Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 63

2016↔2017: Looking Back and Forward

Norimizu Ameya’s “Letter from.” (Kenpoku Art 2016) begins with participants sending postcards to actual post offices in northern Ibaraki, and receiving invitation-like letters. The photo shows a spot on the bank of the Kuji River to which one of the letters guided its recipient.

Around one year ago (the original Japanese version was posted at the end of 2015), I used a single installment of this column to survey the state of the art world over the previous year under the title, “Looking back on 2015 – From the other side of ‘Best Exhibitions.'” The reason I used the words “looking back” instead of “review” and the words “from the other side” is because I wanted to consider the mini-craze concerning the “best exhibitions of the year” that suddenly takes hold at around this time every year from a somewhat coolheaded position. It has become customary for me, too, to publish just such a “seasonal poem” of my own in the “Four best exhibitions of the year as chosen by our three experts” section in the Yomiuri Shimbun. (1) Incidentally, the four I chose from among the exhibitions held in 2016 were (in no particular order) “MIYAKE ISSEY: The Work of Miyake Issey” (The National Art Center, Tokyo), Norimizu Ameya’s “Letter from.” (Kenpoku Art 2016), Chim↑Pom’s “So see you again tomorrow, too?” (Kabukicho Promotion Association Building) and Yukinori Yanagi’s “Wandering Position” (BankART Studio NYK). Of course, there were many exhibitions both big and small that were worthy of note, but since I was restricted to choosing just four, I thought there should be some kind of across-the-board critical aspect behind my selections. Also, it goes without saying that I had no desire whatsoever to give points to individual exhibitions. I stated my thoughts on this matter succinctly in the comments that accompanied my contribution when I noted, “In recent years, while there has been plenty of talk about the regulation of expression at art museums, contemporary art has really come into its own at exhibitions outside of museums and galleries.”

Installation view of Chim↑Pom’s “So see you again tomorrow, too?” (2016), staged at the Kabukicho Promotion Association Building, slated for demolition. Photo: Kenji Morita. © Chim↑Pom, courtesy the artists and MUJIN-TO Production.

Installation view of Yukinori Yanagi – Article 9 2016 at “Wandering Position” (BankART Studio NYK). Photo: Tatsuhiko Nakagawa

To put it another way, far from improving, the regulation of expression relating to artworks presented in the public space of art museums – whether it be self-regulation or some form of pressure from outside – is undoubtedly, albeit little by little and stealthily, getting worse. This was most clearly demonstrated at last year’s “Loose Lips Save Ships” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. This was an ambitious exhibition planned by a curator at the museum together with artists and other collaborators from outside the museum that sought to bring to light, by way of the possibility/impossibility of exhibiting a range of items, the conditions in the art world and in society in the 21st “century” in which we must live and in which such “regulations” have become “established.” In the end, however, I cannot help but say that by accepting the “open secret” that there are just too many things that cannot be displayed at art museums as a condition for the exhibition, the organizers treated it as an “accepted fact” and actually advanced this state of affairs. In the case of Hikaru Fujii’s exhibit, permission to display material relating to the Great Tokyo Air Raid was denied (despite this material being under the control of the same Tokyo metropolitan foundation as the museum), rendering the exhibit almost devoid of content, while Meiro Koizumi’s paintings, a series of portraits of the Emperor depicted in silhouette only entitled “Air,” were also removed after a senior staff member at the museum, going so far as to cite them as an example of “lèse-majesté,” convinced the organizers that they could not be displayed, leaving just spotlights shining on the walls were they were to have been hung. In the end Koizumi’s works were moved and displayed at the Mujin-To Production gallery not far from the museum, but I have heard nothing whatsoever about any problems arising from this. These and other cases where artworks that can be displayed without difficulty at private galleries have been prevented from being displayed at public art museums are probably the most conspicuous examples of a series of “retreats.” (2) When I thought about these works later in light of the announcements concerning the abdication of the current Emperor, I was amazed at how much was suggested in advance through the insignificant medium of painting and even felt regret knowing that had they been exhibited as planned, if anything they probably would have attracted positive reviews as suggestions coming from the art museum.

Installation view of Hikaru Fujii – Record of the Bombing at at “MOT Annual 2016: Loose Lips Save Ships” (Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo). Photo: Shizune Shiigi

Installation view of Meiro Koizumi – Air at MUJIN-TO Production, Tokyo. Photo: Shizune Shiigi. © Meiro Koizumi, courtesy MUJIN-TO Production.

One could perhaps say (with irony) that this series of cases in which works – none of which was in any way extremist or obscene or even political in and of itself and would have been displayed in the past with no difficulty whatsoever -were deemed impossible to display upon “asking” the museum, which was also the aim of the exhibition in question, succeeded in bringing to light in a negative way the circumstances surrounding contemporary art expression in public spaces, which has until now, if anything, consisted of a grey zone in which black and white are not well defined. One can perceive in the background to this a desire with the Tokyo Olympics just a few years away to sweep away the city’s negative past (the slaughter of over one hundred thousand people in the Great Tokyo Air Raid – incidentally, the area around the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo was one of the hardest hit in the air raid, and numerous “bereaved families” still live in the neighborhood) as well as a desire on the part of central and local government to actively “politicize” art and culture. Perhaps the classic example of this was the “‘Tokyo’ – Sensing the Cultural Magma of the Metropolis” exhibition held at the same museum, which in the lead-up to 2020 looked back at the 1980s when Tokyo was at its most dazzling. Here, one of the largest scenes of war damage in the 20th century – so large it would be no surprise if the name “Tokyo” were to be etched in history as an unforgettable memory alongside those of “Hiroshima” and “Nagasaki”- was simply lauded without reference to this history. It can be expected that such initiatives will rapidly become more common as the Olympics get closer, which is none other than repeating the events of the past in which artists were mobilized to produce “Greater East Asia War Campaign Documentary Paintings” during the Asia-Pacific War and around the slogan “Progress and Harmony for Mankind” during Osaka Expo ’70. Considering that art becomes etched in history not only on the basis of its contemporaneous successes and achievements, but essentially on the basis of close examination by later generations, we need to be more strongly aware of how it will be viewed by these later generations of people who are not present “here and now.”

