Japanese Visual Culture by Iona Rowland
The relationship between Britain and Japan in the context of contemporary art is multi-faceted, symbiotic, and continually evolving through projects such as the Daiwa Foundation Art Prize. British artists have long drawn inspiration from Japanese visual culture, with both Édouard Manet and Vincent van Gogh citing Japanese Ukiyo-e prints as a major influence, encouraging the artists to utilise flat colours and do away with traditional approaches to perspective. The influence of Ukiyo-e, which translates as Pictures of the Floating World, is also evident in the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas, whose compositions offer a sensuous, and intimate portrayal of everyday life. Colta Feller Ives noted that ‘Degas made no secret of his admiration for Japanese prints… when his personal print collection was sold in 1918, it included over a hundred Japanese woodcuts and albums by Utamaro, Hokusai, Horoshige, Kiyonaga, Toyokuni, and other Ukiyo-e masters… he shared with the Ukiyo-e masters a heightened awareness of the world about him, an eye for the unusual in the everyday, the remarkable in the ordinary, the timeless in the momentary.’ The references to, and influences from Japanese culture, are present in the respective practices of Kate Groobey, Keith Milow and Mark Neville, and subtly echo throughout the 2018 Daiwa Foundation Art Prize exhibition. Kate Groobey has spoken of her fascination with the bold black lines and flat colour planes in Ukiyo-e prints, whilst Keith Milow’s enthusiasm for the brutalist architecture of Kenzō Tange, and more recently the refined buildings of Tadao Ando, manifested in his 2014 painting series FOUNDATION. I-IV. Mark Neville’s practice, meanwhile, is strongly influenced by Japanese protest photo books of the 1960s and 1970s, when figures such as Shōmei Tōmatsu and Ken Domon used the form of the photo book as an activist tool. Collectively, the exhibition offers an insight into the facility of art to cross-pollinate, move between, and permeate multiple cultures and forms.
Internationally renowned artist duo Ackroyd & Harvey have been raising awareness of, and educating audiences about global environmental issues for over two decades – their work, which sits at the intersection of art, activism, architecture, biology, ecology and history, encourages audiences to observe the changes that are happening to our planet and understand the major drivers behind them. It is the facility of the work, and the artists, to educate and inspire which continues to resound. But in a world driven by digital consumption, how are the artists engaging new and diverse audiences about something as physical as the environment?
For their Surrey Unearthed project The Lark Descending, Ackroyd & Harvey created an evolving exhibition in a disused commercial space in St Martin’s Walk, Dorking, a stone’s throw from their enchanting studio – a former lemonade-bottling plant bought by Harvey’s grandfather in the 1960s. The Lark Descending drew on the ecology, geology, history and culture of Leith Hill and the imminent threat to the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty from exploratory oil drilling. The exhibition metamorphosed between 10 and 27 May, with Ackroyd & Harvey introducing new artworks to the space every few days, from a large scale photosynthesis work depicting an aerial view of Leith Hill, to Bookworms, an animated film commissioned for Darwin Originals, and a series of trees from the artist’s open-ended research project Beuys’ Acorns. The physical artworks were complemented by a series of events, one of which, a social dreaming workshop led by Dr Julian Manley, that sought to open up new pathways to understanding human relationships with the landscape of Leith Hill, and delve deeper into their subliminal perceptions of place.
For some galleries and institutions, the idea of the evolving or ‘live’ exhibition offers an opportunity to engage audiences in real-time within the realm of a physical space. Take BMW Tate Live, ten days and six nights of constantly changing installations and performances at Tate Modern. The objective – to create a platform for innovation and a stage for emotion, encouraging us to appreciate the transformational impact of new ideas. The notion of the flexible exhibition applies to the architecture of the gallery space too, Lafayette Anticipations, home of Fondation d’entreprise Galeries Lafayette, was recently remodelled by Rem Koolhaas and is more manoeuvrable machine than grand architectural gesture – its mobile floors and walls mean there are 49 possible ways to configure the Parisian gallery space. The move towards experiential exhibitions is also notable – Mark Dion’s Theatre of the Natural World exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery featured 22 live zebra finches in a giant aviary, the immersive and participatory nature of the show saw the role of visitors shift from spectator to participant. In a review for Apollo Magazine, Kate Barnett said ‘encountering the natural world in an art gallery, through the prism of Dion’s own careful engagement, is a surprisingly cerebral experience.’
For Ackroyd & Harvey, the frequently changing aesthetic of The Lark Descending exhibition space initiated conversations about the physicality of the work, and thus the underlying narrative around the preservation of Leith Hill. The multi-faceted nature of the exhibition allowed audiences to engage with the project through a medium of their choice, whether a workshop, live artist talk, a walk through Leith Hill, or a physical photographic work, curating their own experience as a means of uncovering their sense of place, and the personal significance of the area. By creating a personalised and dynamic exhibition experience, the artists tapped into both individual and collective emotions, and as in Dion’s Theatre of the Natural World, visitors became active participants rather than onlookers, a commentary, perhaps, on our active role in protecting the environment. In social dreaming, the meaning of an individual dream is about the broader world in which one lives, and the exhibition experience is no different.