Resources, Scale, and Recognition in Japanese Contemporary Art: “Tokyo Pop” and the Struggle for a Page in Art History
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Resources, Scale, and Recognition in Japanese Contemporary Art:
“Tokyo Pop” and the Struggle for a Page in Art History

Outside of Japan, there remains only a limited knowledge of Japanese art of the 1990s and after. It was a period in which new contemporary art exploded in Tokyo with an intensity and originality—as well as national specificity—parallel to the much more famous Young British Artists movement in London.1 The most well known version of what happened is encapsulated in the narration and documentation provided by Murakami Takashi in his hugely successful touring shows Superflat (2001) and Little Boy (2005). Yet these shows offered at best only a stylized reflection of the 1990s Tokyo scene, one that showcased the artist at its center.2 The interest they generated and the global trajectory of Murakami’s subsequent solo career have ensured that, in many regards, he can be taken as the most successful Japanese contemporary artist to have emerged in the early 1990s; that is, from a cohort born in the late 1950s or early 1960s, who came of professional age about the time of the burst of the Japanese economic “Bubble.”3 One indicator of his wide international impact is that the narration of this period is usually reduced to a page or two in English language art history textbooks and art guides, often exclusively focusing on Murakami and occasionally accompanied by Nara Yoshitomo or Mori Mariko.4

My aim is to contribute to the necessary broadening of discussion about a period to which international art historians of Japan will certainly soon turn. To do so, we must look again at Murakami’s “Tokyo Pop” legacy and its origins in the 1990s and construct a more detailed narrative of Murakami’s legacy in the context of an account not of his own making. At the very least, alongside Murakami (b.1962), the most minimally adequate story of the late 1980s and early 1990s needs to mention aspects of the work of the following artists: Ohtake Shinro (b.1955); Yanagi Yukinori (b.1959); Nara Yoshitomo (b.1959); Nakahara Kōdai (b.1961); Nakamura Masato (b.1963); Yanobe Kenji (b.1965); Aida Makoto (b.1965); Sone Yutaka (b.1965); and Ozawa Tsuyoshi [End Page 135] (b.1965), together with other members of the art unit Shōwa 40 nen kai (i.e., The Group 1965, which includes Aida and Ozawa). I will also discuss the crucial role of the female curator Nishihara Min, who is Sone’s partner and lives in Los Angeles. To make my story tractable, I narrow my discussion to those artists who have had a close relationship with Murakami. I focus particularly on the means by which these internationally lesser–known artists have generated their own distinctive material or symbolic resources and art organizational forms of practice, even when they are unable to match the breathtaking scale of Murakami’s work, enabled by his global success.

To understand the artistic claims of Murakami’s rivals, I approach the question principally as an ethnographer, not as an art historian. From 2007 to 2013, I was a participant-observer within the Japanese contemporary art scene as a foreign international art writer researching the peculiar and rather small art world mainly centered in Tokyo.5 I combined art criticism with curatorial activities, wrote a widely-read blog (in English and sometimes in Japanese),6 published articles in major English language art journals, and helped organize art events and exhibitions. Part of my activities consisted of conventional research: formal interviews and/or meetings with around 250 leading artists, writers, curators, and collectors, as well as numerous more informal conversations. I combined this wherever possible with more typical art historical sources. However, as an ethnographer, taken along to installations, openings, and after parties, I chose to privilege the informal and frank insider views of the art scene, articulated to me orally. Central to this were the alternative narratives of around a dozen important members of the Tokyo art scene—mainly curators and artists, all locals—with whom I spent extensive time. They were my guides and entrée to the inner workings of this world, offering opinions and...


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