Archive for the ‘Art news’ Category

NHK reported yesterday that a survey by the Bunkachô (Agency for Cultural Affairs) has confirmed the locations of over 10,000 Important Cultural Properties, but in the process discovered that at least one National Treasure and at least 108 Important Cultural Properties have gone missing. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stolen, or truly “lost” to the ages, but simply that at the moment, the Agency does not know their location. Some of these may in fact have been stolen, while others may have been sold; in some cases, the private individual owner simply moved to another house, or another city, and in other cases, the owner has passed away, and the Agency simply was not (apparently) keeping up with what happened to the objects in these cases.

The NHK report tells us that the Agency’s survey of the 10,524 National Treasures + Important Cultural Properties continues. A pamphlet the Agency has available online lists 866 National Treasures + 10,430 Important Cultural Properties that are not buildings or structures, so I’m not sure exactly how the numbers add up to 10,524, but, I just thought I’d share that number, put it out there anyway. The report does say that there are 238 objects remaining to be surveyed (including 12 National Treasures). If anyone knows how to make these numbers work out together, or notices a mistake in my understanding of what’s being said here, please let me know.

In any case, the National Treasure which has gone missing is a tanto, a short sword, forged by the swordsmith Kunimitsu. The Tokyo man who owned the sword passed away 18 years ago, and it is unclear what happened to the sword at that time. The survey tells of 24 other cases where the owner passed away, and his or her property was dispersed in some way. Thirty-three Important Cultural Properties seem to have been stolen. The agency lost track of 31 other objects when the owners moved, while another three objects have been sold, and the situation of another 17 objects remains unclear.

The Agency is sending out information to art dealers in the hopes of learning the whereabouts of the missing objects, and is also from next year asking owners of Important Cultural Properties and National Treasures to report back to the Agency once a year (by way of postage-paid postcards) on the whereabouts of their collections. Local Boards of Education will also be requested to perform surveys, once every four years, of the registered objects in their local districts.

Link to the NHK report, with video.

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Some great blog posts today to reshare with you.

*Hyperallergic has a great post today on What Happens When Museums Return Antiquities?.

In summary, numerous museums in the US and around the world have now returned artifacts to origin countries, including Italy, Greece, Turkey, Afghanistan, Australia and Mexico. Many other demands are still ongoing. Through this blog post I learned that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston just purchased a number of beautiful bronzes in 2012 from a private collector, which Nigeria is now claiming were looted from the Benin Kingdom in 1897. The Benin Bronzes are easily among the most famous instances of the looting of antiquities in conjunction with colonial(ist) violence, but the focus has largely been on the British Museum. Well, whether the MFA does end up returning the bronzes or not, I do hope I manage to make it to Boston to see them first – some of them are really quite incredible examples of the art of these people, the Edo of Benin/Nigeria.

Above: One of the Benin bronzes, at the Metropolitan Museum. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Hyperallergic’s post provides a nicely balanced treatment of the issue, noting that in many cases, when objects have been returned, they have not had any dramatically negative impact on the displays – in fact, in many cases, it has brought some great positives. Many objects returned to origin countries were in storage to begin with, and in many other cases, these objects leaving the galleries have created opportunities for other objects already in the collection to be seen. Most museums have no more than 10% of their collections on display at any given time (and that’s a high estimate), and so there’s no danger of empty cases. Plus, the goodwill created by returning objects has allowed museums to forge new relationships with the origin countries, creating greater opportunities for special loans and traveling exhibitions.

Of course, there is also the other side of the debate, and the debate does still continue. As James Cuno of the Getty Trust, and Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan, have argued, calls for repatriation are less about rightfulness, culture, or history, and more about contemporary domestic politics within the origin countries, and political ploys to drum up nationalism. They have also pointed out the arbitrariness of the question of how far back in history we go – if the Ottomans brought artifacts from Lebanon to Turkey during the time when all of that was part of the Ottoman Empire, before there was ever an independent state of Lebanon, does that count as looting? And is there any moral obligation to return the objects?

The whole thing is complicated by the fact that, under US law, if a buyer purchases stolen goods in good faith, not knowing they’re stolen, he does gain legal title to the objects (imagine if someone came to your house and told you that your couch, your TV, your iPhone, whatever, were stolen, and so you’re under a moral obligation to return them; and you’re thus screwed out of hundreds of dollars); meanwhile, the law in most European countries states that when something is stolen, the original owner retains legal ownership, and no goodfaith sale can change that.

As you know if you’ve read some of my previous posts, I still remain very much on the fence on this one. There are very compelling reasons on all sides, both in terms of morality or rightfulness, and also in terms of practical repercussions. Thanks to Hyperallergic for another wonderful post.

A brilliant artwork I saw at the Asian Contemporary Art Fair (ACAF) in NY in 2008. Sadly, I do not know the artist. If anyone knows, do let me know, so I can credit it properly, please.

