After doing some errands, I stopped for lunch at a cafe that was trying to be Scandinavian in style. Remember that this is Japan, so other countries blur together in one mass of delicious foreignness in many cases. Books on Scandinavian style in Japanese were displayed with random books in Swedish as well as old books in English that were selected to match the decor.
I LOVE BOOKS! Any old book will send chills down my spine. Even more when It feels like I have discovered a secret treasure trove that only I will want to or have the ability to read over lunch. It was impossible to choose just one, so I found three.
Mary Stewart does write a good thriller but the Waverly Children’s Dictionary kept me entranced with its essays, photos, and descriptions from a bygone era. Their choice of examples or the contrasts between choices struck my funny bones, and I started posting my own memes using Overgram to type text on Instagram and Facebook. If it is good enough for Barbara Kruger, it is good enough for me. The title of an essay in one book became a tag for several photos.
At first the contrast between historic meaning and contemporary use struck my fancy.
After talking with Atsuyuki Nakahara, the chief curator of the Art as a Haven of Happiness exhibit, I knew that I would probably write at least two posts about my adventures that night. It would have been very easy to dismiss the exhibit as simply one where the museum could feel good about displaying the artwork of people with disabilities because it was now part of the museum’s new mission. But that is not what the curator wanted. In the show’s catalogue, he even quotes the museum’s mission statement at length, including this part.
The Museum will strive to build an art community as a place for creativity and coaction, where people can encounter new values, re-examine themselves, and deepen their bonds with the world. It will seek to be a place where people engage in art as nourishment for [the soul].
(Source: 2010 partially amended “Designated Administrator Proposal Document [Business Plan]” of Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture)
Nakahara and his assistants worked together for several years in making this show, but he wanted more than just showing off crafts made by the two studios. He wanted people to think about what they saw and “encounter new values”. To fully understand what is happening here, you have to know two things: people with disabilities in Japan are hidden away and Nakahara is also an expert in the Gutai art movement.
People with disabilities are sadly discriminated against throughout the world, but in Japan they seem to be hidden away. In Canada, trainable mentally handicapped (TMH), educationally mentally handicapped (EMH), and physically handicapped (such as hearing disabilities) students also attended my juniour-high school. (Forgive me if those terms are no longer politically correct. I am using the terms that were used at that time.) It was a small town with no separate facilities; we all shared. At recess, students regularly interacted with each other. Nobody ever thought anything of it. In fact, I do not recall anybody bullying those students either. It was as if we all instinctively knew that we should be nice, protect them, and just be friends. Most did not go on to high school but some might have had jobs at a local facility where people made wooden patio furniture or rubber doormats that were extremely popular among locals. Somewhere I even learned basic sign language and sometimes chatted with one girl who was deaf. I remember the pleasure we both had when we banged into each other in a nearby larger city. At my high school in the city, I do not recall anybody with any obvious educational disabilities other than one blind girl, but the odds are high that some students were somewhere on the Autism spectrum, right? Many friends volunteered at the St. Amant centre to work with people who had various disabilities. The school now has, and maybe they always did have but I was unaware, a co-operative education program for students whose academic or personal needs require individual attention. I do not know the extent of that program. Many places in Canada are now barrier-free, and people in wheelchairs are commonly seen in shopping malls. A special bus used to offer door-to-door service in Winnipeg, but now people with wheelchairs and strollers can use regular transit service. In Japan, stairs are everywhere and an obvious barrier to anybody with a physical disability. Train stations might have one platform to go to City X, but the platform for the return trip has only stairs or the station’s entrance has only stairs and no elevator. Train stations might have adapted their stairs with a so-called elevator, but somebody has to go and get the staff at the station to turn the elevator on. You have to go up the stairs to do that, and those makeshift elevators look very shaky to me. Escalators may only take you partway up; the last leg of the journey has to be finished by climbing stairs. People with any kind of disability usually attend separate schools, often from a young age. I remember one friend whose mind was incredibly active