The Emerging Japanese Artitst Selected by the World
Junji Ito, Curator, The First Steps

Japan was inundated with European culture for a span of fifty years during its modernization process beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. After the end of World War II, Japan underwent a second wave of foreign influence, this time mainly American. Two faces of Western civilization, in some senses entirely different, met and overlapped with indigenous traditions in one corner of East Asia, shaping a fascinatingly distinctive culture that cannot be called either Eastern or Western.

The Japanese have not wanted to admit that such a blending of civilizations has happened. We refused to admit it because we were determined to master Western styles of expression as a means of escaping from the rigid stylization of our traditions. By opting deliberately for a process of absorbing Western culture that went on for 100 years, we hoped to attain liberation from the constraints of expression imposed by traditions built up over thousands of years.

Japan did not simply copy the West, but absorbed its culture and institutions and grafted them eclectically and flexibly onto its own, as exemplified during the 1920's and 30's when many Japanese artists, who believed in the potential of the unity of East and West, sought to blend the artistic traditions of each. Occurring as it did in a country that lay on the edge of both East and West, the cultural liberation that came about in Japan was one that demonstrated the importance of topos (place).

However, the Modernism that accompanied the influx of Western culture into Japan accelerated the process of one-dimensional internationalization and the preference for universalistic forms. The result was that the multi-dimensional cultural composite achieved in the subconscious of the Japanese seemed on the surface to be nothing more than another phase of Western culture.

This situation poses a difficult dilemma for Japanese artists and art in the Japanese context. In other words, while the Japanese succeeded in creating a very rich and diverse artistic environment, they forced themselves to make a one-or-the-other choice - i.e., to choose the West - in terms of forms, as well as develop a fixed perspective of Modernism. After the reexamination of civilization which accompanied the onset of the post-modern age in the 1980's, the reassessment of personal character and identity crossing the lines of all fields began in Japan, and the results of this endeavor have emerged into reality.

The debate that unfolded over the meaning of "Japaneseness" in reaction to the theme of the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1995 (to which I served as a commissioner) is symbolic of that development. The contemporaneity of so-called Japanese-style painting (Nihonga) and the Asiatic aspects of contemporary Japanese art, both discussed during the debate, as well as the experience of creation shared by the artists, including some non-Japanese, in the installations of the Japan pavilion, all seem to suggest much promise for the future advancement of art. The fact that the Japanese-style painter Hiroshi Senju won an honorable mention in the painting division and Katsuhiko Hibino received high marks for his work in the field of design is a great encouragement to the younger generation of artists who, since the 1980's, have been persuing a reshuffling of the field of the plastic, including multimedia.

"First Steps" is a prize adopting a totally new methodology, conceived against the backdrop of our changing times. The award is designed to nudge talented artists out onto the international stage by focusing on the international medium of contemporary art and placing Japan, which has tended to be more of a receiver than transmitter vis-à-vis the world, directly within the global communication network, examining identity in terms of quality and topos (Tokyo),i.e., as opposed to the old criteria of nationality, citizenship, or media category.

The screening process for the award begins with the preliminary selection conducted in Japan against the backdrop of the situation in Japanese art today (for the current award 171 artists were chosen from among a total of 1,465 entrants). Their applications were then sent to the members of the final screening committee, from various parts of the world, who narrowed down the number to 100. At an exhibition of these 100, the judges examined the actual works by these artists and chose 10 grand prize winners, as well as runners-up. The works of these 10 grand prize recipients will debut at the "First Steps" exhibition hosted by the Grey Art Gallery.

The complex process involving the three phases of screening and three rounds of exhibitions, including the individual show of the grand prize winner in Japan, has been carefully devised in order to uncover artists who possess both internationalism and a sense of identity within the topos of Japan. The number of works examined in the screening process was as many as five (?), and photographs and photo CD's were used together in order to assure the selection, not of artworks, but of artists capable of working on an international level. Another important factor in this seemingly repetitive selection process is the opportunity it affords to show the screening committee members overseas a panorama of the contemporary art world in Japan.

This project was also significant in the sense of corporate support of an art event. The Japanese committee - Kazuko Okuma, Jiro Ishikawa, and myself - on the one hand, and Philip Morris K.K. on the other, put aside differences in standpoints as individuals and corporations and engaged in a truly joint endeavor. Such an ambitious project would not have been possible without the support of the broad network of countless persons including the overseas screening committee members. All deserve our special thanks here.

Although they work in very disparate styles, the artists chosen for the "First Steps" exhibition in New York display similarities on a particular continuum. One similarity is the endeavor to push out into perceptible relief internalized space by activating the work of ceaseless abstraction of what is focused on.

A typical example can be found in the linked wheels by grand prize winner Yutaka Sone that reveal vacant spaces, or the painting by Miran Fukuda, which is in the process of breaking up and vanishing. By expressing the will to adapt to its environment it acquires the dynamism of the real environment. The same is true of Hironi Murai's work. Murai achieved an expansion of the realm of the artwork by incorporating the element of air to give dynamism to the work. In their abstraction of forms, all of these artists, including Tetsuya Kawa, Koji Onomichi, and Yoshinao Sato, seek assimilation with the environment through the resultant actualization of their artworks.

Another resemblance is the affinity they all share for the state of peace and stability, in other words, a state of purity aimed at discovering the absolute value of "art." Hisaya Kojima's non-evaporating water droplet on a hot plate is an excellent example of this intention. We can feel that same intense yearning to attain am absolute condition of "art" in the two-dimensional works of Kazushige Aoshima and Takayuki Katahira. Manabu Yamanaka's old woman in the nude is the an expression of the conceptual state of beauty positioned at the borderline between the visible and the invisible that transcends both material and formative elements. It offers a superlative interpretation of the kind of "art" these artists seek.

The socially oriented, nature-oriented pursuit of assimilation with the environment and the transcendental perspective that seeks an absolute beauty realized on the conceptual level: these are seemingly contradictory characteristics, yet it is precisely this desire to build a Utopia that motivates the creative endeavors of artists working in Japan today. And while they take into consideration the critical perspective of twentieth century contemporary art which was consistently skeptical of "art," they distinguish themselves by their desire to reconstruct the concept of "art." What sets them apart are the essential elements of forms in the Asiatic (East Asian) tradition which were embodied in the Japanese arts and crafts movement dubbed "Japonisme" that the modern artists of late nineteenth-century Europe so highly admired.

Today, one-hundred years since the age of the modern encounter between Japan and the West began, the Japanese are waiting to hear what the judgment will be of these works that attempt to capture those essentially Asiatic qualities of art and present them anew.