In Review

Exhibition of the week: Tokyo (Art & Photography)

The Ashmolean Museum’s new show is ‘as bustling and eclectic as Tokyo itself’

Home to more than 37 million people, Tokyo is one of the world’s largest cities, said Tim Hughes in the Oxford Mail. That it exists at all is something of a miracle: a marshy former Samurai garrison town, once very much a poor relation of the imperial capital Kyoto, it grew up at the convergence of three tectonic plates. As a result, it is very vulnerable to earthquakes; and it has often had to “rebuild and reinvent itself” to cope with the devastating effects of “natural disasters and man-made catastrophes”.

The Ashmolean Museum’s new show is “an exploration of Japan’s capital city through the vibrant arts it has generated over 400 years”. Taking in everything from Hokusai and Hiroshige woodblocks to contemporary photography and works by “avant-garde collectives”, it brings together a wealth of prints, paintings, photos and sculptures, and adds up to an exuberant celebration of “one of the world’s most creative, dynamic and fascinating cities”.

The exhibition is as bustling and eclectic as Tokyo itself, said Alex Diggins in The Daily Telegraph. You will see everything from a print of a geisha frozen mid-dance, to a 300ft Godzilla belching “electric gunk onto the shattered cityscape below”, to a “hallucinatory pink tunnel” plastered with the artist Mika Ninagawa’s photographs of trees. “The work of 18th century woodblock masters jostles with pop art poseurs”, but thanks to a deft and subtle historical narrative, the show give a strong sense of the ordered chaos characteristic of its subject.

A section exploring disaster is particularly enthralling: at one point, we see a 19th century woodblock print depicting the citizens of Edo (as Tokyo was then known) subduing the namazu, a giant catfish they believed dwelt under the city and caused earthquakes by flicking its tail.

Generally, though, it is Tokyo’s postwar and contemporary artists, and especially its photographers, “who command most attention”: they best capture “the steamy press” of a city where “37 million souls collide”. Some of the older material can be a little fusty, though, and the curators’ strenuous attempts to avoid the more “gimmicky aspects” of Japanese culture mean that many important and interesting artistic phenomena – manga, for instance – are given short shrift.

I disagree, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. This “thrilling” exhibition shows a fascinating continuity between the older works and the newer ones. From the 17th century, Tokyo was famous for its pleasure quarter, “the floating world”, which inspired a new art genre – ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world”, of samurais illicitly visiting the city’s brothels, or sex workers with “entangled limbs”.

Simmon, a private Landscape by Hosoe Eikoh, 1971

Simmon, a private Landscape by Hosoe Eikoh, 1971

Hosoe Eikoh, courtesy the artist and Akio Nagasawa Gallery

Tokyo’s artists are “still making pictures of the floating world” today. There are Ninagawa’s “intensely coloured” photographs of “blue and pink-haired” clubbers, and Tokyo Rumando photos of “love hotels” – “sexual retreats” offering young couples the chance to escape their family homes.

The greatest works of art here are Utagawa Hiroshige’s 1850s series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, which depict “with cool modernity, the anomie and randomness, as well as the fleeting beauties” of life in the capital. “If Tokyo’s artists today are so good at inhabiting modern life in all its strangeness, that might be because their city has a great tradition of doing it.”

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (ashmolean.org). Until 3 January 2022

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