*On a somewhat related note, another Hyperallergic post discusses a new proposed law in New York State which would protect art historians & authenticators from being sued if they incorrectly assess an artwork. As a closely related article on the Art Newspaper explains, scholars have increasingly been hesitant to say anything at all about an artwork, effectively being silenced by the looming potentiality of a lawsuit. So, this is interesting.

An interactive panel at the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, helping translate and interpret classical Chinese.

*Finally today, Lindsay Nelson of “Adventures in Gradland” offers her thoughts on academic writing responding to recent discussions in the New York Times and New Yorker about the style and accessibility of academic writing.

My thoughts on the subject, in brief, are simply this: some writers, especially some of the biggest-name writers – I’m looking at you, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieau – are unnecessarily difficult to read. They do not explain themselves well, they do not say clearly and directly what they mean to say. They obfuscate. And even once their main idea is explained to you, it’s impossible to go back and find a choice quotable citable spot where they actually say it. BUT, most academics do not write like that. Yes, granted, there are jargon words we use, like discourse and performativity, but if you ask me, these are by no means employed in order to obfuscate, but rather in order to be clear and specific in what we mean to say. Regular everyday words can have a multitude of meanings – what do we mean by “performance” or “ritual”? In everyday language, we use those to mean all kinds of things, and we each have very different understandings of what they mean. But by employing jargon words, we’re able to much more specifically point to specific ideas, specific meanings. And, in truth, I believe that more people need to be more educated in the basics of feminist/gender theory, (post)colonialist discourse, (anti-)Orientalism, and certain other concepts. If we all were given a more solid basic foundation in these things in college, the majority of us would find academic writing a lot more accessible.

Anyway, I certainly appreciate where these critiques are coming from. But, let’s look the other way – we do still have the New York Times, among other publications, and most especially the Economist, which are still quite properly informative, dense with information, which don’t talk down to their readers. But so many magazines are becoming more and more a form of entertainment. Yes, the Internet age has brought a great many very informative, very well-written, and very properly intellectual blogs, such as Hyperallergic, and I do not mean to dismiss those. But, the big-name newspapers and magazines, like TIME, need to go back to playing a role in our society of really properly informing our citizenry. They need to stop trying to be more entertaining, more accessible, and need to go back to expecting, or demanding, that readers be okay with *gasp* being educated.

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Moving on, back to less touchy subjects…

*The British Museum is now showing its first great exhibition of Shunga – early modern Japanese erotica. I’m a bit surprised it took this long for there to be such an exhibit; but, then, I can understand why it should be controversial. It’s a shame, really, that these images are so graphic, since they are undoubtedly some of the most lavish Edo period woodblock prints and illustrated books. Gold, silver, mica, thick expensive pigments, embossing…

The exhibit is up through Jan 5, 2014.

One of a number of less explicit, but certainly gorgeous, works specially on display in conjunction with the exhibit is a 1780s painted folding screen depicting women of the Yoshiwara.

Turning to the somewhat related topic of the preservation of traditional culture, when we talk about such things, we often talk about fears of the disappearance of theatrical forms such as kabuki and Noh. Declining audiences, declining interest, leads to not enough revenue to keep it going, and so on. And, for many arts, it’s not solely a matter of loss of audience (customers), but also, diminishing numbers of people interested in pursuing the art itself. Kabuki still seems quite strong, to my eye, but this remains a concern there, as well as in Noh, and in many other performance forms. But, one thing which often goes overlooked is the “smaller” but still highly essential traditional arts involved in creating and maintaining costumes, set pieces, musical instruments, etc. I know from my own limited experience in Hawaii, that while we are certainly concerned about continuing to have dance/choreography teachers, and shamisen players, in coming decades, we also need to be concerned about the very niche specialty knowledge of maintaining and styling the kabuki wigs. Our resident specialist in Hawaii, Bandô Jôji (George), has studied formally with kabuki experts in Tokyo, and is a proper wig & costume expert in his own right; but he is getting up in years, and has no successor. These, I get the impression, are the arts we need to really watch out for. As Diane Durston discusses in her book Old Kyoto, the number of expert makers of traditional umbrellas, buckets, and the like is dwindling dramatically. The bucket maker she mentions in her book, Tomii Hiroichi of Taruden, eventually ended up selling chiefly only to movie studios.. and when he passed away, he had no successor, and the operation, the last truly traditional-style bucket maker in the city, closed up shop for good. I wonder where Kabuki gets their buckets from, when they need new ones?

So, even with Kabuki seemingly relatively strong, I think these concerns are quite valid within that realm as well. Even if there are still theatres, and plenty of actors, musicians, costumes & costumers, stagehands, etc., what happens when the tradition of producing, for example, the tortoise-shell hair ornaments for courtesans’ wigs, dies out?

Two of the courtesans’ wigs, complete with hair ornaments (kanzashi), from the 2011 Hawaii Kabuki production of “The Vengeful Sword.” Photo my own.