although cerebral palsy crippled her body. She was fluent in English and Japanese but probably never had a chance to attend an academic high school or university. Another girl attended a regular juniour high but not high school. When I visited the “handicapped” school, one student had a hearing disability. I honestly do not know how much difficulty he had in academic subjects but I do know, however, that he used his Japanese-English dictionary to engage me in conversation. Many students at the academically inclined schools never tried to do this. He, however, did not seem to know sign language although his hearing was poor enough to affect his communication skills. People with Down syndrome are also rarely seen on the streets despite their usually sunny dispositions. They usually have to attend special schools when they are young and then learn occupational skills for work, such as the ones needed to work at the Tampopo Bakery in Shimonoseki. After much searching, a friend found a nursery school/kindergarten where her little girl with Down syndrome could go. The entire family moved to a different city, because one elementary school in the area accepted students with mental disabilities. As she got ready to start elementary school, she began speech therapy nearby. Sounds great, right? Her daughter’s disability was a taboo topic unless you were close friends. I do not recall such attitudes in Canada. Friends who have family members with mental disabilities freely talk about their families. Teenagers with Down syndrome or others with mental disabilities go to school, have pyjama parties, go on dates, have jobs, and sometimes live away from their families in group homes. Friends in both countries admit that although difficulties are inevitable, these special members are truly loved and bring lots of joy to everybody’s lives. With this background, you can imagine the impact that the participating studios and this exhibit are making in Japan.
Shobu Gakuen and Atelier Element Present might have started with a traditional approach with primarily occupational training and art therapy, but they now have a different attitude and a greater purpose. At the Atelier, they might have started painting with brightly coloured paint as therapy, but each painting is now regarded as the individual’s creation and worthy of respect. The artists are not involved in a production line; the paintings are not available for sale. The same principles apply to the patchwork pieces. Shobu Gakuen began as a place where TMH people made textile or wooden pieces to sell; skills and income were expected to be gained. People now work in the cafeteria and sell small objects made for retail, but individuals now use art to express themselves in painting, woodwork, textiles, and music. Staff prepare materials but do not provide much guidance for how something should be made. (I think that they would, however, provide guidance when teaching technical skills to ensure personal safety, such as when firing greenware in a kiln.) The band’s music is used in commercials, books of their creations are published with credit given to their makers, and the restaurant has a good reputation and organic produce. Directors at both facilities respect individuality but still have an eye for marketability and other ways to generate income. Some people might be attracted to the novelty of people with handicaps working, but many will forget that after a while and just enjoy their lunch. Others, like me when I saw photographs of the textiles created in the Nui Project, enjoy the art without knowing that the artist had a mental or educational disability. The independence and pride in oneself and in one’s work might enable one to not be seen as disabled. That is a revolutionary concept.
Bearing this in mind, Nakahara purposefully avoided using the term, outsider art, because he regarded it as derogatory. Outsider art was original used as the English term to describe what was called art brut in French: raw art or rough art such as the art made by the insane and others locked up in institutions. Most people with Down syndrome might have a learning disability but surely they are not insane or in such bad shape that they have to be institutionalized! That image did not match the cheerful, friendly places that Nakahara visited while planning this show.
With his background in Gutai art and especially the work of Atsuko Tanaka, Nakahara had no difficulty regarding the work as art. In fact, he said some of the pieces were much better than some of the Gutai work that he was familiar with. Gutai means the tool or way of doing something and the body but probably also plays with the homonym that means concrete or real in a physical or practical means. The artist wants to reveal the inner life of the material used, or as Jeanne Willette wrote on the Art History Unstuffed website, “Gutai Art imparts life to the material.” Nakahara regarded the work from the studios as manifestations of joy. Many of the participants valued the art of creation more than the end results. Doesn’t that sound like using your body as a way of doing something or making an abstract idea concrete? Sounds like Gutai to me.
