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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese residents of Japan.

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image image Zero Hour: Japanese Art Comes into Its Own in the '80s
Christopher Stephens
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Nearly 40 years have passed since the start of the 1980s, a decade remembered internationally for the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the spread of personal computers. Major trends in the art world included a return to painting and figuration, the emergence of Neo-Expressionism and Post-Modernism, and the rise of video, both standalone and as an installation component. Like many other cultural pursuits, visual art in Japan was long defined by and restricted to membership in a group or school. This changed in the '80s as individual artists came to the fore and genre boundaries fell by the wayside. Starting Points: Japanese Art of the '80s (running through 21 October at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture) is the first of two major retrospectives of the period scheduled for this year; the second opens in November at the National Museum of Art, Osaka.

Featuring 19 artists, most born in the '50s, the exhibition demonstrates how the lack of an overall direction or unified movement in the '80s gave rise to a variety of influential new forms and concepts. The show is distinguished by the fact that none of its organizers were old enough to have seen the art on display when it was first shown. This was apparently intended as a way of bringing greater objectivity to the selection process while ensuring that the works would appeal to the contemporary eye. For those familiar with the period, it serves as a reminder of how now-established artists got their start and how far they have come.

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Yasumasa Morimura, Portrait (Van Gogh) (1985), 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa collection.

One notable aspect of the decade was the prevalence of artists with links to the Kansai region of western Japan, inspiring the term "Kansai New Wave." Foremost among these is Yasumasa Morimura, represented here by his first major work, Portrait (Van Gogh). Inserting himself into Van Gogh's famous painting to create a photographic self-portrait that doubles as a tribute to the Dutch artist, Morimura displays a humorous and technically stunning approach that was already fully formed. Over the intervening years, he has pursued a singular path, morphing into dozens of figures from art, cinema, and world history, and expanding into video and performance.

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Exhibition view of Yukio Fujimoto's EARS WITH CHAIR (on the wall) (1990, 1993).

Also based in Kansai, the pioneering sound artist Yukio Fujimoto is known for works like EARS WITH CHAIR (on the wall), an ingeniously simple piece consisting of a chair and two long PVC pipes which, when brought to the listener's ears, radically alter the natural sounds in a space. Neatly encapsulating Fujimoto's homemade aesthetic and his predilection for readymade materials, the piece also illustrates how interactivity came to be a central theme in contemporary art.

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Exhibition view of documents and pieces from Chie Matsui's I have placed a box in the broad expanse of the forest (1987).

Another key word of the period is installation -- the practice of assembling disparate materials and unifying them into a site-specific environment. Best known today for her allegorical video works, Osaka-born artist Chie Matsui came to prominence in the '80s with such installations as I have placed a box in the broad expanse of the forest, a partial reconstruction of which appears in Kanazawa. Consisting of elements that include ceiling-high tree trunks, piles of curly blue fiber, drawers extending from the wall, large snowflake patterns, and a hexagonal table made of sliced glass, the work invites viewers to piece together their own narrative out of these seemingly unrelated totems.

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Exhibition view of Katsuhiko Hibino's paper and cardboard works from the early 1980s.

Meanwhile, artists like Katsuhiko Hibino opted for a more straightforward approach, crafting everyday items -- a baseball jacket, a typewriter, a large tennis shoe ("right only") in a shoebox -- out of coarse paper and cardboard. Some of Hibino's pieces are three-dimensional facsimiles of the real thing; others are drawings rendered in imprecise perspective with certain features cut out and others affixed to the object. The amateurish look of the works, combined with meticulous details such as hand-printed tags and English phrases ("demand beer," "the banana emerging," etc.), give Hibino's art a winning charm.

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Exhibition view of a photograph and plans for Tadashi Kawamata's Destroyed Church Project (1987).

Another of the era's true originals was Tadashi Kawamata, who made his name with sculptural installations. Using wood and other reclaimed materials, Kawamata temporarily interfered with existing structures in the process of being built or torn down to accentuate the state of the building and its surroundings, as well as to focus attention on local resources, both human and material. In Destroyed Church Project, for example, made for the 1987 Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, the artist carefully erected what initially seems to be a jumble of timber around an empty foundation that once supported a church. Easily overlooked as a collapsed building, the work stealthily invaded the public sphere, bringing unwitting passersby into direct contact with art.

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Close-up of Tatsuo Miyajima's Monism/Dualism (1989).

The introduction of the compact disc and the World Wide Web made the '80s the first digital decade. Tatsuo Miyajima was an early adopter of the new technology, using LED counters to create a series of ambiguous but disquieting works. Monism/Dualism, a typical example, is made up of a long vertical strip of constantly changing red and green numbers positioned on their sides and facing in both directions. There is no clear indication of what they might represent, but the endless activity and solemn mood of the space are conducive to dark thoughts.

To those who lived through them, the 1980s may not seem like a particularly memorable decade. But as with any era, once the more disagreeable aspects have faded into the background, it becomes easier to see the positive. In that sense Starting Points is an effective distillation of the period that acts as a primer for the beginner and a refresher course for the seasoned viewer. The exhibition will later travel to the Takamatsu Art Museum and the Shizuoka City Museum of Art.

All images courtesy of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa.


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Starting Points: Japanese Art of the '80s
7 July - 21 October 2018
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa
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Christopher Stephens
Christopher Stephens has lived in the Kansai region for over 25 years. In addition to appearing in numerous catalogues for museums and art events throughout Japan, his translations on art and architecture have accompanied exhibitions in Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, South Korea, and the U.S. His recent published work includes From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents (MoMA Primary Documents, 2012) and Gutai: Splendid Playground (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2013).
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