New Priorities in Japan


It’s hard to think about art in the face of nightmarish human tragedy. As Japan attempts to get back on its feet after the Mar. 11 earthquake and tsunami, news on the nation’s contemporary structures and historic sites trickles in. Eiji Mizushima of the Japan committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has sent out e-mail updates as information becomes available.

“The radiation is making it difficult to assess the damage,” New York dealer Joan Mirviss told A.i.A. She specializes in Japanese art and ceramics, and said kilns in the Sendai region on the northeast coast have been devastated. But her artists are more worried about feeding their families, and some are now homeless. “Art is the last priority when you’re trying to save and feed people,” she added.

While there was little physical damage in Tokyo, reports Mirviss, “the rolling blackouts are affecting things like transportation, staffing and building operations, which makes it difficult for museums and galleries to return to normal.”

Cancellations included the Geisai Art Fair of emerging artists, founded by Takashi Murakami, which was to have opened in a city-owned convention center on Mar. 13. Art Fair Tokyo was originally scheduled for Apr. 1–3 but has been pushed back to July 29–31 because the facility is being used as a shelter for evacuees, according to New York’s Japan Society Gallery director Joe Earle.

Among the hardest-hit buildings is the Mediatheque in Sendai, designed by Toyo Ito. The award-winning building, completed in 2001, is said to be structurally sound. A statement on its website reads: “Our building sustained damage from this earthquake, but we are pleased to announce that patrons and staff could evacuate safely. We are trying to assess damage and trying to remove and repair any dangerous items, however, we will be closed for the time being and we are not sure when we can reopen.” A video on YouTube shows how innovative engineering came into play during the quake, with floors and walls moving separately.

The Art Tower Mito, which is located closer to Tokyo, is also closed until further notice. The Arata Isozaki-designed structure is awaiting maintenance and security inspections.

Tokyo National Museum has reopened but is closing daily at 4:00. The opening of an exhibition of the 18th-century ukiyo-e master Sharaku has been rescheduled from Apr. 5–May 15 to May 1–June 12. And the Mori Art Museum has resumed programming with “French Window,” which celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Marcel Duchamp Prize, and a project show of Berlin-based artist Taguchi Yukihiro.

Takayo Iida, artistic director of Dojima River Biennale in Osaka, said that his biennial and the Yokohama Triennale will open this summer, as planned.

Needless to say, the impact of the tragedy has had global implications. The Hiroshima Prefecture Museum has canceled an exhibition of works from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris because the works cannot be received. A show at the Yokohama Museum of Art of French masterpieces from Moscow’s Pushkin Museum has been postponed for similar reasons.

Closer to home, numerous fundraisers have been held to send aid to Japan. The Japan Society in New York has pledged half of its ticket sales through June 30 to its Japan Earthquake Relief Fund, which was launched on Mar. 12. Many other entities are funneling their proceeds through this fund.

The Japan Society will hold a benefit Concert for Japan on Apr. 9, with 12 hours of music, performances and other activities. As of Mar. 31, $2.8 million had been donated from over 9,800 donors. Monies will be disbursed to four Japanese nonprofit organizations—Tokyo Volunteer Network for Disaster Relief, JEN, Entrepreneurial Training for Innovative Communities (ETIC), and the Japan NPO Center.

Handmade for Japan, an online auction held Mar. 24–27, raised about $75,000 through 127 lots of painting, pottery, shawls and other items.

The website NY Art Beat has launched Love Art & Help Japan, installing donation boxes at numerous galleries and auction houses in New York. All funds will go to the Japanese Red Cross.

Joe Earle of the Japan Society Gallery said that a number of artists made it to New York in time to install their works in the current “Bye Bye Kitty!!!” show, which opened on Mar. 18, and that all the artists in an exhibition of contemporary fiber art this September have responded energetically and are proceeding with preparations.

ABOVE: Sendai Mediatheque; Left: Architectural rendering of the Sendai Mediatheque interior, courtesy of Jody Verser