As I walk around Tokyo, I am surprised by how much Japanese art has been influenced by Gutai and by how much some of the Gutai artists resemble some of the participants at the workshop studios. Thank goodness a local art history professor suggested that I and our mutual friend go to a Gutai show last year. He said that I probably would not like it but that I should see it to better understand Japanese art. He was right. At first the work of Tetsumi Kudo reminded of something that a first-year student might do in art school. After a while, you began to see the skill and craftsmanship. Other questions, however, also rose. Unlike these people with mental handicaps, Kudo’s pride was evident. Like the people working at the studios though, he was interested in the process of making art perhaps more than making money from it. He needed the help and the support of the people around him to make art. His productivity dropped drastically in the period when his mother died and stopped sending him an allowance and his wife became pregnant and could no longer help him in his projects and performances. He, too, would repeat themes over and over again. Many of his paintings and sculptures seemed somewhat childlike.
At the same time in the same building was another exhibit entitled, Mud and Jelly, featuring work from the MOMAT collection by several Gutai artists who explored the sticky nature of paint, sometimes with other media such as mud or jelly. Don’t the paintings look like they could be in the Art as a Haven show?
With the belief that objects have a unique beauty when they become damaged or decayed, Gutai echoes a sensibility found throughout Japanese culture. People around the world who have an interest in textiles might now the word, boro, and how it relates to frayed or ragged fabrics, especially mended and patched textiles from Japan. Sometimes exhibitions featuring such ragged fabrics are held in Japan or in other countries; many Pinterest boards are devoted to the topic. Work from Shobu Gakuen would fit right in with those concepts.
Sometimes it is hard to believe that so many of these art movements or artists were regarded as revolutionary in their day. Some of the paintings and other creations at Art as a Haven of Happiness were incredibly beautiful; some were not. Walking through the exhibition, you could not help but ponder the age-old question, “What is art?” I recalled a quiz that had made the rounds on social media where you were shown a painting and asked if it was modern art or a children’s drawing. Try taking the test and then take a look at these and see what you think.
Doesn’t this remind you of some sketches by Raoul Dufy? Or it might if the background was a solid blue. this is Miura Coast by Shuhei Tomita.
Does this remind you of Mondrian‘s work? Check out this title: I Want to Have Fun by Miri Anzawa.
Is all work created by a famous artist art? In the workshop studios, where does art therapy stop and art begin? How about craft versus art? These are some of t he questions that Nakahara wanted us to ponder as we looked at this show.
The catalogue for the show also contains some poems or writing of representatives from the workshop studios. Hiroatsu Sakuma from the Atelier Present Tokyo wrote the following prose in Japanese, and this is a translated version.
Beauty and Life
In our experience of beauty,
there are no divisions such as between artist and viewer.
There is only experience.
It should be earnest and sincere,
for through beauty,
we connect with the essence of life.
Out of this, deeper sensitivity
and a capacity for awe and respect are born.
I would like not only the artworks but also
the place of production each day
to have this kind of beauty.
What do you think? Did Nakahara achieve his goals of displaying the artwork of disabled people and making people think and examine themselves when confronted with new values? Possibly. Some people will; some people won’t.
This washroom was the last photograph I took in the gallery space. I know it might seem silly, and even Mr. Nakahara stopped to ask me what I was doing. But yet it made sense to me. It seemed an appropriate photo to add, because it seemed to tie in with the show. It had the same strong pink and blue that many of the paintings had as well as strong shapes. And when it comes down to it, aren’t all people just men or women regardless of whether not they have any disability?
