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Friday, Nov. 27, 2009

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Deep Impact: Joseph Beuys in Tokyo in 1984. SHIGEO ANZAI


'8 Days' that shook Japan's art world

A new exhibition explores events surrounding German artist Joseph Beuys' 1984 visit

Staff writer

In the chronologies you find appended to Japanese art books, it looks something like this: Title: "Joseph Beuys Exhibition"; Dates: June 2 — July 2, 1984; Venue: Seibu Art Museum, Tokyo

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Culture vulture: One of the lessons that German artist Joseph Beuys, seen here in a 1979 photograph from the collection of the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts, had for Japanese students was that value should be assigned to human talent, or Kunst (art), rather than to physical possessions. BILD-KUNST, BONN & APG-JAPAN / JAA, TOKYO, 2009

Of course, chronologies don't convey the mood that surrounded an art exhibition, or peoples' reactions to it. This one you can imagine would have been popular with art students. Students tend to like shows by artists whose fame precedes them, and no one's fame preceded him quite like Joseph Beuys, the media-savvy German whose very persona — including his "uniform" of blue jeans, white shirt, fishing vest and fedora — was an element of his practice.

Artsy types would have come to the Beuys show for the same reason. They no doubt gazed knowingly over his mysterious creations: a two-piece suit made of felt, a lard-covered newspaper stuffed in a jar, a video of Beuys lecturing about art to a rabbit.

But today we can only guess at these reactions. Very rarely do we see any real evidence of how an exhibition was received. Meaningful interviews with visitors are rarely made, and if they are, their results are not tallied and archived.

It's odd really, considering that art exhibitions, which rarely make any money, are generally justified by assertions of their ability to affect viewers' lives. Exhibitions entertain, inform and educate, we are told. They open our eyes to new perspectives and new philosophies. Sometimes, we are told, the long-dormant memory of an exhibition might even come back to us years later and still have the potency to change our lives.

Maybe. Maybe not. Where you stand on the utility of art exhibitions ultimately resembles a question of faith. You either believe in their power to affect people, or you don't.

Now, an innovative exhibition at Art Tower Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, is adding some empiricism to the equation.

The objective of "8 Days: Beuys in Japan" is simple: Explore the events surrounding Joseph Beuys' eight-day trip to Japan in 1984 and the one-month exhibition he held at Seibu Art Museum. The results are impressive. By interviewing current art-world luminaries who saw the Beuys show 25 years ago, the curator, Mizuki Takahashi, has shown very clearly just how deep an exhibition's impact can be.

Take Yuko Hasegawa, for example. The current chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo is unusual in the Japanese art world for her willingness and ability to provide intellectually rigorous theory to support the efforts of young, socially conscious Japanese artists. She also played a leading role in setting up one of the most successful regional museums in Japan — the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa.

It also turns out that Hasegawa owes her career to Beuys.

In 1984, the budding curator had recently started studying the Italian Renaissance at Tokyo University of the Arts. She was persuaded to join a committee to welcome Beuys and organize a "town hall" style meeting between him and students.

At this point it's worth remembering that Joseph Beuys, who died in 1986 at the age of 64, was not your average artist. He could draw, though he didn't limit himself to drawing. He made sculptures, but most consisted of found objects: The lard-covered newspaper, for instance. His works were imbued with deep symbolism, with the lard being a reference to his recollection of crash-landing in the Crimea while serving in the Luftwaffe during World War II and having nomadic Tatars rescue him and wrap his body in lard and felt. The found objects also mock the values artificially ascribed to products by the capitalist system. With his mantra, "Kunst = Kapital" (art = capital), Beuys sought to explain that value should be attributed to the human talent, rather than to the things it produces.

Having studied law, Hasegawa was attracted to the breadth of Beuys' vision. "This was not an artist in an ivory tower, but a person closely involved in society," she remembers. "The idea that (his work) could influence so many things — in other words change the world, was very surprising."

It was this experience, she adds, "that convinced me to enter the contemporary art world."

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Soft at heart: Joseph Beuys' use of felt and lard in his artworks were references to his experiences in World War II such as "Filzanzug" (1970) © BILD-KUNST, BONN & APG-JAPAN / JAA, TOKYO, 2009

And there's more.

Tatsuo Miyajima is one of Japan's most recognized artists internationally. His signature works — sculptures and installations using LED counters — have been shown at the Venice Biennale and collected by the Tate in London.

In 1984, he was studying oil painting at Tokyo University of the Arts and ended up on the very same "Joseph Beuys welcoming committee" as Hasegawa.

Miyajima recalls how he and his fellow students struggled to comprehend what Beuys was telling them.

"We all had our image of the way that a work of art was supposed to be . . . For him, an artwork was not a set category but a much broader, more amorphous idea. He wanted to talk to us about our visions of future society."

Miyajima might not have understood Beuys' message at the time, but he did later on. Much of his current work has Beuysian undertones.

At the center of Miyajima's work is a concept he calls "art in you." Artistic experiences and impressions, he says, "rest inside the imagination of each human being." Beuys would have been proud. His line was that society itself is sculpture, and hence every human participant in society is an artist.

Likewise, there were hints of Beuys in Miyajima's " 'Revive Time' Kaki (persimmon) Tree Project" held earlier this decade, in which he took saplings from trees damaged by the atomic-bomb explosions at Nagasaki and planted them around the world. Two decades earlier, in 1982, Beuys had planted 7,000 oak trees at Kassel, Germany, with an eye to highlighting environmental degredation.

"Beuys was the precedent," Miyajima says. "He showed us what was possible."

Art Tower Mito's Takahashi has tracked down many others who were influenced by Beuys' visit, too. Her exhibition includes not only video interviews and examples of Beuys' work, but it also features around 10 hours of documentary footage taken of Beuys while he was in Japan. It turns out that the producer of that footage was Tsunekazu Ishihara, the man who went on to create Pokemon — first the game, then the empire. The director was 26-year-old Naoya Hatakeyama, who is now one of the nation's most respected photographers.

"I felt that (Beuys) was a man who possessed everything that the Japanese cultural scene lacked, everything that had been lost," Hatakeyama says.

The photographer was referring to the fact that in 1984 Japan was running headlong into its bubble-economy period. Decades of disciplined labor were giving way to untrammeled materialism. As history showed, Beuys and his revolutionary exhibition hardly dented Japan's capitalist ambitions, nor did they create many budding environmentalists.

But they did have a lasting legacy. As "8 Days: Beuys in Japan" demonstrates with abundant evidence, Japan can now thank a single exhibition held 25 years ago for the flourishing, socially attuned careers of some its leading artists and curators.

"8 Days: Beuys in Japan" continues at Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, until Jan. 24, 2010; See www.arttowermito.or.jp for details.

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