8 Days – Beuys in Japan

2009.10.31 – 2010.1.24
Contemporary Art Center, Art Tower Mito

by Sanbonmatsu Tomoyo (Associate curator, The Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura & Hayama)


The Japanese introduction to Joseph Beuys (1921-86) began in the 1970s through the likes of magazine Bijutsu Techo, and continued with a first showing of his work in Japan in 1980, a solo outing at Kanransha. By the 1990s, the Kiyosato Museum of Contemporary Art among several other Japanese museums boasted Beuys sculptures on permanent display.

The greatest achievement of Beuys in Japan must surely be the unearthing of previously unseen footage of the artist on his first – and what ultimately was to be his last – trip to Japan, in 1984 (the artist’s guest spot in the 1982 Japan Foundation-organized Koui to Souzou (Thoughts and Action) show having been canceled for health reasons), and the coverage in considerable detail of major aspects of this 1984 visit. This is also the largest-ever display of Beuys’ works held in Japanese collections, and the organizers have helpfully added notes to the list of works distributed at the venue.

In addition to these two subjects incorporated in the exhibition title, ie Beuys’ visit to Japan, and Beuys’ works now in Japan, the show offers a closeup view of a nation on the cusp of the bubble years, and the heyday of corporate arts patronage: a period during which Beuys was accused of selling out to big business by appearing in a commercial for Nikka Whisky and accepting money from the Seibu Museum of Art. At the same time, a program of associated events including a performance and symposium examines how Beuys’ work reverberates down to the present. Five elements, consisting of Beuys’ sculptures, footage of his visit to Japan, testimony by relevant individuals, resource material such as Beuys’ commercials and a timeline, and the events program, are arranged in the various gallery spaces, each in the most appropriate format.

8 Days – Beuys in Japan 2009
Installation view at Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito
Photo Matsukage Hiroyuki  Courtesy Contemporary Art Center, Art Tower Mito

In this (as the flyer says) ‘survey from multiple angles’, the juxtaposed video resources and artworks function in parallel to inform each other, and to this writer the show seemed to focus not so much on (also as the flyer says) ‘understanding Beuys’ works and practice through his relationship with Japan’ as on understanding Japan through Beuys. Examining Beuys’ art practice, now moving into the realm of history, in an exhibition format would unquestionably be a difficult brief in any country, but if Art Tower Mito had been a little more forthcoming with the fruits of its no doubt meticulous research for this show – for example on the circumstances surrounding the formation of individual collections, and associated history from the ’60s to Beuys’ death, including his connections with Japanese nationals outside of Japan – to offer a broader history of the artist’s reception in this country, one suspects this would have confirmed the very necessity of Beuys’ visit to Japan in the first place for the development of his art and ideals, ie his attempt to arrive at social sculpture by acting on individual lives, and for Japan.

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