I was lucky enough to participate in Blogger Night at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (nicknamed Tobikan in Japanese) after applying online. (In Tokyo, you have to apply for just about anything related to art, such as lectures, receptions, special events, and so on.) Blogger Night began later than the ill-fortuned event that they held in the late afternoon for foreign residents and tourists when the Balthus show was on, and this time I did not have to worry about tortured translations. I might have been the only blogger there who was not Japanese and I might be the only person to write about it in English. When the curator asked me at the end of the event what language I was going to write in, I admitted that I could write my post in Japanese if I had to but it was much easier for me to write in English of course.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum has been having many such special events recently. To be honest, I had not planned on going to either the Balthus show or this one but I love going to these events. Do you remember the books and movies that talk about spending the night at the museum? It was almost like that but in a limited area. For those who don’t know, Tokyo galleries and museums are always crowded regardless of time or day. These events provide the luxury of being able to move freely throughout the exhibition instead of plodding along a set path with people blocking your view or poking you with an elbow, and you can easily go back to a piece and mentally compare and contrast it with others. You can linger; you can crouch down for a different perspective; you can see things from all angles.
Freedom of movement was not the only perk. For Blogger Night, we were encouraged to take photos with the condition that we not take photos of individual pieces. I understand that they are concerned with copyrights and selling the beautiful, bilingual catalog that they gave us bloggers, but I doubt that the lighting in the gallery would have been sufficient for high quality reproductions. No problem. Take a photo with several pieces in it and crop it later, right? The curators are also at these events and can provide valuable insight, especially when answering questions from the crowd. Curators are much more knowledgeable than gallery docents or poorly trained but eager interpreters. Language skills enrich the experience at these events. Sometimes presents are given; sometimes not. This posting, however, is not supposed to be about the organization of these events; it is supposed to be about the art. The people and peeks behind the scenes are interesting though, so I will include those as well. The museum might have provided a free ticket and goodies, but I am not a remotely controlled machine for public relations. And nothing is for free. You know that somebody will ask me what country I am from. It was a small price to pay.
In 2012 when the museum reopened after renovations to its physical structures, the administration also changed the museum’s mission and roles to encompass a more proactive role in the community and perhaps one that is similar to those of public museums and galleries in Western countries.
Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum aspires to be a doorway to art…—a place where children can visit, budding artists can debut their works, and people with disabilities
can… enjoy art without hesitation. The Museum will strive to build an art community as a place for creativity and coaction, where people can encounter new values,
re-examine themselves, and deepen their bonds with the world. It will seek to be a place where people engage in art as nourishment for [the soul].
(Source: 2010 partially amended “Designated Administrator Proposal Document [Business Plan]” of Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture)
That’s right! The museum would act as a gateway for all people to enter and experience the world of art. The museum would be a place where children were encouraged to come and not shushed, both emerging and experienced artists could hold shows, and people with disabilities could enjoy art without mental or physical barriers. Those are quite radical concepts for a museum in Japan where the status quo is strongly enforced.
To prove that they meant business, the museum outlined eleven initiatives that would help it achieve its goals. Like most museums, they planned on having themed exhibitions as well as splashy, special exhibitions. These themes were divided into three categories: Arts & Life to show how people could integrate art into their lifestyles, Contemporary Arts to introduce Japanese artists who are currently working in the field, and Arts & Care to feature work by people with disabilities. (I have slightly changed the museum’s English terms, so the terms are more parallel in style. Some of the original awkwardness remains, however, because the original text used phonetic variations of English instead of Chinese characters that I think would better show the intended meaning.)
With Art as a Haven for Happiness, the museum is obviously following up on somebody’s plan to specifically feature work by people with disabilities. In Japan this is a big deal. They could have just opened a space and displayed work in the same way that community centres do, but they did not. The curators and museum staff worked on this show for three to four years and travelled throughout the country. They decided to focus on work created by people with Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities at the Atelier Element Presentand at Shobu Gakuen.
Atelier Element Present was founded in Mie in 1991 by a husband-and-wife team of artists, Hajime and Keiko Sato, and later added a branch in Tokyo. They hoped that the studio would play an active role in contemporary society rather than a passive, administrative role like many groups do. In fact, they are now collaborating with the Institute for Art Anthropology of Tama Art University to establish a village called Down’s Town to provide support for people with Down syndrome, their art, and their “culture” or way of life. Aside from the life skills taught by working in a cafeteria, this group focuses on painting and drawing.
