May 2nd, 2006


Tokyo art beat-off 2

Yesterday we took a thematic survey of art shows going on in Tokyo, finding weird machines and fashion crossover. Today it's the turn of cool foreigners, women being sensitive, "men's exhibitions", nature worship and dream cities.

One of the things art does in Tokyo is promote other nations. It does this for the simple reason that, in the absence of major art collectors, national governments step in as the big players, splashing their cash around the artworld to gain favourable coverage for their national image. The German Year in Japan may have ended, but Swiss Contemporary Arts in Japan continues. And why not? As someone wrote yesterday in the comments section, "are collectors a good thing?" Given the choice between an art world being run by an influential collector-investor figure like Charles Saatchi and an art world being run by foreign governments on promo sprees... well. After all, that money does filter down. Look at Jean Snow's efforts to promote Swedish and Canadian "style" events at his beloved Cafe Pause.

But what makes foreigners really cool is that some of them are simply really cool artists. Take Scotsman Jim Lambie, whose tape installation "P.I.L." is currently decorating the floor at Mizuma. Lambie's optimistic, colourful and decorative work fits right into Japan's love of all things positive and non-confrontational. I just hope the Japanese don't start holidaying in Lambie's home town of Glasgow expecting to find it as friendly, cool and colourful as Lambie's work. And it's here we come up against the problem with art as national promo: artists are often touting the polar opposite of typical national values.

Can't leave the "cool foreigners" section without mentioning that the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOT) is currently showing the Collection of the Fondation Cartier. Funny, whenever I visit the Fondation Cartier in Paris it's showing something Japanese. Well, such are the joys of mutual exoticization, I suppose. Moving on...

One of my favourite Tokyo galleries, Scai the Bathhouse in picturesque shitamachi district Yanaka, is showing our old friend Mariko Mori, niece of Minoru Mori, the property tycoon who built Laforet in Harajuku, half of Roppongi, and lately Omotesando Hills; a man who's able to turn the fortunes of entire districts around.

His niece is currently into Celtic lore. Her installation "Tom Na H-iu" celebrates "a place where souls waited to pass onto their next life in ancient Celts lore. The "standing stones" that were built according to these ancient myths inspired Mariko Mori to create a present day monument signaling life and death. The piece is 3m tall, and made from glass. Mori's "Tom Na H-iu" captures the death of stars and indicates its rebirth. This is realized by a computer connected to Super-Kamioka Neutrino Detection Experiment (Super-Kamiokande) that catches the light that stars generate when they die. The piece interacts with the incoming signals to radiate a new ray."

All I can say is that Mariko is so 90s. This Celtic-electronic crossover thing (like the brainwave space capsule she had in the Venice Biennale) is so New Age, like some sort of "spiritual vibe" trance music compilation, some half-baked Bjork album sleeve from 1993. And her works are always flashy, polished, smooth-edged, super-expensive to construct. I think they're in very poor taste, very tired. Poor little rich girl, in search of a soul!

I prefer the look of what's going on at Nadiff, where three artists are keeping a collage diary. (Sounds a bit like what Oslo designers Yokoland have been doing at Shift this month.) And at Taka Ishii Gallery Kyoko Murase shows her paintings. By the way, there's a whole long story about how Ishii and Koyama are having to move their spaces again, after vacating the Shokuryo Building and moving to a new building just four years ago. But this isn't the place, and that's Tokyo: permanent flux.

"This is a man's man's man's exhibition by six male artists!!!" exclaims the blurb for Ikemen the Rainbow Town, a group show at Zenshi with the gimmick that the artists participating are all... men! It's true that Tokyo's art scene seems particularly female-dominated. This may be due to the fact that, whereas art scenes in other countries may be full of wealthy middle-aged people or thrusting hipsters, in Japan it tends to be meek and relatively poor young women in their 20s who turn up at any given exhibition. They tend to respond to a gentle imagery of pandas and flowers... and pictures of Vincent Gallo.

When the men try to elbow their way back in, it's probably a gay thing. Taka Ishii gallery has gay Berlin artists Elmgreen & Dragset in a show called "The Incidental Self". But actually, that works for the girls too. A sort of gay slash fiction for them to fantasize about, with safely foreign actors.

Mountains are in fashion this month. Gallery 360 Degrees, perched high above the Omote-Sando crossing, features Takashi Homma's "Photographs of the Torahiko Mountains". Homma's gaze has always been steely, chill, blue-toned and objective, so mountains seem like a logical subject for him. Meanwhile, at Tokyo Art Museum, there's a show called Two Mountains featuring photographer Balthasar Burkhard and painter Naoya Hatakeyama.

At 80s candy-striped Aoyama bunker-museum Watarium (the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art) you can see "Beautiful Cities in Dreams", an "array of installation and video works that set the stage for cities which we encounter in dreams". Meanwhile, over at Shinagawa's Hara Museum (itself a very beautiful place set in a lovely garden) Zaha Hadid is curating and showing her macho, angular shapes. I don't care for Hadid's work at all; much more to my taste is Namaiki's goofy, lyrical installation in the Hara garden.

Cities are also the theme of the Berlin Tokyo show, which continues at the Mori Museum and will switch to Berlin in June. Berlin Tokyo brings us back full circle to the theme of exhibitions being used to boost national prestige, but also takes in Mr Mori's niece and even mountains: on a clear day you can see Mount Fuji from the museum on top of Roppongi Hills.