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Back to Reviews 98

  letter from tokyo

by Kay Itoi  

Yasumasa Morimura

Morimura with a fan.
Morimura at MOT
One of the biggest art events this spring is the retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MOT) of Yasumasa Morimura, the Japanese artist who shot to fame in the 1980s with large-scale photographic self portraits, often in gaudy masquerade. Opening on Apr. 25, "The Museum of Daydream and Disguise: Self-Portrait as Art History" features all the major works from Morimura's "Art History" series. The large color photos feature the artist himself posing as the central figure in famous paintings by van Gogh, Velazquez, Monet, Rosetti, Rembrandt and Manet.

The MOT survey provides a rare opportunity to view his well-known pieces, so many of which have graced the covers of glossy magazines over the years, in person, and together. Also present are such new works as three Mona Lisa paintings, which he had worked on until the night before the opening.

In person he is charming and talkative. He spent the entire opening autographing catalogues and T shirts. The exhibition will be through June 7 in Tokyo. It will travel to The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (June 16 - Aug. 2) and the Marugame Genichiro Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art (Aug. 30 - Oct. 18).

Taro Okamoto
Sun Tower

Taro Okamoto
Burning Hand
Fauna v. Okamoto
Two years after his death in 1996 at age 84, Taro Okamoto is still among the most visible and controversial Japanese artists. He spent his youth in Paris, where he befriended Kandinsky, Mondrian and Andre Breton. He became something of a Japanese Picasso, or at least an avant-garde pioneer who enjoyed shocking the conservative Japanese public all through his long career. His colorful, abstract paintings and sculpture could be described as akin to Nikki Saint Phalle without the riotous color.

Okamoto is best known for Sun Tower, a monument he designed for the 1970 the World Expo in Osaka. Called a grotesque and spectacular waste of money, the Sun Tower became something of a symbol of the nation's drastic economic growth in the 1970s. (Grotesque or not, even today it's difficult to imagine Japanese bureaucrats installing Okamoto's tower to welcome international guests to the country's most important event of the decade.) Okamoto then appeared in TV commercials and on game shows, shouting trademark slogans like "Art is an explosion!" His eccentricity raised eyebrows, but he loved criticism, often saying that he would be finished if people began praising him.

Today, Okamoto is still a force in Japan's art world. A gallery in his memory will open in Tokyo's trendy Aoyama district in May, and new annual Taro Okamoto Art Prize for young artists was launched last month. But the most curious is a lawsuit that went on for several years over the construction of his memorial museum in Kawasaki, south of Tokyo.

In 1991, Okamoto gave 352 pieces of his work, reputedly worth $385 million at the time, to his hometown of Kawasaki. The city immediately announced plans to build a museum to house the collection. That did not sit well with local environmentalists, since the project site was the industrial city's unusually preserved green zone. "Green" advocates sued -- or rather, they filed a suit on behalf of the foxes, raccoons, dragonflies and spiders whose habitat would be destroyed by the museum. The creatures "demanded" that the mayor withhold funds for the project. The suit was dismissed, however, by the Yokohama District Court last fall, and again by the Tokyo High Court in March. The Greens are reworking their strategy.

"Had he been a little more conventional, the museum would not have provoked such harsh criticism," comments an art critic who knew Okamoto. "Then again, animals suing him -- he would have loved to see it!"


Last Judgment, in tile

Arena Chapel,
via photo-ceramic

A tile replica of Picasso's Guernica
The House of Replicas
Some people think the Japanese aren't as good at creating art as copying it. Most Japanese art-lovers would want to challenge that notion. Not Masahito Otsuka, the boss of the Otsuka Group, the giant pharmaceutical and chemical company. He built a $320-million art museum in late March on the Shikoku island in southwestern Japan to house nothing but copies of the world's most famous art works.

The Otsuka Museum of Art is filled with "finely detailed photographic reproductions" of the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, Guernica, Monet's Waterlilies and some Andy Warhols -- all baked into ceramic tiles. Even the Sistine Chapel is reproduced with tiles. The museum is one of the country's most expensive art institutions, and also has the second largest floor space in the country (number one is the Tokyo MOT, which opened in 1995).

The process of making the ceramic-tile reproductions is not that complicated. You transfer the photographic images of the original pieces onto ceramic boards. Then paint in the fine details by hand and fire the boards at a temperature of 1,300 degrees Celsius, giving them nearly permanent durability. The museums which own the originals gave Otsuka permission to do this because the reproductions are ceramic -- and therefore there will be no mistaking them for the originals.

