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Arts

The six STARS lighting up Japanese contemporary art

Mori Art Museum director Mami Kataoka wants Japan to feel more of Asia's art vibrations

Mori Art Museum Director Mami Kataoka stands before an installation by Yayoi Kusama, part of the Tokyo museum's current exhibition STARS: Six Contemporary Artists from Japan to the World. (Photo by Yuki Kohara)

TOKYO -- As countries throughout the Asia-Pacific make a bigger push for contemporary art, Japanese artists and art museums today should leverage more of the region’s emerging power to sustain their own growth.

So says Mami Kataoka, director of Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, one of Japan’s leading contemporary art museums. Currently featuring an exhibition of renowned Japanese contemporary artists, Kataoka revealed how the coronavirus has forced her to use digital technology to map a new business model for the museum, as well as rethink how to maximize the physical experience that art museums can deliver in the future.

"The Japanese art world needs to think what role it can play when the Asia-Pacific will be continuously witnessing growth," Kataoka told Nikkei Asia in a recent interview. As Asia increases its purchasing power when it comes to individual artworks, "capitalizing on Asian power would be needed to build [the future] of Japanese art," Kataoka emphasized, especially as Japan confronts the demographic crisis caused by its aging population.

The Mori Art Museum's current exhibition is titled "STARS: six contemporary artists from Japan to the world," featuring Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara and three other contemporary artists from Japan. The exhibition puts an emphasis on how these six artists have been evaluated in a global context, presenting not only their artworks but also archival materials from the 1950s through to today.

Traditionally, successful Japanese artists have looked abroad as their careers developed, using the West as an inspiration. Murakami, for example, believes that "contemporary art is a brainchild of the West," as he wrote in 2012. The artist, who is inspired by traditional Japanese paintings as well as anime-like pop culture, has said that "reassembling [Japan’s contemporary art movement] in a Western contemporary art format" has been a successful mission for Japanese artists. 

Takashi Murakami. Installation view: STARS: Six Contemporary Artists from Japan to the World, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2020. (Photo by Yuki Kohara) 

Still, according to Kataoka, notable Japanese artists such as Kusama and Murakami have now successfully penetrated Asia's art market. "These artists could be great role models for young artists in Japan, expanding to the world through Asia," she said. "Asia’s growth, as well as its international presence in the industry, make Japan realize that we need to think within communities of the Asia-Pacific."

So much so that vibrations from Asia’s contemporary art scene are being felt across the region. Singapore, where there is massive government support for art including funding to artists and arts organizations through the National Arts Council, opened a new National Gallery in 2015 with over 8,000 artworks drawn not just from Singapore but across Southeast Asia. In Hong Kong, the M+ museum focusing on visual culture, is set to open next year, with claims "to be the largest museum in Asia," Kataoka said.

Top: Lee Ufan. Bottom: Yayoi Kusama. Installation view: STARS: Six Contemporary Artists from Japan to the World, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2020. (Photos by Yuki Kohara) 

With several new art fairs emerging in Asia last year -- including Taipei Dangdai, S.E.A. Focus in Singapore, Art Moments Jakarta, and Nanjing International Art Fair -- Kataoka stressed that Japan was at risk of falling behind the region's more active art movements. While Japanese museums are known for attracting huge visitor numbers for temporary exhibitions, Kataoka said Japan should "look at having our abundant permanent collections [instead of relying on borrowing collections for temporary exhibitions] and enhance more networks among museums both domestically and internationally."

Like other museums around the world, Mori Art Museum has been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and was forced to shut down for five months until July 30. "Strong content such as STARS was encouraging, especially when we needed a big drive for our reopening," said Kataoka, even though the exhibition was initially aimed at presenting contemporary masterpieces to the foreign tourists who had been expected to visit Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics. 

Operating a museum amid the coronavirus has been a challenge, Kataoka said, especially because of the financial hole created by the fall in gate receipts. Japan's virus-battered economy is also likely to see a fall in sponsorship funds. As part of an enhanced digital push, Mori Art Museum has experimented with livestreaming using Instagram to attract audiences worldwide. 

  
Top: Yoshitomo Nara. Bottom: Tatsuo Miyajima, "Sea of Time - TOHOKU Project (2020, Tokyo)." Installation view: STARS: Six Contemporary Artists from Japan to the World, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2020. (Photo by Yuki Kohara)

While the museum is also planning to run some paid content to complement its free visual attractions, "making a new pillar of revenue from digital initiatives will be a stretch when museums around the world were offering free content during their lockdowns," said Kataoka, adding that "digital tools have potential, but they can’t deliver the scale or the materiality of an artwork -- ‘experiencing art’ requires all five senses of our body." 

Kataoka believes that as we look forward to other times of confusion and anxiety, just like what the world has experienced during the COVID crisis, the role of contemporary art could be even larger. "Today, when there is no global leader in the world, understanding different values is essential to look for balance," she said. "Contemporary art is a great platform for that, as it is a repetition of reading various concepts which vary from history to politics."

"STARS: six contemporary artists from Japan to the world" is showing at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo through Jan. 3, 2021.  

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