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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese art critics living in Japan.

NOART at the Taka Ishii Gallery
Roger McDonald
"NOART" installation view at Taka Ishii Gallery
Photo: Kenji Takahashi

After the March 11 earthquake and tsunami many art exhibitions and events were cancelled in Japan. Many foreign artists also cancelled their trips to Japan, or left early from residencies here. But in the days following the disaster a number of art-related initiatives also emerged, among them the NOART exhibition organized by the Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo. As its name suggests, this exhibition showed no artworks. The gallery was emptied of art, a white plinth was placed in the middle of the gallery space, and a charity donation box with one transparent side was placed on the plinth. Visitors to the exhibition could put donations in this box if they wished. The gallery press release for NOART spoke of the powerlessness of art in the wake of tragic disaster. Two months on from the tragedy, it is worth pondering the meaning of this exhibition.

My immediate reaction to NOART was an art-historical one (forgive me, but I happen to be a curator and lecturer in art history). Works by the German-born artist Hans Haacke rang particularly strongly in my mind. In 1970 he created a work called MoMA Poll, consisting of a perspex box placed at the entrance to New York's Museum of Modern Art, where visitors could place their responses to a question posed by Haacke. The artist here used the museum space as a social mediation tool, asking people whether a member of the MoMA board of trustees, New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller, would receive their vote for President of the United States in the upcoming November elections. Haacke also made a work called Condensation Cube (1963-65), a simple perspex box placed in the gallery that gathered condensation as humidity in the space changed according to the number of visitors or the temperature outside.

Artists have famously emptied gallery spaces as a form of art. Yves Klein's Le Vide exhibition, held at the Galerie Iris Cleris in Paris in 1958, is perhaps the most notorious example. Klein had made artworks out of air, balloons released into the sky, and other ephemeral actions. I was also reminded of another series of cubic works, Andy Warhol's Brillo boxes -- especially as they are normally shown in museums today, as single boxes on white plinths, rather than as a cluttered, stacked mass on the floor. Haacke and Klein both opt for transparency, for ways to open up the normally reclusive art gallery space, while Warhol's Brillo boxes mimic a consumer product, more a mirror than a pane of see-through glass.

The NOART exhibition was a minimal gesture of withdrawal, but meticulously curated and presented. It successfully used the powerful connotations of the modern white cube art space, cogently dissected in the 1970s by Brian O'Doherty in his book Inside the White Cube. This was an exhibition about trying to measure social and personal space in the wake of a major tragedy, through the act of giving money. Rather like Haacke's Condensation Cube, the Taka Ishii box gained meaning and literal weight from the money placed inside it. This was plain for all to see.

Creating this situation inside an art gallery (rather than in front of a station or on the street) gave the act of donation added meanings and shades, drawing on the history of conceptual, minimal and relational art. While proclaiming its "NOART" status, the exhibition also necessarily sublimated the act of donation into an artistic act. The scenario in the gallery became art-like. We can perhaps infer from this that the white cube art space is permanently cloistered from social spaces. Whatever happens inside the gallery space is sublimated into art. This is indeed the provocation that so many artists and curators have tried to face. Andy Warhol's Brillo boxes are an excellent example, one that prompted the philosopher Arthur Danto to ask what the difference was between ordinary Brillo soapboxes in the supermarket and Warhol's in the gallery.

What purpose does the gallery space hold today, other than as a privileged showroom of expensive objects? Perhaps one answer lies in its power to precisely sublimate objects and actions into art. An act of charity in a gallery, as opposed to on the streets outside a train station, imposes a rather unique set of circumstances which may in fact be of value. In short, it transforms the act of giving money into a formal procedure, akin to a secular ritual. The white cube creates a special space. The visitor/donor is offered an opportunity to publicly act out the act of charity, to en-act this gesture like a ritual. Giving money in the gallery space makes the giver an actor, playing out the prescribed role of charity in times of disaster.

Without being ironic, this acting-out of charity in a gallery space seemed somehow perfect for the times we live in now. As someone not directly affected by the Tohoku disaster, I had found it difficult to find space for a genuine personal response to March 11 in the climate of saturated, homogeneous media that told us, in unison, to behave in very particular ways. Only now, over two months after March 11, can we perhaps begin to achieve some distance from the tragedy and thus also begin to think about what it all means. In this sense, and perhaps accidentally, the NOART exhibition served to remind us that -- regardless of where we are -- we all play roles in a thoroughly scripted media-scape.

"NOART" installation view at Taka Ishii Gallery
Photo: Kenji Takahashi
NOART
Taka Ishii Gallery
30 March - 28 April 2011
image
Roger McDonald
Roger McDonald was born and brought up in Tokyo, educated in the UK, and returned to live in Japan in 2000 after completing his PhD. He has worked on the Yokohama Triennale 2001 as assistant curator, the Singapore Biennale 2006 as curator, and organised a number of exhibitions and projects independently. He is deputy director of the non-profit curatorial collective Arts Initiative Tokyo, and teaches at Musashino and Joshibi Art Universities.
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