These hair ornaments are traditionally made by hand, with subtle but important differences in design to be appropriate for different characters, and in particular forms that are particularly good at remaining in place despite actors’ exaggerated movements. As a recent Asahi Shinbun article explains, many of the craftsmen who produce these ornaments have no successors, and there are fears of the art dying out. Master craftsman Takahashi Toshio is quoted in the article saying, “If the ornaments I currently have become unusable, no more will be available.” Learning of this situation, freelance writer Tamura Tamiko established in 2009 an organization known as Dogu Labo for Japanese Traditional Performing Arts, or 伝統芸能の道具ラボ, which has since then been raising funds and otherwise working to help support these specific arts.

This year, the organization has entered into a partnership with a manufacturer of eyeglass frames – another object traditionally made from tortoiseshell – which has now put its industrial machines to work producing plastic replicas of the traditional hair ornaments. From the tone of the Asahi article, this really seems to be a sort of savior for meeting demands for such costume elements. In addition, however, Dogu Labo is seeking to hire interns or apprentices to learn the traditional skills of how to make stage props, hairpins, and the like, in order to keep the tradition alive.

On a somewhat related note, speaking of kabuki, a film has been discovered depicting an amateur kabuki performance & party involving Mishima Yukio, Edogawa Ranpo, Ishihara Shintarô, and Kobayashi Hideo. Sadly, beyond an image of Ishihara as Sukeroku, the brief news article doesn’t tell us much more, let alone contain an online version of the video. But, still, quite a find.

A Korean ritual seal associated with King Taejo (1683), on display now at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, on loan from the National Palace Museum of Korea. An example of the very same type of object, but otherwise unrelated to those seized by customs and returned to Korea in this news story. Photo my own.

Finally, for today, Archaeology.com reports that a number of Korean royal seals, taken out of Korea by a US Marine in the 1950s, have been recovered and returned to Korea.

Though I may not be a Korea specialist, through my studies of Okinawa (Ryukyu), I have come to appreciate something of the impact of the loss or destruction of so much of Ryukyu’s royal accoutrements, and thus their great importance and moral/cultural value. And, having seen a number of royal seals at the Asian Art Museum recently (In Grand Style: Celebrations in Korean Art is still up until Jan 12! Go see it!), I can personally attest to the great beauty and power of these objects.

A very nice story of Korea recovering some precious artifacts. A very different story from those we sadly see so much more often, in terms of Korea and disputes over artifacts.

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Wowee. It’s been nearly a month since I’ve last posted. Sorry about that! I’ve been organizing photos and writing Wiki entries, visiting museums, and catching up on actual research/work. And in the meantime, boy have the links piled up.

“Heaven and Hell,” by Kawanabe Kyôsai. Tokyo National Museum.

*I don’t normally follow Christie’s auctions, but their current Japanese art auction came to my attention as it includes a long-believed-lost painting by Kawanabe Kyôsai, depicting a “Hell Courtesan,” or Jigoku-dayû, along with a bunch of other Kyôsai works, all of which are said to have once belonged to Josiah Conder, architect of some of the most famous/prominent buildings of the Meiji period. The full catalog can be downloaded as a PDF here.

*Speaking of Meiji architecture, the Asahi Shimbun reports that Japan is seeking World Heritage Status for a number of sites representative of Meiji industrialization. Now, I’ve written before on Japan and China (in particular, among other countries, I’m sure) appealing for just about anything and everything to be classified World Heritage Sites, and how absurd some of the petitions are. It’s basically a competition for who can have the most, regardless of how genuinely significant the sites may be to world heritage. But, with Japan oft-cited as the first major modern non-Western power, the first non-Western country to join the ranks of the Western powers as a “modern” industrial and military power, I think there’s actually some legitimacy to this idea.

*And, speaking of historical sites (gee, that worked out nicely), there is apparently a project called Wikipedia Loves Monuments. It’s operating in a bunch of different countries – here’s the map for the US – and it basically consists of a keen interface, powered by Google Maps, showing a whole ton of famous sites across the US (and across the world) that are in need of photography for use on the corresponding Wikipedia page. Most of the major ones have been covered already, as one might expect; the only ones in red anywhere near where I was in New York for the last few weeks were a few random houses in normal residential neighborhoods which are apparently either really old, and therefore historical, or are representative of particular architectural styles… I wish that Japan was one of the participating countries, because I’d love such a nice, smooth, interactive map of notable sites in Japan to go hunt out. (As for whether I’d then give my photos to Wikipedia, I dunno. I’ve got some issues with Wikipedia, as I may have mentioned in the past.)

A reproduction of the Edo zu byôbu, an early 17th century depiction of the shogunal capital of Edo (today, Tokyo).

*Meanwhile, Marky Star, over at Japan This!, has been pumping out one excellent article after another, mostly on the origins & history of Tokyo-area placenames, shogunal burial sites, and shogunate-era execution grounds. Among his most recent, most ambitious and most impressive articles to date is one from a few weeks ago in which he asks (and answers) What does Edo mean?

