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Sayonara 1999

by Monty DiPietro

With few exceptions, Japanese art in the year 1999 seemed mired in a sort of funk. Everywhere there was a feeling of empty expectation, with precious few exhibitions or events offering the opportunity for real anticipation. Were Japanese artists waiting for the emergence of a new self-identity, for a fresh sense of their place in a rapidly changing Japanese social landscape? Or were they waiting for clear trends to develop in the international art world, specifically the New York-centered contemporary art market, which had just barely begun to recover from its bust of the early 1990s?

Whatever it was, few seemed ready to make a move. The non-moment photography trend that had swept the country five years ago had finally played itself out, with the Art Tower Mito’s summer show of "Onnanoko Shashinka" (Japanese girl photographers) looking more like a retrospective than a showcase. The question on any intelligent person’s mind had to be: "Why are all these girls always hanging around in their underwear?" Alas, six months later Keiko Nomura would exhibit many of the same shots at her Parco Gallery exhibition, and Mika Ninagawa would similarly repeat at her Rocket Gallery show.

The Rocket Gallery, on Tokyo’s Omotesando strip, did prove a nice little place to drop in on each Friday night, when the youngest of the city’s young artists had their openings there. Among the highest-traffic rental galleries in the city, Rocket spawned a dozen similarly cozy art spaces in the historic Aoyama Dojunkai apartments which line the fashionable strip. Alas, all are doomed, as the historic buildings are to be demolished next year (Tokyo Metropolitan Government spokesman: "well, they’re too old…"). And the bad news doesn’t end there – several weeks ago the Satani, one of Ginza’s most respected commercial galleries, sent out a letter announcing that it would close in early 2000, after more than 20 years of operation. Tokyo also lost one of its largest contemporary art spaces this year, when the Sezon Museum of Art closed its doors.

On the positive side, the surviving Saison Art Program organized the autumn weekend-art festival "Art-ing," which showed emerging artists in a number of rental galleries, and the corporate-sponsored Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery opened big in Shinjuku in September. The year also saw the inauguration of the Nagoya / Boston Museum of Fine Art, the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Mure, and the Taro Okamoto Museum in Kawasaki. On the academic front, the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music opened a new media center in Toride.

Top among the year’s most noteworthy exhibitions were Nobuyoshi Araki and Yayoi Kusama’s concurrent shows at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art (MoT). Although the idea of putting an oily ribald photographer in with Japan’s greatest living artist seemed questionable, Araki managed to look good and the work, controversial as it is, deserved to be seen. Meanwhile, that it took Japan’s museum curators until last summer to mount a Kusama retrospective was an insult to a woman who had already had solo shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York before she was welcomed to a major museum in her native country. Younger Japanese artists who scored overseas in 1999, meanwhile, included Mariko Mori and Takashi Murakami with big gallery shows in New York, and Yoshitomo Nara in Europe.

Shining in the otherwise bleak home front were flashes such as Hiroshi Sugito’s perspective-skewing canvases at the Hara ARC, the Toshio Shimizu-organized Tachikawa 99 festival (which focused on Chinese video artists), and the steady and cool paintings of everyday objects by Takanobu Kobayashi at the Nishimura Gallery.

Naturally there were no scandals here approaching what swirled around the Brooklyn Museum’s "Sensation" show, but American painter Robert Theiss did get a dressing down from the Setagaya Museum of Art after he showed up at an opening dressed in pink and purple. The museum later apologized.

The dud of the year was "Machine Circus," the American Survival Research Laboratory’s clash of the giant robots at Yoyogi National Stadium’s Olympic Plaza, which turned out to be more like a monster truck show choreographed by a team of nerdy boys. Truthfully though, it was good to see ICC take the chance and sponsor this sort of thing, let’s wait and see if they find a more interesting performance group next time.

Ah, waiting again. Well, less than 36 hours after you finish reading this, the wait that characterized this year will end when the long countdown to 2000 finally zeros out. Maybe, if we all make a wish, sometime soon afterward someone on the Japanese contemporary art scene will jump up and create something really special.

Because it’s about time. Good riddance, 1999.

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