Chiharu Shiota “XXXS – XXXS,” 2010.

by Owen Schaefer

Taking six very different contemporary artists and tossing them together for a series of annual shows is a little like trying to force, or at least encourage, an art movement into creation. There is always the optimistic hope that the artists involved will begin to influence one another. Perhaps they will begin a dialogue or a series of critical responses, or run off and write a manifesto. Of course there is always the possibility that none of this will happen, and that the artists concerned will simply create work for the show and continue on with their other projects.

This more pragmatic result seems the case at the Shiseido Gallery’s sixth Tsubaki-kai Exhibition series, entitled Trans-figurative, but that in itself doesn’t make it an experiment any less interesting to watch. One of the aspects that makes the Tsubaki-kai so unique is that once the original choices are made, the same six artists―in this case Yasuko Iba, Chiharu  Shiota, Masanori Sukenari, Kyotaro Hakamata, Naofumi Maruyama and Miwa Yanagi―are placed together year after year, and comparisons can’thelp but arise. And an added advantage is that the works are all new, and therefore represent a very real look at what these artists are doing today.

The Tsubaki-kai series has had a number of on-again-off-again events since 1947, when the Shiseido Gallery reopened after the war and started its first long-running group show. At the time, the exhibition series was concerned solely with painting, showing Japanese-style works in the spring and Western-style works in the autumn. Sculpture was added during the 1980s in the third series. And over time, the Shiseido Gallery updated its old-school approach to a much more contemporary one, without the cumbersome medium-specific divisions.

In this final show, all six artists have been included (in past years, only four were shown at any given time), and while viewers might expect a grand finale of sorts, there is no particular crescendo. In fact, at least four of the six artists seem to have produced more compact, understated works, and where last year’s show seemed full of convergence, this final exhibition might be looked upon as a denouement, where the crossed paths have begun to diverge.

A number of the works seem to go in new directions, or return to old ones. Chiharu Shiota’s video work Wall is her first performance-based piece in six years, and is a much more body-oriented work than many of her installations, and a visceral one at that.

Similarly, Miwa Yanagi has also been branching out from her well-known photography to explore more installation work. In XXXS-XXXL, she presents us with women’s shoes sized by the vague small-medium-large categories. The actual sizes, however, go from toddler-sized up to truly gargantuan, and viewers are invited to try them on though it is unlikely any will fit.

Kyotaro Hakamata, while still doing figures assembled in layered sections of colored acrylic, seems to be deconstructing his own work by assembling classical figures carrying water jugs, who seem to stand on the pieces of what might be other unassembled human figures.

Kyotaro Hakamata, “Reproductions of six jug-carrying serving maid caryatids,” 2010.

But it is Masanori Sukenari who once again ties the show together, and to some extent usurps it, with his work titled Bridge Over Flat Water. Sukenari uses the gallery space itself as the conceptual pool spanned by his bridge- like sculpture, and while the work suggests contemplation and reflection, you can’t help but wonder if it also implies stagnation in its stillness.

Maybe it’s testament to our shortening attention spans that the four-year span of the current Tsubaki-kai seems a long time for artists or galleries to commit to anything. But the series stands as a unique Tokyo art-world tradition, and perhaps what the show represents best is not a consensus among Japanese artists, but the polyphony of voices, sometimes in harmony and sometimes not―an idea that has come a long way over the last half-century.

Show: Tsubaki-kai Exhibition 2010: Trans-figurative (to June 13)
Gallery: Shiseido Gallery (Ginza station)
Hours: 11am–7pm (Sun to 6pm, closed Mon)
Admission: Free    Tel: 03-3572-3901