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Tokyo comes to Oxford

by Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Arts Correspondent

Ninagawa Mika (b. 1972) Tokyo from Utsurundesuseries, since 2018. Models: AMIAYA © Ninagawa Mika, courtesy the artist and Tomio Koyama Gallery

Tokyo: Art & Photography is a celebration of one of the world’s most creative, dynamic and fascinating cities, announces the publicity blurb. And for once the hyperbole seems spot on; you sense it yourself as soon as you step into this thrilling exhibition.

For the Tokyo ingénue like me and others met on the day I visited - some of whom knew Japan’s capital city from staying or living there - and some of whom now felt nostalgic for its sounds and sights after visiting these three galleries - it was a seductive experience.

It was eye-opening too in its coverage of four centuries of Tokyo’s vibrant arts and cultural scene - and the big city life it portrays. From a 1700’s six-fold screen showing a military dog-chasing game to the iconic mid-19th century images of Hokusai and Hiroshige, to cutting edge contemporary photography from the likes of Moriyama Daido and Ninagawa Mika, and work by internationally acclaimed artists such as Murakami Takashi as well as art collectives, this exhibition is expansive and exciting.

Originally planned for 2020 to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics, it is the first major loan exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum since the pandemic hit and knocked all exhibition schedules everywhere and everything else off kilter. But exhibition starved audiences, thwarted travellers and everyone else who visits will surely judge it worth the wait.

Unknown artist in the style of Hishikawa Moronobu (1618–94) The Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarters, late 17thcentury. Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Tokyo is a city that has undergone constant destruction and renewal. Throughout its history, from its beginnings as Edo, the headquarters of the Tokugawa shoguns in the early 1600s to the sprawling modern conurbation it is today, Tokyo (which translates as the ‘eastern capital’) has had a frankly awe-inspiring list of disasters and catastrophes, man-made and natural, to face up to.

It is this constant need to rebuild and reinvent itself that gives Tokyo its insatiable appetite for the new and innovative, claims exhibition curators, Dr Lena Fritsch, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Dr Clare Pollard, Curator of Japanese Art, of the Ashmolean Museum.

Tokyo is a city of contrasts. The works on show take us from landscapes to love hotels, from solitude to cityscapes swarming with people, from ephemeral cherry blossom (Ninagawa Mika’s uplifting photographic installation of cherry blossom welcomes us on entering the exhibition – Sakura meaning ‘cherry blossoms’ symbolises life’s fleeting nature) to the more enduring beauty of Mount Fuji visible from the capital’s towers on clear days, from shoguns and samurai to courtesans, beautiful women in their ‘floating world’ of licensed brothels, tea houses and kabuki theatres, onto the present day and the ‘leaky’ underground and cardboard houses – we see life as it is and has been lived in Edo, the small fishing village on a marshy plain that became Tokyo, the most populous city in the world today.

Aida Makoto Uguisudani-zu, 1990 Panel, sex phone calling cards, Japanese mineral pigment, acrylic. Private Collection © Aida Makoto, courtesy the artist and Mizuma Art Gallery

Tokyo’s earthquakes are a constant reminder of life’s volatility. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which flattened much of Tokyo and Yokohama within minutes, was a momentous event in the life of the city and its art. Views depicting the devastation were published very shortly afterwards in print and various media, and the city rebuilt, to include a new subway system. One optimistic example of all this was a series produced by eight leading print artists. Called One Hundred Views of New Tokyo (Shin Tokyo hyakkei), it celebrated everyday modern life in Tokyo - although it consciously modelled itself on Utagawa Hiroshige’s iconic woodblock print series, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, showing the beauty spots of Tokyo through the seasons (1856–9).

One example from that sublime series, Sudden Shower at Ohashi Bridge, Atake, an image of people crossing a bridge in a rainstorm huddled under their umbrellas and capes, inspired Vincent van Gogh. He greatly admired Japanese woodcuts and painted his version, Bridge in the Rain (not in this exhibition) in 1887. The Western European passion for Japonismewas also blossoming around this time.

Avant-garde art flourished in Tokyo in the 20th and 21st centuries and is variously represented in the show. Expressive photographs such as works by artists Hosoe Eikoh and Naito Masatoshi present a highly subjective view on people’s lives in the city. Naito’s Tokyo: A Vision of its Other Side (1970–85) shows a dark face of the mega-city, focusing on the homeless and street entertainers. And a large installation by one of Japan’s greatest photographers, Moriyama Daido, includes a moving projection and atmospheric sounds of the city that I found quite affecting, emotionally charged even though I don’t know the city personally.

Machida Kumi (b. 1970 )Three Persons, 2003. Sumi ink and mineral pigments on kumohada linen paper Y’s Collection © Machida Kumi, courtesy Nishimura Gallery

Personal reflections on their city are very much part of this show: they come from artists, quoted on the display labels beside their works, and from the two curators, quoted in the catalogue, both of whom have lived and worked in the city.

Photographic personal reflections add other dimension. There are those as mentioned above by Hosoe Eikoh and Naito Masatoshi. And in addition Ninagawa Mika’s recent photographs of Tokyo (2018–19) that offer a diaristic personal look at the city, showing her friends and family and her experiences out clubbing. An especially intriguing set of photographs by Tsuzuki Kyoichi, originally published as a photo book, show the riotously over-the-top interior décor of love hotel rooms. It’s a wonderful counterpoint to any expectations we may harbour of minimalist Japanese aesthetics.

Past, present and future, transience and permanence, constantly run into one another in this show, energising it and us. It’san exciting and enlightening exhibition. Do go if you can. It runs for five months until the 3rd January 2022.


Exhibition: Tokyo: Art & Photography Showing until: 3 January 2022 Venue: John Sainsbury Exhibition Galleries, Ashlmolean Museum, Oxford Admission: £6–£13.50 Publication: The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, £25 available at the Ashmolean or online.


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