WORLDS IN BALANCE:
WHAT THE ART MARKET NEEDS NOW IS A DOSE OF INSTITUTIONAL KNOWLEDGE AND ETHICS
Let me begin this essay by addressing a culturally specific linguistic concern. One of the features of Japanese grammar is that it allows writers to leave the subject of a sentence unstated in many situations, permitting a degree of ambiguity about who is doing what. (Readers must infer the omitted information from the surrounding context.) And this feature has a tendency to assert itself in official communications, such as catalogue essays, where the writer may wish to defer to the group over the individual. But I have taken care to make my agency explicit in writing about my exhibition for the inaugural edition of AWT Focus, “Worlds in Balance: Art in Japan: From the Postwar to the Present.” For even though I’ve received help from many others along the way, I’ve had to put myself on the line in both curating a new event without any precedent to guide me and also in setting out a vision of Japan’s modern and contemporary art history that is at odds with established conventions. This is my way of holding myself accountable for the decisions I made.
I had two objectives in agreeing to take on AWT Focus.
The primary one was to propose a new model for collection displays at Japanese museums by testing out a borderless approach that puts works from across multiple creative fields in relation to each other, which is not easy to do under Japan’s rigidly classified institutional system. I have sought to chart an alternative genealogy of art in Japan from the end of World War II onward in my selection of works and organization of them into 12 sections under the overarching theme “Worlds in Balance.”
The other objective was to use the format of the sales platform to explore the possibilities for a new mode of curation at a time of increasing privatization, on the one hand, and the rise of artist-curators and collectives for whom exhibition making is an extension of artistic practice on the other. What does it mean for an institutionally based curator to organize a thematic survey, which is neither just an exhibition nor an art fair, where all the works on view are available for purchase through their contributing galleries?
Many commentators have observed in recent years that the agency driving the international art scene has shifted from the museum—site of research, collection, preservation, education, and display—to sites of commerce like auction houses and art fairs. To be sure, museums have always maintained discreet ties to the market insofar as collecting works is one of their missions, although that relationship is often obscured by the museum’s other functions. Yet the market has expanded to such an extent that it is now on the verge of swallowing up the museum—a change anyone familiar with capitalism might have seen coming. Commercial galleries are encroaching on the traditional turf of museums and universities by building and managing archives for their artists, and mega-galleries even complement their massive exhibition spaces with publishing endeavors and education departments. So long as the exhibitions at commercial galleries remain free to enter, there’s no question about where art lovers will go first to see art.
In line with the global expansion of the contemporary art market, collectors now travel to art fairs around the world (with the occasional stop at local museums too) to hone their eyes, form their own ideas about art, and buy works. Back home, some establish their own private museums for displaying their collections, and these luxurious yet intimate spaces often attract a great deal of fascination from the public.
There was at least one person who anticipated these developments as early as the 1960s: Hannah Arendt. It’s bracing to see how Arendt deploys “art” as a keyword in her books of the period, namely, The Human Condition (1958), Between Past and Future (1961), and On Revolution (1963). In The Human Condition, Arendt argues that with the victory of animal laborans, all human activity has been subsumed into a life of labor and consumption. Works of art, which were never meant to be use objects, let alone consumer goods, are now destined to be consumed like anything else—a trend only reinforced by the production of what might be called epigonic art. While the newly wealthy in America and elsewhere “developed a taste for ‘consideration and congratulation,’ they were content to get these ‘goods’ as cheaply as possible,” Arendt goes on to declare in On Revolution. Instead of earning respect by establishing their excellence in the public realm, she contends, they “throw open their private houses in ‘conspicuous consumption,’ to display their wealth and to show what, by its very nature, is not fit to be seen by all.”*
These are circumstances that demand for institutional curators to respond with some kind of effective counter, or “action” in Arendt’s terminology. It is the responsibility of curators to show through praxis what it means to display artworks in public space; to show the public the significance of selecting and exhibiting works based on judgments that go beyond personal taste. And I should note that I include the expertise of the curator within the scope of “personal taste” here. (Curators who deride any work that falls outside their specialty are particularly prevalent in Japan.)
