SAN FRANCISCO — Americans have the feeling that Japan is swiping our car market, annexing our downtown real estate, cornering the market on electronic gadgets and buying up all the luxury trinkets on Rodeo Drive.
We are protectively scornful when a Japanese corporation pays $43 million for a shopworn Van Gogh and nervously amused when the New York Times reports that snooty Fifth Avenue shops put discreet signs in vitrines whispering "Japanese Spoken Here."
Our politicians like to create the impression that the Japanese miracle is just some sneaky illusion created by unfair trade practices, but secretly the thermometer of our admiration for them just keeps rising. These folks are good. As an island people, their inherent insularity may make them resistant to foreign incursions, but over here it looks like their success is based on producing quality goods efficiently and cheaply. I drive an Acura, watch an NEC TV and listen to a JVC boom box that has two tape decks, two radios and a CD player in a format the size of a breadbox. These mechanisms are all first-rate and, deep down, Americans know that. Japanese competition has caused us to question our own practices in everything from automated production lines to our educational system--another sort of production line.
In short, the Japanese have become dynamic and successful, qualities that make them sexy to Americans. We are now interested in most everything Japanese in case there should be something to learn from it.
The first survey exhibition of contemporary Japanese art in a decade is now on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to Aug. 6. Titled "Against Nature," it includes the works of 10 artists--or 25 if you count all the members of the collaborative group Dumb Type. All were born after World War II and range in age from 32 to 40. Youngish, but not kids.
The basic lesson to be learned from this exhibition is a general one--namely that art is being promoted these days for reasons that do not necessarily bear on its quality or originality. It tends to be linked to the news and to cultural fashions. Last summer, the new Soviet openness stirred interest in contemporary art from the U.S.S.R. Gallery and museum exhibitions appeared as if by Fax machine and more are in the pipeline. A combination U.S.-Soviet show called "Ten Plus Ten" will appear at SFMMA in September. It will be a surprise if we don't soon start seeing the latest thing from Poland.
One look at "Against Nature" is enough to inform us that Japan's success is giving the nation's psyche a significant identity crisis, a hunch confirmed in catalogue essays by the show's curators and other contributors. American organizers Thomas Sokolowski and Kathy Halbreich held a round-table discussion with their Japanese counterparts Kazue Kobata, Shinji Kohmoto and Fumio Nanjo. It reveals fascinating matters floating today in the Japanese mind. There are changes in the language with three or four different sets of written letters being used and lots of English phrases--just for effect.
The art of Kaoru Hirabayashi mirrors this concern with language in wooden animal cutouts bearing calligraphic signs and hinged tablets with Oriental writing and Western-style drawings. There are some messages here about a folk culture invaded by a world culture but its concentration on written--as opposed to visual--language makes it the most inscrutable work here.
The curators talk about alternations in character that cause young Japanese girls to go from one mall boutique to another changing their style of dress from Victorian to punk as if they were trying on various personalities.
The work of Shoko Maemoto bears directly on the anecdote. She makes tableaux of Scarlet O'Hara-style ball gowns encrusted in glitter. "Silent Explosion" backs the empty dress with a traditional stylized flame shape. The gown's front panel oozes forward like a cataract of blood. Its general look will be familiar to anybody who attended Los Angeles group shows when feminist art was getting started in the '70s. It wafts forth both faces of traditional Japanese aesthetics--as delicate and eccentric as Lady Murasaki, as decoratively violent as Kurasawa's "Ran."
The word "kitsch" turns up repeatedly trying to describe the chaotic melange of sensibility the Japanese must absorb these days. (From the looks of the exhibition, there is a failure to understand the difference between kitsch's camp stylishness and schlock Expressionism.) The American curators come across as exceptionally naive in their understanding of the Japanese aesthetic but their innocent questions do open onto relevant vistas.