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Japanese Art of the ’80s: New Wave or Same Old Story?

What three shows about Japanese art from a pivotal decade tell us about the selective memory of cultural institutions

Japan has a history problem. I’m referring, of course, to the denial of atrocities committed under the Empire of Japan. Current Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike’s refusal to acknowledge the lynching of Koreans in Japan following the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and the city of Osaka’s renunciation, last year, of its sister city relationship with San Francisco over the erection of a memorial to the ‘comfort women’ pressed into sexual slavery by the Japanese military are just recent examples. But I can’t escape the sense that this history problem creeps into even the most innocuous aspects of the narrative of art in Japan. The tendency among Japanese institutions to focus on postwar and contemporary, say, may simply be a convenient periodization, but it also encourages an endemic amnesia about what came before. Then there are the occasional incidents of works being removed from exhibitions, as with a sculptural installation by Yoshio Shirakawa that was removed from a survey show at the Museum of Modern Art in Gunma in 2017; the work was based on a monument to Korean forced laborers that was itself removed by government order from where it stood in a public park. Such incidents suggest that even more ‘soft censorship’ occurs behind the scenes. 

Maybe that’s why I am so suspicious of the rash of exhibitions on the Japanese art of the 1980s that have been held over the past year or so. Now synonymous with the bubble economy, when Japanese business attained worldwide ascendancy, the 1980s have vast ramifications for understanding Japanese society today. The sudden influx of cash propelled popular and material culture to exuberant heights, while the protest movements of the preceding decades were exchanged for the security of the corporate ladder. Then the bubble burst, leading to a period of economic stagnation known first as the ‘lost decade’, then the ‘lost score’, then the ‘lost quarter century’. It would be fascinating to see how art interacted with and responded to all that. But while the exhibitions helped to recover a relatively overlooked part of Japanese art history, they also demonstrated how defamiliarizing attempts to historicize the recent past can be. Which 1980s, which Japan, and which art were they seeking to represent?

Mika Yoshizawa Untitled(Table), Untitled(Tripod), Untitled (Vacuum Cleaner), Untitled(Tea-Cabinet), 1982. Courtesy: Chiba City Museum of Art

Held from July to October 2018 at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, before going on tour, ‘Starting Points: Japanese Art of the ’80s’ was exemplary of this confusion. Although this compact selection of 60 works by 19 artists displayed a certain competence, its grouping of works according to the categories ‘Contemplations on Medium’, ‘Everyday and Modesty’, ‘Relationships’ and ‘Memory, Archive, Narrative’ was frustratingly vague yet overdetermined. Leading with a room of Kenjiro Okazaki’s small, wall-mounted constructions from 1981 was a bold play by curators Arata Ikura, Ayu Ito, Yuji Makino and Meruro Washida: these disarmingly complex studies of form and space – named after Tokyo neighborhoods like Akasakamitsuke and Uguisudani, and painted in chalky hues so as to evoke Giorgio Morandi’s still-lifes cut and folded along intersecting axes and arcs – deposited viewers into a world of oblique referentiality that could best be described as ‘postmodern’. But with no other works by Okazaki to elaborate the ideas he was exploring then, and no examples of the contemporaneous design and architecture with which he seemed to be conversing, there was nothing to suggest why an artist would want to make this particular work at that point in time.

Tomoaki Ishihara, Engagement I, 1984. Courtesy: Takamatsu Art Museum

This decontextualized history made it difficult to assess the ‘return’ to painting, figuration and decoration that happened in the 1980s after the flourishing of antiart, nonart, conceptual and interdisciplinary practices in the preceding decades. Should Naoki Suwa’s pair of freestanding, W-shaped canvas screens covered in multicolored brushstrokes, Waves No. 1 and No. 2 (both 1980), and Tomoaki Ishihara’s nude figures printed on protruding, hull-shaped canvases (1984–85) be taken as a rejection of the avant-garde, or a reflection of its permeation into the mainstream? Similarly, were Mika Yoshizawa’s drawings of everyday objects on pieces of old furniture from 1982 and Chie Matsui’s gnomic installation I Have Placed a Box in the Broad Expanse of the Forest (1987), incorporating elements such as a pile of white thread and a long, wooden drawer filled with blue resin, both responses to the consumer society that was mushrooming around them? Or were they reacting to different things in the atmosphere? After the passage of some 30 years, the self-evidence of the works could not be taken for granted.

