June 11th, 2006


A tale of two cities

My hopes for the Berlin Tokyo, Tokyo Berlin show at the Neue Nationalgalerie hadn't been high -- in early March Hisae wrote to me from Japan:

"I went to see Tokyo-Berlin exhibition at Roppongi Hills, but it was a bit disappointing. Too many works especially paintings which are not appealing much. I liked the flyer of the exhibition better. The rain made Tokyo view foggy and mysterious."

It may have helped that Berlin had a beautiful sunny day yesterday, and that Mies Van Der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie is an airy, elegant glass box (I find the Mori -- the world's highest museum, a windowless space atop a skyscraper that sways in earth tremors -- pretty claustrophobic). Anyway, I loved the show. Sure, there were rather too many boring paintings. But this is a vast, academically thorough and very ambitious show falling into three parts.

On the ground floor architect Toyo Ito has made a billowing, undulating carpented carpet of low hills into which contemporary Japanese artworks are sunk. This is where Shintaro Miyake's beehive can be found -- Shintaro himself was dressed as a bee, making bee drawings inside a honeycomb, but apparently he got too hot in his costume and gave up before I got there. Next to it, hidden in a higher rise, was a kind of burial mound, a linked structure of rooms visitors could crawl through "at their own risk", a mixture of capsule hotel, homeless shelter and rabbit warren. This work was by Tsuyoshi Ozawa, who of course had a big solo show at the Mori back in 2004.

In this light and airy upstairs part of the exhibition there was also an Atelier Bow Wow installation about Pet Architecture. All the usual suspects, right? (With the notable exception of Takashi Murakami, represented only by protegee Chiho Aoshima downstairs in the manga art section.) But it was nice to see them. The Pet Architecture "msueum" was a series of pages of text and pictures of cute, haphazard architectural improvisations in Tokyo's awkward corners, all hanging on gauze at an awkward height, like a series of tablecloths on washing lines, themselves forming irregular shapes, blind alleys, tiny clumsy spaces.

Atelier Bow Wow also began the downstairs section: I finally got to see the mediapod I blogged about back in October. Like the Ozawa work upstairs, and like Pet Architecture, this pod is all about turning a lack of space into an advantage. There's an elegance in economy here, but also a way of turning mere storage into a space, a room devoted to fantasy (the ultimate virtual space-enlarger).

As you leave contemporary stuff behind (and it's interesting how the exhibition doesn't really make clear distinctions between design, art, whimsical didactics, documentary, popular culture, and so on -- very much as Japanese culture doesn't), you get into the academic core of the show: a detailed documentation of links and influences between German and Japanese culture over the last century or so. It's almost too much to take in. After all, Germany has influenced so much in Japan, from school uniforms to the subway system to their word for sperm (sahmen).

You go from Fluxus events to a big architecture section (suddenly Tokyo station, love hotels and Gropius' weirdly Japanese villas all make sense), to a film room running Japanese silent Jujiro alongside The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. You get Japanese Dada in the form of a group called Mavo (I'd never heard of them), or you see how an influential photography and film show in Berlin in 1928 opened in Tokyo in 1929 and had a huge influence. You learn which of the German expressionists were merely influenced by Japonism from afar (Kirchner) and which actually made the trip to Japan in person (Nolde on his way to New Guinea). You see Berlin-Tokyo sailor-pierrot fashions -- the liberated styles of the moga, the "modern girl", in her "strandpajamas", flared trouser suits.

You also see how the devastation and destruction of World War II affected both cities (amazing to see how occupied Japan still looked in the 50s, with Ginza street signs all in English before they're in Japanese, presumably for the benefit of the American forces). One lacuna, though, is the show's omission of artistic links during the fascist period, seen, like the devastation by the Allies, as twinned misfortunes the Germans and Japanese had to deal with for a few years. (Actually, I think I prefer this "brief anomaly" approach to the essentialist "original sin" approach which says that there's something inherently fascist deep in Japanese and German souls.)

"Fruitful encounters within the avant garde came to an abrupt end," says the introduction, "with the closely-related totalitarian systems that took hold in Japan and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. The result was war, suffering, and severe destruction in both cities, as well as the division of Berlin. These events set the themes for German and Japanese artists alike." Well, so we aren't going to see the links between fascist-friendly artists in the two cities during the 30s and 40s? I'd imagine something must have been going on, kitschy history painting or sub-porno celebration of muscled Spartan youths. Anyway, history is written by the avant garde, not by retro fascist losers.

The third and final section of the show is a series of dark rooms displaying video art. A "Tokyo Pop" documentary about students at the Avex Music Academy, some scenes of people walking backwards through busy Tokyo subway stations, a funny video of Japanese people trying to have conversations using the few phrases of Japanese a Westerner might know (Salaryman: "Kurosawa karaoke kamikaze!" His colleague: "Ah, kamikaze? Geisha!"). I found particularly fascinating a piece by Scandinavian artist Annika Eriksson, who simply went through all the staff at the Mori Museum asking them what their job was. Everyone, from director David Elliot (who talked about art as a combination of ethical and aesthetic value) to humble greeters, carpenters and security staff, got to deliver a few sentences to camera about their job. Eriksson left in a few seconds on either side of their speech, some dead time in which we could see them preparing what to say, and this turned out to be very revealing, a kind of pre- and post-mask vulnerability. What came through in a lot of the statements was typical Japanese self-effacement ("I am lucky that my boss overlooks the many mistakes I make!") and a touching concern that visitors should leave the museum happier.

I certainly did.