With just one polka dot, nothing can be achieved. In the universe, there is the sun, the moon, the earth, and hundreds of millions of stars. All of us live in the unfathomable mystery and infinitude of the universe.
At the turning point of the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games, Japan rewarded itself immense international recognition, bringing together nations of the world that eagerly wished to witness Japan’s rapid economic and technological advancement after the turmoil of WWII. The emergence of artists, designers, and architects was undeniably crucial in uplifting the country’s thrusting presence in the universal arc. Designer Yusaku Kamekura’s Olympic poster and Kenzo Tange’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium and Swimming Pool were just a few among the fruits of aesthetic pride cultivated out of the epochal event. Other distinguished designers, such as Hiromu Hara, Takeshi Kono, Ikko Tanaka, Kiyoshi Awazu, Sori Yanagi, and design critic Masaru Katsumi showcased their creativity in tickets, posters, invitations, medals, pamphlets, uniforms, stamps, Olympic decorations, and the Olympic torch.
The radiant Hotel Okura, built in 1962 in commemoration of the 1964 Olympics also ignited the highest level of traditional and modern art, design and architecture through the exceptional interior aesthetics conceptualized by noted architect Yoshiro Taniguchi and his powerful team of architects and artists Hideo Kosaka, Shiko Munakata, and Kenkichi Tomimoto. The unprecedented gesture of artistic beauty iconized by the hotel became the spotlight of world admiration, parallel to the explosion of Ukiyo-e and Hokusai’s woodblock prints during the 1900 Paris Exposition.
Fifty-six years hence, despite the unexpected fallout of the Tokyo Olympics this year, its hopeful revival in 2021 and the foreseen Osaka World Expo in 2025 once again, ushers a new spectrum of insights and ideologies into the future, especially in response to the difficult challenges brought by the current pandemic. Contemporary art may not only serve visual pleasure, but more importantly address the social, cultural and economic pursuits of humanity.
Mori Art Museum in Tokyo has embarked on such a universal theme by inviting six internationally acclaimed artists who have crossed beyond Japan’s boundaries in expressing a global vision of art, while adhering sensitively to the socio-cultural background of Japan’s identity. STARS: Six Contemporary Artists from Japan to the World runs until January 3, 2021, and presents early and recent works of each artist through paintings, sculptures, photographs, large-scale installations, video works, and archival displays that trace the remarkable history of Japanese contemporary art. The large exhibition also highlights 50 selected exhibitions of Japanese contemporary art presented outside Japan from the 1950s. Audio guide commentaries by the artists also reveal their thoughts and passion about their careers.
One of the most controversial and non-conformist contemporary artists, Yayoi Kusama is extremely popular for her bold and pop colors, polka dots, and undulating lines and forms, often depicting nature, animals and the human body. Although she first studied art in Kyoto, it was her dauntless move to the US during the 1950s that cultivated her artistic passion to a subliminal level. As seen by numerous exhibitions worldwide, her apparent hallucinogenic visions and kaleidoscope imagery surrounding feminism, obsession, sex, procreation, destruction and intense self-contemplation that arose from painful childhood experiences relate in many dimensions to the social struggles of the modern day, particularly to the fragile desires of the youth and artists who cry for change and freedom. This revolutionary ideology certainly molds Kusama’s art as a powerful messenger for the tone of the future. In this exhibition, the Pink Boat (1992) made of stuffed sewn fabric of phalluses, which was displayed at the 45th Venice Biennale stole the spotlight, together with Travelling Life (1964), a step ladder, and Untitled (Object of a Gold Chair) (1966).
The minimalist painter, sculptor, artist and academic Lee Ufan was born in South Korea, but has been a resident of Japan since 1956. He is easily remembered for the Lee Ufan Museum that he collaborated with architect Tadao Ando at the Benesse Art Site in Naoshima. As a leading figure of the contemporary art movement Mono-ha School (School of Things) in the late 1960s, which expressed the “encounter between natural and industrial materials” (stone, glass, paper, wood, wire, and others), Ufan advocates the natural existence of objects and de-Westernization. He has been very active in exchanges between the Japanese and Korean contemporary art worlds, and has participated in the Biennale de Paris in 1971 and exhibitions across the US, Europe and Asia. His stone, iron plate and glass work Relatum (1969/2020) was his “radical approach to the artwork, not as an object but as a network of relationships”. One feels a gentle sense of serenity and simplicity, at the same time distance and detachment.
