The Flow Under the Flat

Upon discussing the trends of Japanese contemporary art since the 1990s, most people would expect to hear about the origin of Superflat art, which conveys an impassive, withdrawn sense of aloofness. They might then want to hear an analysis of how the Superflat shifted to the officially recognized idea of Cool Japan, while also adopting subcultural expressions. And based on this, they would also want to know the future artistic trends in Japan.[1] However, this essay aims to discuss the trends since the 1990s from a completely different perspective. Thus, any mention of the above developments would be coincidental.

To begin with, writing an outline of a specific region or cultural area for a given period, via mentioning the popular catchwords involved, may be convenient for the general populace, but in most cases not for the people involved. I will discuss it again later in this essay, but when organisers invite Japanese artists to international exhibitions, expecting to find specific features in their works, rarely are they fully satisfied. To the people who actually live in that environment, the organisers’ analysis of that region, embellished with appealing phrases, ends up making the residents feel a sense of incongruity. This of course does not only apply to the Japanese. The problem of Orientalism posed by Edward Said is not a past-tense issue, but is still resolutely ingrained at the base of today’s Western cultures.[2] At the least, we should suspect that this possibility still exists. And if we notice such a tendency, then we must resist that situation from different perspectives. One path of resistance is to fix our eyes on works that have been forced to stay invisible, as if they were nonexistent, which has been caused by a focus on specific artistic activities.

Superflat art, typically found in the works of Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, can be seen as an example of art used by Japanese artists who have pursued and succeeded in developing a Western-oriented career. The art market in Japan is smaller in scale than in Western countries; thus, it is insufficient for Japanese artists to solely build their economic base there. In that sense, it was a natural reaction for the artists to construct a Superflat brand, tailored to the needs of a larger art market. But since they could not have known the actual needs beforehand, they deserve to be credited for successfully developing that brand. On the other hand, the 1990s – the eve of the birth of Superflat – was a significant turning point in the contemporary art world. As referenced by Nicolas Bourriaud in his book Relational Aesthetics, that was a period when an entirely new paradigm of activities was explored.[3] His book has been widely read around the world and critical examinations of the book have begun to be made,[4] but unfortunately, it has not yet been translated into Japanese. For this reason, it is hard to say that Bourriaud’s ideas are adequately understood even by Japanese art students. But if we are to consider that his book is an after-the-fact analysis of the events that spontaneously occurred, then even if his ideas have not penetrated into Japan, there is no reason for us to presume that the relational activities he focused on are unrelated to Japan. In fact, though slightly different, a notable activity came into existence in Japan in the 1990s. This was artist-run spaces, as typified by Studio Shokudo. The artists in that group utilised a warehouse for their own studios, while also using it temporarily for open studio exhibitions and for exhibition spaces. This type of trend was at the vanguard of today’s ideas of “post-white cube” and “post-exhibition”, and can be seen as having synchronously occurred at that time. Following the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble at the dawn of the 1990s, companies gained an altered awareness of their missions in society, and began to support cultural activities. That period coincided with the emergence of artist-run spaces; thus, that support lay behind those activities.

But I must point out some situations that are uniquely found in the Japanese art world. Because the art market is small in scale, many art galleries in Japan cannot support themselves through selling artworks alone. Therefore, as an alternative solution, a majority of the galleries rent out their spaces. This condition greatly affects mainly young artists who are not yet established. That is to say, in order to hold an exhibition, in addition to paying the cost of production, they must also earn the money to be able to rent a space. Moreover, even if they raise enough money, a different kind of difficulty awaits them. That is, in spite of the fact that rental galleries are primarily used as exhibition venues for new artists, those shows are ignored in art reviews and critiques, as if they never existed. Those galleries also often create a special framework at their convenience, whereby they exempt the rent and ‘organise’ shows. This can be seen as an effort to claim that they are equal in level with commercial galleries that are financially independent. Ironically, the ‘organised’ type of show has had the effect of positioning the “rented” type as the lowest form of exhibition.

Aside from this hierarchical system, another similar system exists in the Japanese art world. That is, quite a few elderly artists belong to conservative associations generally called dantai (groups). Those artists end up consuming their energy moving up the ladder from levels such as an associate member to a formal member, as if they were taking higher posts in a company. Upon considering all these unique situations, artist-run spaces in Japan cannot simply be positioned as resisting the art-market-centered paradigm, as is the case in Western countries. The artists who managed those spaces in Japan did not aim to radically deconstruct the art system. Rather, it is undeniable that one of their aims was to develop a different route that could link their activities to the art market. In that sense, their goal was quite close to that of Superflat artists. But, of course, the artists who managed spaces were decisively different in other ways. The approaches made by such groups as Studio Shokudo included working with the local community; constructing a communication platform; and exploring the possibilities of social programs. Today, those approaches have become the linchpins of contemporary art. Those activities that were rarely practised up until that time are also the same attributes that were densely contained in the art of the 1990s, attributes focused on by Bourriaud.

