A Week in Tokyo (3): Takahashi Collections


Psychologist Ryu Takahashi’s professed reason for collecting so much contemporary Japanese art is to save it from the fate that befell the golden era of ukiyo-e paintings. Scorned at home, they mostly fell into the hands of western collectors, so that nowadays you have to go to the British Museum, Paris or Boston to see the best of this rich seam of Japanese culture. Whether anybody will be marvelling over Takashi Murakami’s goofy flower paintings in two centuries time is anyone’s guess, but Takahashi has certainly amassed a wonderful “sampler” of young Japanese artists (YJAs?) since the early 1990s.

It’s a fascinating collection, particular if you share as I do a J-centric interest in contemporary art that links it to particularities of Japanese society, culture and economy and the dramatic social and generational changes that have taken place since the end of the Bubble. The current show at Ueno Royal museum is therefore a must see, if only to check on how these currents have been pieced together and represented.

I caught the touring show’s first stop in Sapporo in December. My main problem with the show is the framing: the concept “neoteny”, which according to Wikipedia refers to the biological notion of “juvenilisation, or the retention by adults of traits previously seen in juveniles”. Stretched to cover the art on show here, I presume Takahashi (if indeed it was he who reached for the medical dictionary) is referring to the abiding themes of infantillisation, juvenile sexuality and undercurrents of sexual deviance, that has long been cultivated thematically as the dark side of Murakami and Nara’s at-first-glance happy, cute and childish imaginary. In Sapporo, I visited the show as part of a tour around the city with an academic friend and his young daughter, and – after I’d pestered him to help with the untranslated Japanese texts explaining the show – he questioned why it was Japanese contemporary art was always being presented in these uncomfortable and disturbing terms. Not least, it seems to confirm many of the prejudiced ideas westerners have about the weirder sides of Japanese culture.

The point was that the concept in fact misrepresented a large chunk of this show, especially work by much of the younger, emerging thirtysomething generation. In Sapporo, it was bookended by Motohiko Odani and Konoike Koide’s strange visions, which certainly sets the theme, and one cannot argue with its appropriateness for Aida, Nara or Izumi, or even the work of Mika Kato or Kumi Machida. But Takahashi has shown interest in other kinds of works, as well as younger artists, who are bored with the fixation on psychological undercurrents, and exploring very different issues – mostly to do with technique, perception and craft – in their work. A good case in point is Ruriko Murayama’s stunning floral mannequins, that get a prominent role in Ueno as in Sapporo, but which need relating to themes of colour, techniques of production, and the transgression of lines between fashion and art, not any queasy kimo-kawaii obsessions. Her response to that, she always says, is just to ignore it and get back to dyeing and sewing. Or Tabaimo. Her brilliant narrative work is certainly grim and grotesque, but why should it be referred back to terms that make us think only of adult manga rather than a much broader reflection on the seismic ruptures of contemporary Japanese urban life?

We are stuck, in other words, in the sorry otaku universe of KaiKai Kiki’s Mr. if we are to take the curation seriously. The show as a whole is a lot better than that, although in Ueno the ordering was unclear, many of the rooms look cluttered, with several artists lost in corridor passages. I immediately screwed up by trying to “interact” directly – as instructed in English on the box – with one of Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s famous “milk box” galleries, a camera by Miran Fukada. Oops. For my shame, I then spent the rest of my rapid visit being shadowed by walky-talky toting gallery assistants, who seem to have been recruited en masse from a Tokyu department store elevator girl training scheme. Still, I managed to pick out a few highlights. Kumi Machida’s multiple 101 Days of Sodom images is a brilliant piece of book illustration, surely one of Takahashi’s smartest acquisitions. There were some early Murakami, including a cartoon of Nakamura vs. Murakami that whisks us back to the days in the early days of the 1990s when he was just one of the likely lads of neo-pop. I have a fondness for some of his frankly lousy conceptual pieces from that era, before he got the nihonga+otaku+branding equation right. There is of course one certain masterpiece in the show – Aida’s downright nasty Air Raid on New York – and plenty of other things to fulfil an introductory taste of Japanese contemporary. Unfortunately, however, they have still not bothered to translate anything about the show or even catalogues, to make it more accessible to the foreign visitors who would learn and see a lot in this exhibition. I’m not sure what Ueno Royal’s policy logic is here, but it’s a surefire way of shooting yourself and the artists representing “Japan now” in the foot.

It was pelting down Sunday afternoon, but I just managed to make it to the new Takahashi space in Hibiya for the show of his Yayoi Kusama collection. Now, we have all seem a thousand Kusamas, but I was deeply impressed and won-over for this stalwart of Japanese contemporary by this small, but essential collection. Juxtaposing works from all of the last five decades, you get a strong sense of the continuity, and obsessive vision of Kusama, that mark her out as an original. We don’t know whether they are silver penises, bananas or knitted gloves, but her sofa and wall installations are still gloriously bizarre tactile objects externalising some vertiginous internal consciousness. There is a miniature of one of her fabulous mirror room installations, and even the pumpkins, dot paintings, and cheaper pop art moves come alive in the grouping of works here. There seems little doubt here that Takahashi’s investments have saved and archived something very important for Japan.







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