This spring I visited Japan, three weeks after the devastating earthquake and tsunami. Sixteen thousand aftershocks have been recorded since March 11, 2011, but the ones that could be felt in Tokyo and Yokohama were surprisingly un-scary. Mesmerized by woodblock ink in an art supply store, I didn’t even notice that the building was moving and couldn’t figure out why the store worker wanted to move me away from the aisle.
While the tragedies in Northeast Japan continued to intensify, everything seemed normal in Tokyo, aside from a shortage of large bottles of water and more frequent outtages of public escalators and lighting. A lot of people had on surgical masks for hay fever, but nobody was wearing plastic raincoats to avoid acid rain, and everyone was running around as usual. The giant neon signs at Shibuya, the world’s largest intersection, were dark, but thousands were constantly crossing the street. Ueno Park’s entrance was thronged with Japanese families on their way to see cherry trees in full bloom (although other foreigners were absent).
Art fans were still finding their way to the Kiyosumi Art Complex, a rather isolated group of exhibition spaces that has been nestled within an industrial warehouse near the Sumida River since 2005. Taka Ishii, a prominent gallery on the fifth floor, shows the great Japanese photographers Daido Moriyama and Shomei Tomatsu, and also represents Nobuyoshi Araki, celebrated for his erotic bondage snapshots. Americans who’ve recently exhibited at Taka Ishii include Sterling Ruby, Lisa Ruyter, Sean Landers and Slater Bradley. The gallery has another Tokyo space for photography and film in Roppongi, as well as a branch in Kyoto.
After the earthquake, Dutch artist Marijke van Warmerdam, who makes elegiac film-loop installations, postponed her scheduled Taka Ishii show. Under the circumstances, the gallery presented a poignant and sensitive exhibition called “NOART”-- a donation box for earthquake victims in an empty room.
As far as foreign clients are concerned, business is as usual, according to Taka Ishii’s Takayuki Mashiyama, but Japanese collectors are giving their money to charity rather than buying art. To let them do both at once, the galleries in Kiyosumi galleries held a silent auction for the benefit of Northeast Japan. Works by artists from all over the world were included, including Tomatsu and Araki, as well as artists from the powerhouse Gallery Tomio Koyama: Yoshitomo Nara, Tom Sachs and Laurie Simmons. Benjamin Butler's pink cherry blossom painting (illustrated here, and estimated at about $7,500-$9,400) was among the most attractive pieces available. The benefit raised 38,564,467 yen, or almost $500,000, for the humanitarian organization Japan Platform.
Koyama also shows Richard Tuttle, whose mastery of evanescent everyday materials was channeled in “needle and thread,” a buoyant collaborative show by Hiroshi Sugita and Jun Aoki that was on view when I was there. Opened before the earthquake, the exhibition's sense of weightlessness felt like a metaphor for the tenuous relationship the Japanese have with the ground beneath their feet.
Sugita has been showing his quasi-abstract fairy-tale paintings at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in New since 1997, and Aoki is an architect who used to work for Arata Isozaki. The exhibition was designed as a teaser for a larger collaborative endeavor called “leaves and fields (cobweb and spider),” planned for the Aomori Museum in northern Japan, which Aoki designed. After the earthquake, the exhibition had to be canceled.
Both aggressive and delicate, the show began with a screen of pink gauze that hung from the ceiling at eye level just outside the elevator, almost slapping visitor’s faces as they entered the space. More fabric membranes were suspended on each doorway and over the front desk, perhaps referring to the ubiquitous noren curtains that hang in front of restaurants and kitchens all over Japan, blocking interiors from the sight of people walking by.
Somehow evaporating notions of architectural solidity, a fluorescent pastel painting, a roughly sketched floor plan, a finished blueprint and a wall studded with colorful little plastic balls accompanied a small model building placed on a pedestal in the side room. The darkened main gallery was dominated by an installation titled bringing the stars down to your door -- an enormous pair of inflated lemon-shaped sculptures, one of them lit from within. Additional eccentric asymmetric abstractions also hung here and there on the walls.
More allusions to architecture and light, such as entrances, screens and windows, could be found in the works on view in the sixth floor galleries. “Zen and Psychedelic,”the first phase of “The Adventure of Alter-Japan” -- a series of shows organized for Sprout Curation by Yoshikazu Shiga, included some small collages of pink and maroon marbleized paper by Soshiro Matsubara. A few were cut open in the center, creating doors revealing images underneath. One has a mouth with the tongue sticking out as if it’s bursting through an outer skin covered with layers of dried blood. Marbleizing also screens a photo of a topless young woman in mesh tights. They are only 63,000 Yen (approx. $750).
Next door at hiromiyoshii, a gallery that also shows Turner Prize-winner Martin Creed, Christian Holstad and Josh Smith (among others), another group show called “Parts and Whole/Today’s Perspective in Art from East Asia,” included artists from Korea, China and Japan. A projection on a painting by Kun Ying Lin beautifully squeezed a full day’s changing light into just a few minutes, sending pearly dawn to midnight starred skies across an image of a classical building.
Megumi Yamashiro also combined painting with film by putting an ornate frame around a miniature video of Shakespeare’s drowned Ophelia, lying in a river as a blanket of flowers moves over her naked body. And sangjunRoh’s exquisitely constructed miniature paper islands hung from the ceiling, uncannily expressing Japan’s earthly instability. One features a pagoda surrounded by running tigers -- perhaps defending traditional Asian culture from global capitalism’s incursion.
The next day we visited NADiff (short for "new art diffusion"), another gallery building tucked away in Ebisu, with an up-to-the-minute art bookstore that already had a copy of Ari Marcopoulos’ Directory more than a week before its scheduled launch party at White Columns back in New York. I coveted a pricey Taka Ishii catalogue for an exhibition of Sterling Ruby’s succulent ceramics, and a French book on Tsuguharu Foujita, the perverse Japanese-Parisian painter who had an affair with Kiki de Montparnasse and adorned a Catholic chapel with crucifixion images in the years before his death.
A penciled procession of flighty male figures, toy ships and flying horses led down a precarious spiral staircase to a show called “Jiga-Jisan,” by 30 year-old Yosuke Kobashi. Filling the small basement gallery, even migrating down to the floor, his riotous self-portraits blend Jean Cocteau’s stylized narcissism with a child’s bold sense of color and design. The show’s title, my Japanese husband explained, is a humorous pun that sounds like “self-admiration,” but reads “I bring my paintings myself.”
In one washy oil self-portrait, Kobashi depicts himself stretched across the canvas against a grid, his blue face rising from the center of a red apple with two leaves growing out of his neck. In another, he advances on all fours towards two huge bananas as a poodle bites him in the rear. Prices ranged from 8,000 Yen for one small sketch to 1,100,000 Yen for a wall-sized painting.
Upstairs, at a gallery called MEM, was an exhibition of obsessive ink drawings by Chiyuki Sadagami titled “Naturalis Historia.” In a whimsical biography that replaces the usual tedious exhibition list, Sadagami poetically describes being born between 5,000,000 and 9,000,000 years ago in the Precambrian Sea. She also recounts being “tortured physically and mentally by people who put value on giving continuous stimulation to their left-brain.”
Such abuse hasn’t stopped her from spewing out fascinating works combining butterflies, paisley patterns, and imaginary writing -- a picture of a snail with snakes coming out of his back stood out. The show had been scheduled to open on Mar. 12, 2011, the day after the tsunami, but the opening was postponed for a week. Prices ranged from 50,000 Yen to 100,000 Yen (about $1,000, give or take), and many have sold. I wish I had bought one.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.