Reflections on TOKYO: Art & Photography

Back in 2017, the Ashmolean decided to stage a Japanese exhibition to coincide with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, making the most of the global spotlight on Japan. We wanted to create a fun show that would appeal to a broad audience and decided on Tokyo itself as a lens through which to explore different aspects of Japanese art over 400 years, as the city developed from a remote backwater into the vast and dynamic metropolis it is today.

First room of the exhibition with works by Engelbert Kaempfer, Nishino Sōhei, Utagawa Hiroshige, Yamaguchi Akira, Aida Makoto, Takano Ryūdai, Miyamoto Ryūji, Mohri Yuko and others

My co-curator, Lena Fritsch, and I worked together to try to find a fresh way of telling this story, making the most of our different areas of expertise (Lena’s in modern and contemporary art, mine in historical art). We settled on a thematic approach rather than a conventional historical one, focusing on three main themes: the City itself and the way artists have depicted it over the centuries; the People living in the city – their lives, leisure activities and the art they have created and enjoyed; and Edo/Tokyo as a dynamic centre of Artistic Innovation and critical art discourse.

Second room of the exhibition with works by Ninagawa Mika, Enrico Isamu Ōyama, Kitagawa Utamaro and others

This thematic approach allowed us to juxtapose old and new works throughout the exhibition and to give a sense of both change and continuity within the city and its art. We included a wide variety of artworks, including a large number of loans from Japan, as well as treasures from the Ashmolean’s own collections and other UK private and institutional collections: paintings, prints, a small selection of three-dimensional objects (armour, Nō masks and tea utensils), video works, pop art and modern and contemporary photography. We also commissioned several new site-specific works by contemporary artists. These included an installation of photos, moving images and street sounds by Moriyama Daidō, street art-inspired murals by Enrico Isamu Oyama, and an immersive photographic installation by Ninagawa Mika, based on two photographic series, Sakura and Plant a Tree.

Ninagawa Mika, from Sakura series, 2011

We chose to display Sakura, an intensely beautiful depiction of cherry blossoms, as the very first work in the exhibition, located in the entrance walkway. This was partly because cherry blossom is so representative of Japan and Ninagawa’s vivid flowers provided a lovely way of instantly transporting visitors from Oxford, but also because the blossom symbolises impermanence and renewal, one of the other main themes running through the exhibition. Over the centuries, Tokyo has constantly had to reinvent itself, in the face of earthquakes, fires, typhoons or firebombs. The sense of impermanence is always at the back of Tokyo artists’ minds, and disaster has stimulated many powerful artistic responses, whether lively catfish prints after the Ansei earthquake of 1855, surrealist post-war paintings by Yamashita Kikuji, or Mohri Yuko’s photos of temporary repairs to leaks caused by earthquake tremors in railway stations.

Second room of the exhibition with works by Ninagawa Mika, Enrico Isamu Oyama, Kitagawa Utamaro and others

In just three exhibition galleries we were not able to tell the whole story of art in Tokyo, or the whole story of Tokyo itself, but we tried to give a sense of the amazing range of art created in or associated with the city. Our task was made harder by the pandemic. Not only was the exhibition postponed by a full year (as were the Olympics, of course), but, in order to open up the galleries and make them safer for visitors, we were obliged to sacrifice several partition walls and fifty objects from our plan. One of the ‘lost’ works we particularly regretted was a stunning view of Edo from Arnoldus Montanus’ Atlas Japanensis of 1670, kindly promised as a loan from the Cortazzi Map Collection at the Sainsbury Institute. Most of the object couriering and installation was done virtually and we also had to restrict the number of visitors inside the exhibition. Nevertheless, and thanks to the generosity and patience of all our supporters, lenders and artists, we were able to realise our vision. And, in a way, the challenging circumstances made our show all the more special: while travelling to Japan has been almost impossible during the pandemic, our exhibition at least enabled visitors in the UK to go on an imaginary journey to Tokyo, and to get a brief glimpse of four centuries of extraordinary art from an extraordinary city.

Dr Clare Pollard, curator of the exhibition, is Curator of Japanese Art at the Ashmolean and an associate member of the Faculty of Oriental Studies.

TOKYO: Art and Photography ran at the Ashmolean Museum between 29 July 2021 – 3 January 2022. You can view the exhibition video here.

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