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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 residents of Japan.

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image image Other Realms: Four Contemporary Artists in Ashiya
Christopher Stephens
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Tatsuo Kawaguchi’s Distance to the Cane (2016) in the center of the museum lobby.

Think! Turn off your device, turn on your mind, and engage with the sights and sounds in front of you. This exhortation, supported by the lack of explanatory panels, seemed to lie at the heart of The State of This World: Thought and the Arts, an exhibition that ran from 10 December 2016 to 12 February this year at the Ashiya City Museum of Art & History (located in Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture). The second installment in a series called "Art Trip," launched at the museum in 2014, the show focused on four artists of various standings and backgrounds: one woman, three men; two in their thirties, one in his forties, and the last in his seventies; three originally from the Kansai region of western Japan and one from Tokyo.

The exhibition began in the museum's expansive lobby with an installation by Tatsuo Kawaguchi (born in Hyogo Prefecture in 1940), an artist best known for three-dimensional works made up of a combination of organic elements such as beeswax, dewdrops, and darkness, and processed materials like paper, glass, and metal. Many of Kawaguchi's creations have a somewhat sinister or apocalyptic feel, particularly those in which he seals various plants and seeds in lead, presumably to protect them from radiation in the event of a nuclear disaster. His central work in this exhibition, Distance to the Cane (2016), consisted of over a thousand yellow seashells, each containing a single yellow lotus seed, evenly spaced in concentric circles around a lead-coated cane. The cane's round handle protruded from a glass container filled with apple seeds, also covered in lead. Beneath this was another small pool of seeds with a set of fossilized teeth from some sort of prehistoric creature on top. Visually stunning, the work also seemed to contain a dark undercurrent, implying an uncertain future for humankind.

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Exhibition view of Yuko Ozawa's works, with Blue Waves (2016) on the left.

One of the two upstairs galleries was shared by Yuko Ozawa (born in Chiba Prefecture in 1984) and Zon Ito (born in Osaka Prefecture in 1971). Focusing on how we see ourselves, how others see us, and what constitutes a self, the majority of Ozawa's offerings were deceptively simple video works, such as Blue Waves (2016), which was cobbled together out of preexisting footage from YouTube. Beginning with several scenes of surfers riding the waves, the work was narrated by an older man, who later appeared in his book-lined study, speaking in what seemed to be Dutch. The Japanese subtitles began with "I am the sea," but as the video continued, this “I” assumed other forms, and it became increasingly clear that the narrator's words had nothing to do with the on-screen images and that the translated text did not reflect what he was actually saying. A similar sense of doubt surrounded three works titled Martin, Nick (1), and Nick (2), in which Ozawa asked some foreign men without any grasp of Japanese to copy a few sentences in the language on a piece of paper. The handwritten texts humorously illustrated the divide between linguistic meaning and intent, and the fact that the ability to convey a message is not dependent on understanding it.

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Exhibition view of Zon Ito's installation, with three stele-like embroidered works in the middle of the room.

Zon Ito produces videos and three-dimensional objects, but the medium he is mostly closely associated with is embroidery. His past works, made with colored thread on fabric, have depicted clearly identifiable elements like wolves, trees, and faces morphing into abstractions or a group of disjointed images fused into a dreamlike landscape. A number of Ito's pieces in this exhibition also involved embroidery but they had a more meandering quality, apparently based on the artist's attempt to concentrate solely on the physical act of pulling a threaded needle through fabric. Three of these, standing freely in the center of the room, recalled ancient steles. This set the tone for the rest of the installation, which included around 30 "clay pictures," created by rolling different colors and quantities of clay out on top of each other to make primitive images akin to a Rorschach pattern. Elsewhere in the room, displayed in glass cases, were small clay objects, some slightly cracked or chipped, with an ancient look about them. As it turned out, these were Jomon-era (c. 10,500 - 300 BCE) ceramics from the museum collection that Ito had seamlessly integrated into the installation to form a collection of abstract images from across the millennia.

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Kotaro Maetani's video installation Echo of Reality (2016).

The last gallery, containing a single work titled Echo of Reality by Kotaro Maetani (born in Wakayama Prefecture in 1984), was shut away behind two heavy curtains. Inside, a huge red light was visible in the back of the large room, but the utter blackness made it impossible to navigate through the space or see if anyone or anything else was there. Inching toward the light, you eventually arrived at a pulsing glow with an obscure, capsule-like shape -- a projected image without any visible source. Resonating through the room was the sound of crackling flames, imbuing the work with the hypnotic power of a hearth. Though in some ways the simplest piece in the show, Maetani's perfectly realized effort was a mind-altering experience that called our grasp of the physical world into question.

Forced to close in 2003, the Ashiya City Museum of Art & History has made a miraculous recovery since the city appointed a private company to oversee management of the facility several years ago. This is due in large part to eye-opening exhibitions like the "Art Trip" series (likely to be held again in 2018), which break down the barriers between audience and artist, and remind us that art can take us anywhere.

All photos © Nobutada Omote. All images provided by the Ashiya City Museum of Art & History.

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The State of This World: Thought and the Arts
10 December 2016 - 12 February 2017
The Ashiya City Museum of Art & History
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Christopher Stephens
Christopher Stephens has lived in the Kansai region for over 25 years. In addition to appearing in numerous catalogues for museums and art events throughout Japan, his translations on art and architecture have accompanied exhibitions in Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, South Korea, and the U.S. His recent published work includes From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents (MoMA Primary Documents, 2012) and Gutai: Splendid Playground (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2013).
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