Japanorama: Five Decades of Japanese Art from Metabolism to the Post-Human

At the Centre Pompidou-Metz, the past year has seen the most extensive survey of contemporary Japanese art outside of the country in 17 years 

'Japanorama - A New Vision on Art since 1970' marks the final exhibition in Centre Pompidou-Metz's year-long Japanese season (September 2017 – May 2018). Curated by Yuko Hasegawa, Artistic Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, it's the most extensive survey exhibition of contemporary Japanese art outside of Japan since Alexandra Munroe's 'Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky' – which toured to The Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama, The Guggenheim, New York, and San Francisco MoMA in 1994 – and Jonathan Watkins' 'Facts of Life: Contemporary Japanese Art' at the Hayward Gallery in London in 2001. This exhibition, however, consciously follows on from Centre Pompidou's own 1986 show 'The Avant-Garde Arts of Japan 1910-70', which examined Japanese modernity chiefly in relation to the Western avant-garde.

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Yuken Teruya, You-I, You-I, 2002, linen, 180 x 140 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Centre Pompidou, Paris

Yuken Teruya, You-I, You-I, 2002, linen, 180 x 140 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Centre Pompidou-Metz

‘Japan-ness – Architecture and Urbanism in Japan since 1945’ inaugurated the season, drawing together over 300 projects by 118 architects and groups across six chronological sections, with exhibition design by architect Sou Fujimoto. The foregrounding of urbanism in here saw a focused presentation of Metabolism, the architectural movement which arose in rapidly industrializing 1960s Tokyo. Deriving its name from the biological term, the movement theorized cities and architecture as living organisms which supported changing modes of living through technological advances; buildings would be responsive, able to grow and evolve. Kikutake Kiyonori's Marine City (1963), a fantastical proposition for a megastructure built on the sea, evinced such utopianism. The movement reached its zenith at the Osaka World Expo, 1970, organized by Kenzo Tange, architect and leading figure of the Metabolist movement. Facing increased pollution from the Japanese construction boom, Expo '70 invited international new media practitioners such as Experiments in Art and Technology alongside Japanese architects to address environmental challenges through the prism of technological advancement.

Hasegawa's 'Japanorama' begins in this same year, where Centre Pompidou's own 1986 exhibition left off. Also that year, Yusuke Nakahara's 10th Tokyo Biennale brought together Japanese mono-ha artists such as Koji Enokura, Susumu Koshimizu and Jiro Takamatsu with arte povera, conceptual and minimalist artists such as Christo, Bruce Nauman and Giuseppe Penone for the first time. Titled 'Between Man and Matter', the exhibition foregrounded art's relationship to the natural world  an indirect counter to the technological swagger of Expo '70. While their relationships to environmentalism were distinct, the two exhibitions represented a moment of internationalisation of Japanese contemporary art and architecture. 

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Tanaka Atsuko, Denkifuku (Robe électrique), 1956 / 1999, installation view at Centre Pompidou-Metz, Paris. Courtesy: Centre Pompidou-Metz, Kanayama Akira and Tanaka Atsuko Association

Tanaka Atsuko, Denkifuku (Robe électrique), 1956 / 1999, installation view at Centre Pompidou-Metz, Paris. Courtesy: Centre Pompidou-Metz, Kanayama Akira and Tanaka Atsuko Association

With exhibition design by Japanese architectural firm SANAA, a series of 'constellations' organize 'Japanorama' into loose thematic groupings, ranging from Pop to Participation, Resistance and the Post-Human. As with the 2017 Yokohama Triennale, 'Islands, Constellations, Galapagos', Hasegawa employs a natural world metaphor as a structuring device. If nothing more than a curatorial conceit to permit multiplicity, the model eschews bombast and rightly resists a fixed viewpoint on nearly five decades of Japanese art. This is not to accuse the exhibition of being hands off: 'Japanorama' is unafraid to – or perhaps must necessarily – tackle clichés of Japanese visual culture. The opening section devotes itself to 'kawaii', most readily defined as an aesthetic of cuteness. Yuken Teruya's embroidered kimono piece You-I, You-I (2002) employs a traditional Okinawan dyeing technique but replaces the customary flower and butterfly patterns with fighter planes and paratroopers, referencing the decades of American military occupation on the island. In the rigid social conventions of Japan, Yoshitomo Nara's compellingly menacing childlike figures depict those moments where the mask slips. Hasegawa finds political intent behind kawaii's at times consciously naïve aesthetic.

Atsuko Tanaka's Denkifuku (Electric Dress) (1956/99) opens a thoughtfully composed section on the post-human body. A Christmas tree-like sculpture of electrical wires and coloured light bulbs, Tanaka would wear the dress out in public as a performative prosthesis. Fashion designer Rei Kawakubo's radically biomorphic Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body (S/S 1997) pays homage to Tanaka's armour-like costume for the everyday. Similarly enveloping, Tetsumi Kudo's Votre portrait-chrysalide dans le cocon (Your Portrait: Chrysalis in the Cocoon, 1967) is an anthropomorphic cocoon structure woven together from laminated cotton and polyester – a protective casing for an increasingly polluting cityscape. His work takes on new resonance today in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster. The tragedy saw a profound shift in Japanese artistic practices towards more participatory, collaborative and socially engaged work. In Koki Tanaka's 'Precarious Tasks' (2012-ongoing) series, the artist instructs participants to enact naive actions in public space, constructing situations of collaboration which efface wider societal questions. His work asks: 'How can we share?' 'What can we do?' The participants' struggle to collaborate highlights the difficulty of collective mobilisation; simple actions acquire new meanings after 3/11.

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Tetsumi Kudo, Votre portrait-chrysalide dans le cocon, 1967, installation view. Courtesy: Centre Pompidou-Metz, RMN, Paris and © Adagp, Paris

Tetsumi Kudo, Votre portrait-chrysalide dans le cocon, 1967, installation view. Courtesy: Centre Pompidou-Metz, RMN, Paris and © Adagp, Paris

Alongside visual art contributions, Hasegawa spotlights architectural projects focused on sustainable redevelopment of sites decimated by natural disaster, further contextualizing this turn towards solidarity and social commitment. Centre Pompidou-Metz' yearlong season of enquiry into the art and architectural histories of Japan underscores the central role the country's volatile geography has played on artistic practices. Given the pace of change and activity post-Fukushima, and the frenzied development leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, is it now time for a post-2011 exhibition reflecting on the social turn in Japanese art and architecture?

Main image: Miwa Yanagi, Eternal City I, 1998 C-print, 90 x 160 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Centre Pompidou-Metz and Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte 

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