In this modern day of interpersonal relationships and business associations wired by Internet and digital media, sculptor and installation artist Tatsuo Miyajima experiments with light displays and LED works in the realm of time and space, influenced by Buddhist philosophies. His LED project Sea of Time, a water pool with plastic coated waterproof lights and electric wires, was exhibited at the 43rd Venice Biennale in 1988, and startled the public. He was invited to represent Japan once more at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999. For Mori Art Museum, Miyajima reincarnates the Sea of Time as a Tohoku Project (2020) in honor of the victims of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. A bed of blue and green lights glistens against a dark foreground, evaporating a sensation of mystery. His belief grows out of the acceptance of inevitable change and impermanence, as well as constant flow of connectivity between people, objects and nature, parallel to the altering colors of flickering lights joined by fragile electricity. Reflecting on recent natural catastrophes, such as floods, typhoons, earthquakes, and fires shattering homes and precious lives across nations, art plays a responsible role in confronting these challenging issues.
Another indisputable contemporary artist easily defined by his energetic application of bright and valiant colors, forms, animation, pop culture and Japanese traditional arts, Takashi Murakami did not take long to explore the depth of his artistic creations outside Japan, especially in New York and Los Angeles, where he curated for the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. His international exposure helped him evaluate the differences in social classes, which inspired his “Superflat” theory. Simultaneously, it propelled the varying shades of Japanese culture to penetrate multi-cultural societies. Having studied Nihonga in the university, Murakami often incorporates elements from Japanese tradition or cultural history, such as Kabuki or Japanese supernatural myths, with mixed themes from manga or anime, in addressing the direction of post-war Japan. Upon entering the hall, an enormous wall painting of Cherry Blossoms Fujiyama JAPAN (2020) overshadows the entire display with its cartoonish eyes and a smiling mouth clouding over pink sakura flowers. The Embodiment of ‘A’ and Embodiment of ‘Um’ (2014) are two gigantic demonic sculptures in fiberglass, stainless steel and zelkova wood, which went on display at Gagosian Gallery in New York in 2014. The exaggerated scale of these grotesque creatures evoke monstrosity, yet playfulness at the same time. Murakami’s depiction of postwar Japanese psychology and intervention into the otaku (usually a nerd consumed with interest in anime and manga) culture has been a representative symbol of Japan’s contemporary worldview.
Like the other artists featured in the exhibition, Yoshitomo Nara has been widely acclaimed internationally, having exhibited at the MoMA New York, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, UK, Asia, and across the globe. Educated at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany, he is best known for his imaginative expression of Japan’s Pop Art movement in the 1990s, particularly his interpretation of children with large heads and eyes, which he explained as “children among other, bigger, bad people all around them, who are holding bigger knives...” as a contradiction of “the familiar and the sacred, innocence and cruelty—into coexistence with each other, provoking the imagination of the viewer”. These are manifested in Stand by Me (2007), Miss Moonlight (2020), and Voyage of the Moon (Resting Moon) (2006), an enormous installation of a giant face perched on a roof of a house, among others. The apparent childlike innocence and dreamy atmosphere imbued in his drawings suggest a deliberate escape or quest for freedom—two prominent essentials of modern social behavior.
The final artist, Hiroshi Sugimoto displays some of his photographs from the Diorama series and Revolution series (1980–), illustrating black and white flat scenes of the ocean at night that trace the paths of the moon and the stars through long exposure. One of the captivating works is his Polar Bear (1976) from the Diorama series, purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It may appear, at first, as a real polar bear on ice, gazing at a freshly killed seal, but was actually a re-shot of a stuffed bear from the American Museum of Natural History. Sugimoto’s fascination with the deception of the eye seeing what may look fake or real has given him an experimental platform to heighten illusionism. After studying photography in Los Angeles in 1970, Sugimoto began to live his creative life in New York from 1974. His works have been commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, Serpentine Gallery in London, Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria, and other numerous galleries in Switzerland, France, Israel, and across the US.
In contrast with the Japanese artists and designers of the 1960s who attempted to reveal the aesthetic qualities of Japanese traditional motifs to the world during the expectancy of the Tokyo Olympics then, today’s contemporary artists in Japan have evolved through generations of modernity, commercialism, cyber media existence, and radical changes in the structure of family, society and individualism. These inevitable transitions shape a novel context of what contemporary art truly means to every culture, as the globe embraces universality in all genders, ages, professions, nationalities, religions, and political ideas—just as they swim like unaccountable stars in the expansive cosmos and unified by Art.