This feeling was reinforced by a subsequent exhibition at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, ‘New Wave: Japanese Contemporary Art of the 1980s’. The 65 artists in ‘New Wave’ (each represented by one or two pieces) seemed to have been chosen simply because they made works in the 1980s and/or happened to be in the museum collection, beginning with On Kawara’s date painting June 23, 1980 (1980). Astoundingly, there was not a single video or new media work on view and, aside from Duck-jun Kwak’s photographic silkscreen Reagan and Kwak (1981), which shows the artist partially superimposing his face onto a poster for Time magazine’s 1981 ‘Election Special’, there were few other references to events such as the cold war, let alone the HIV/AIDS crisis. The overriding impression was that the Japanese art of the 1980s was, indeed, produced in a bubble.

Duck-Jun Kwak, Reagan and Kwak, 1981. Courtesy: The National Museum of Art, Osaka © Duck-Jun Kwak

So it was with reserved expectations that I headed to ‘Bubblewrap’, the exhibition curated by Takashi Murakami at Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto. Murakami’s stated intent was to invent a name for the period between the mono-ha cohort of artists who appeared in the late 1960s and the superflat phenomenon that emerged in the 1990s. The exhibition was divided roughly into three sections: the first featuring works from the postwar period to the end of the 1980s, including the paper-and-cardboard replicas of consumer items by Katsuhiko Hibino on view in the other shows as well; the second rehashing the trilogy of ‘Superflat’ exhibitions curated by Murakami at the turn of the century; and the third devoted to some 2000 pieces of contemporary ceramics, arranged in a theatrical, junkshop-like environment. Given that so few of the works actually came from the 1980s, the logic behind Murakami’s proposal was largely incoherent, but the contemporary ceramics were a provocative, ambivalent twist. The rows upon rows of cups, bowls, plates, vases and objects of vastly differing shapes and sizes had a spontaneous multiplicity and singularity, an immediacy and universality that surpassed the pretensions of art history.

As the sly dig in the name implies, Murakami’s exhibition is indicative of how a period can be opportunistically packaged as a movement or moment. I further question whether the other exhibitions’ attempts at formal or chronological objectivity do not simply reproduce the dominant values of the past. One underlying narrative of 1980s Japanese art is the museum building boom that continued throughout the decade. Several new public museums opened every year, ranging from institutions in Mie, Saitama and Shiga prefectures in 1982 to those in Yokohama and Hiroshima in 1989. After the bubble burst many of these same institutions had their budgets – particularly their collection budgets – frozen or slashed. Perversely, the hollowing of the museum has only amplified its authority, as museums are absolved of the responsibility of committing to an identity, but retain the capacity to valorize whatever gets put into them.

Let’s not forget that the mechanisms for producing memory also play a role in obscuring it. The inclusion, in a hidden corner of ‘Bubblewrap’, of the Finger Pointing Worker’s Pointing at Fukushima Live Cam (2011), which records a worker in a hazmat suit pointing back at an official live cam observing the ruins of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, was a timely reminder of what can happen when we don’t hold our institutions to account.

'Bubblewrap' runs at  Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto, until 3 March 2019. 'New Wave. Japanese Contemporary Art of the 1980s' was on view at National Museum of Osaka until 20 January 2019. 'Japanese Art of the ’80s' was on view at 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, from 7 July until 21 October 2018. 

Main image:  Hajime Sorayama, Sexy Robot_Walking, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo; photograph: Ikki Ogata

Andrew Maerkle is a writer and editor based in Tokyo, Japan.

Issue 201

First published in Issue 201

March 2019
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