A middle age man limps down the road. From the corner of his eye, he sees a young couple on the other side. Their eyes lit with confidence, laughing and clearly enjoying their company. The man looks away and moves on, trying not to dwell too long on the radiant smile of the couple on the other side of the street. It did remind him of another time, when he was a rising entrepreneur. He had a meteoric rise, but since encountered some turbulence. The middle aged man’s name is Japan.
In the eyes of many economists, Japan hit a rut in the 1990′s, one that it is repeatedly trying to get out of. The lost confidence and retrospective questioning has led some to yearn back to another era, one that is popularised by movies like Tokyo Story. Of course, Japan is more than the events of that decade. Its history throughout millennia is peppered with times of struggle and rebirth, one that shows its resilience and optimism.
As humans, it is too easy to define someone by one event, one moment in time. Everything that happened before and after will always be interpreted by that one event. A rugby player who was paralysed in an accident will always be defined by his wheelchair, regardless of the successes afterwards or the attempts to reinvent him or herself.
It can be dangerous for outsiders to make judgements on people they don’t fully understand. The curators here are very aware of this, and have let the artists tell their own story. In contrast to the economic malaise, the 1990′s was a time of dynamism for many contemporary artists. It was like the pause in consumerism had provided oxygen for artists and sociologists to question where they as well as their country were going.
Meeting Reuben Keehan the curator of this exhibition for the first time, I can’t help but be swept by his optimism for contemporary Japanese art and its power to reinvigorate the next generation. It is an optimism that fully acknowledges and feels the pain of the fault lines beneath the surface, yet looks forward in a way that does justice to the past.
One of his favourite exhibits is a video installation made by the Chim↑ Pom group in the days after Fukushima disaster; He remarks that Japanese people themselves were surprised at the reaction.
The Mono-ha, or “school of things” movement, which came to light in the 1960′s, is one of the stand outs at the exhibition. Its origin was founded in a thesis on Sekine Nobuo called “Beyond being and nothingness”.
The thought provoking and minimalist clarity of some of the exhibits here is designed to immerse the visitor, as if you become part of the art. Being enveloped by the spatial nature of many of the works, such as “Relatum” (2002), it creates room for personal reflection, like the stone garden in Ryonaji in Kyoto.
For people brought up in the West, who had always thought that nature is inanimate, the stories that underline these art works can be a pleasant surprise. In “with winds” (1990) – Lee Ufan tried to portray the paint strokes left by the wind. In the same way that the wind will leave a trail by blowing some leaves, Lee imagines the paint strokes as if the wind had painted on the canvas.
Shohoko Ida, the visiting Japanese curator, when once asked about the exhibition name, “We can make another future”, responded that the title could have just easily been “Can we make another past”. Far from putting her head in the sand, she believes that the exhibition is “an attempt to construct another context, without descending into a romantic and naïve glorification of the past, aimed at sharing an affirmative outlook for the future, and saying: Yes, we can make another future.”
The maturity and thoughtfulness of this exhibition is a testament to the many years of collaboration between the gallery staff and artists from Japan and other parts of the Pacific Rim. Despite its youth, QAGOMA had exhibited contemporary Japanese art for several decades, which led to start of the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in 1993.