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exhibition review: winter garden

 

Mahomi Kunikata, Sound of the Body and Mind Freezing: The Story of the Balloons, 2007, acrylic on canvas

Mahomi Kunikata, Sound of the Body and Mind Freezing: The Story of the Balloons, 2007, acrylic on canvas

 

Winter Garden is a travelling exhibition from Japan that introduces Australian audiences to contemporary Japansese art and, in particular, the concept of Micropop. A term coined by exhibition curator Midori Matsui, Micropop describes the ways in which a generation of contemporary Japanese artists have reinterpreted meaning and cultural values to create a set of individualistic yet intrinsically linked values and aesthetics.  Presented by The Japan Foundation and the Embassy of Japan in Canberra, Winter Garden exhibited at M16 Artspace from July 10- July 24 2014. Although this exhibition has now finished its tour of Australia, the phenomenon of micropop is a fascinating concept and the artworks presented introduce Australian audiences to a selection of the influential contemporary artists working in Japan today.

Following Door into Summer: the age of Micropop, an exhibition curated by Matsui in Japan in 2007, Winter Garden presents the curator’s ongoing attempts to provide a conceptual framework for the practices of the generation of Japanese artists directly proceeding the influential contemporary artists such as Takashi Murakami and Makoto Aida. Whilst both generations created work as a direct response to the social conditions at the time, their practices have distinctly different focuses. Unlike their predecessors, who had strong political stances and proposed new social paradigms within their works, the generation creating work in the 1990’s and 2000’s took a distinctly individualistic turn,  their practices recording individual responses to specific social conditions in Japan during those years. In particular, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, Aum Shinrikyo cult subway sarin gas attack (both 1995) and the economy crash of 1991 had a lasting impact on emerging artists and Japanese society as a whole[i]. By combining fragments of ideas from various places without conforming to a single established ideology or set of values, artists created their own original aesthetics and lifestyles which are often multidimensional and inherently paradoxical.

Winter Garden features 35 works from 14 Japanese artists active from 1990-2010 including video by Koki Tanaka (Japan’s 2013 Venice Biennale artist) and artists such as Hiroshi Sugito, Ryoko Aoki, Taro Izumi, Tam Ochiai, Makiko Kudo, Mahomi Kunikata, Hiroe Saeki, Aya Takano, Masaya Chiba, Chim Pom, Masanori Handa, Lyota Yagi and Keisuke Yamamoto. According to Matsui, all of these artists’ practices include similar characteristics such as the use of inexpensive and easily accessible materials, techniques and technologies; an active interest in reinterpreting everyday life to create new areas of perception and social communication; utilizing playful, almost childlike, forms of expression to communicate personal experience and interpretation of the phenomenological world; and the use of the banal, outmoded or defunct to create new types of expression.

The works presented in Winter Garden are loosely grouped into three distinct categories (I, II and III) tenuously held together under a singular conceptual framework. The works, grouped by artist, are presented with a deliberate randomness- connecting disparate elements into a cohesive, yet contradictory, whole and reinforcing the importance of the dialogue between the works.This is the real strength of the exhibition and it carries its conceptual complexity well without muting the impact of the individual works. Furthermore, the exploration of nature and individual reactions to the phenomenological experience in an artificially created space presents a paradox within itself, something which is not lost on Matsui:

“Through the dialogue that arises between the artworks, induced by the mesh of relations suggested by the principles, themes and motifs [indicated within the exhibition], the paradox of a small artificial space containing a microcosm of the natural world is realized”[ii]

Category I presents various works in a range of mediums that embody processes of association triggered through seemingly insignificant details or occurrences in everyday life.  Featured in this category are works by Ryoko Aoki, Tam Ochiai, Koki Tanaka, Lyota Yagi and Hiroshi Sugito. Each artist approaches processes of association in different ways, for example Lyota Yagi’s work Vinyl (2005-2008) is an installation consisting of an old record player (now a defunct technology), a small freezer and a television playing a video of the record player playing a record that has been molded from ice. As the friction causes the grooves to melt, the music becomes jumbled, disintegrating into indistinguishable sound to appeal directly to the listener’s senses with the aim of evoking memories or moods. Reminiscent of composer John Cage, the work evokes the Japanese aesthetic ideal of Iki- which focuses on the pure, the spontaneous and the ephemeral.

Category II features work drawing inspiration from Japanese subcultures including manga, anime, computer games and slapstick comedies. Through the use and recontextualisation of these specific visual languages, artists express inner narratives and desires, the materiality of the body or reveal a hidden truth. Drawing on Murakami’s Superflat aesthetic as well as Shojo culture, artists such as Aya Takano and Mahomi Kunikata create alternate visions of the world which, in the case of Takano feature gender neutral figures in a utopian existence whilst Kunikata’s paintings subvert the popular aesthetic of Kawaii (cuteness) and present terrifying explorations of the adolescent psyche in a manga-informed format. Other artists included in Category II are Makiko Kudo, Taro Izumi and six-person collective Chim Pom.

Finally, works presented in Category III explore or simulate the basic structures of plant, animal and mineral self-generation and by doing so, create environments or pictorial spaces that convey to the viewer “physical and psychological effects and impacts of external phenomena”[iii]. Artists represented in this category are Masanori Handa, Hiroe Saeki, Masaya Chiba and Keisuke Yamamoto. Hiroe Saeki’s series, Untitled (2007) features a series of pencil and acrylic drawings on paper that in part allude to calligraphy and Japanese art’s non-representational tradition but also capture a complex yet refined sense of movement and elasticity. The forms mirror the organic growth of a plant and evoke traditional ink drawings of trees.

Winter Garden is an extensive exhibition that operates on many levels and the Western viewer may become uncomfortably aware of an existing cultural barrier. Some of the visual language is so culturally specific it can be difficult for a viewer with little knowledge of Japanese culture to translate. This is exemplified in Ryoki Aoki’s installation The sun (2009) which presents a series of fragmented drawings and mixed media showing depictions of idealised pastoral scenes and traditional temples to hanging scraps of silk evoking the Shin Buddhism flag. The free catalogues provided in the exhibition help to overcome this barrier where possible and offer interesting insights into the works, the artists’ practice, and how they both fit into the conceptual framework of Micropop and the landscape of contemporary Japanese art in general.

Overall, Winter Garden is a successful and fascinating insight into the artistic phenomenon of Micropop. The conceptual framework developed by Midori Matsui successfully articulates the connectedness and disparity between the practices of artists operating within a society recovering from social, economic and environmental disaster. Although many of the works are conceptually challenging, the pay-off is rewarding; Winter Garden will keep the viewer thinking long after the exhibition has finished.

This review is a revised version of an article originally published on the M16 Artspace blog.

 


[i]Matsui, M. (2014). The Door into Summer: The Age of Micropop (English) / Contemporary Art Center, ATM. [online] Arttowermito.or.jp. Available at: http://www.arttowermito.or.jp/natsutobira/natsutobira.html

[ii] Matsui, M (undated) Winter Garden: The Exploration of the Micropop Imagination in Contemporary Japanese Art, Page 11. Exhibition catalogue published by The Japan Foundation.

[iii] Matsui, M (undated) Winter Garden: The Exploration of the Micropop Imagination in Contemporary Japanese Art, Page 11. Exhibition catalogue published by The Japan Foundation

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