Among the strongest influences on Japanese modern art are the post-war effect on society and the bursting of the economic bubble in 1991. These influences, along with the inspiration of daily life, have come to define what art curator Midori Matsui calls "Micropop."
Micropop combines post-modernism and coping mechanisms amid globalisation in artistic creations. The new artistic form includes a new language recycled from everyday common objects that have come to define consumerist culture.
Reflecting on this new form, a travelling exhibition entitled "Winter Garden" is currently on show at the Gezira Art Centre in Cairo.
The exhibition has already been displayed in Germany, Italy, England, the US, Canada, Mexico, Hungary and Russia since 2009, according to Aki Yamada, assistant director of the Japan Foundation's Cairo office.
Winter Garden includes the diverse works of 14 artists that span traditional art, where white space takes dominance, to pop culture-inspired art reflecting on paradoxes in modern Japanese society.
The booklet of the exhibition explains that the title Winter Garden has a double meaning: on the one hand it literally means a desolate garden in wintertime, and on the other it means a greenhouse. The double meaning reflects on the detachment of modern society while at the same time it contnues to nurture (not plants, but in this case artistic creations).
One of the most interesting works in the exhibition is a video art installation by Koki Tanaka that documents the turning on of lights in different rooms, contexts and through differently shaped lamps. The video augments the beauty of a common everyday occurrence and brings out the different connotations such actions hold.
One can see how turning on a lamp on a desk can suggest something different than turning on the lights dimly in a room. One can also see street lights, theatre lights and colorful lamps, all giving different visual experiences. The recurrence of the clicking sounds creates a melodic synchrony to the visual image.
The booklet of the exhibition explains that Tanaka “documents transformations of everyday objects, motivated by his playful interactions with them.”
Other video installations by Tanaka displayed at Winter Garden include Cause Is Effect and Light My Fire, in which he follows a burning fuse.
Lighting fires is also an image used in the video installation by the artist collective Chim ↑Pom, who lit fires in a suburb of Tokyo to create visual images and words. The video is accompanied by a music piece, making the video all the more interesting.
More traditional yet visually captivating are the works of Hiroe Saeki, who displays two paintings dominated by white space and that include meticulously drawn fine lines that create interesting branch-like figures.
The most intriguing thing about the works is the enormous amount of precision, something that can be clearly seen while taking a close look at the painting.
Other works include paintings by Keisuke Yamamoto, an artist and sculptor. Set against a grainy or washed out background, Yatamoto draws familiar objects that contain an ambiguous allure. The way he positions the objects in the painting give the otherwise dull objects a sense of enhanced beauty.
What strikes one immediately are two paintings by Masaya Chiba, whose main theme in his artistic oeuvre is the idea of ruin. The paintings are raw and emit a sense of immediacy.
Chiba usually draws unfinished or destroyed sculptures set against a backdrop of ruin or overgrown trees. In Winter Garden, he displays two paintings, Story of Famous Tree and Crying Face. The canvas of the latter is displayed with its wooden easel.
According to the booklet, the theme of ruin in Chiba's works suggests the end of an old civilisation before beginning a new one.
Manga culture can also be found in the works of artists Mahomi Kunikata, Aya Takano and Makiko Kudo. The three are inspired by Japanese comics and the life of an adolescent. However, it is Kunikata’s work that is most interesting and most reflective of Japanese pop culture.
Her works have imbued sexual connotations merged with an overload of symbols excessively used in Japanese pop culture. One can see hints of the influence by world-famous Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami.
Kunikata's paintings Girl’s Festival for Defeated Soldiers and The Useless Cave show the influence of modern consumerist society upon the adolescent. The two girls drawn in the paintings have a seemingly innocent, yet are shown undertaking acts of masochism.
Though the exhibition as a whole has some works that are somewhat childishly drawn, and others that are too ambiguous, it is interesting see and reflect on the feeling artists have for the contradictions within modern Japanese society.
The exhibition is ongoing until 10 March in Gezira Art Centre located at 1 El-Sheikh Marsafy Street, Zamalek.