*Switching gears, Brittany at San’in Monogatari has published a very nice post on Kanayago, the goddess (or kami) of tatara. What’s tatara, you ask? Well, it’s a certain kind of furnace, a traditional Japanese method of building and operating a furnace.. and, I’m not ashamed to admit, I know of it chiefly from the film Mononoke Hime (or, Princess Mononoke), in which a community of women, headed by Lady Eboshi, uses tatara furnaces to smelt iron, and if I remember the plot of the film correctly, to construct firearms.

More to come soon…

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Just a few things that have come up this week.

*Korea’s National Treasure Number One, Seoul’s Namdaemun (“South Great Gate”), severely damaged by an arsonist in 2008, has been reopened to the public after a US$24 million restoration project.

*Speaking of heritage issues, the New York Times reports that the Metropolitan Museum has agreed to return a pair of statues to Cambodia after Cambodian officials presented clear evidence that the statues had been taken out of the country illegally in the 1970s.

I find it heartening that the Cambodian Secretary of State is quoted as saying “This shows the high ethical standards and professional practices of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which they are known for.” It is wonderful to see the Metropolitan characterized in such a positive manner, as a potential partner and not as an adversary or obstacle.

*Meanwhile, on the subject of museums, there are apparently plans for a giant bubble to be installed at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn sculpture museum, seasonally, serving as a decidedly (post-?)modernist additional gallery space.

The Smithsonian Magazine article I found discussing this (thanks for the heads up, dad!) expresses concerns that the plan may not fly, as DC, the very model of a bureaucratic city, loves its drab grey concrete too much, and similarly creative contemporary-looking sort of projects have failed in the past. I guess only time will tell if it does manage to go through.

*On a separate subject, a recent blog post posted by the Queens Museum of Art invites us to consider social activist artistic practice, and the questions of what makes it “art”? and Why call it art?

Simply protest? Or Art?

There may be a standard term out there in the scholarly or art critic discourse for this precise type of art, but if there is, I do not know it. What this Queens Museum blog post, and I, are referring to is engaging in flat-out social activist activities — whether it be a protest poster, a march or sit-in, a stand where you sell or give away something in order to raise awareness for a cause, organizing communal/public vegetable gardens, or volunteering at, e.g. a soup kitchen or hospital — and then calling it “art” or “artistic practice.”

This is only extremely tentative, but my initial reaction was to, first, say that one key element is simply whether or not it is called “art” by its creators/organizers, and whether it is called “art” by critics or scholars. I think the difference is largely in how it is conceptualized. One person might engage in a given action or activity out of (more or less) purely political motives; she might make all organizational, logistical, and aesthetic decisions about the project based chiefly on how effective they will be towards successfully achieving the political goal. And others might see this activity, and might analyze it, describe it, through a political or social sciences lens. And then someone else might engage in precisely the same activity, but might choose to see the performative and discursive aspects of the act itself as being of chief importance over (or equal with) the success of the political aims. This person might call themselves an artist, and call what they are doing “artistic practice.” And others might examine the act, conceptualize it, describe it, in terms of art, aesthetics, or performance. Somewhere in there, I think, may be the answer. Not solely, simply, a matter of calling it art or not calling it art, but, truly, conceiving of it and conceptualizing its meaning differently, on a very fundamental basis.

Or, to touch upon a slightly different perspective of a closely related interpretation, perhaps what separates it is simply its cleverness and intertextuality. A protest that is powerfully clear in its targets, its aims, and its methods, may be art in the sense of the argument that everything is art, because everything contains aesthetic and performative aspects, and deeper meanings. But, when a social act is not clear in its targets, its aims, or its methods, when its purpose or meaning is not readily apparent, but requires some interpretation, discursive or intertextual references, or the like in order to understand – in short, when it’s clever – does that make it more strongly, more definitively, “art”?

As for the other question — why call it art? What does the person classifying it as such have to gain (or to lose)? — I leave it open.

What do you think? What makes an act of social engagement or protest “art”? What distinguishes it from purer, “non-art,” forms of social or political engagement?

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A medieval Sufi tomb, destroyed by the terrorists.

I’ve posted about the Timbuktu situation before. Can’t say I’ve been following it super closely, but, best as I understand, beginning last April, Islamist fundamentalist rebels & Tuareg separatists took over most of the territory of the country of Mali, and, until they were routed by French & Malian government forces last week, set themselves (in part) to destroying World Heritage Sites they felt were idolatrous or otherwise sacrilegious.

They have already destroyed a number of medieval tombs of Sufi saints, showing an astounding lack of respect for their own history, their own culture, their own religion, and an incredible failure to care how this makes them, Africa, and Islam appear to the rest of the world, encouraging rather than combatting negative stereotypes of Africa and Islam both as anti-intellectual, as primitive, violent, and all-around uncultured and uncivilized.

