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VOCA 2001

by Monty DiPietro

Once a year Tokyoites have an opportunity to see some of the best contemporary painting and photography from across Japan on display in one location, the Ueno Royal Museum. The VOCA (Vision of Contemporary Art) exhibitions have been running since 1994, with the financial support of the Dai-ichi Mutual Life Insurance Company, which buys the winning works for display in their headquarters building. This year, as usual, VOCA comprises two-dimensional work by artists aged under 40 selected by a cross section of Japan's leading curators and critics.

There are 33 artists in VOCA 2001, and one of the qualities of the show is that these young painters and photographers hail from all over Japan, and as such there is always the idea, in this reviewer's mind at least, that February's VOCA show might bring to the public eye an exciting talent previously hidden somewhere up among the mountains of Aomori or down behind the dunes of Tottori.

But there is little surprising about this year's collection, which, despite a few high points, amounts to what is probably the weakest VOCA incarnation in years. This assessment was echoed by many people I spoke with at the opening, one of whom, a local gallery owner, suggesting that this was because, after eight years, "most of the good young painters in Japan have already been discovered."

The idea that this country is not producing so much new talent is also hinted at by the judge's selection of this year's VOCA Prize winner. Chieko Oshie is a 31 year old Osaka-based botanical painter who is already regarded as one of this country's best artists. She has shown at VOCA before, in 1996, and has been covered by international publications such as ARTnews, in a piece written by this reviewer about a year ago. To be sure, Oshie's work is wonderful, great big canvases awash in lavender, pure and personal and powerful. But one wonders whether, in light of her considerable success and reputation, she should have been included in this show at all. It might have been better to introduce an interesting but unknown artist, and if there were enough of these around, perhaps Yoko Hayashi, the MoT curator who recommended Oshie, would have done so. I don't mean to fault Hayashi, who in her catalogue essay admitted she was reluctant to recommend Oshie "because she is already fairly well known," but rather to point out that VOCA selectors sometimes show a tendency to play a safe game of catch up, something evidenced in 1998 when already-art-superstar Taro Chiezo picked up a VOCA prize.

One selector who did stick his neck out is art journalist Makoto Murata, who wrote in his essay, "I have been watching the VOCA exhibition since it first started and I have the impression that it has lost much of its vitality." Murata chose a disabled 13 year old, Aigo Wada for the show. Murata explains that Wada's artist-father "supports" his child's hand during the creative process, and the resulting mixed media piece is an amalgamation of several post-Pop art genres and includes scribbles, object, and neon. While it is refreshing that Wada is one of but four participating artists who did not graduate from an art school, I wonder if his dad didn't.

A piece that caught my eye was the photo-reconstruction of a glass door view by Kyoto-based Sahoko Yamada. This is a multi-perspective, life-sized piece and represents a departure for the talented 31 year old, whose previous works have been realized in the form of objects such as bicycles and electric fans. The two-dimensional restriction was forced on Yamada by VOCA's focus on flatness, but still the piece comes off quite well. Yamada didn't win anything this time around, but her work impressed gallerist Ichiro Ikeda.

Says Ikeda, who is planning a solo show for the artist in his Ginza space early next year, "She proposes a new way of looking, not at high concepts but at the things in our everyday life."

Paintings far outnumber photographic works at VOCA 2001, and noteworthy among these are the spooky dotted landscapes of Yoko Mizukami, the tortured figurative studies of Encouragement Prize winner Tetsuya Ishida, and the big dreamy panels of Bradio Terashima.

Alas, there are also too many derivative works here, as in the past, this probably due to selectors' persisting emphasis on art school graduates. It would be good for VOCA to move away from this criteria in the future, and hopefully all the mumbling about how weak the show is this year will spur organizers to include a few wild cards on next year's selection committee, individuals who are not so firmly ensconced in the Japanese art establishment and as such might look for new talent in new places. Maybe even one of the many locally-based "outsiders" like (gasp!) the fellow who wrote this review.

Notes: VOCA 2001 is at the Ueno Royal Museum (3833-4191) until February 28. Pictured is "Angles #30 - Door" (295x196x12cm), photographs on acrylic panel, by Sahoko Yamada
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