Towards Utopia: Osaka, Japan

by Robert C. Morgan
on November 02, 2000
from NY Arts Magazine Vol.5 no 11 November 2000
by courtesy of the author

[CASO japanese page] [ CASO english page ] [ NY Arts Magazine online ]

Flying into Osaka's Kansai Airport offers the traveler a unique futuristic experience. Celebrated in one of Mariko Mori's large-scale C-prints, Kansai Airport is built on a "floating" island designed and fabricated three years ago by the famous architect Renzo Piano. Kansai is a remarkable place, a science fiction environment, adorned with all the latest state-of-the-art technologies. The flight into the airport was completely enchanting. As our 747 moved gradually south along the eastern seaboard of these legendary islands, gliding along the coastal waters, with villages nestled between mountains or spilling out into harbors, bays, and ports, we finally caught sight of our destination. As we reached the point of descent, our pilot instigated a spiral arc, circling around on to this hallucinatory water-platform, only to land firmly on the runway with a view of Osaka on the right side of the plane.

While generally not known for a breadth of exhibitions of contemporary art, in comparison with Tokyo, the city of Osaka has served as the base for several important artists in recent decades -- namely, the Gutai group -- a few important galleries. One of these is Gallery Yamaguchi, situated near the harbor area of Osaka, that recently opened its season with an exhibition entitled "Towards Utopia".

The gallery's new space is currently located in a building that also serves as an alternative exhibition space, called CASO (Contemporary Art Space Osaka).

Over the years, Mr. Yamaguchi has been one of the preeminent forces in the Japanese art world, bringing attention to high quality art by both younger and established international artists. "Towards Utopia" featured a large-scale installation in the main gallery of CASO by Tadaaki Kuwayama, an untitled work constructed with modular vertical elements, fabricated in a synthetic material called bakelite, that encompassed the entire space. In addition there was a section devoted to the "New Generation"-- meaning, in this case, the generation of younger Japanese artists from Osaka. They included Yukako Ando, Nana Itani, Naoko Maruo, and Yoko Miura.

The most interesting of the group was Yukako Ando, a young Japanese woman currently working in Berlin. Her habitat installation entitled "Y's Life"(1999) involved a tent shapes like a construction worker's helmet in which she has installed a video monitor and various provisions, such as pillows, snacks, a flashlight, bedroll, etc. The video on the VCR is a tape of her wearing a yellow helmet (the prototype for her tent design) in order to protect her from various commercial products and packages that keep descending from above. Ando's work is a wonderful comment on the bombardment of cheap logos that manage to invade our private/public world to the extent that we are not aware that it is happening.

There is another section entitled "Art of the senses -- their physical extension" that includes three artists: Yukio Fujimoto, Tomoaki Ishihara, and Eiji Okubo. These works deal with the transsensory aspects of experience mostly related to vision and tactile sensibility. The fourth section of "Towards Utopia" is a representation of paintings and drawings by an Irish artist named Simon Fitzgerald who moved to Japan nearly twenty years ago to study Buddhism. During his extended stay in Kyoto he managed to learn to write and speak impeccable Japanese. His paintings are meditations on breathing as translated through the incision of thin horizontal lines into wet paint. The rhythmic structures that are established through this process are quite remarkable, suggesting evidence of an action or series of actions in relation to the traditional medium of painting. What comes to mind is how the Fitzgerald's attention to these lines as a parallel manifestation of his breathing is also related to calligraphy and meditation. Somehow there is a lack of pretension about the work that is satisfying and a remarkable lightness that somehow is exempt from the burdensome imposition of Western theory.

CASO and Gallery Yamaguchi have collaborated to produce a diverse but generally qualitative exhibition. Given that this is the first in a series of collaboration exhibitions, it is hoped that the qualitative standard set by Mr. Yamaguchi will prevail. The success of such an exhibition is contingent on a qualitative standard that is removed from local politics. One hopes that this standard will prevail and that the development of this important pilot project in Osaka will move toward greater success. It is further hoped that the Cultural Affairs Division of the Osaka Prefectural Government that sponsors something called the Osaka Triennial, which has thus far failed to achieve anything significant, will take an example from the example put forth by "Towards Utopia". In this context, the idea of idealism, as suggested by the term "Utopia",will play an important role in whether or not Osaka takes as leading role in the future of contemporary art in Asia.