Scene form the “Art and Freedom of Expression” symposium held on July 24, 2016, at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum Lecture Hall.

In light of all the above, one could probably say that the “Art and Freedom of Expression” symposium held on July 24 last year at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum Lecture Hall by the Japanese Section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA JAPAN), of which I am a member, was the first attempt in a long time by art critics working in solidarity to counter these developments. (3) However, because I am chairperson of AICA JAPAN’s standing committee and was on the executive committee for this symposium, I am not in a position to offer an objective assessment of this event. Be that as it may, I wrote of the incredibly “unpleasant aftertaste” in the wake of holding this symposium in an article entitled “Regarding the inconvenience of principles yielding to examples” in the “Newsletter” published annually by AICA JAPAN, so readers who are interested are encouraged to take a look. (4)

As well, prior to this event, in light of the extraordinary state of affairs in which – in spite of the fact that they ought to be in the position of defending “freedom of expression” – there appeared from among the members who make up this organization (the majority of whom are involved in national or public art museums) individuals who were willingly involved in the very “regulation of expression” that this symposium sought to address as an issue, there were suggestions from within AICA JAPAN that we needed to reaffirm AICA’s principles. As an extension of this, a statement titled “In Defense of Freedom of Expression” prepared by Kenjiro Okazaki, Noi Sawaragi, Seiichi Tsuchiya, Michio Hayashi and Hisao Matsuura was published on the AICA JAPAN website on July 4. (5) This statement gained the approval of 67 members out of a total membership of 186 for that year, with the names of all 76 also published on the website. However, despite the fact that, even when compared to the history of the formation of the International Association of Art Critics as a group officially recognized by UNESCO with headquarters in Paris and precedents in various other countries, the contents of this statement are not in any way out of the ordinary, less than half of AICA JAPAN’s members were willing to endorse it. It should be added that this same statement was officially adopted not as the opinion of “concerned members” but as “the collective opinion of all members” at AICA JAPAN’s annual general meeting held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum Lecture Hall on November 27 last year, so I encourage anyone who is interested to take a look.

Let me also add that over the last few years, AICA JAPAN has been actively “issuing joint opinions” (Statute No. 5), which prior to this were almost never issued at all. In addition to the above-mentioned statement, these include “Request for explanation of the unfair arrest of and withdrawal of charges against Ms Rokudenashiko,” “Request regarding preservation of the National Stadium murals,” “Statement in protest at the unfair judgment against Ms Rokudenashiko” and “Written questions regarding the problem of the request for removal/modification of works by the Aida Family at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo,” but the fact that the responses to these events, which have great significance not only socially but also in art historical terms, have in many cases taken the form of the opinion not of AICA JAPAN as a whole but of a limited number of concerned members can only be described as unfortunate. (6) However, on the subject of “issuing joint opinions,” too, at the last general meeting it was decided that in future they could be issued as collective opinions with the approval of two thirds of standing committee members, and this is to be newly incorporated into the statutes. At the end of fiscal 2016 I will wind up my service as a standing committee member on the expiry of my term, but I hope that in the future opinions will be issued even more vigorously and that the committee continues to function as it should as a check on the current situation in which we cannot relax any further when it comes to freedom of expression.

Considering all the above, one could probably say it was almost inevitable that it was not at art museums, which in normal circumstances would be expected to play the leading role in presenting art, but in the context of completely self-planned initiatives at art festivals, alternative art spaces and commercial galleries that most of the finest exhibits that relativized the cross-boundary characteristics and existing conventional wisdom with regard to contemporary art could be seen. And one could also say that looking back over the last year, it was the “art festivals,” held in larger numbers than ever before all around the country, that made possible many of the landmark exhibits that were notable for the quality of the artworks on display and their criticism of the “touristification” of art. In fact, in the case of all but the first of the exhibitions I included in my above-mentioned “best four,” it is highly unlikely they would have been able to be held in art museums as they are today.



    1. Selections and brief reviews by Akira Tatehata, Noi Sawaragi and Noriko Tsutatani were published in the morning edition, culture section, on December 22, 2016.

  1. Related articile: “Noi Sawaragi: Monthly Review 95: “Who’s hurt by Air? Meiro Koizumi’s “Air” exhibition,” Bijutsu Techo, July 2016.
  2. Participants: Reiko Kokatsu, Seiichi Tsuchiya, Fumiko Nakamura, Michio Hayashi, Yuri Mitsuda; moderator: Toshio Shimizu. For the content see “AICA Japan: FY 2016 Symposium ‘Art and Freedom of Expression’ Records of the Event.”
  3. Noi Sawaragi, “Regarding the inconvenience of principles yielding to examples” in “AICA Japan Newsletter” no. 6, Internet edition, 2016, p. 10.
  4. A special website titled “About the freedom of expression” was created and announced on the AICA Japan website.
  5. See the “Statutes of International Association of Art Critics Japanese Section” and “Seimei” (Statements) sections of the AICA Japan website.

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