The musician, composer and artist Ryuichi Sakamoto has a long history of collaborating across disciplines. Given his known interest in experimental arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo gave Sakamoto the role of general advisor to watch over the production of the third exhibition in the institution’s annual “Tokyo Art Meeting” exhibition series, this year’s theme being “Art and Music – Search for New Synesthesia.”
“Tokyo Art Meeting” is a series of exhibitions that explore various “meetings” between Japanese and non-Japanese contemporary art. The first show in the series showcased art that dealt with the concept of post-humanism, while the second focused on links between art and architecture. “Art and Music” brings together avant-garde music—including John Cage’s iconic 4’33” (1952) and Toru Takemitsu’s Seasons (1970)—and contemporary art that incorporates sound and music. “There is art that is created through sound, just as there is music that is created visually. Also there are forms of expression that cannot be described as being either art or music and those that can be described as being both,” explains Sakamoto in his introductory statement to the exhibition.
Synesthesia—the neurological state of having one sense (e.g. vision) trigger another sense (e.g. hearing)—is a term that Sakamoto and curator Yuko Hasagawa utilize to describe a type of art-making that incorporates aural and visual components. It is no surprise that many of the artists Sakamoto selected to feature in this exhibition have a background in music. Take, for example, the inclusion of French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. Like Sakamoto, he is a trained composer. The sounds produced by his Clinamen (2012), installed in a room of its own, precedes the audience’s visual registration of the work. Stepping into the first room of the exhibition from the foyer, the audience sees a round, blue pool in the center of the room. The pool is shallow but wide, taking up approximately half of the area of the gallery floor. Dozens of white ceramic bowls float in the water, bumping into one another every so often. The quality of the sound is determined by the variations in size of the colliding bowls and the gentle water currents that carry them.
Many judge Bousier-Mougenot’s work by his background in music. Bousier-Mougenot was a composer for the avant-garde Pascal Rambert theater company before he started creating sound installations for art galleries in the early 1990s. However, while sound is integral to his art, the visuals are equally essential. The naturally composed sounds of Clinamen are all the more beautiful because the audience can see their source. The clear blue water, the wooden floor and the clean white walls create an overall sense of calm and simplicity. Moreover, in the context of this exhibition, Clinamen seems to share some qualities with the soothing, incidental sounds—gently flowing streams, the clicking of a bamboo rocking fountain (shishi-odoshi) or the ringing of water dripping into a buried pot (suikinkutsu)—that are often integrated into traditional Japanese gardens.
As in most Japanese art museums, there is a strong linear sequence to the rooms in the exhibition. The next room holds two collaborative works, including one by Sakamoto, Shiro Takatani (of Dumb Type) and Seigen Ono. Visitors are welcome to remove their shoes and climb into this work, Silence Spins (2012), a box-shaped, darkened structure with the dimensions of a standard Japanese-style 4.5 tatami-mat tea room. Inside, sounds are absorbed by the “stillness panels,” which create an odd feeling of being stifled inside what is actually an open-air, doorless room. This contrasts with the peaceful music of Sakamoto and Shiro Takatani’s piano-based work, Collapsed (2012), nearby.
With “Without Records” (2012), by a group of artists lead by Otomo Yoshihide, fills the museum’s atrium. A veteran of the Japanese experimental music scene, Otomo creates music primarily with the incidental noise of audio machines. For this installation, Otomo worked with his long-time collaborator, Sachiko M, as well as Yasutomo Aoyama, Kanta Horio and Yuko Mohri, to put together a collection of secondhand portable record players, displayed here on stands or hanging from the ceiling. Otomo explains, in the accompanying wall text, that the aim of the room’s arrangement is to imitate “trees in a forest.” The record players play music at scattered moments and for unpredictable periods of time. The machines start and then stop suddenly, sometimes before the visitor, walking through the installation, can determine which particular machine the sound came from. Indeed, the scraping, squeaking, rattling noises are as unpredictable as the bird calls and rustling one hears from the bushes in a forest.
Japanese artists were exhibited alongside their non-Japanese counterparts, who happened to be Americans and Europeans. This produced many interesting overlaps and contrasts. For instance, Lyota Yagi’s music records made out of ice were paired with Bartholomäus Traubeck’s records, made from slices of tree trunks. However, the choice to exhibit local artists with Westerners, rather than artists from other Asian countries, resulted in a somewhat limited cross-sampling of this genre. Particularly noticeable was the absence of Korean multimedia artist Nam Jun Paik, a contemporary of John Cage, who is considered a pioneering force in experimental sound and video art. It was hard not to leave the exhibition asking, “Where exactly were the rest of the Asian artists?”