It was upon entering the 2000s that the communication between art and local communities approached a significant turning point. Different from past trends, this turning point resulted from a top-down approach on the occasion of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale 2000. This was held approximately 200 kilometers north-northwest of Tokyo, in the mountainous Echigo-Tsumari region of Niigata, which is a prominent rice-producing area. Fram Kitagawa, who produced that international exhibition, derived the idea from visiting the Sculpture Projekte Münster. But the regional traits in Echigo-Tsumari helped the triennale gain stronger original features each subsequent time it was held. The first triennale in 2000 was nothing more than a public-art project held in a new type of site. But in time, it evolved toward possessing more distinguishing features. That is, the triennale came to value artists’ collaborations with the local administrations and their communication with small-scale local communities, while also adopting original programs, such as the reviving of old Japanese traditional houses.

If we were to limit our discussion of the type of exhibition held to just public spaces, we would see that the permanent project Faret Tachikawa Art was already held in the 1990s in a suburb of Tokyo (also produced by Kitagawa). An art project that was more than just the installation of works was Ripple Across the Water, held in 1995 in Aoyama, Tokyo and curated by Jan Hoet, who is known for directing Chambres d'amis and documenta IX. However, the uniqueness of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale from its second iteration noticeably stood out from other exhibitions. The triennale is comparable to the international exhibition Manifesta 7, held in a mountainous region in Trentino-Alto Adige, Northern Italy. Manifesta 7 also focused on the events and cultural backgrounds that were uniquely found in that region, but it was different from the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale that actualised those elements to a more thorough and deeper level.

However, it should be noted what the organisers of Manifesta achieved in successfully developing an international standard exhibition in an uncommon site. While the Echigo-Tsumari was successful in developing distinctive features, it also exposed a problem that the art world is facing today, which derived from one of its strong points; that is, the deep bond created with the local communities. This problem lies in the relation between a social contribution and the artists’ creativity. This same problem was reflected in the attempt made by Australia’s Community Cultural Development (CCD) to replace the framework of cultural administration with the relationship between art and community. The collaboration between art and a certain locale or community opens possibilities for the art of today, but at the same time it manifests vital issues for us to consider. Artists are expected to take on certain roles through working with society or a community. But we should question whether artists are in a position to fully exercise their own creativities and convey their own sense of awareness. Also, opinions are divided between whether or not the tasks that artists are asked to do are realisable. In addition, the biased sense of problem awareness as seen in the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale (that is, the excessive focus on the problems of depopulation and the revival of local communities) ended up exposing another type of problem that artists in Japan were facing. That is, an excessive focus on distinctive regional problems hinders artists from becoming involved with the problems we are facing from a global perspective.

Okwui Enwezor, the artistic director of documenta XI in 2002, pointed toward a possible way for art to approach society and politics. But in the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale, that possibility was blurred behind the problems of depopulation and the aging of the local residents. Therefore, though people from outside a region can share problems with the residents and can make a difference, it would be problematic if the residents felt obliged to fully commit themselves to those specific problems.

In contrast, the Superflat art movement prescribes its primary feature as “to stand aloof from the problems in society and the world”. The concept of Cool Japan, as promoted by the Japanese government, also aims to find commercial value in that same feature. In any case, they both imply a deviation from real problems and a non-political attitude. But strangely, those implications are shared by the regional developmental type of artistic programs in Japan. It should be pointed out that Superflat’s non-political nature, which deliberately takes a “so-what” attitude toward its own introverted form of expression, is, ironically enough, closely related to the political awareness that was possessed by Japan after World War Two. That is to say, Japan has long tried to understand the war experiences from the perspective of “the pain of being defeated”, but it has neglected to understand the war from the side of being the perpetrator. Japan’s attitude, which was totally different from the similarly defeated nation of Germany, for example, was expressed by Malaysian artist Chi Too as “a collective amnesia.”[5] Japan’s attitude conveys negligence and insincerity to neighbouring nations that were involved in that war. Not only this, Japanese people themselves harbour doubts and feel ashamed of their own country. These feelings are not unrelated to the reason why Japanese artists feel hesitant about taking on political problems. Whatever the problem may be, insofar as they hold doubts and are ashamed of the country whose values they are founded upon, Japanese artists will be reluctant to adopt a social or political attitude. Within that dynamic, the artists choose non-political and impassive routes of expression, and also attitudes that tend towards the “cool”.