The idea is, obviously, to showcase the ceramic technology developed by one of the Otsuka group companies. But the museum officials proudly declare that they have overcome all the inconveniences of regular museum visits, such as not being able to details in a dimly lit gallery, or not being able to immediately compare da Vinci's Mona Lisa with his Madonna of the Rocks, because they are in two different museums. But here, you can get as close to any of the pieces as you want or you can even touch them. That's why Otsuka calls it, ambitiously, the realization of Andre Malraux's "museum of the imagination."

Curiously, it has provoked heated discussion in certain chat rooms on the net -- whether the museum, which displays nothing but fakes, is worth visiting, particularly considering its high admission fee of 3,000 yen ($22). Expensive or not, Otsuka says several thousand people have already visited there.


Katharina Fritsch
Man and Mouse

Marlene Dumas

Curator Konig with admirer.

Sigmar Polke

Mr. Dob

The Murakami Watch

Takashi Murakami
courtesy Feature,
New York
New Contemporary Art Gallery in Gunma
Last month the Museum of Modern Art in Gunma, north of Tokyo, opened a new gallery called "Contemporary Art Wing" with much fanfare and a show of eight contemporary European artists curated by Portikus (Frankfurt) director Kasper Konig. One is tempted to praise the museum for its ambitions, particularly in light of the notorious Japanese lack of interest in contemporary art. Still, the museum has drawn some criticism for inviting a non-Japanese curator, and non-Japanese artists, for its inaugural show. "Didn't they have enough self-confidence to curate their very first show, to show what they want to do with gallery?" says a Tokyo art dealer. "I was disappointed when I first heard about it."

The new wing was designed by Arata Isozaki, who had created the original building 23 years earlier. The goal, according to museum director Kimio Nakayama, was a museum with a sense of expansive scale and plenty of natural light. It certainly is a large space, with a 34-foot-tall ceiling suitable for contemporary works, which seem to get bigger and bigger.

Plainly titled "Eight People from Europe" (which is the English title, not the translation), the show features Marlene Dumas, Peter Fischli, Katharina Fritsch, Douglas Gordon, Niele Toroni, Sigmar Polke and Franz West. Polke's large paintings stand out, particularly a 16-work series titled "Laterna Magica" (1988-1996), which are installed like folding screens. Dumas' contribution is also a show-stopper, a collection of some 200 portraits of women of all races, completely covering one wall. Katharina Fritsch brought her giant rats (seen at the Lyon Biennial last fall), and a new work, which features a big heart made of hundreds of coins on the floor.

Sadly, probably the most outstanding work there is not in the exhibition. A 1956 bronze cast of a monument, The Destroyed City by Ossip Zadkine, which the museum purchased last year for $1.8 million, stands at the entrance. It is an enlarged, twisted female figure, that reminds the pain of the war.

Murakami's Wristwatch
What is the hot item among Tokyo fashion stylists and magazine editors? A special-edition Citizen wristwatch designed by artist Takashi Murakami, known for his wacky cartoon figures. Murakami's watch features "Mr. DOB," a cartoon character very well-known among the artist's followers

Sporty digital watches have been hysterically popular in Japan for the last few years. Often produced in small batches, some models are traded at extremely inflated prices. There are at least seven magazines that are devoted to these wristwatches. Murikami's watch is the summer's most anticipated new model.

Citizen is scheduled to release the Murakami model (only 999 units will be available) in Japan in July, but the company has been swamped with orders and now plans to release some of the watches in Los Angeles on May 15. A stylist who worked with Murakami on it remarks he would not be surprised if some Japanese teens showed up in L.A. just for one wrist watch.

Murakami, who was born in 1962, is one of the leading artists whose work is inspired by Japan's celebrated anime subculture. Last year he made a larger-than-life-size sculpture of a female cartoon hero squirting fluid from her oversized breasts; the nipples were actually penises and the fluid is semen. All five of the sculptures were quickly sold, including one to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He teaches art at UCLA, and is scheduled to introduce a new sculpture, Lonesome Cowboy, at Blum & Poe in Santa Monica this June.

KAY ITOI is a Tokyo-based journalist who writes about art, technology and lifestyle.