TOKYO — In Noboru Ishiguro’s anime Megazone 23, the protagonist believes he is living in 1980s Tokyo but discovers the city is actually a computer-simulated world housed within a spaceship 500 years into the future. This simulated world exists outside of historical time, trapped in a period in which Japan seemed to be on a path to unlimited economic growth.
Critic McKenzie Wark writes in his essay “Otaku Philosophy” that the “simulated, CGI Japan kept on going,” even after the real-life country’s 1991 economic crash, by way of the otaku subculture. The otaku takes an obsessive interest in things, generally anime or manga, and inhabits a world of fetish and simulacra (not unlike those in the art world). Citing the scholarship of cultural critic Hiroki Azuma, Wark argues for otaku culture as a postmodern aesthetic practice that follows the logic of the database. The otaku “database,” in Wark’s telling, catalogues characters and settings across derivative artistic or cultural works (e.g., film, anime, manga) and locates the otaku’s desire in the form of moe, the affective quality or emotional appeal of a person or thing. Hyper-specificity is the database’s organizing principle, the search engine and interface its mediating structure.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT), the exhibit “Tokyo”: Sensing the Cultural Magma of the Metropolis applies a similar line of thinking as it reflects on the cultural life of the Japanese capital as it prepares for the 2020 Olympics. Ten keywords, or search queries, take the place of a traditional timeline or narrative. Each section, curated by different artists and devoted to keywords ranging from “human + technology” to “loss of myth,” presents works by contemporary artists from Japan and abroad, whose creativity the exhibition describes as being “inherited [from] the culture of the 1980s.”
The exhibition begins with the 1980s, when all things Japanese emerged as major exports to other parts of the world. Almost the entire half of the exhibition’s first floor is dedicated to the music group Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO), who debuted their self-titled album of innovative synth pop in 1978 and influenced the sounds of pop, electronic, and hip-hop music in the ensuing decade. Across two rooms are album covers, concert posters, and promotional materials, while a third room screens footage of a live 1981 performance. Colored vinyl records, rare collectibles, and props from ad campaigns are examples of the many objects on display.
YMO’s slick monochromatic costumes and futurist aesthetic leave the impression of a group that paid as much attention to its visual aesthetic as its music production, which pushed the limits of the era’s computer hardware in service of turning video game sounds and machine bleeps into music. Their records also absorbed the musical cultures of Asia, Europe, and the US to create experimental and melodic pop music. Forward-thinking and world-wise, the members of YMO are presented as artists who prefigured a world of wearable tech, machine learning, and cloud computing.
A section titled “new materiality,” curated by online gallery EBM(T), jumps ahead to the present with works by artists from the “post-internet” generation. American artist Tabor Robak’s “20XX” (2013) combines images of real-life skyscrapers to create a fictional city and corporate dystopia awash with the logos of video game companies. While the video evokes a hallucinatory Neo-Tokyo that’s been well-represented in anime and film, the work as presented in the exhibition ironically seems to be as much about showing off the high-definition capabilities of the Toshiba flat-screen TV displaying the video as it is about representing a society made entirely of spectacle and devoid of people (Toshiba is listed as a sponsor on the artwork’s wall text). Machine-human relationships recur in several works, including Norwegian artist Lars TCF Holdhus’s sculptural and video installation featuring plastic molds of prosthetic hands and videos of robots developed by the University of Tokyo. Arranged together, the images and objects resemble a kind of vanitas in which robot technology mimics and replaces human bodies.
Photographer Mika Ninagawa’s “Stage for self-producing” presents a photographic history of the many street fashions and subcultures visible in Tokyo, from the colorfully dressed takenoko-zoku dance groups of Harajuku during the 1980s to the Victorian fashions of “Lolita” girls in the 1990s. Mounted over her photographs are images of fashion-forward and costumed Instagram users who continue the staging of fantasy and self-image through the internet, some of whom, like dance duo AyaBambi, have become pop idols or YouTube stars. It feels like the rest of the world is now catching up to the youth cultures of Tokyo, the desire to see and be seen further enabled by the proliferation of selfies and social networks. For the subjects of these images, many of whom are women, this ability to create and perform self-image is a powerful antidote to a society that otherwise demands conformity.
In the top floor of the exhibition, Danish art collective SUPERFLEX and students from the Tokyo University of the Arts present models of homeless shelters based on luxury stores designed by famous architectural firms like Herzog & de Meuron. While extravagant wealth is highly visible in Tokyo, the city’s homeless are not. These plans suggest converting parts of the city’s Ueno Park into structures that would serve the homeless, making public space more inclusive ahead of the rapid development that comes with preparations for the Olympics.
As part of a series of films about the city, Tetsuaki Matsue’s documentary They used to call this place Tokyo a long time ago (2015) is a letter to the filmmaker’s as-yet unborn son. Matsue, who is ethnically Korean, films the neighborhood in which he was raised and follows the pregnancy of his German wife, considering issues around belonging and rootedness that come from being a child of immigrants. Photographer Takashi Homma’s section, titled “Tokyo as a night before incident,” collects images of suburban developments outside of Tokyo, the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, and portraits of Japanese children. A mix of hope and despair, Homma’s images suggest that the capital is at the eve of major changes, both economic and ecologic.
Given the exhibition credits include eight curators (six of them artists) and 10 disparate themes, it’s not surprising that “Tokyo” feels a bit top-heavy and uneven, and the keywords that structure the show’s major themes, at worst, resemble an alphabet soup of art speak (“socio-political urbanscape,” “new materiality”). Still, the exhibition draws a line from the 1980s to the present that’s full of detours and surprises — a Tokyo that looks beyond nostalgia and the past. Whether the “cultural magma” of the city erupts and creates something new, or simply cools and solidifies depends on how these multiple visions of Tokyo are realized in the upcoming decade.
“Tokyo”: Sensing the Cultural Magma of the Metropolis continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (4-1-1 Miyoshi, Koto-ku, Tokyo) through February 14.