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‘Unsettling’ Suntory Museum Exhibition Offers New Ways to Engage with Artwork

Here is an exhibition that encourages viewers to engage with artwork in a playful spirit and introspect about the “unsettling feeling” that art can evoke.

Yukihiro Watanabe

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Onoe Kikugorō, Meiji period, dated ca.1875, Suntory Museum of Art【On display throughout the exhibition period】

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No museum has been spared from the struggles of holding exhibitions during a pandemic. The Suntory Museum of Art, however, offers a new take on Japanese art and, especially since traveling has become a considerable challenge, a much-needed opportunity for excitement and discovery through its aptly titled Unsettling Japanese Art exhibition.

Writing Box with Seashell Design in Maki-e Ogawa Haritsu Edo period, 18th century Suntory Museum of Art 【On display throughout the exhibition period】
Shō (musical instrument), Known as Saoshika-maru Gyōen Kamakura period, dated 1215 Suntory Museum of Art 【On display throughout the exhibition period】

The exhibition is divided into six chapters, titled as follows. The quirky wording isn’t a result of awkward translation ー it’s equally eyebrow-raising in Japanese.

Chapter 1: Behind the Behind—Let’s See the “Other Side” of the Work!
Chapter 2: Snip, Snip—Cut Up and Reconfigured?
Chapter 3: Take a Closer Look—Surprising Discoveries Await!
Chapter 4: Take It Apart—What if You Dismantle a Work?
Chapter 5: Box, Boxes, Boxed—Secrets of the Containers for Works
Chapter 6: Unsettling— “Beautiful” Doesn’t Make It Art

It was my first time encountering such eccentric wording and layout at an art museum. Surprised but nevertheless thoroughly entertained by the unique presentation of Japanese art, I asked curator Sachie Kubo about the thought that went into the exhibition.

The Priest in a Bag (detail) Handscroll, Edo period, 17th–18th centuries Suntory Museum of Art 【On display throughout the exhibition period】

Kubo explained the exhibition is aimed at encouraging those who have an interest but feel reluctant to foray into the world of Japanese art. She hopes they will engage with artwork with a playful spirit and introspect about the “unsettling feeling” that art can evoke.  

The exhibition has been a great success for the museum and also proven the importance of exploring new perspectives on engaging with art. Excited visitors have posted photos of the exhibits to share their newly discovered enthusiasm for Japanese art and the fun ways that art can be enjoyed. 

Suntory Museum of Art ©Tatsuyuki Tayama.

The Suntory Museum of Art deserves plaudits for teaching us creative ways of engaging with art. What we learn at the Unsettling Japanese Art exhibition can be applied to how we interact with other artworks as well. Even during a pandemic, art provides us with joy and stimulation.

The exhibition runs to August 29. Additional information is available on the Suntory Museum’s English website, here, including access, tickets, details on its main exhibits and how to best enjoy them.

Author: Yukihiro Watanabe

(Click here to read the article in Japanese.)

Yukihiro Watanabe, JAPAN Forward advisor, is the organizer of Gillie Club, a members-only club that offers a platform for cultural and social exchange and interactions among people with similar interests. He is also chief editor of Labunraku, a web portal supporting the traditional form of Japanese puppet theatre, Bunraku; a producer of events for novice Japanese culture enthusiasts; a visiting professor at Tama University Research Institute; and also serves as executive director for Ryori Volunteer No Kai (Food Volunteer Group), a foundation where member chefs visit disaster areas in Japan and serve food.