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‘Timeless Conversations 2020’: Japanese Traditional Art Through the Lens of the Present




On June 24, the exhibition “Timeless Conversations 2020: Voices from Japanese Art of the Past and Present” opened its doors to visitors at the National Art Center, Tokyo.


Easily reachable by Tokyo Metro, the elegant yet ultra-modern building provides a preview of what is to come: an exploration of Japanese art, seamlessly aiming to show the affinities between the old and the new.


JAPAN Forward sat down with curator Mitsue Nagaya on July 2 to hear her reflections on why this exhibition is taking place now, and what lessons there are for visitors to learn from Japanese art, ranging from the traditional to the contemporary.



The Concept 



Japanese Swords x KONOIKE Tomoko's Room - Photo Credits Norihiro Ueno


It’s clear from the moment you set foot into the first room of the exhibition that standard perceptions, such as timeframe, are not the main point of the story. 


The curator explained: “We wanted to get rid of this aspect [of time]. With objects of tradition, we look at how they are perceived today. With contemporary pieces, we look at what they have inherited from tradition. Thereby, we sought to make away with the concept of time, looking at what the two have in common.”


The structure of the exhibition to some extent reflects that, with eight rooms in no particular chronological order. Each room creates its own dimension with an artifact from Japanese tradition — going from the Heian Era (794-1185) to the Edo Period (1603-1868) — which is then juxtaposed against contemporary Japanese art. 


In selecting the traditional art pieces, Nagaya explained, what we think of as “art” today was a concept not really present in pre-Edo Japan, so the choice of objects takes this into account. 


“There was a concept similar to the Western idea of art, but the concept of art itself as we think of it today didn’t really exist in Japan. Therefore, we looked at what we could use from everyday life…. For example, furniture, interior design items, plates, and so on,” she said. 



With the contemporary artists, Mitsue Nagaya explained the driving idea was “variety”: “We would choose from architects, designers, photographers, manga artists — in other words, people who are also not what we would normally call exponents of fine art — and try to pick people from as many genres as possible. 


The result? Buddhist paintings juxtaposed with contemporary art installations; 19th century flower-painted scrolls placed in contrast to contemporary photography. 



Varied with digestible amounts of information, the exhibition includes video projections, light installations, and music, and manages to make art very approachable and enjoyable for everyone. 


This was Mitsue Nagaya’s aim in curating the exhibition, especially given the original plan, which coincided with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.


“We wanted to avoid an exhibition where you needed prior knowledge to enjoy the art. So even without any background knowledge, by looking at the art, you could enjoy the exhibition. We thought that people from everywhere, no matter what country they are from, no matter what age they are, could find this interesting,” she said. 




How Comparison Can Spark Imagination


Part of the brilliance regarding the choice of objects was, on some level, a matter of “necessity is the mother of invention.”


As Nagaya explained: “When we initially started, we had never done anything like this before. We couldn’t really imagine in practice what the final product would look like.”


The contemporary artists would consult with the curators and come up with innovative ideas on how modern works could interact with the traditional pieces of art. 


Take for example the room designed by Tsuyoshi Tane, the renowned architect. 



Buddhist Statuary x TANE Tsuyoshi's Room - Photo Credits Norihiro Ueno


Light and darkness, two concepts that are opposing in nature but often viewed as a combination, are showcased in an innovatively immersive installation. Tane, a contemporary architect who is internationally known for his designs focused on the concept of “Archeology of the Future,” steps into a collaboration with two Kamakura period (13th century) Buddhist statues, Nikko Bosatsu and Gakko Bosatsu, which represent the sun and the moon, respectively. 


Buddhist Statuary x TANE Tsuyoshi's Room - Photo Credits Norihiro Ueno


The statues are displayed in a dark, spacious room, while their beautifully-preserved gold leaf-covered surfaces gradually become illuminated, before gently vanishing back into the dark. To add to the atmosphere, one can hear in the background a religious ceremony conducted at Saimyoji, the Tendai Buddhist Temple in Shiga prefecture, where the two statues are enshrined. 


