It may sound surprising, but if you can’t make a trip to Japan today and want to bathe in the country’s creative atmosphere, the best solution the West has to offer is to take the TGV 1 hour and 15 minutes from Paris to the Centre Pompidou-Metz, where even the building itself was designed by the Japanese star architect Shiregu Ban. It’s within this setting that two exhibitions are currently showing on contemporary art in the Land of the Rising Sun. The first exhibition, Japanorama, which is huge, sprawling and – it must be said – rather disorganized, observes the State of creation since the 1970s with 104 artists exhibited across two floors.
The second, on one level, homes in spectacularly (it features only very large-scale installations) on an artist collective called Dumb Type, who have been together since university and work with electronic imagery, and whose members include the famous Ryoji Ikeda (born 1966). The group tends towards thoroughness. And so the famous “Infinity Mirror Room”, an installation made up entirely of mirrors, lights and water by the Pop artist Yayoi Kusama which resembles a palace of wonders (recently shown in New York at the Zwirner Gallery and in Los Angeles at The Broad, where crowds flocked to see it) is visible without impediment at the Metz.
But in a broader sense, a visit to this exhibition produces feelings of fascination mixed with unease. As the curator Yuko Hasegawa, artistic director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, explains: “Japan is a bundle of paradoxes which are manifested through the coexistence of tradition and technology, a deep respect for nature (…) and the destruction of the natural world through the miracle of economics.”
She elaborates further :
The art from this part of the world is populated with cartoon characters, monsters, trees and flowers in garish colours which communicate fantasies that are half dreamlike, half nightmarish, as though life were one long comic strip. The tradition of animism, the belief that every living thing has a soul, and the country’s nuclear catastrophes seem, for many people, to fit within this flair for the fantastical. Not to mention the most famous artist of them all, Takashi Murakami, with his hallucinogenic flowers, and the characters created by Yoshitomo Nara (born 1959) that have also flooded the art market.
He depicts a proliferation of childlike heroes who are both cute, “Kawai”, and frightening at the same time; a clear reaction to a Japanese adult world that is largely ruled by convention. In a more graceful and feminine vein, Aya Takano makes paintings of young people who are just as “Kawai” and with an equally acidic tone, yet more brazen.
The other major school in Japanese art is inspired by pared-down aesthetics steeped in Zen spirituality, as in the work of that most Japanese of Koreans, Shigeru Ban (born 1936). His technological avatar could in fact be the Dumb Type collective, with their giant animated screens showing sequences of hypnotic images.
One of the founding members of Dumb Type explains the group’s inspirations:
The Japan of the art world is in fashion, and this exhibition shines a spotlight on a large number of artists whose works are seen all too rarely – works that have sadly been turned into lucrative commercial products.
Japanorama: Until 5 March.
Dumb Type: Until 14 May.