Tsuyoshi Ozawa: Imperfection: Parallel Art History
Chiba City Museum of Art
6 January - 25 February 2018
Review by Kodama Kanazawa
From a cascade of large white clouds, plaster figures of Mars, Venus, and other classical beings appear. Separated from their original contexts, they look like a group of beleaguered giants or toppled statuary from an ancient civilization. It is from this installation titled, ‘Imperfection’ (2018), that Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s solo exhibition, Imperfection: Parallel Art History, currently on view at the Chiba City Museum of Art, begins.
For someone inside the Japanese art world, these plaster figures are a painful reminder of the drawing practice imbedded in art school curriculums. 150 years ago, the government supported Japanese artists studying in Europe. When they returned, they brought this teaching method back with them, even though in Europe this practice soon made obsolete. However, it remains part of the pedagogy in many prestigious Japanese art schools to this day. These plaster figures are products of the Japanese government’s embrace of the aesthetics of Western art and the denigration of traditional Japanese cultural expressions within the context of modernization.
Ozawa’s notion of “parallel art history” implies that there are two art histories in a single country. This situation is not unique to Japan, it is shared by many countries outside of Europe.
In this exhibition, Ozawa sheds light on the space that lies between these two worlds. For example, ‘The Seven Wonders of Kanazawa’ (2008) is an installation consisting of found objects and traditional cultural expressions, including Nebuta, a large-scaled sculpture used in festivals in the north, ghost scroll paintings from folklore and Hakata dolls made by traditional pottery techniques. ‘The Reproduction of The Tea House Oil Painting Gallery’ (2011) is an imaginative reconstruction of the type of gallery dating from the beginning of Japan’s modernization in the late 19th century, in which oil paintings of famous actors are displayed. Since most of paintings in this part of the world were traditionally made of mineral pigments suspended in a glue medium, resulting in flat and matte images, oil paintings attracted people because of its novel ability to depict figures realistically.
The word “parallel” also means that there are histories of what might have been. For this, Ozawa creates fake stories about historical figures and artworks. ‘Museum of Soy Sauce Art’ (1999) is a gallery that shows paintings rendered in soy sauce, based on an imaginary tradition of soy sauce art. An installation comprising of paintings and a movie, ‘The Return of Painter F’ (2015), tells the story of Tsuguharu Fujita, a Japanese painter who became famous in Paris before the war. He returned to Japan during the war to create dramatic propaganda paintings, then left again, never to return following the end of World War II. But here, Ozawa reimagines Fujita’s biography through a make-believe, alternate trajectory in which the artist goes to Bali to pursue a new life.
Ozawa not only interrogates modern Japanese art history, illuminating the unique and sometimes odd pathways it has taken, he also questions the acts of looking and showing (his interest in a ‘show’ persists in many forms, such as the sideshow-attraction and gallery). He is distinct from Takashi Murakami, who proudly proclaimed the value of forgotten history by pushing anime-like figures to the forefront. Ozawa keeps an unstable and ambiguous position, enjoying the diverse and imaginative visions sustained by his perspicacity and sense of humour. For his show’s title, Ozawa has borrowed a term from Kakuzo Okakura’s classic Book of Tea (1906): imperfection. It is a term that echoes clearly Ozawa’s challenge to seek universal values that can never be found.