Throughout Japanese history, art has been an integral part of everyday life. Consider the remarkable achievements in ceramics, textiles, and architecture that have emerged from this island nation over the centuries. Ukiyo-e, the colorful woodblock prints that were much admired and very influential in the West in the late nineteenth century, functioned much like manga, Japanese comic books, do today: they were aimed at a mass public and sold for the equivalent of pennies. On the other end of the socio-aesthetic spectrum, exquisitely painted screens and scrolls were commissioned by temples or collectors, who stored and treasured them, taking them out only occasionally to be admired.
The Western notion of fine arts, so deeply rooted in concepts of individualism and originality, was not introduced to Japan until after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Before that, the term kogei, which means “craft,” served as an umbrella term for all the arts. Only after Japan opened its ports to Western trade were terms for “fine arts” coined in the Japanese language—bijutsu (which literally translates as “technique of beauty”), geijitsu (art in general), and gijitsu (technical skill). Since then, the Japanese have been quick to accept the concept of “art for art’s sake,” never abandoning, however, their age-old belief in the fundamental contribution of the arts to everyday existence. But Western ways, like all outside influences, have never been simply appropriated or adopted in Japan. Instead they have undergone what has been termed the “domestication of the foreign.” Over a century later, the arts—both traditional and avant-garde—are very much alive and kicking Japan.
Nonetheless, the situation for contemporary art in Japan is complex, especially for emerging artists whose work does not conform to accepted practices. Government grants for individual artists are rare, and very few “alternative spaces” as we know them exist. The artists in this exhibition—winners of a competition established in 1996 to discover, nurture, and support young artists in Japan—are making their U.S. debut. More than 1400 entries were reviewed by a national jury, who selected one hundred finalists. Their works were exhibited last summer at the Tokyo International Forum, where an international final screening jury chose the seven winners whose work is on view here today.
Like their contemporaries all over the world, Japanese artists work in a wide variety of media, ranging from photography to installation to drawing. They, too, address a myriad of themes, including the concepts of permanence versus transience and evolving ideas about body image. We hope that The First Steps will provide a tantalizing introduction to the vital and energetic contemporary Japanese art world, one that will whet your appetite for more.