Last week, the terrorists went one step further. Timbuktu is not only the home of great sub-Saharan architecture, and sites of great religious importance, but it is also the home of one of the greatest collections of Islamic manuscriptsmedieval manuscripts that represent some of the greatest examples of the flourishing high culture, science, philosophy, of the Islamic world prior to the era of European imperialism. Last week, the rebels torched one of the central libraries, and for a terrifying, dramatically saddening moment, it was thought all was lost. Now, some sources, including the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project itself are reporting, to the contrary, that librarians and curators in fact evacuated the vast majority of these treasures in anticipation of the rebel attack. Of course, we are not being told how or where the documents are now being hidden away, but museum directors and private collectors assure us that “the manuscripts are hidden in different places where nothing can happen to them.”

(Video courtesy of blog 333 Saints: a Life of Scholarship Under Threat.)

The actions and attitudes of these militants are unbelievable to me. To destroy your own culture, your own history, one of the greatest shining examples that Africa was not backwards, was not primitive, but was full of vibrant intellectual and cultural activity of the highest order, long before European involvement, seems counter-productive and self-destructive to say the least. And that, of course, is putting it mildly. In an opinion/editorial piece on CNN.com, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, discusses these issues and their import in far more eloquent and to-the-point terms, writing, “The attack on Timbuktu’s cultural heritage is an attack against this history and the values it carries — values of tolerance, exchange and living together, which lie at the heart of Islam.”

I do not know much about the specifics of the circumstances on the ground there in Mali today; the timeline on Wikipedia seems to indicate that the French and Malian government forces are in the process of retaking territory even as I write this. Hopefully they will have little difficulty completing this task and restoring government control, and order. However, in my amateur opinion, I would not be surprised if rooting out and eliminating these fundamentalist, and dreadfully destructive and violent elements from the region may prove impossible. This is most likely not something that can be changed with warfare, or by outside foreign intervention. All the UN condemnations in the world won’t stop these people. The only thing that can stop them, I wager, is for Muslims around the world – and most especially within these Northern African communities – to gather together and denounce these attitudes, to work within their communities to change minds, to change attitudes, and to eliminate this disgusting, repulsive virus that threatens to destroy Islam’s greatest historical and cultural treasures.

Some reports quote Malian locals as saying they need the French forces to stay, in order to continue to protect them from the rebels, but other reports are indicating that the French are looking to get out of Mali as soon as possible, in order to avoid the sort of quagmire the US continues to find itself in in Afghanistan. Hopefully, all involved will do what is right, and the horrors of the last eight months or so will not be repeated.

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Sad news again from the kabuki world. Frankly, I’m still a little bit in shock, and finding it hard to believe.

A friend just posted on my Facebook wall a few hours ago a link to the New York Times obituary for Nakamura Kanzaburô, who passed away this past December. Looking at her post, I got to thinking about when, at some point in the future, Danjûrô would pass away as well. I never suspected it would be so soon. Not even five minutes later, I scrolled down to see a post from Kabuki scholar Matsuba Ryoko, linking to a Mainichi Shinbun article stating that Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjûrô had succumbed to pneumonia, and died earlier today, Feb 3rd. Here is the article from the English-language version of the Mainichi.

Danjûrô was, pretty much by definition, the most prominent actor in the kabuki world. His passing, especially combined with that of Kanzaburô, marks the end of an era. I feel terribly privileged to have gotten to see them both perform, to have met Danjûrô, and to have gotten his autograph, and to think that, some years down the road, when it is a new Kabuki-za that everyone has grown familiar with, and a new Danjûrô and a new Kanzaburô who grace its stage, I’ll be able to think of myself as someone who has been a fan since the previous generation – someone who remembers the previous Kabuki-za, the previous Kanzaburô, and the previous Danjûrô.

Of course, none of this is about me, or really about the art, the theatre; though the kabuki world and its fans have of course lost a legend today, my heart goes out too to his family – his son, prominent actor Ichikawa Ebizô who has just lost his father, and all of Danjûrô’s other close and extended family and friends.

You will be dearly missed, sir.

I expect we will be seeing more from the Japanese media in coming days. This truly marks the beginning of a new era of Kabuki.

My good friend Brigid and myself, with Danjûrô, outside the Kabuki-za in January 2008.

EDIT: Additional articles and links:
*Obituary/Article at Kabuki-bito.jp, the Shôchiku official website

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The world of kabuki lost one of its greatest stars yesterday. Nakamura Kanzaburô, who had been fighting esophageal cancer, died in a Tokyo hospital yesterday at the age of 57.

I am not sure what I can say that wouldn’t just be a repetition or rehashing of what I have just read in the Japan Times, and in the Mainichi Shimbun. I am tempted to want to write a much longer blog post, in honor of this great man, but I suppose I will leave it to the newspapers to do what they do.

I had the pleasure, the privilege, of seeing Kanzaburô perform on a number of occasions, both in Tokyo, and once in Washington DC. The last time I saw him perform, it was back in 2008, at the old Kabuki-za. The play Ukare Shinjû, a relatively new play not in the traditional repertoire, which Kanzaburô wrote and starred in, ends with his character flying out over the audience, passing into the afterlife atop a giant mouse, shouting (something to the effect of), “This is the real chûnori!”1 I suppose I shall always remember him in that moment.

