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exhibitions
 ARTIFACTS

Since the late 19th century, Japanese art has been schizophrenically split into yoga (Western-style) and nihonga (Japanese-style). The latter arose as a self-conscious response to the inroads of the former. Nevertheless, when nihonga took up the challenge of Western art, it was unable to avoid borrowing some of its ideas, most notably the romantically inflated concept of the “divine” artist. But instead of Michelangelo or van Gogh, nihonga found its role models in the elite artist/craftsmen of the Rinpa school. The Yamatane Museum of Art’s exhibition What Did Nihonga Learn from Rinpa? uses 50 mainly large works to look at echoes of the school in the works of 20th-century nihonga artists. Particularly worth seeing is Kaii Higashiyama’s vast seascape Rising Tide and Gyoshu Hayami’s Falling Camellias.

Through Dec 25. See exhibition listings (Ginza/ Kyobashi/ Tokyo) for details. CBL

Giveaway!
Metropolis is offering readers ten free tickets to “What Did Nihonga Learn from Rinpa?” For your chance to see this excellent exhibition, email the following information by Wednesday, December 17, to editor@metropolis.co.jp:

1. Name; 2. Address; 3. Age; 4. Home country; 5. Last exhibition you visited

Include the text “Nihonga” in the subject line. Winners will be selected at random.

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763: Treasures by Rinpa Masters
761: Yokohama Triennale 2008
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By Jeff Michael Hammond

LIFE ACTUALLY

Glimpse Japan through the eyes of women artists

Tomoko Sawada, School Days, 2004

It’s been said that most artists have one idea that they spend most of their career refining. From what we have to go on so far, this could well be applied to the work of Tomoko Sawada. Her various photographic works, which all incorporate her own face, take up an entire room of “Life Actually,” a new exhibition of ten female Japanese artists up at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.

Sawada’s School Days series parodies the kind of class photograph taken every year in schools across Japan. On closer inspection, the face of each student is revealed to be that of Sawada herself. Through differences in makeup, hairstyle and gesture, Sawada explores how far people, especially women, manage to express their own individuality and identity in Japan’s conformist society. In another series, taken in passport photo booths, Sawada has one more element to play with—clothes—in creating a range of characters from kogaru to business executive.
Yuki Onodera’s photo series “Transvest” also looks at identity, although less directly. Her characters are photographed in silhouette, their personality conveyed through gestures and poses rather than facial expressions. Look closely, however, because the silhouettes are not simply black shapes; they’ve been overlaid with various textures, adding a sense of mystery to their presence. This is enhanced by the way in which Alice (from the Wonderland story), a dancer, a mother and child, and other figures are suspended slightly above the ground like shimmering apparitions.

Yuki Onodera, Transvest—Alice, 2002

The somewhat annoying title of Hiroko Okada’s Singing in the Pain may not enamor you to her video work, but once you get over that you may be rewarded with her story of an “ordinary” (read “bored and frustrated”) housewife gone deranged. It’s not particularly insightful, but Okada manages to tackle a serious subject with both empathy and some wit. Her other work in the exhibition, The Delivery by Male Project, looks at gender role by proposing that an amiable young man gives birth to a baby.

The curator of “Life Actually,” Michiko Kashawa, has long specialized in the work of female artists. The English title has been simplified (and, yes, it is a play on the film, Love Actually); the full Japanese version would be something like “Love, Solitude and Laughter.”
The paintings of both Noriko Watabiki and Leiko Ikemura sway more towards the feeling of solitude, while Yoshiko Shimada’s Family Secrets—Bones in a Tansu is an attempt to overcome isolation. She has installed a curtained-off confessional in which visitors can write down any painful family secrets they (anonymously) wish to share—before placing them in a sealed wooden box.

Yoshiko Shimada, Family Secrets—Bones in a Tansu, 2004, installation

Shimada later takes the stories, adds a visual component to transform them into mini-artworks, and displays them in an old Japanese tansu chest for visitors to share.

One testimony reads, “My aunt supported our family as a military prostitute after the war,” and another, “My beautiful sister was anorexic; we found out when the drainpipe clogged up with her vomit.”

Bones in the Tansu works as a kind of therapy for those who wish to purge their secrets—a valuable outlet in a society like Japan’s that offers few such channels.

Although not many of the works in “Life Actually” offer revolutionary insights into the female experience in Japan, the exhibition nonetheless touches on a number of issues affecting women today and offers a model for women-led exhibitions in a still male-dominated country.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, until March 21. See exhibition listings for details. M


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