The staff at these locations must be very easy-going, forgiving, and judgemental. Why do I think so? Haruko Kuramata, one of the artists, preferred patches of fabric to painting and one day started glueing patches to the cases and the covers of books that happened to belong to one of the aides. Don’t worry! The contents inside the books are okay. The aide can still read the books when they are not displayed in art museums. Kuramata did not stop there. She slowly and methodically glued patches all over a working refrigerator. As a result, they no longer use the refrigerator and keep it in pristine condition. Now that’s patience! Refrigerators are not cheap! They cannot be stacked against the wall or rolled up and ticked into corners like paintings. Can you imagine how angry a parent would be if that happened at home? She also covered cardboard boxes, chairs, and bottles. She is very productive and she is not the only one.
The museum brought in four of the artists to do a demonstration. The museum staff prepared the paint and approximately 40 panels per person. It was not unusual for each person to finish more than half a dozen paintings in one session. They were allowed to be as messy as they wished. All they had to was paint.
Can you imagine that? The museum staff did all the preparation to the panels, including the primer. Just the cost of buying those panels would make any other artist hesitant to do so many at one time. And then to be told to just play with the paint and do whatever we liked without thinking of the end product? I have to admit that I am a bit jealous of the generosity of the museum and the freedom in which everybody could paint. How about you? Wouldn’t you like to just muck about for a week on somebody else’s dime? It would be fabulous!
Shobu Gakuen was founded in Kagoshima in 1973 as a municipal facility where people with developmental disabilities made simple bamboo or textile products that were sold to provide income. In the mid Eighties, Shin and Noriko Fukumori, the current facility directors, dramatically changed how the facility was run and encouraged individual expression rather than financial productivity. People can now express themselves in fabric, wood, Japanese washi paper, ceramics, painting, and even music. In fact, a clothing brand used the music of their percussion band Otto and their vocal group Orabu in a TV commercial featuring actress Ryoko Hirosue.
I admit that I admire this group’s use of methods and materials. They preserve traditional materials but also try to reduce the exposure of already physically and mentally sensitive individuals to chemicals if possible. Even in the cafeteria, they try to use organic vegetables. Instead of artificial dyes, Hamada used kakshibui on the uchiwa fans. It is made from the fermented juice of unripe persimmons. I do not know if the facility makes their own kakushibui or not, but they might. When typhoons hit southern Japan, a lot of green persimmons will be tossed to the ground and otherwise wasted. Waste not, want not.
To be honest, I heard of this group’s textile art last year and I would have been much more interested in this show had I known that their work was being featured. A friend of mine had some books with beautiful photos featuring the group’s Nui Project for textiles. Two are available outside of Japan for exorbitant prices from Amazon.com: Nui Project 1 and Nui Project 2. Books and DVDs are available directly from Shobu Gakuen for about half those prices. The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum’s bilingual catalogue also has beautiful photos of work from both groups.
When I saw the photos in the book, both my friend and I viewed them as textile art. She might have been aware that the artists had disabilities but she might not have read the introduction in the book. I didn’t; I just looked at the fabulous pictures. Being friends with many textile artists, she and I both viewed the pieces as art. I could easily imagine some of the textile pieces in an artist-run gallery. For example, the pieces by Tomomi Shimokawa where she embroiders small pieces of fabric with frayed edges and collects them in a tin or glass jar. Even individually these tiny, delicate pieces of embroidery were beautiful and filled with bright colour.
Atsushi Yoshimoto’s work could easily be mistaken as an installation piece in any gallery. He cuts fabric into small pieces of similar size and then adds delicate stitching. As you can imagine, this is a long, slow process. It took him around a year to do the work seen here.
Although most of the pieces in the exhibition are not for sale, the museum’s gift shop is selling some pottery, woodwork, and other items from Shobu Gakuen. Catalogues, postcards, and other knick-knacks are also available.
People often ask me about the choices I make when I draw or work on a different kind of project. Some things are instinctive; some choices are planned. Some are creative challenges decided before starting; some are challenges created by limitations in the environment upon arrival.