Kanzaburô was a dedicated and masterful actor, but a creative one too, often creating new projects such as the Heisei Nakamura-za touring company, and Cocoon Kabuki, aimed at making kabuki more appealing to a younger / more modern audience; he played a role as well in creating new plays, such as Ukare Shinjû, and the zombie kabuki Ô-Edo no Living Dead. He leaves behind two sons, Nakamura Kankurô and Shichinosuke, both extremely accomplished actors in their own rights. I imagine that one of them will soon take on the Kanzaburô name.

In the meantime, today is truly a sad day for kabuki, for its fans, and of course, especially, for Kanzaburô’s family. My heart goes out to them.

(1) Chûnori 宙乗, lit. “riding the sky,” is the name of a special effects technique (keren) in kabuki, in which an actor flies up over the audience on wires, usually making his exit in this manner up over the audience, and out the back of the theater. The joke in Ukare Shinjû is that he is riding a mouse, which, in Japanese, rather than “squeak-squeak,” says “chû-chû” – thus, the pun of “the real chûnori/riding-the-sky” as “this is the true riding-a-mouse!”

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*Archaeologists believe they have discovered the ruins of The Curtain, a London theatre that saw the world premieres of Romeo & Juliet and Henry V. The Curtain is believed to have been the first purpose-built theatre in London, along with the creatively named The Theatre, founded the following year, in 1576, and uncovered in 2008. It’s very exciting that discoveries like these are still being made – that there are still things yet to find, and that we are finding them.

Today, of course, you can visit the rebuilt Globe Theatre, and see a show in a recreation of the way it might have been done in Shakespeare’s time. And it can be quite inexpensive, too. The one time I went to the Globe, it was a very new play about Abelard & Heloise, not a Shakespeare production, but nevertheless, the atmosphere/aesthetic was amazing, and it was only five quid. Probably the cheapest entertainment I had my entire time in London. Cheaper even than a sandwich, almost.

*Meanwhile, a survey has revealed that the Great Wall of China is about twice as long as previously believed. Previous understandings were based primarily on historical records, apparently, and now that actual measurements and investigations have been done of the actual sites, it has been determined that the wall’s many branches total over 20,000 km of length, more than double the 8,000 or so kilometers of the core section of wall (re)built during the Ming Dynasty. The wall is referred to in Chinese and in Japanese as 万里長城 – lit. “The Long Fortress of 10,000 li,” a li (or ‘ri’ in Japanese) being a traditional unit of distance; the length of a li has varied over time, but is today standardized as roughly half a kilometer. This would make the whole wall only 5,000 km long, if it were literally 10,000 li. But, of course, “ten thousand” is sort of a stand-in or euphemism for a really really great number, just as in the chant “banzai!” (万歳!), meaning that the Emperor, or the Empire, should live “ten thousand years!” In short, it’s ultimately irrelevant, what the actual length of a li is, and how many li long the wall is.

Today, only a small portion of the 20,000 km of wall is intact, and the intact sections still face various threats from erosion, development, and the like.

*Speaking of China, the Palace Museum has apparently finished cataloguing its entire collection. I’m not sure too many museums can say the same.

*Finally for today, the author of Chasing Aphrodite, a book about museums & looted artifacts, is proposing beginning a crowdsourced website called WikiLoot.

The BBC reports that WikiLoot would serve as a database for looted artifacts, helping professionals and others keep an eye out for such objects, whether at auction, otherwise on the market, in private collections, or in museums. Anyone could contribute, allowing the database to grow, and stay up to date, very quickly and easily (in theory), allowing it to be very extensive, and thus very effective. It does look like Mr. Jason Flech, the brains behind Chasing Aphrodite and WikiLoot, has already anticipated the problems of allowing fully free public access to the site – he says that only “experts and researchers .. will have back-end access” to edit the material on the site, while the general public (read: anyone) will have access to look at and read the site.

On the surface, this sounds like it could be a great thing. Art police types, as well as museum professionals working to ensure the above-board provenance of their acquisitions and collections, have long used published volumes listing known stolen objects. In one anecdote I remember reading about, investigators raiding a dealer’s warehouse in Geneva found just such a book, open to a picture of a stolen table, the book sitting on that very table. Books such as these help museums make sure that objects they’re considering acquiring are above-board, and that objects they already own are legally possessed; and they help investigators reclaim objects from Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions, where looted objects quite often do appear. I wouldn’t be surprised if officials use these books as well when stopping antiquities smugglers at customs at airports as well. Making such lists into an extensive, constantly-updating, online database seems the obvious next step, to bring this into the 21st century, expanding accessibility. Mr. Felch has even investigated the possibility of incorporating such a database into Google Googles, or some other sort of “computer vision” HUD, and has discussed the possibility with people at Google. Imagine walking around with Terminator-vision set to whether or not an object in front of you has good, legal provenance. What a tool!

