the map that points from where or the one that points to
After months of renovation, the Mori Art Museum reopened with a new director at the mantle and an exhibition that was signaling new directions ahead, following its Japan Stars that came with a different agenda. There is also work done in the museum’s entrance, pointing to another change: its pandemic-aware downsizing; visitors will no longer buy tickets from museum employees but from automated vendors.
Yet, as audiences make their way through the show, there is a sense of the Mori having ‘gotten it right this time’, an impression that becomes immediately uncomfortable as it reveals how curatorially-friendly it is in its selection of women artists in their seventies, and the breadth of issues and practices they embody. While the museum’s previous incarnation had its share of surprising events, its commitment to the Asian Art environment was very much in the foreground. Another Energy points to all that was missing in the background, notably adding a sense of engagement to act of committing. The organizers, in their curatorial statement, speak of the energy of not giving up and clearly, in the case of most these sixteen artists, this includes the act of finally being shown in Japan. Visitorss will encounter works by artists that have next to never been exhibited in Tokyo and whose concepts, strategies, and art movements they may have been close to or a part of, remain very foreign for that audience.
It is thrilling to encounter Etel Adnan, Anna Boghiguian, Lili Dujourie, Carmen Herrera, Senga Nengudi… and to acknowledge that each of these artists could have been the object of a one person show in Tokyo. The energy ultimately finds itself uncomfortably compressed, leaving little room for those artists who are of that same generation, who were there from the start in writing the history of their medium, and yet are nowhere to be found. Pioneering figures of video and media art, including Joan Jonas, Dara Birnbaum, Shigeko Kubota (currently shown in Niigata), Mako Idemitsu, and of course Yoko Ono should not be left out. And was there no artist from China from that generation?
Another Energy comes equipped with so many questions starting with why it took so long.
‘pour m’en déposséder aussitôt/in order to immediately dispossess myself of it’,
Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères, les éditions de Minuit, 1969
Dare you to call it feminism
On the wall by the entrance to Mori Art Museum’s new exhibition, the title Another Energy: Power to Continue Challenging —16 Women Artists from around the World sticks out in its jacinth-and-indigo-colored spray-painting aesthetic evoking an unruly, street manner. It is, however, quickly tamed as the show goes on, where the guiding curatorial principle seems to prefer moderation over hard edged confrontation. As soon becomes clear, the show puts forward a dominating narrative of humanism while pushing feminism to its narrowest definition, emphasizing that what’s being shown here is more than that. It carefully encircles each chance of transgression within a safe perimeter, which might owe to the unwritten apolitical “norm”, or the goal to please as large an audience as possible, or both. It is undoubtedly encouraging to find a major private art institution like Mori Art Museum making such an effort to join this global trend of moving towards a more equal ecology (gender, age, and nationality in this case), while at the same time difficult to avoid noticing the coyness or hesitation as it does so. What obviously stands as a conundrum is how much we can afford to compromise in order to bring such heavily tangled discourses into the patriarchal society of Japan (and other countries alike including China).
To its credit, the exhibition does present a gratifying diversity of mediums, motifs, and approaches showcasing an absence of boundaries. Aspiring to highlight the challenge, struggle, and creativity through each of the artists’ career, it embarks on the impossible mission of conveying the flow of time in a group show with artists emerging from various backgrounds and developing in various contexts. This is compounded by the challenge of navigating through it. The artists are shown one after another, some taking up separated areas while a few loosely share a common space out of formal consideration. The size of spaces varies and the topic of focus darts around. Before one has time to notice, it changes yet again. What’s supposed to be the epitome of each long and unique career ends up being one piece or a few fragments in time. With the curators asserting that the foremost commonality shared by the participants of the show is that they are all artists, there isn’t much of a clue for the audience to follow. It becomes a show that requires doing the homework later, to take the threads listed along the way and explore the numerous wonderful stories afterwards on one’s own.
Mori Art Museum did a series of valuable interviews with each of these artists, the youngest of whom is in her 70s. The pace at which they talk might slow down, but the mind is sharper than ever. It is inspiring to see their works being shown and experiences shared globally. For many of them, the recognition came too late. But the silver lining is that they have already gained more exposure in major biennials and institutions, and that it happens at the moment when courage and faith are widely needed. Meanwhile, although the show proudly announces that the 16 artists come from 14 countries of origin, more than half of them are now based in Western Europe and the U.S.. While celebrating their work, we have to ask, where are the others? Wouldn’t it be truly exciting if Mori Art Museum had taken up the task of discovering other great artists that have yet to be introduced? To answer S.’s question, though, there was probably indeed no artist from China from that generation. Or rather, there was no “that generation” at all, as both cultural contemporaneity in this sense and longevity were too much of a luxury for a Chinese artist, let alone a woman, to wish for. At the end of the day, simply as a good wish, what if there were one person who tried to think differently and creatively and managed to survive? What about the others in other places around the world? I look forward to learning about them.