Nippon now

by Steve Braunias / 20 March, 2004
New Zealand's capital city of art right now is New Plymouth - where the Govett-Brewster gallery presents its astonishing exhibition of modern Japanese art, including works by the one of the world's greatest visionaries, Yayoi Kusama.

It was an accident. Like any other visitor to Tokyo wanting the ultimate rubbernecked view of the city at night - look, there's the Eiffel Tower - I went to Tokyo's tallest building at the Roppongi Hills centre, but ended up seeing something even more fantastic: really, I think it was the greatest art exhibition I've seen in my life.

A word about the sponsor. Roppongi Hills was developed by real estate tycoon Minoru Mori. In shorthand, you can call him the Donald Trump of Japan, except that he has a hell of a lot more taste - he collects paintings by the architect Le Corbusier - and is given to even more grandiose pronouncements. Mori is worth $US7.4b; he sunk $2.25b into Roppongi Hills, a 12-hectare megalopolis which he bought from 400 landowners over 17 years. As it went up, he took out fullpage advertisements: "WE DESIGN TOKYO." When it was completed, he said: "I want to change the character of the city. I want to change the lifestyle of the people."

The centre includes 793 apartments, 200 shops, a nine-screen cinema complex, the Grand Hyatt hotel, and the massive Mori Art Museum. The latest show - only its second; it opened

in October - is called Kusamatrix. Oh, that looks interesting, I thought, after filling my head with visions of Tokyo at night from the viewing tower, and tried to enter the gallery. Sorry, they said, but it was restricted to a private showing that night. Let me through, I'm an editor: I held out my business card with both hands, in Japanese style, and the staff kindly allowed me in. I can't thank them enough.

The show was by Yayoi Kusama. I'd never heard of her. But now I know she is regarded as Japan's greatest living artist; that she is 75, and has lived the past 20 years in a room with only a bed in a psychiatric hospital, which she leaves every morning to make her art in the basement of a nearby factory; that she suffered a hallucination of repeating images at the age of 10 ("On the ceiling, the windows, I could see the same red flowers, all over the place, on my body, and extending to cover the entire universe"), and has ever since devoted her art to repeating images, mostly of polka dots ("My illness allows me to be free from common sense"); that she lived in New York throughout the 1960s, painting, making installations ("One Thousand Boats", "Infinity Mirror Room"), staging nude happenings in Central Park ("Obliterate the Horse by Polka Dots"), when she claims to have heavily influenced Andy Warhol ("Warhol's repetitions come from me - but my repetitions come from childhood"); that after her nervous breakdown, and return to Japan in 1975, she seemed doomed to obscurity, but in recent years has held a major retrospective (1958-68) at New York's MOMA and in Los Angeles, and is now, this week, exhibiting her polka dots and video art at New Plymouth's Govett-Brewster public art gallery.

Kusama is part of the fabulously ambitious Mediarena show - a panorama of modern Japanese art, curated and conceived by the Govett's Greg Burke, Tokyo curator Roger McDonald, and Fumio Nanjo, of Tokyo's Mori Art Museum. It's been years in the making, and promises to be the most spectacular and exciting exhibition of international art in New Zealand this year. Four technicians have been flown over from Tokyo to set up the technology required; all those dear old phrases we hear so much about - state of the art, cutting edge, that sort of thing - actually do apply to Mediarena, which incorporates sophisticated computer and digital equipment. We're talking a liquid crystal display installation by neon artist Tatsuo Miyajima; 30 buried smoking furnaces that will convert bamboo to charcoal on the New Plymouth foreshore, by the Govett's artist in residence, Noboru Tsubaki; and young woman artist Tabaimo's 3D computer display, allowing users to navigate a replica of the interior of a Japanese house - you, too, can visit the kitchen, and see a housewife, according to Burke, "cooking a male brain, and then little nude girls are scooped out and put into the soup".

Yes. Mediarena should be fun, should be dazzling; Burke believes it really is new, truly modern. The first wave of contemporary Japanese art to hit Europe and the US, he says, was in the late 1980s; a second wave has been more recently experienced, but "every show repeats the same formula. You go the galleries and just see the same stuff. What we're doing is trying to add to the world's sum knowledge of Japanese modern art, partly by representing people whom other galleries have been ignoring."

The presence of Nanjo, the Mori Art Museum's deputy director, is obviously vital to Mediarena. This guy is on the ground floor - actually, the top floor - of modern art practice in Tokyo (most of the artists at Mediarena are from Japan's capital, and Osaka). Immediately after his public lectures in New Plymouth, Wellington and Auckland, Nanjo flies back to Tokyo, picks up fashion designer Issey Miyake, and thence to Wales, for the announcement of the lucrative Artes Mundi prize. Nanjo is one of the selectors, Miyake one of the judges; 10 shortlisted artists from around the world are up for the first prize of £40,000 loot, including New Zealand artist Jacqueline Fraser.

As for Yayoi Kusama: her stunning show at the Mori, Kusamatrix, went like this. There was a room full of gigantic balloons covered in polka dots. There was a mirrored room showing infinite reflections. There was a room in pitch darkness illuminated by thin strings of pin-prick flashing lights - being in this room reduced me to tears. There was a room papered with drawings of girls and dominated by gigantic balloons shaped as girls covered in polka dots. There was a room with a video screen showing an old woman singing in a room covered in polka dots ...

The show was so energetic, so vibrant and exuberant, that I vaguely assumed the artist must be someone in their twenties. But the old woman in the video was the artist. It was Kusama, and she was apparently singing about her mother's death - she once said, "I was the unwanted child of unloving parents"; her mother, she claims, beat her "several times a day" - and her own suicide. That video will be on display in New Plymouth. You should go there at once.

MEDIARENA: Contemporary art from Japan, Govett- Brewster art gallery, New Plymouth, to June 7.

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