But, as Arthur Houghton, former curator at the Getty Museum, warned during an event at Asia Society discussing the matter, having such a website publically accessible and widely known about could “flood … museums with people wanting to find out, Is this object looted or not? If it is unprovenanced, how do you know where it came from? And what should we all do about it?” In other words, it would only enhance people’s distrust of museums, and distaste for museums, inviting people to question the provenance of absolutely everything, undermining museum’s efforts to do things legally, and undermining their fragile image or reputation of doing things legally. I have, admittedly, myself, not yet watched the full discussion that took place at that Asia Society event, nor read too much other commentary on it, of which there is a fair bit out there, but I can certainly appreciate the concerns these museum people, collectors, and dealers raise. It’s not about doing illicit things and trying to ensure that it remains easy to do illicit things – quite to the contrary, I want to believe the best in people and to believe that for Mr. Houghton and others, it’s about doing licit (legal, above-board) things, and cultivating that the public is aware that museums, dealers, etc. are in fact committed to doing things ethically, legally. It’s about having a reputation for a dedication to upright ethical practices, and not threatening that reputation by inviting anyone and everyone to question the provenance of anything and everything in every museum.

If WikiLoot really took off, and if there did develop, in fact, this “flood” of public inquiry that Houghton worries about, that could put pressure on short-staffed, under-funded museums to have to do a ton of very intensive provenance research very quickly, and to replace gallery labels with more extensive descriptions of the proper provenance of each and every object. Or maybe that’s just an extreme case.

Because of the romantic, dramatic aspects of the world of black markets, looting, and illicit dealings, and because of the nationalistic feelings on the part of “source” cultures who have been looted from, it is inevitably a very dramatic, exciting, interesting topic. But it’s also a very serious one, for everyone involved, with very serious ramifications for museums, and for the art world as a whole. WikiLoot is not yet online, and the form it will take remains very much still in development (or so I gather); we shall see how this ends up developing.

All images in this post courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Though I strangely cannot find the press release on Japan Society’s website, the Society officially announced a few days ago that Miwako Tezuka will be taking over as Director of Japan Society Gallery as the current Director, Joe Earle, retires at the end of the summer.

Japan Society main lobby. Photo my own.

The Gallery, and the Society as a whole, benefited greatly from the expert guidance of Joe Earle, who came to Japan Society in 2007 after a short stint as Chair of the Dept of the Art of Asia, Africa, and Oceania at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and many years prior working at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. His particular interest and expertise in lacquerwares and Japanese crafts brought exhibits such as Zeshin, “New Bamboo”, and Serizawa. As I have commented before numerous times on this blog, most recently in my review of the Art Deco show which closes today, Japan Society Gallery under Earle (as well as under his predecessors, and I am sure his successor) has regularly made a point of showing exhibitions highlighting aspects of Japanese art normally ignored by the major museums. The Buriki exhibition of tin toy cars, beautiful in their own way, and symbolic of key aspects of certain points in Japan’s cultural history, is perhaps the best example of this. Krazy!, an exhibition of manga, anime, and video games as “art”, and Bye Bye Kitty, which introduced New York (and the United States) to a handful of amazing Japanese contemporary artists normally totally overshadowed in the media in the West by Murakami Takashi, brought Japan Society greatly expanded visibility and popularity especially among younger demographics. I do not know the extent to which Japan Society in fact in the past focused more exclusively on exhibitions of pottery and ink painting, but to whatever extent this represents a major change, it is a change for the better. There is absolutely nothing wrong with exhibitions of ceramics arts and ink painting, and I hope that the young people brought in by the anime and contemporary art exhibits have their interests piqued enough that they’ll come back to learn about ceramics & ink painting. But you have to get them in the door first; you have to get them knowing about Japan Society, and being interested in Japan Society, to begin with.

Joe Earle will be missed. But I am excited for the arrival of Miwako Tezuka, who will become the first Japanese director of the Society’s gallery. I have not had the privilege of meeting Dr. Tezuka, or hearing her speak, but am familiar with her through her work as guest curator of Asia Society’s astonishing exhibit “Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool.” If she can transform the Japan Society Gallery the way she transformed Asia Society’s space, then we are all in for a real treat. My best wishes to Dr. Tezuka, and Mr. Earle, to continued successes and to new and exciting projects.


The full press release follows:

For Immediate Release
Japan Society Announces New Gallery Director

New York, NY — June 7, 2012 — Japan Society has announced Dr. Miwako Tezuka will take over directorship of Japan Society’s Gallery from Joe Earle, who retires effective September 30. A Columbia University alumnus and NYC-based curator specializing in contemporary Japanese art, Tezuka will be the first Japanese director of Japan Society Gallery. Her tenure begins July 2, 2012.

“I am honored to join Japan Society and to work with its dedicated staff to create exciting exhibitions and related programming that stir the imaginations of the New York audience and people the world over,” said Tezuka, upon the announcement. “The uniqueness of Japan Society as a multidisciplinary organization allows us to develop projects that fully present the dynamic energy, diversity, and complexity embodied within Japanese arts and culture.”

