Every three years the Mori Art Museum organises a new edition of ‘Roppongi Crossing’, a survey exhibition that presents a “snapshot” of Japan’s contemporary art scene. Begun in 2004, this year’s take on recent goings-on has been organised by the in-house curatorial team of Tsubaki Reiko, Tokuyama Hirokazu and Kumakura Haruko around the theme ‘Connexions’. It’s a lofty achievement, both literally – the museum resides on the 53rd floor of the Mori Tower – and figuratively. Featuring twenty-five artists and artist collectives, the museum has produced a wholly absorbing overview that is diverse, surprises and delights, and implores viewers to spend extended periods of time exploring the work. Indeed, this I know from personal experience. Time and time again, I encountered contributions that forestalled my progress and, occasionally, even pulled me back to them to be sure – maybe convince myself – that I had not missed anything.
A room bathed in glowing pink light greets visitors as they step off the escalator and pass the information desk on their way into the exhibition. The light is reflected off the body of a gigantic cat measuring more than six metres in length and five metres in height. This is Takehiro Iikawa’s ‘Decoratorcrab – Mr. Kobayashi, the Pink Cat’ (2019), the mascot for the artist’s long-term project of zeroing in on the peripheral and mostly unnoticed facets of our world, usually through photography and video. The moniker Decoratorcrab is a general one applied to many species of crab that camouflage their bodies with plants and sedentary life forms so as not to be perceptible. Here, that pink cat is a near overwhelming distraction that strives to siphon attention away from ‘Fade Out, Fade Up’ (2012), Iikawa’s beautifully subtle series of photographs that ring the space. These predominantly black images serve up alluring details that emerge out of the dense monochrome expanse. The works take insignificant features – like a thumbnail size house, the delicate star-like gleam of distant street lamps or an ashen, leafless corpse of a tree – and convert them into marvellous experiences. These vignettes not only alter our understanding of the cityscape, but they also open our eyes to the poetic qualities of the urban environment – something we would not ordinarily see. This is a sub-theme that surfaces again and again in ‘Roppongi Crossing’.
The team of artists that comprise Mé contribute a sculpture/installation that literally startles the viewer through its sense of accuracy and the impact of its scale. Sequestered in a space to which access is strictly controlled, viewers step into the gallery occupied by ‘Contact’ (2019) only to discover that they are standing on the edge of a gigantic segment of ocean. It stretches from wall to wall and into the beyond. The distance covered is indeterminable, suffused as it is in shimmering white light. Glancing off the undulations that enliven the surface of this choppy excerpt, the light highlights various kinds of shapes and minute patterns, which skim across the surface, continually transforming with each change of perspective to bring this dynamic, though wholly static form, to life.
Kojin Haruka of Mé has said: “We cannot actually approach an ocean landscape. When we draw closer, the ocean becomes waves, and when we come closer still, the waves become water.” This work changes all of that. Mé avoids maudlin gimmickry to convey the form, power and movement of the ocean in a manner that is simultaneously profound and direct. Fluctuations of another kind take centre stage in the works of Kawakubo Yoi, a former financial trader, who delivers an evocative and alarming video that interweaves the development of global financial markets with historical references that extend from Classical Greece, El Greco and Columbus’ Spain through to the present day. ‘Asterion’s Odyssey’ (2018) refers to an AI program that not only makes stock market predictions, but also shares its name with that ancient monster, the Minotaur. Then, to create ‘Asterion’s Maze – Does Asterion Dream of Electric Bulls?’ (2019), the artist has scraped down through multiple layers of paint on a museum wall to form a giant graph outlining Asterion’s predictions for the next 20 years of the NASDAQ stock index. Passing through layers of white, fiery red, black, salmon and gold, the work depicts a swirling storm of potential financial activity over which the average person will have zero influence.
In addition to AI, references to robotics and other forms of new or recent technology punctuate the sequence of presentations. Satu Masaharu’s ‘Calling (German version, Japanese version)’ (2009-2014/2018), for example, plays with the notion – or pressure – of being perpetually available. The video exposes us to phones in a broad range of models and settings that ring, ring and ring, but are never answered. The fashion label Anrealage has also been included with the mixed media installation ‘A Live Un Live’ (2019). The garments forming its centrepiece make use of liquid pouch motors, which open and close the blossoms on the dresses, and colour shifting spectroscopic material that changes according to the angle of light. This must be the first museum exhibit – in my memory, anyway – in which viewers are instructed to use the flash on their cameras and phones!
Romance rears its head in Hayashi Chiho’s video ‘True Love’ (2016/2019) and ‘Artificial Lover & True Love’ (2016/2019), the steamy installation in which the video plays. The tale is about a married AI robotic ceramics instructor who falls in love with a fully human student. As the pair cuddles at the pottery wheel, eyes drift to the lingerie that emblazons one wall and the English language translation in the soundtrack: “You are an Android, My Android, Only with you, I can be myself.” Does this selection, as the info panel suggests, really urge us “to reconsider the definition of life and humanity?” It comes across as being a bit too saucy and silly. Much more impressive is Justine Emard’s ‘Soul Shift’ (2018), a video featuring Alter 1 and Alter 2, robots developed by the Ikegami Takahashi Laboratory. These figures only bear hands and faces, the key attributes of a human body. As such, Emard has produced a touching relationship that allows viewers to witness what seems to be communication, the conveyance of emotional content and a sense of intimacy between the two. Though they signal with their hands and make soft gurgling sounds, their movements are awkward and beset by severe limitations. It is an empathic portrayal.
Other kinds of life changing developments – especially those linked to 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake – have also had a significant impact on the artists and the direction of their projects. It prompted Dokuyama Bontaro, for example, whose hometown was forever altered by the catastrophe, to work with displaced citizens housed in temporary accommodation. His ‘Over There’ (2015) derives from a workshop in which some of these people produced masks representing the communities to which they can never return. ‘Over There’ consists of a selection of these masks and videos, showing the participants wearing their mementos as they point to places outside the frame. Despite their dispassionate demeanour, the images still exude despondency, hardship and a potent sense of lives being irrefutably curtailed. Takekawa Nobuaki has also been producing socially themed work ever since that disaster. His contribution to ‘Connexions’ springs from a mix of sorrow, anger and disappointment that jointly derive from hidden forms of discrimination, the fervour to conceal the politics behind the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and the death of his cat in a traffic accident. He counters these disparities by staging a vibrant alternative that encompasses the hugely oversized invitation ‘Cat’s Olympiad’, the makeshift stadium event ‘Cat Olympics: Opening Ceremony’ and the richly chromatic placards ‘Posters of the Cat Olympics’ and ‘Beckoning Rights Cats’ (all 2019). Can social criticism get any more tongue in cheek than this?
Contrasting such focused presentations are hybrid compositions that synthesise the past, present and future, ready- and handmade objects with other types of material. The juxtaposition, stacking and/or superimposition of visual elements in some works can convey an unmitigated sense of density or weight. So much so that they assume a palpable presence. This is apparent in ‘From the Lake’ (2018) by Tsukuda Hiroki, a digital collage realised through some 200 layers of information, and the apocalyptic swirl of pop imagery and general mayhem that Enomoto Koichi loads onto his canvases. In turn, Aono Fumiaki, amends abandoned automobiles by adding material that references their owners and the history of the sites in which they have been left. These constructions and their lengthy titles, which identify the locations and processes employed by the artist, conjure dreams about the objects, their context and their history. In short, the multifarious ways of the world and our place in it. That is what ‘Connexions’ is all about and it is on those terms that the exhibition succeeds.