They say : I’m so empty, no surface, no depth
Lou Reed, N.Y. Stars
While other museums had opened earlier in Tokyo, the Mori Museum waited five months, taking the time to meticulously prepare their ‘Stars’ exhibition, devoted to six major figures of Japanese contemporary art whose works have been celebrated internationally; a show conceived for an international audience that had been expected in 2020. They include Lee Ufan, Yayoi Kusama, Tatsuya Miyajima, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Yoshitomo Nara. The sixth one is recently struggling artist and star of bankruptcy video woes, Takashi Murakami whose iconic super flat sculptures are the first to greet the visitors and may stand, within the logic of this exhibition, as the last incarnation of something intrinsically Japanese that was able to cross over into Versailles.
Unsurprisingly, the rooms devoted to Murakami and Nara stand out as especially dated, even as they confront each other through such distinct strategies, from Murakami’s brash and eroticized manga characters (with an army of Koons-like craftsmen behind the lactation and ejaculate) to Nara’s delicate, tastefully malicious and repetitive figures… that also experienced the craft-inflated treatment. More importantly, the exhibition finds itself as if in an arrested time frame, raising a succession of questions ranging from longing and nostalgia to whether this is the art world we actually wish to return to.
It displays all the makings of an exemplary show, from the selection of works to the quality of their display and lighting schemes, notably for Lee Ufan and Tatsuo Miyajima. It expresses itself in a language of power: there can be no challenge to the claim found in such an audience-friendly concept and in the conceit that Kusama and Sugimoto are titans. Yet between the outstanding care given to the archive section of the exhibition, halfway through the course, with a chronology that spans from the late fifties to 2020, and a curatorial decision to have the late eighties/early nineties as the last astral body of this slight constellation, a perception emerges of a history that has been entombed.
Roppongi Crossings, organized by the same institution, may not have revealed artists who have achieved similar notoriety, but has there been no one since M&N that deserved a place in the sun? And has Japan only produced only woman artist? Needing to address one again such an issue does make this very pleasurable selection of works seem a little dimmer. Returning to an art world in which venues are still in the dark about parity makes all the waiting not long enough.