The installation creates a guided and natural interaction with Buddhist works that illustrates themes of time, prayer, and memory, and in some ways transports you straight to the temple in Shiga Prefecture. 


The curator provided insight into the origins of this installation: “Mr. Tane wanted to display the statues like they had never been displayed before. The lights move, trying to create an effect of heavenly light. The atmosphere created is very much like the one when you visit a temple and admire a Buddhist statue. 


“Normally, when Buddhist statues are displayed, of course there is the religious aspect. But bringing the religious atmosphere into the museum is really difficult. The fact that the display could even bring in the dimension of people praying in front of the statues is so much more than I imagined it would be, and it’s something which can be said for the exhibition as a whole.” 




The Importance of Art During COVID-19


The National Art Center, Tokyo like many public venues around the world, is also taking measures against the spread of the virus. Visitors are requested to wear masks, use disinfectant, and measure their body temperature. 


Even with the extra measures, however, in these trying times one might wonder why it is meaningful to go see this kind of art in the first place. 


When asked this question, Nagaya pondered that, unlike many exhibitions, the art displayed is uniquely connected to everyday life, and might even have particular significance, given the challenges of this period. 


“We tried to choose items that recall feelings present in the life of everyone. In this time of COVID-19, when everyone is feeling a little uneasy and perhaps a little stressed, it’s a type of art that people can enjoy,” she said.



This is true, as artworks include objects seemingly commonplace, but that are relevant in the life of everyone — such as plates and garments. 


This point is particularly poignantly expressed by the inclusion of the Buddhist statues in both Tsuyoshi Tane’s installation and in the works of Enku, an Edo-period Buddhist priest. 


Enku X TANADA Koji's Room - Photo Credits Norihiro Ueno


Enku, who lived between 1632 and 1695, created wooden sculptures which, according to the curator, were “initially designed to heal the sufferings of unknown people all over the country.”


Furthermore, Enku is juxtaposed with Koji Tanada, a sculptor and recipient of the 2005 Taro Okamoto Award for Contemporary Art. 


For both Enku and Koji Tanada, wood as a material represents a deeply spiritual encounter. The sculptures of both artists are made from a single tree trunk and showcase natural qualities of the material by intentionally preserving innate curvatures, textures, and colors. By doing so, the powerful vitality of wood is preserved and renewed in a new form. 



Given the spiritual nature of these works, the curator argued, even in these trying times there is something with which we can all connect. 


“I think, especially with art such as that by Mr. Tane and Enku, there is an element of healing and religion. It’s timely in this period of COVID-19, when the circumstances are outside of human control. Perhaps in old times people would pray and try to find a way to heal from a point of view of the spirit. I hope that visitors would take the opportunity to see things also from this perspective.  


For people in Japan, visitors can enjoy the exhibition until August 24. 


Fortunately, for those outside the country, the curator provided reassurance that there might be another way to enjoy the art as well: “There are aspects of the exhibition which are difficult to grasp if you don’t see the exhibition for yourself, but we are thinking of putting some of the exhibition online. Once that actualizes, I would love for people to see that.”


Make sure to check the website for more information in the future. 



Exhibition Information


What: Timeless Conversations: An Exploration of Japanese Art through the Lens of the Present


Where: The National Art Center, Tokyo, Special Exhibition Gallery 2E


When: June 24 (Wed.) – August 24 (Mon.), 2020

(Please note: The date changed from the previous schedule.)



Opening Hours: 10 A.M.-6 P.M.

Closed: Tuesdays


Address: 7-22-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-8558


Admission: ¥1,700 JPY (adults), ¥1,100 JPY (college students), ¥700 JPY (high school students)

Advance: 1,500 yen (adults), 900 yen (college students), 500 yen (high school students)


Barrier Free: The museum is accessible to those with special mobility needs.



Access: Tokyo Metro Chiyoda Line Nogizaka Station, Exit 6 (direct)

Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line, Roppongi Station, Exit 4a, ~5-minute walk 

Toei Oedo Subway Line, Roppongi Station, Exit 7, ~4-minute walk 




Author:  Arielle Busetto and Mariko Azuma


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