This autumn Kunsthal KAdE presents a major exhibition of Japanese art today. The group show will feature 37 contemporary artists of Japanese origin. Over the last fifteen years, Takashi Murakami and his Superflat-movement have stolen the show with his cartoon-like figurative style, based on manga and anime. This has dominated recent exhibitions of contemporary Japanese art in Europe and the United States. In ‘Now Japan’, KAdE reveals the existence of many other artistic styles and concerns in the Japanese archipelago. One focus of the exhibition is Japanese artists’ response to the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011.
Unlike those in many other ‘non-Western’ countries, artists in Japan have been involved in virtually every international artistic movement since World War II: the Informal movement (Gutai group), Op Art (Soto), Fluxus (Yoko Ono), Conceptualism (On Kawara), performance art (Yayoi Kusama) and Postmodernism (Murakami). In today’s diffuse and multiform international art world, positions are increasingly individualised. Schools and movements have disappeared, to be replaced by attitudes and trends. New-style developments are universal and ‘global’, but often also local in flavour. Accordingly, the works selected for this exhibition have a certain Japanese character, although the artists concerned cannot be defined purely in terms of their local culture.
Zen philosophy as a fundamental aspect of Japanese art
Nobody with an interest in Japan or Japanese art can ignore the Zen philosophy that is so fundamental to Japanese life and therefore also informs the country’s art. ‘Now Japan’ shows how the ancient philosophy is a living force in contemporary Japanese art, whether explicitly in the work of artists like Zon Ito, Hiroe Saeki, Yamamoto Masao and Shinji Ohmaki, or less obviously in the work of many others. Among the works on show in the exhibition will be Ryohei Iimura’s film of the late eighties, ‘Space/Time in the Garden of Ryoan-Ji’, which explores Kyoto’s world-famous Zen garden in minute detail. Another striking aspect of contemporary Japanese art is its rootedness in national cultural and craft traditions. Craftsmanship is a characteristic of many aspects of Japanese culture. Daily life is full of exquisitely crafted objects. This attention to detail is reflected in the country’s art. Japanese artists do not reject tradition; they make it a natural and integral part of their work.
The ‘West’ has a far more complex relationship with the past. Ever since the early twentieth century, attitudes have been dominated by a belief in progress and ‘tradition’ has been regarded as retrograde and even faintly suspect. ‘Traditional’ is a pejorative term. Not so in Japan. Contemporary Japanese artists base their work on their strong cultural traditions and address the issue of the past in a subtle and unforced way.