Interestingly, artistic director Enwezor, who delved so deeply into the possibilities of political correctness in documenta, did not expect to find any political attitudes in the Japanese artists who participated in the 7th Gwangju Biennale in 2008. The 1st Gwangju Biennale in 1995 was centered on the theme “Beyond the Borders”. Partly due to the social nature of the theme, it was the first international exhibition in Asia that was widely recognised. But even the Gwangju Biennale as directed by Enwezor did not expect the Japanese artists to commit themselves to problems in society and the world. In contrast to the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, which is commonly called daichi no geijutsusai (the earth art festival), the Gwangju Biennale laid down the concept of “post festival” in its initial stage. Aside from that difference between the two exhibitions, it could be that Japanese artists are automatically assumed to have a non-political identity when viewed on the level of an individual artist. In any case, their non-political attitude, or the situation in which they are expected to take that attitude, is one of the prominent problems that must be solved in the Japanese contemporary art world.

The Great East Japan Earthquake and the nuclear accidents that followed (in other words, the 3/11 incidents) could have a definitive influence on the situation that Japanese artists are facing. After 3/11, with the force of surging waves, many artists began exploring, and are still pursuing, ways to become involved in the situations that exist right in front of them. The pressing situations brought about by the disasters, and the liability issues tied to the organisations and individuals who were involved in the human-caused accidents, are all there right before their eyes as problems they must face up to. The experience of facing those situations could greatly change their awareness that would not strictly be limited to the earthquake and nuclear problems, but which would extend to the general problems of society. The unique, regional, developmental type of international exhibitions in Japan that have only focused on specific issues resulted in removing Japanese artists from being involved in social problems. And the outside art world still expects to discover catchy expressions, as found in Superflat non-political, childlike or introverted works. These two problems cannot be resolved overnight. But if the artists become more aware and can overcome those problems, then we can expect meaningful outcomes. For example, their long experience of being inactive toward social and political problems spurred artists to become sensitive, cynical and stern towards the superficial artistic approaches that they have employed to take on various problems. In other words, that experience could become the foundation upon which the artists can critically reconsider the tendency toward relying on the politically correct attitudes of the past, which rapidly targeted and consumed the various problems of the world after documenta XI. In addition, the artists’ experience of having long accepted the stereotyped image of being non-political might allow them to pursue the problem of Orientalism, as examined by Said, via showcasing their own experiences.

Koki Tanaka, who was one of the artists selected for the 7th Gwangju Biennale, deepened his awareness of the problem of the fixed non-political image, and questioned that image in his works. His attitude can also be superimposed with the situation that Japan has been placed under.[6] Although unique artistic conditions in Japan were involved, the activities that synchronously occurred in the 1990s are still being developed through their interactions with global trends. Some good examples are the small-scale groups in Japan called CAMP and blanClass. These groups have continuously held discussions and performances based on the idea of the “post exhibition,” which began to flourish at the beginning of the 2000s. This type of activity is showing signs of a different awareness from the one that brought about a non-political attitude. Once such an awareness strengthens, Japanese artists will be able to make work based on their own attributes, rather than going along with the fixed features that others expect to find in them.

In April 2002, in the midst of a gun battle, Japanese backpackers with guidebooks in their hands were found sitting in front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The world ridiculed them, and Japanese people felt ashamed. But then, that attitude undeniably symbolised the Japanese that we were at that time. The painful experience of 3/11 taught the Japanese that the world is not simply a place for sightseeing. Once the ‘backpackers’ become aware of the situations around them, they must begin to act in ways other than going on a journey. This same issue is what the future art world in Japan must face.


  1. ^ Adrian Favell, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art, Blue Kingfisher/Timezone 8, 2012
  2. ^ Edward W. Said, Orientalism, Pantheon Books, 1978
  3. ^ Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presse Du Reel, 1998
  4. ^ Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110, pp. 51-79, MIT, 2004
  5. ^ Chi Too, “State of Doubt,” at Art Lab AKIBA, July 19-28, 2012
  6. ^ Atsushi Sugita, nano thought, pp.306-307, sairyusya ltd., 2008

Translated by Taeko Nanpei

Atsushi Sugita is an art critic and Professor of Art and Design at Joshibi University in Japan.