Gallery visitors contemplating the meaning of Cause Is Effect (video installation, 2005) by Koki Tanaka. The installation is one of 35 contemporary art pieces on show at Winter Garden: The Exploration Of Micropop Imagination In Contemporary Japanese Art, which runs until June 22 at University Malaya Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. Photo: The Star/Ricky Lai
Japanese pop culture is about as foreign a concept around here as winter. But in Winter Garden: The Exploration Of The Micropop Imagination In Contemporary Japanese Art, a touring exhibition that’s making a stop in Kuala Lumpur courtesy of the Japan Foundation KL, makes accessible the often misunderstood psyche of the modern Japanese artist.
Curated by Japanese art critic Midori Matsui around the rather whimsical theme of “micropop”, the exhibition features 35 works by 14 Japanese artists and debuted in Japan in 2009 before it went on tour. Last seen at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang in May, the exhibition has already been to the Philippines and Australia this year.
Handling the local leg of the tour is Japan Foundation’s senior programme officer Kyoko Kugai, who set up the 35 pieces – mostly drawings, mixed media work and oil paintings, plus seven video installations – at the Universiti Malaya Art Gallery.
Kugai says the Japanese Foundation opted for a touring exhibition for practical purposes: due to the effort and cost to commission and exhibition. “Contemporary art also helps showcase the variety that can be found in modern Japanese culture,” she says at the exhibition venue.
Asked if adapting Japanese art to a local context posed any cultural or censorship challenges, the 41-year-old, who has been based in Malaysia for 13 years, answered that such touring shows usually try to suit the local landscape.
“I try not to translate so much, artwork should be shown as the artist intended, but one also has to consider the expectations of local audiences,” she reveals.
Kugai believes Winter Garden’s Micropop sensibilities will be accessible to Malaysian viewers, as the collection is driven by Japanese cultural issues rather than the politically-charged Japanese contemporary art of the early 1990s.
“I wouldn’t say they have no issues,” says Kugai, carefully mulling over her answer before adding, “Rather, these artists concern themselves with the issues of daily life.”
The exhibition includes work by some of Japan’s leading contemporary artists. Earlier this year, avant garde art collective Chim Pom emerged the overall winner at the Prudential Eye Awards for Contemporary Asian Art while Los Angeles-based installation artist Koki Tanaka was named Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year.
Other participating artists include Lyota Yagi, Ryoko Aoki, Masaya Chiba, Masanori Handa, Taro Izumi, Makiko Kudo, Mahomi Kunikata, Tam Ochiai, Hiroe Saeki, Hiroshi Sugito, Aya Takano and Keisuke Yamamoto.
Kugai adds that pop art is generally easier to digest compared to other art forms, even if the curatorial direction behind it is as complex as Matsui’s Winter Garden essay, in which she defines the term “micropop”, which she coined, as “the artistic method of reusing and appropriating ordinary, everyday objects and ideas to generate new meanings.”
The 12-page essay in the catalogue references the writings of French philosophers Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Michel de Certeau and American sculptor Robert Smithson to frame the artistic notions of a modern Japanese generation born after WWII and into a nation of economic stagnation and frequented by natural disaster.
Kugai describes the Winter Garden artworks as the result of keen eyes that can see something that is perhaps not meaningful to most people.
She gives an example of Koki Tanaka’s Light My Fire video installation that records a fuse burning, which occasionally sputters, almost dies out then keeps burning.
“You keep watching it and think ‘so what?’ Nothing much happens, no dramatic twist, but there’s just something to it,” she points out.
Another standout for Kugai is Lyota Yago’s installation Vinyl (2005-8), which plays a disk of ice on a record player, creating music while the friction from the stylus melts the grooves ice record until the sound ends on a ghostly note.
“Yago makes very sentimental work. When we exhibited in Penang, most of the girls that visited said ‘he must be so romantic’,” she recalls.
She notes that due to the hot weather here, the transient nature of the ice record is even more pronounced. “It’s a bit frustrating, we have to wait hours to freeze the record, but in this weather it only plays for about three minutes”
The other works like Mahomi Kunikata’s chaotic anime acrylic paintings, Aya Takano’s feminine shojo watercolour princesses and Chim Pom’s videos of pranks round out the collection with such a varied range of artistic voices that it could overwhelm viewers not armed with a catalogue book.
“Don’t try to ask what does it all mean,” advises Kugai. “We throw open the windows and doors to the Winter Garden and invite people to feel what they want to feel”.
Winter Garden: The Exploration Of The Micropop Imagination In Contemporary Japanese Art is on at Universiti Malaya Art Gallery, Level 5, Chancellery Building, Universiti of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur until June 22. The gallery is open Monday to Friday, from 9.30am to 5.30pm. Free admission. More info: www.jfkl.org.my