Now, a counterpunch only makes sense if it happens in the same field of play that the opponent occupies. No one, apart from those already in your camp, is going to watch you take practice swings outside the ring. Of course, in this case the opponent is incredibly powerful and has already staked out the entire field as its own territory. But that’s no reason to give up. Just recall Jan Hoet’s participation in the legendary “Fight for Art” event at the inauguration of SMAK in Gent, Belgium, in 1999: In it, the then-63-year-old curator and museum director took on an artist almost half his age in the boxing ring before a large crowd. As Hoet physically demonstrated, there are times when you need to throw a punch for art, even while acknowledging your own weakness. That’s exactly what doing AWT Focus is for me.
As mentioned above, I took a genealogical approach in conceiving “Worlds in Balance.” In simple terms, that entails applying a temporal framework to a theme and then assembling diverse examples of the theme to assess what has and has not changed over time. The lines of influence among artists or works need not be explicit. Indeed, a theme can be all the more persuasive when it reveals continuities or divergences that do not appear to be directly connected to each other.
The exhibition’s titular “balance” refers to a state of dynamic tension between two or more terms, such as design and painting or the material and immaterial. My theory is that tracing how Japanese artists not only achieve this state of balance but also actively cultivate it in their practices is essential to a fuller understanding of art in Japan since the country’s modernization in the 19th century.
As I write in the introduction to section 2 of this volume, “Art or Craft?,” the aesthetic category “art,” or bijutsu, was first formulated in Japan during the social reform campaign of the Meiji era (1868–1912). In response, the preexisting term kogei, which formerly encompassed all kinds of plastic art, came to be restricted and redefined in opposition to art as “craft.” This historical context means that form and content in Japanese art are typically mediated through the negotiation of some concept A and an adjacent or counterpart concept B.
But artists can be more interested in balance itself than pursuing the full implications of either of the component terms. This explains why there aren’t many sculptors in the history of Japanese art who express the same rich volume through bodily form as, say, Aristide Maillol. Instead, we find artists who examine volume in relation to mass (Kazuo Yagi) or investigate how space is generated from the relationship between a closed form and an opening (Masakazu Horiuchi, Arata Isozaki). (Though Isozaki would have argued for that relationship to be perceived as ma, or the space and time that exists between things, rather than balance.)
The works that emerge from the practices of balance can come across as a bit sedate. After all, as suggested by Ilya Prigogine, the Nobel Prize–winning theorist of nonequilibrium thermodynamics who was also an avid art collector, it is imbalance rather than balance and an open rather than closed system that seem to offer more exciting models for artistic creation. There is a visionary appeal to seeing art as a comparable phenomenon to the fluctuations that triggered the birth of life here on Earth out of all the systems in our vast universe.
But just as relevant for navigating the contemporary world is an understanding that we constantly determine our position in the balance between one thing and another, and that something of value can come from holding that tension.
Certainly, even with all the calls these days for decentering (after Michel Foucault), there are still agents—quite powerful agents—vying to command the center. Yet when an artist like Kishio Suga starts attracting market interest from all over the world, so that his prices rise dramatically from where they were just a few years prior, I am still inclined to see it optimistically as evidence of the good will of collectors. Suga’s installations require an open mind to appreciate and are not easy to consume. Evoking Zen gardens that can be realized anywhere in response to the site, they take the form of highly constructed spatial interventions that offer profound insight into the structures of our world and the broader universe. Even his smaller assemblages and wall-mounted works interrogate the dialectics of nature and techne (the English language’s own, Greek-derived term that encompasses art, craft, and technology) in compact form. I believe the worldwide recognition of Suga’s practice demonstrates that there is something significant to the drive in Japanese art to keep pushing the techne of balance as far as it can go.