A Week in Tokyo (2): Wintry Garden


Midori Matsui's micropop movement is an important statement about the post-Murakami scene in Japan, as well as one of the few examples of recent Japanese curation that has been noticed internationally in recent years. The trouble is, as was clear at the original Mito show in 2007, Matsui is a much better thinker/writer than she is curator. The first micropop show was a series of smart ideas attached to an indifferent selection of artists and artworks. Now, she is back, at Hara Museum, with Micropop 2.0, 'Winter Garden', that will be a touring as a Japan Foundation show in Europe and perhaps further afield.

'Winter Garden' is a lovely metaphor for the economic ice age we seem to be moving into. It evokes attempts by these young artists to make low-key, fragile, understated art, that can survive and sustain us through harsh times. It shifts the micropop ethos from the quiet political alienation the artists at Mito were said to be expressing against the excesses and decadence of a consumerist age, to one in which they are visionaries of a more sustainable art in an era stripped of resources. The accent, though, is still on very home made, evanescent, almost throwaway works, art as artlessness: fragmentary videos, tiny drawings in pencil or crayon, everyday materials, small things easy to overlook. Hara is a beautiful museum, and these warm and often charming works offer quite a bit more than the last show I saw here by Jim Lambie in December. But is this really all there is to contemporary Japanese art, or the new generation after Murakami?

Matsui persists loyally with her KaiKai Kiki choices from Mita. Yet the world surely does not need more opportunity to see Aya Takano cartoons, or Mahomi Kunikata's queasy adolescent angst. There are lots more sub-GEISAI doodlings from Ryoko Aoki, Hiroshi Sugito and Makiko Kudo, alongside pretty but also quite vacant paintings by Tam Ochiai and Daisuke Yamamoto. So far, so micropop. It is clearly the videos, mostly new to this show, that are meant to carry the 2.0 version. Taro Izumi, the most memorable artist introduced at Mito, is fun as ever, and his mensroom bathroom sink a nice reprise of what Pipilotti Rist did with the building last year. But both he and Koki Tanaka need a lot more room and space to convince. And the firestarter video by Chim Pom is the bad boy/girl group at their most anodyne. Their inclusion was surely only opportunistic, due to their current infamy. There was, of course, nothing micro or pop about their blowing up of Vuitton bags in Cambodia, or upsetting the good folk of Hiroshima with airplane trails in the sky. I do love Lyota Yagi's iceblock gramophone, a frankly hilarious work, which unfortunately is presented by the Hara staff with stiff seriousness, as if they were explaining features on the new Sony Vaio to customers.

The last room is the messiest. Two artists whose work I like – Masanori Handa and Hiroe Saeki – look terribly incongruous next to each other. Saeki's delicate pencil work, that do look like unworldy vegetation in some wintry glasshouse, are certainly a good choice for the show's title and posters; but her work shows too much craft and technique for a micropop artist. And open the door in the corner and we get an unfortunate reminder of how derivative all the other callow bedroom art is: with the obvious godfather of micropop, Yoshitomo's Nara's delightful German studio permanent room installation. It’s so much better than anything else in Matsui’s show.

An artist friend of mine described ‘Winter Garden’ as “depressing”. He means it’s depressing that this touring show is what Europe is going to see as Japan contemporary art now. For sure, German and Spanish viewers will like a show that offers more “eye candy” in the vein of the very successful kawaii/otaku style shows put on by Murakami. But these are eminently forgettable sweeties. Recent shows in Tokyo by obviously post-Bubble, post-Murakami artists – I think of those by Aoyama, Ohba, Murayama, or Nawa – have shown that there are a number of ambitious, elaborate, conceptually rich, technically brilliant, and aesthetically memorable artists making art in Japan now. Micropop is a limited and limiting take on the scene. I would describe ‘Winter Garden’ as “underwhelming” rather than “depressing”. That is maybe Matsui’s intention here: this is a show that foregrounds the curator’s ideas much more than those of the artists selected. On that score, at least, I am looking forward to reading the catalogue.







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