Able Art '99 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum

by Monty DiPietro

Group shows at a museum are often impersonal samplings – naturally, the soul and vision of a particular artist would be better revealed through a more complete survey of their work. When a large number of artists show together a tendency for both curator and visitor is to treat the exhibition in a superficial manner, look for themes, and avoid work that just doesn’t fit. And so it is a credit to the determination of the organizers and individuality of the artists that Able Art ’99," a show of 450 works by 45 artists at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art in Ueno Park, is one of the best contemporary art exhibitions in Tokyo right now.

To be sure, many of the pieces in the show, like Takashi Kawasaki’s castles or Takako Shibata’s "My Mother" series of drawings, fit the Art Brut criteria: childlike subjects, flat perspective, crude execution, etc. But there are also a number of extremely developed works, to which one might apply the currently hip "Obsessive Art" label. Among these is Izumi Imagome’s untitled, pen-on-cardboard work, the execution of which involved running ball pens over a scrap of cardboard until it was saturated with blue, red, black, and green ink. The dark, leaden result is mounted on a piece of torn black construction paper behind a sheet of plastic, in a frame of pristine cardboard. It almost screams.

Space prevents an inventory of all the other styles to be found in "Able Art," but when one considers that the work in this show could be variously ascribed to perhaps a dozen movements (Neo-Expressionism, Outsider Art, Neo-Pop, among them), it becomes far more interesting to forget about themes and take the time come to regard the artists as individuals, an undertaking that proves a worthy investment.

All of the participating artists are persons with intellectual disabilities. Thirty-nine are submitting under the auspices of 17 different social service institutions, while six are contributing independently. One of the independents is Chiyuki Sakagami, whose biography records her age as five billion and nine million years old. The artist’s highly-detailed, multi-colored sculptures of objet from the Silurian Sea are a highlight of the show. Also interesting is Sakagami’s posting of a sign at the entrance to her display area that warns people wearing white coats to stay out. Reads an attendant text, "I have been tortured physically and mentally by people who put value on giving continuous stimulation to their left brain. They must be direct descendents of the Neanderthal men."

"She doesn’t like doctors," explains a volunteer familiar with Sakagami, "and many of the other artists share her feeling that the mental health system in Japan treats them like broken robots that have to be fixed with drugs." Again, organizers should be applauded for their courage in presenting dissenting artists – if all is not well in the world of mental health, there were probably many people and institutions who would have preferred the exhibition overlook this. The self-asserting dissonance provided by Sakagami’s message is but one sign that this is an exhibition of work by artists, not patients.

Other notable pieces include Takayuki Mistushima’s design-tape drawings, some of which can be touched by visitors who, like the artist, are blind, and Koichi Yashima’s delightful collection of cellophane-wrapped gadgets. There are also a number of hands-on work stations where visitors can make their own art.

"Able Art ‘99" is the second exhibition of its kind to be organized by the Association of Art, Culture, and People with Disabilities, Japan – the first was two years ago. There are almost twice as many pieces on display this time around, and the show is running for five weeks instead of two. It is well worth a look.

notes: Until March 22, 1999 (3364-2140).
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