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Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2003

The end of art history and the last laugh

Special to The Japan Times

Since 1984, the National Museum of Art, Osaka, and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, have been examining trends in contemporary art in a series of exhibitions titled "A Perspective on Contemporary Art." Pay a visit to the latest in the series, though, and you might be forgiven for wondering exactly what "perspective" is being offered. That's because the works on show are grouped under the title "Continuity/Transgression," categories so broad as to embrace almost all significant art, in one way or another.

News photo
"Big Baby" (1997), a sculpture by Ron Mueck (above); "Double Karen" (1970/2000) by Candice Breitz (below and bottom)
News photo
News photo

It's hard to imagine, though, a theme that could link the diverse work of the six artists showing here. The exhibition's overriding impression is one of disunity, of the stylistic fragmentation of contemporary art. There is the combination of abstract and representational imagery in the paintings of Daisuke Nakayama, which are showing in the same room as Ron Mueck's photo-realistic sculpture. Then there is the neat arrangement of fluorescent lights across the gallery floor in Jun Aoki's "U bis," and the electromagnetic panels of Toshikatsu Endo's 'Trieb Hippocampus III" that hum when you walk between them.

The eclecticism of contemporary art is nothing new. It's been taking place since the "Brillo Boxes" of Andy Warhol, or the eccentric "happenings" of Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono and the Fluxus group in the early '60s. It arguably began in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal, complete with a compositional title, "Fountain," and signed "R. Mutt."

Before Duchamp, art mostly concerned painting and sculpture. But from Warhol onward, a plurality of artistic expression became the norm. When pop art began to fade as a movement, a new phenomenon emerged: the absence of recognizable "schools," or styles, of art. The mood, as critic Arthur Danto put it in his 1997 study "After the End of Art," was " 'anything goes' -- there is no special way works of art have to be." So if the artists now showing in Osaka don't form a coherent group, perhaps that simply affirms their identity as the "anything goes" generation.

Roni Horn's "Are You the Weather?" is an installation that lines up 100 portrait photographs, all of the same woman. We're familiar enough with portraits, but the number displayed reflects the artist's fascination with what's essential, elusive and mutable about them. The model was photographed in several locations, and different weather and lighting conditions effected subtle changes in her facial expression. When Horn asks in the title if it's "you" who's the weather, it's as though she's attributing the model's changes in expression to us. But after 20 or so photographs, the repetition becomes tiresome.

Ron Mueck's "Big Baby" scuplture is just that -- it comes up to your hip. Here, subtleties of physical appearance are highlighted not by repetition, but by magnification. The baby has mottled peachy flesh and chubby folds, and saliva drooling from the corners of its mouth. But Mueck's photo-realist sculptures repeat an earlier 1960s movement that died out quickly because the sculptures looked so real that . . . well, there simply wasn't anything else to say about them. Mueck's sculptures are bigger, but they'll probably suffer the same fate.

Roland Flexner's "Untitled" is delicate and elegant. Flexner mixes ink and soap together, and uses a tube to blow a bubble of the mixture over a sheet of paper. The bubbles burst on contact with the paper -- or sometimes before. The first produces a round impression, swirling inside like oil on the pavement on a rainy day; the second resembles octopus tentacles swimming out from a centralized point. Flexner calls his method of bubble-blowing a "vocal gesture" and likens it to the playing of a musical instrument; the paper records the exquisite event.

Candice Breitz's "From Four Duets: Double Annie" shows pop diva Annie Lennox in either a duel or a duet with herself on two facing TV screens. The viewer stands in the middle and the two screens battle for your attention -- It's like you're being harassed and you wonder if art is allowed to do that. "Double Karen" is more soothing. This time it's Karen Carpenter in the same set-up as Annie. From one TV she repeats "You make" and from the other she sings "Me." Is it "You make me," or "Me you make?" Do fans make pop stars, or are fans made by pop stars in that we define ourselves by who and what we listen to? And can we ask the same questions of art?

To be caught between Breitz's duets, it is as if art is asking us questions, and not the other way round. Then the music fades, and you wonder what 100 photos of the same woman, giant babies, bubble-blowing, pop culture, videos, paintings, sculptures and installations have to do with each other, apart from being called art and being made within a few years of each other.

And in the silence, you wonder if this is what the history of art has been leading up to -- no neat categories, diverse directions, eclecticism, disunity.

"A Perspective on Contemporary Art: Continuity/Transgression" runs till March 23 at the National Museum of Art, Osaka. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Wednesday. Admission 830 yen, 450 yen (free admission Feb. 8, 22, and March 8, 16 and 22.) There will be a gallery talk by Yukihiro Hirayoshi, assistant curator of the National Museum of Art, Osaka, Feb. 8 from 2 p.m. in the museum's 3F exhibit space.

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