From a monitor a man in a hazmat suit points his finger at us. Close by, the worrying crackle of a Geiger counter sounds. Two steps into Now Japan, at Kunsthal KAdE in Amersfoort, the most urgent parameters of present-day life in Japan are forced upon the visitor. This is a nation dealing with the aftermath of a devastating tsunami and the resulting meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Its artists deal with the fallout in their own way. The suited man in the video, an anonymous artist generally known as ‘finger pointing worker’, climbed onto the reactor and for forty-five minutes made his J’accuse-gesture at the webcam installed for online monitoring purposes, embarrassing power plant directors and the government. The noise indicating high levels of radiation is part of an installation by Sayaka Abe, that consists of a large textile tube with drawings on the inside and transcribed critical remarks by Fukushima-inhabitants about poisoned food and untrustworthy authorities.
Yuken Teruya, Inochi (Life) #1; Courtesy Kunsthal KAdE, Amersfoort; Photo: Mike Bink.
However political, Abe’s work is highly refined and aesthetically pleasing. And this goes for almost all works in this group exhibition, ranging from Yuken Teruya’s poetic little trees cut out of and lifted from newspapers reporting on the tsunami to Ataru Sato’s monumental wall drawing made especially for Now Japan. Craft and autonomous art blend together seamlessly, with a result which is sometimes maybe a bit too polished and decorative for Western tastes. But the respect for tradition and complete absence of patricide – the fuel of Western modernism so it seems – is refreshingly different from what we are used to.
Still, European and American influences can be detected in contemporary Japanese art, albeit mostly in the work of the exhibition’s older contributors. Keiichi Tanaami (b. 1936) combines buxom blondes, superheroes, and comics with a pop art sensibility reminiscent of Richard Hamilton; Genpei Akasegawa (b. 1937), who created a zero yen note, is clearly related to Dada and Fluxus; and the animations by Ryohei Yanagihara (b. 1931) have the same robust graphic style as The Pink Panther.
Now Japan installation view, Kunsthal KAdE, Amersfoort; Courtesy Kunsthal KAdE, Amersfoort; Photo: Mike Bink.
It is almost solely due to Takashi Murakami that we haven’t seen this work before. For the past two decades Murakami and his ‘superflat’ movement have dominated the image of contemporary Japanese art to the point of monopolization. The anime and manga-inspired neo-pop art with its key component ‘kawaii’ (cuteness) has commercially been hugely successful. In Now Japan only Momoyo Torimitsu refers to superflat. Her oversized inflatable pink rabbit is bent double under the museum’s ceiling, underlining the ill fit between Murakami’s uncritical celebration of consumerism and the complexity of today’s reality.
First of its kind in The Netherlands at least, Now Japan showcases the alternatives for superflat, filling in the gaps so to speak. With this many positions and perspectives in almost all possible techniques – the exhibition includes no less than thirty-seven artists – it’s a lot to take in in one go and the danger of incoherence looms large. The show is saved, however, by its liberally spaced layout which does justice to the individual works – quite a feat in this rather difficult building. Moreover, the tsunami and nuclear disaster run like a political and social thread through all three floors. Now Japan ends with a video installation by the Chim Pom collective, in which they hoist the national flag transformed into the nuclear radiation sign over an observation post near Fukushima. And we’re back in the world of the finger-pointing worker.
(Image on top: Momoyo Torimitsu, Somehow, I Don't Feel Comfortable, 2000, plastic ballons, tube, ventilators, height 4.8 meter; © Kunsthal KAdE, Amersfoort; Courtesy Kunsthal KAdE, Amersfoort; Photo: Mike Bink.)