Low Life: Real Art in a Material World


At London’s Tate Modern in London, today, you can go marvel at Takashi Murakami’s latest meditations on the convergence of branding and contemporary art in plastic and acrylic. At the Mori Museum in Tokyo, you can go see Ai Weiwei’s lavish and wasteful transformation of ancient artefacts and priceless materials into art objects made to measure for contemporary global curatorial discourse. Both are forms of contemporary art obsessed with the question of the artificial construction of value in the white cube gallery space as the meaning of art today. But elsewhere in Japan, you can see quite different, alternative takes on what it might be to do “art in a material world”. It is one much more in tune with environmental and social issues that artists working under intense spatial and financial constraints – unlike Murakami and Weiwei – have to increasingly encounter in their everyday practice.

I wrote extensively about Echigo-Tsumari in a previous blog interview with Fram Kitagawa (2009-7-24), and I still hope to revisit this discussion after seeing some of the outdoors Triennial in September. When people ask me why is contemporary Japanese art is so interesting, I say it is because Japan today is so interesting. It is a guide to all our futures: the most dramatic example we have today of an urbanised society of immense leisure and affluence having to come to terms with economic and population decline and a shocked realisation that the illusions of “bubble” development and growth offer no future at all. This brought forth a lot of decadent “otaku” art, and it now calls for a more hopeful “sustainable art”, which is happening in abundance (although not always convincingly) at Echigo, and in numerous other community art projects around the country. And “sustainable art” is also happening in the big city, such as the latest instalment under this title (“Threshold: Sustainable Art”) at Ueno Town Art Museum of Geidai students’ outside-the-gallery works that opens today in the streets in and around Ueno.

My contact at this event is James Jack, an artist and writer from New York, who is staying on longer than planned in his current PhD work to further soak up and participate in various inspiring art projects linked to his stay at Geidai. He talks enthusiastically about getting involved in projects that are firmly “outside the white box” and that are “very linked with local people, social architecture and slowness” – and how it’s good to be away from New York City for a while on all these counts. Go see what they are up to:

When I lived in Tokyo, I used to live in Omotesando (a long story!), but my heart has always been in the northern parts of the city – Arakawa, Machiya, Sumida, Senju, Yanasen, or the scruffy streets of Yushima, where I sometimes stay on short visits to the city. It’s the feel of “real Tokyo” these places have, that has something to do with the worn out buildings, the wires, the lights, the sense of everyday life far from the glamour spots of the city. This is, of course, the romance of the “shitamachi” – the “low” or “under” city, rather than “downtown” as its often wrongly translated – with its old style kissaten and wooden sento disappearing one by one, the retro dining bars being forced out of business, glimpses of the lives of ordinary Tokyo folk preserving some of the better bits of an older Tokyo against the bitter noise of crashing pachinko parlours, seedy entertainment districts, and faceless developer’s change.

These places are the left over of Japan’s era of unbroken post-war urban development, now looking tired and worn-out, with their quintessential atmosphere of polite and inevitable decline. I guess they are also good places for poor and wannabe young artists trying to survive on little income: a good place to live and work. It’s the very opposite of the gleaming “neo-Tokyo” of Roppongi Hills, in the same way that Echigo ideal is the opposite of the Mori Building philosophy.

There is a long time art connection going on here, and the connection is of course Masato Nakamura, who has been using the less glamorous parts of Ueno, Akihabara and Kanda as locations for his productions since the late 1990s – both for public art “interventions” and experimental “sustainable art” linked to his Geidai teaching or activities of the Command N group. Public art has now become synonymous with expensive corporate sculptures in front of shiny buildings, but there was a time when this was something fresh in the Tokyo art scene, when Nakamura and others first started proposing to using the “cracks” of city development, in between new buildings, empty factories or dilapidated housing to make a different kind of art – all very much parallel to the counter-urban tactics of Echigo Tsumari patching up empty school buildings, or renovating abandoned wooden housing in depopulated villages. For the latest versions of “sustainable art”, then, you should head to the northern quarters of the city, or perhaps out to rural Gunma, where Jack is currently participating in another collective project with the same spirit.

I am always curious about the parallel but very different trajectories that Nakamura and Murakami have taken since their days as an art alliance in the early 1990s. They were, of course the pivotal “glimmer twins” of those heady Gimburart and Omori days, the two most “likely” of the “likely lads” that came out of the extraordinary creative nexus of the period. Whatever happened to them, then, these old pals? Not much in common these days, it seems. Nakamura’s newest and biggest venture to date will to be take over as director of the art centre being opened early next year in the renovated Rensei Junior High School, which you can find hidden away in the same streets south of Ueno that I sometimes call home. The former Junior High School will be familiar because it hosted the 101 Tokyo launch in 2008 (as in the photo above), and which, although battered and stuck with its cheap 1960s public architecture, offers a spectacular new and large space for re-imagining, re-novating and re-inventing sustainable art – and maybe even commercial sustainable art! – in the future. Surely befitting for a building that was once intended to nurture city children who are no longer being born. As some of these projects suggest, not all great art has to be big, plastic and worth a million dollars.





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投稿元 : Salomon Hiking Shoes / 2013年12月18日14:46





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