About the exhibition “Image Narratives: Literature in Japanese Contemporary Art” at The National Art Center, Tokyo

Keizo Kitajima, TSILCARL VILLAGE ARMENIA (From the series USSR 1991), 1991/2019, Pigment print 66.0×93.0cm Collection of the artist ©KITAJIMA KEIZO

From 28th August to 11th November in 2019 The National Art Center Tokyo presents a group exhibition which features six Japanese contemporary artists. The title of the exhibition is ‘Image Narratives: Literature in Japanese Contemporary Art. As the title says, the exhibition focuses on literary expressions in Japanese contemporary art scene. The exhibiting works have literary elements in common and they are metaphoric like a poem. The works suggest audience to imagine the times, place and people in the works not just expressing any message directly.


According to the official statement of the exhibition from The National Art Center Tokyo, there is a phrase, “Ut pictura poesis” which means “As is painting, so is poetry”, derived from the ancient Roman poet Horace’s Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry). It is frequently cited when people explain how painting (visual art) and poem are close to each other.[1] Like this old phrase that explains relationship between art and literary elements, the exhibition offers a special journey to explore narratives consisting of images that exist within the context of contemporary art in Japan.

The featured six Japanese contemporary artists are varied in age from Keizo Kitajima who was born in the 1950’s to Futoshi Miyagi who was born in 1980’s. When you enter the museum at first, the room 1 is occupied by Yuichiro Tamura who is active both in Japan and abroad. The entire room becomes his new work “Sky Eyes” which is inspired by a concept “hallucination”. The artist focused on the fact that the word “hallucination” in Japan means “eye in the sky.” Thinking about narratives derived from words and images would be more helpful to appreciate his work.

At Room 2, Futoshi Miyagi presents his new installation work for this exhibition “In a Well-lit Room: Dialogues Between Two Characters” which is made up of 26 photographs and 5 videos with the sounds. Landscape and the conversation presenting in his work are closely connected to Miyagi’s experience. Miyagi has been focusing on sexuality and minority issues in connection with Okinawa. He brings up a question about social issues regarding Okinawa, by stimulating audience’s imagination through his art work.

Erika Kobayashi, My Torch, 2019, C print 54.9×36.7cm (each, set of 47)
Collection of the artist ©Erika Kobayashi Courtesy of Yutaka Kikutake Gallery Photo: Kasane Nogawa

Erika Kobayashi the artist who based in Tokyo shows her installation work at room3. The exhibiting work at room 3 traces a story about uranium, the raw material for nuclear weapons and Olympic torch for the Tokyo Olympics in 1940. Kobayashi focused on the ironic story of history that the Olympic torch never reached Japan and also the uranium that Japan had tried to import from Germany for the development of atomic bombs.

Fourthly, Yasuko Toyoshima reinterpret a shelf and a panel. In Shelf series, Toyoshima makes a shelf with much more elaborate designed leg than the main board of shelf. In doing so, Toyoshima reverses main and subsidiary roles of a shelf. Using the simple conversion of a common object, it makes us think about our perception of an object. Likewise, in Panel series she presents some works that she processed the back surface of a piece of plywood panel instead of processing the front surface which is normally utilized.

Yasuko Toyoshima, Square Margin Throwing Star, 2018, Plywood, linseed oil, oil paint 91.0×91.0×2.7cm Collection of the artist

The representative of the room 5, Chikako Yamashiro presents her video work about problems and issues related to U.S. military bases and war in Okinawa from the point of view of local people. “Chinbin Western: Representation of the Family” newly made work for this exhibition deals with a local issue about the plans to build a new air base facility of the U.S. Marine Corps stationed in Japan in the Henoko district, Nago, Okinawa.

Lastly, at room 6 Keizo Kitajima who has worked for many years as a photographer presents “USSR 1991”, “EASTERN EUROPE 1983-1984” and “UNTITLED RECORDS” series. “USSR 1991”, and “EASTERN EUROPE 1983-1984” series make us to be able to feel the atmosphere of the society and people of the Communist Eastern Bloc nations and the Soviet Union when the Soviet state system was collapsing. Not only the historic photograph series that showing people and society, Kitajima has been focusing on landscape photographs also as you can see from the series “UNTITLED RECORDS”. The series is containing abandoned huts, warehouse, tents and debris after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.

Through art works from the six artists which are divided into six rooms, it seems that the audience can enjoy different features and varied charms of contemporary art. Therefore, it can be said that the wide variety of the featured works and artists is the characteristic point of the exhibition. However, never forget that it is also possible to find out literary expressions while understanding Japanese contemporary art scene. Under the big theme “Image Narratives: Literature in Japanese Contemporary Art”.

“Image Narratives: Literature in Japanese Contemporary Art” at The National Art Center, Tokyo

  • Dates: August 28 (Wed), 2019 – November 11 (Mon), 2019
  • Hours: 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.,
    * Fridays and Saturdays, August-September: 10:00-21:00
    * Fridays and Saturdays, October-November: 10:00-20:00
    (Last admission 30 minutes before closing)
  • Closed on Tuesdays
    * Open on October 22 (Tue.) and closed on October 23 (Wed.) instead
  • Admission: General 1,000 yen (Adults), 500 yen (College students)
    Advance / Group 800 yen (Adults), 300 yen (College students)

Article written by Jeongeun Jo
Jeongeun Jo is from Korea now living in Japan. She is one of the member of TRiCERA who graduated from Graduate School of Fine Arts at Tokyo University of the Arts (TUA/ Geidai). She is also working as an artist herself. 


[1] https://www.nact.jp/english/exhibitions/2019/gendai2019/

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