Her talk, Contemporary Art in Japan: Visions and Views of the Universe, was part of the Asia Contemporary Speaker Series organized jointly by the Canadian Art Foundation and the Asia Pacific Foundation. For me, there were three big ideas of the evening:
- Japan is an uneasy presence in Asia: In some ways, Japan is still struggling with modernity, for as Mami pointed out, “Japan modernized without becoming Westernized”. This has shaped the national consciousness which in turn impacts the work of Japanese contemporary artists;
- The possibility of a pan-Asian aesthetic is circumscribed by Asian sensibilities based on Asian philosophy, religion, and values: This seems to be what makes Asian contemporary art unique – Mami was careful not to overstate any formal or stylistic qualities in the works she spoke of;
- The rest of Asia is going through what Japan went through over 100 years ago (and is arguably still going through): by tracing the trajectory of Japanese art production as it evolved behind, beside, in front of, and at times in a head-on collision with modernity, she traced the contours of her curatorial vision and her views on contemporary Asian art. If the rest of Asia is now going through the process of modernization as Japan has done what then are the implications for the region? And how are Asian artists responding to modernization?
I found these concepts to be quite interesting especially as they relate to the topic of her lecture Contemporary Art in Japan: Visions and Views of the Universe.
Some of the artists that she briefly touched upon were: Haruo Mitsuta, Makoto Aida, Sachiko Kazama, Meiro Koizumi and Chiharu Shiota. According to Mami these artists are, “trying to articulate the invisible”. This idea stayed with me as did the notion that they are grappling with the “operation of the universe in a larger view”.
From my untutored perspective, these artists seem to explore a broader relational view of the world. The works she discussed seem to explore phenomena or concepts without insisting on the work’s visibility in and of itself (though of course the work exists and is sensible). The works seem to call forth a hidden essence, whether exploring unseen natural phenomena, social relationships, the hidden world of dreams, or recovering the past through traditional production techniques.
They evoke something that exists horizontally and beside the realities of what is already known and present. By trying to articulate the invisible these artists make visible the continuities of tradition, philosophies of interconnectedness/interdependency and balance.
If there is such thing as a pan-Asian aesthetic or sensibility then it is rooted in the ties the bind us to the past, and because modernity doesn’t necessarily come with outright Westernization then the patterns of artistic production that are emerging in Asia might well show us visions and views of a universe that is yet unknown (which I understand as not colonized by Western modernity and the world that emerged from it).
I think this is what she meant when she spoke of the urgency for contemporary Asian artists to continue to create side by side and to respond in their unique way to the changes on the continent and around the world.
As with all good lectures, I left feeling enlivened by the ideas Mami espoused, but also unsettled because there was so much to grapple with and to think about. I look forward to August when she’ll be back to install Ai Wei Wei: According to What? (August 17 – October 27, 2013) at the AGO.