GONE WITH THE ROOTS

by Satoru Nagoya




This time I would like to give an example for a good showcase concerning Japanís contemporary art. VOCA is the name of an annual exhibition currently taking place at the Ueno Royal Museum, a few minutesí walk from JRís Ueno Station. VOCA stands for "vision of contemporary art," and the exhibition started in 1994 as a painting competition for artists of younger generations. Why painting? The organizers thought painting is the basic form of visual arts, and in a time when such new ways of expression as installation, photography, video and "virtual" (computer) art are prevailing, it would be significant to reexamine the basics to get a clear vision of contemporary art as a whole.

For the VOCA project, 30-odd art experts from around Japan, including local museum curators, art critics (hyoronka) and art journalists, are appointed every year as "recommenders" by the exhibition organizers, and each of the experts suggests an artist up to the age of 40. All artists selected can exhibit one work measuring 250x400 cm at the most. Their contributions are documented in a catalogue, along with messages by the "recommenders." Essays by members of a judging panel include: the directors of the National Museum of Western Art and the Kanagawa Prefecture Museum of Modern Art, two professors of a major private art university and, in this yearís case, the director of the Utsunomiya Museum of Art. The catalog texts are in both Japanese and English.

The judges award one artist with the VOCA Prize, accompanied by •3 million in prize money. Four other artists receive VOCA encouragement prizes, with •1.5 million each. The Dai-ichi Mutual Life Insurance Co. sponsors the exhibition, keeps award-winning works, and later exhibits them at a gallery in the companyís headquarters in Hibiya. The exhibition is open to foreign artists too, three participated in the past: American Makoto Fujimura, Brazilian Oscar Satio Oiwa and Catalan Vicenc Viaplana.

In this yearís exhibition, which opened Feb. 20, a total of 33 artists are showing. The first prize went to Miwa Yanagi, a rising artist known for her computer-processed color photographs of department store companions in surrealistic settings. The work she is showing now is similar and marks the first time that pure photography has won the VOCA Prize.

Encouragement prize winners include Yuumi Domoto and Yukie Ishikawa, whose works are sort of orthodox abstract paintings. (Readers, please donít think that I took up this subject because I am one of the "recommenders" and want to complain that the artist I suggested unfortunately didnít win a prize.)

It has come as no surprise that the prize for "painting" has been given to an artist working in photography. At last yearís VOCA, where a few photographic works already drew attention, judges said photographs and even video projections should not be omitted from this exhibition, considering that - just like oil or acrylic paintings - these works too are made of pigments, pigments of light.

Photography is an interesting medium in itself and is in vogue among contemporary artists the world over. However, where has gone VOCAís lofty ideal of rethinking, or perhaps reconstructing, the basics for Japanís contemporary art by examining the roots? Is VOCA becoming one of those many art events that just introduce world contemporary art fashions?

Following this yearís VOCA, some artists may give up painting in favor of often easier and more fashionable photography or video, and many curators and hyoronka will be even more encouraged to propagate such new media as the harbinger of art in the 21st century. Under these circumstances, the fact that the last Turner Prize of Britain was awarded to African painter Chris Ofili means a lot. With his exuberantly colorful works - at times using elephant dung - heís the first painter to win the prestigious and often controversial prize in 13 years. Missing the underlying significance of this development in London, Japanese art promoters seem still crazy to import the most superficial art movements from abroad. Rather than reevaluating the basis of art, they prefer to continue on safe and tested platforms - those of public art projects serving big architecture.


Satoru Nagoya is a free-lance art journalist living in Tokyo.
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