"Nature and culture, national identity and private individuality, cultural
isolationism and international appropriation, all of these polarities arise
at the present moment..." These words were written to describe another exhibition
of Japanese art presented by the Grey Art Gallery: Against Nature: Japanese
Art in the Eighties. With The First Steps: Emerging Artists From
Japan, we examine a new decade of Japanese art, and while the responses
to questions posed a decade ago have become more informed, the issues continue
to be debated.
Indeed, we still debate the meaning of "Japaneseness," although now most observers would agree that Japanese artists have done more than copy the West. It is true that Western styles and issues have informed the artistic output of contemporary Japan, as has a willingness to break with tradition, but the result has been an original and personal form of expression. As explained by the exhibition's curator, Junji Ito, Japan "absorbed [Western] culture and institutions and grafted them eclectically and flexibly onto its own." The result is a "multi-dimensional cultural composite." The artists included in The First Steps: Emerging Artists From Japan represent the best of this "cultural composite."
As the winners of an art competition sponsored by Philip Morris K. K. in Japan, the artists represented here were selected by an international jury of art professionals. In both medium and style, the work is diverse. One finds the video art of Grand Prize winner Yutaka Sone, whose sense of place permits him to chronicle with energy and microscopic precision Japan's contemporary urban environment. Also included are paintings by Miran Fukuda, which borrow imagery from the West and then discard, break, or adapt it before our very eyes. And the photography of Manabu Yamanaka eloquently describes the character and transcendental nature of the Japanese aesthetic today. These artists, as well as Kazushige Aoshima, Takayuki Katahira, Tetsuya Kawa, Hisaya Kojima, Hironori Murai, Kouji Onomichi, and Yoshinao Satoh, provide us with a rare glimpse of what concerns contemporary Japanese artists and how a select few have successfully avoided the conceptual snares faced by those who help transform Japan's cultural landscape.