting in 2003, intrigued with the beauty of veins in a leaf," she explains. "Then the webs formed by netting caught my eye."
Eye-catching and mind-boggling are the collapsible, geometrical shapes created by designer Asao Tokolo. Titled "BUILDVOID" (2010), the series includes a truncated octahedron that magically morphs into a hydrangea flower. Ingeniously assembled with precisely cut craft board and drafting tape, Tokolo says, "I'm really not good at math." A university architecture major, Tokolo was fascinated with the works of Buckminster Fuller. Tokolo taught at Tokyo Institute of Computer Science, and now at Musashino Art University in Tokyo, where he tutors fashion design, "the architecture of the body," he explains."What I'd really like to do is develop educational toys for children so they can have fun and learn math at the same time." His award-winning TOKOLO Pattern Magnet, decorated with arabesque "karakusa" patterns that match in limitless ways, has brought him numerous accolades and fans. At the exhibition's pre-opening party when he unzipped his suitcase filled with magical works for the show, Tokolo exclaimed, "I feel pregnant with ideas, ready to give birth tomorrow!" It's a fitting metaphor for this exhibition with old ideas reborn as new — literally cutting edge.