“How do you know when it is finished?”
I just know. It tells me.
“How do you decide what colours to use? How do you decided where to use what colour?”
Sometimes it depends on what colours I have brought with me or how I limit myself. I can also see the bright colours that I am using in the subject. I can’t help it; I do see them.
One small choice can have a great impact. For example, colour, saturation, and other factors can change a photograph of the same subject in very subtle ways. I do not use PhotoShop and I do not manipulate my photos much at all. All I did here was use a filter to change the colouring. Which one do you like best?
This was the original photo taken in colour. All of the other photos have been altered by changing the colour.
For some reason unbeknownst to me, lights and shadows appear differently when a camera is set to colour vs black-and-white. When actual negatives were used to print on paper, printing black-and-white photos on paper made for colour copies often gave a pink tone to the finished prints. Subtle changes are seen in digital prints, too. The shadows are not as strong; the greys are more delicate. That could just be my imagination…
This was a colour photo but it looks more like a photo that I could have taken with the b&w setting only after I punched up the shadows with one quick click.
Next are two photos of the dead lotus plants in a pond in Ueno park. Both photos show the same subject from similar angles, but the colour is different. With that one small change, I knew that I wanted the reflection on the water in the black-and-white version and a focus on the lush green leaves in the colour. Almost the same but yet so different.
I am afraid that I have not been diligent in writing this blog. Why not? To admit the truth is the hard part. I could choose the easy answer and say that I have been busy moving to a new city and starting a new life yet again in a new apartment since my show ended in February, but I would not be completely honest with myself if I wrote that. It’s not wrong but it’s not right. A friend who is doing the Artist’s Way programme with me encouraged me to explore deeper.
By the time I confessed my fear of writing anything new on my blog, we were already on Weeks 8 and 9 of the twelve-week programme. This is when Julia Cameron talks about blocked artists and how they sabotage themselves. JC wrote that it was fear not procrastination that was blocking these artists. I happened to read that little insight a few seconds after I had patted myself on the back for my excellent procrastination skills. Do you think the forces that be were trying to tell me something? I had to stop for a moment and think about why I was scared to write this blog.
My friend had asked me the same question, and I very quickly told her that bad experiences with other blogging platforms resulted in me being scared of using WordPress despite several successful attempts using it. That was the easy answer. Once again it was not wrong but it was not right. Was I afraid of writing? No, I love words. Was I afraid of writing long passages? No, you cannot shut me up once I start. Was I worried that I had nothing to write about? No, I told my friend that I had many topics and experiences to write about. So what was wrong?
I think I might have overwhelmed myself with the seemingly possibilities of blog topics that I now had at my disposal since I moved to Saitama City near Tokyo. I could write about my art, my adventures in exploring continuing education at schools in Japan, my introduction to traditional nihonga painting, and the people I encountered there. I could write about the shows I went to in Kyushu, Kansai (area around Osaka and Kyoto), and Kanto (area around Tokyo). Other artists asked me to write about the problems they have working in Japan and they were flattered when I asked if i could write about their work on my blog. I could write about the various types of venues, shops, and people who I see. The list goes on and on, and that is the problem. How could I write about all of them and do them justice? I scared myself by just thinking about it!
Was that it? Was there more to my fear? Many of these proposed entires would be about my adventures in this new stage of life. Did I know what was going to happen or what was expected of me? Not really. These changes are all too new and came out of the blue last March. I no longer had a packed schedule with little free time; I had no schedule with mainly free time. The possibilities were infinite. That is terrifying!
Several other friends who are doing the Artist’s Way with me are also trailing spouses who have accompanied their husbands to new locations when employers decided it was time for a transfer. They reassured me that this fear and sometimes rejection of the new is natural and all too common. I am already much more settled than I was a few months ago so I hope I can remove this block and write many more entries. Wait! Maybe I should not promise a large number of posts. I should promise myself to start small even if it is only the occasional photograph or a few sentences. One step at a time…