One of Tezuka’s most recent curatorial contributions to New York City was Asia Society’s Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool in fall 2010. The major solo exhibition of Japanese Neo Pop artist Yoshitomo Nara achieved great popular and critical success, and received numerous rave reviews including one from The New York Times, which called the exhibition “a game-changer.”

“Miwako is a well-regarded curator, who has an intimate knowledge of the New York art scene and a broad perspective of Japanese art in the global sphere,” said Motoatsu Sakurai, President, Japan Society. “We look forward to the vision she will bring to the gallery. Her track record of expanding the dialogue between traditional and contemporary art will amplify Japan Society’s status as one of America’s premier institutions for exhibitions of Japanese art.”

In recent years Japan Society Gallery has seen record attendance and international recognition. KRAZY! The Delirious World of Anime + Manga + Video Games (spring 2009) was the second-best attended show ever at Japan Society Gallery, and Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters (spring 2010) was the best-attended pre-contemporary show of all time. In 2011 Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art was voted 2011 “Best Show in a Non-Profit Gallery or Space” by the United States Section of the International Association of Art Critics.

Japan Society’s current exhibition is the critically acclaimed Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945 (closing June 10), America’s first survey of Japanese art deco, organized and circulated by Art Services International, Alexandria, Virginia, and touring the U.S. 2012-13. Joe Earle’s final exhibition as director will be Silver Wind: The Arts of Sakai Hōitsu (1761–1828), opening on September 29, 2012.

Dr. Miwako Tezuka is an internationally recognized curator and expert in modern and contemporary Japanese art who has contributed greatly to the field through her scholarly and curatorial work. Prior to her appointment at Japan Society, Tezuka was Associate Curator at Asia Society in New York, where she was responsible for creating cutting-edge exhibitions of contemporary Asian and Asia American artists. In 2006, she cocurated Projected Realities: Video Art from East Asia, the first exhibition at Asia Society that thoroughly focused on video art. In the following year, Asia Society launched its video art collection, for which Tezuka played a key role in selection and management. From 2007 she oversaw “In Focus,” a series of solo exhibitions, through which she realized the first solo exhibitions at the New York museum of such significant contemporary artists as Yuken Teruya from Okinawa, Suda Yoshihiro from Tokyo, and U-Ram Choe from Seoul. In addition to Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, her significant curatorial contributions at Asia Society included Yang Fudong: Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (2009) and Mariko Mori: Kumano (2010).

Tezuka’s curatorial, scholarly, and advisory work, has received significant attention from luminaries in the field and major media, and she has been invited to advise and lecture at some of the most prestigious institutions in the world such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She received her PhD from the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University in 2005 with the dissertation titled Jikken Kōbō (Experimental Workshop): Avant-Garde Experiments in Japanese Art of the 1950s. In 2003, to connect scholars and art professionals who share the interest in contemporary Japanese art, Tezuka cofounded the global online network PoNJA-GenKon (Post-1945 Japanese Art Discussion Group/Gendai Bijutsu Kondankai).

Tezuka has published numerous articles and essays in various languages. Her recent publications include: “Experiment and Tradition: An Avant-Garde Play Pierrot Lunaire by Jikken Kōbō and Takechi Tetsuji” in Art Journal (Spring 2012); “Between Ethos and Logos: Sarah Sze’s Shifting Perspectives” in Sarah Sze: Infinite Line (New York: Asia Society, 2011); “Music on My Mind: The Art and Phenomenon of Yoshitomo Nara” in Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool (New York: Abrams, 2010); “Kori Yumi, Antenna, Kengo Kito: essay and interviews” in Tokyo Visualist (Tokyo: Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 2009); “Imagine Again and Again: Copies of a Portrait of Minamoto no Yoritomo by Yamaguchi Akira” in Impressions (March 2009); “Yuken Teruya: What Comes Around Goes Around” in Making a Home: Japanese Contemporary Artists in New York (New York: Japan Society, 2007); and “Synergy: Shuzo Takiguchi and Experimental Workshop—A Continuing Lineage of Creation” in Drifting Objects of Dreams: The Collection of Shuzo Takiguchi (Tokyo: Setagaya Art Museum, 2005).
Extending in scope from prehistory to the present, Japan Society Gallery exhibitions since 1971 have covered topics as diverse as classical Buddhist sculpture and calligraphy, contemporary photography and ceramics, samurai swords, export porcelain, and masterpieces of painting from the thirteenth to the twentieth century. Each exhibition, with its related catalogue and public programs, is a unique cultural event that illuminates familiar and unfamiliar fields of art.

Japan Society is an American nonprofit committed to deepening mutual understanding between the United States and Japan in a global context. Now in its second century, the Society serves audiences across the United States and abroad through innovative programs in arts and culture, public policy, business, language, and education. For more information, visit http://www.japansociety.org or call 212-832-1155.

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