Searching for Textures That Can Only Be Savored at a Museum

(Media artist / Associate professor, University of Tsukuba)

Due to the spread of the internet and advances in digital technology, we are living in an age in which existing contexts are being replaced by a variety of new ones. What kind of affect might this have on museums, which have traditionally guaranteed the authority of art? As an artists and digital nature researcher, OCHIAI Yoichi occupies a place at the vanguard of our era. We asked OCHIAI to share his thoughts regarding the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo, the future role of museums, and the themes that he deals with in his work.

The Overwhelming Texture of Grand Bouquet

Although it might seem obvious considering that I’m a media artist, I often visit museums as a member of the viewing public. I guess I probably go about once a week. There are lots of museums in Tokyo, and the ones in Ueno have their own special atmosphere, just as the ones in Roppongi have theirs. So even though all of them are essentially museums, they have completely different atmospheres depending on where they are. Perhaps due to the fact that Mitsubishi Ichigokan is located in the business district of Marunouchi, I have the sense that time passes more slowly here than it does at other museums.

To me, there are two sides to a museum: enjoying the medium and enjoying the content. In other words, one of the pleasures is the building (medium), and the other is the curated works inside of it (content). Both of these aspects were outstanding in the exhibition I saw today [Impressionism and Beyond: Master Paintings from the Yoshino Gypsum Collection (2019)].

In terms of the medium, since Mitsubishi Ichigokan is a reconstruction of a Western-style, rental-office building that was erected in 1894, it has a strong European flavor. But the overall structure is snug, which gives you the feeling that you are looking at pictures in a European house. This is refreshing because it gives you the sense that you are looking at paintings you have bought.

As for the content, I was deeply impressed by Odilon Redon’s Grand Bouquet. I had the feeling that the work was just barely clinging together – as if the pastels were on the verge of breaking and peeling off the canvas. The work has an inexplicably overwhelming texture, which makes you want to touch it but of course you can’t. It’s amazing that they were able to transport such a big pastel picture all the way from that castle in Bourgogne. I have no idea how it was possible to preserve that stunning texture without damaging the work. In one of my books, I wrote about how art can be broken down into two aspects: the “context game,” in which the work arouses interpretation and criticism; and the “principle game,” in which the work appeals to us directly on a sensual level. The texture of Grand Bouquet is a tremendous example of the latter. It has been a long time since I was so overwhelmed by such a fragile sense of mass.

The Desire for a Principle Game That Cannot Be Conveyed via an LCD Screen

As I see it, one source of art’s authority is its potential for appreciation. What has guaranteed this authority is the existence of a space (i.e., a museum or gallery) that we must visit in order to appreciate art. However, due to the permeation of the internet and advances in digital technology, it has become possible for anyone to appreciate all kinds of art wherever they go without actually venturing out to a museum.

In light of these circumstances, in the future it will be necessary for museums to present things that cannot be understood or conveyed via the LCD screen of a smart phone. In effect, this is a so-called principle game. Hopefully, the works in a given museum collection will be large enough, or if they’re small special enough, to endure this game.

For example, 4K, or even 8K, resolution would not be enough to convey the texture of Grand Bouquet. It is still far better to see the real thing with the naked eye. The excitement generated by this marginal state, rooted in the existence of matter, over a given period of time is something you could not comprehend without seeing the actual work.

At the same time, it isn’t simply a question of increasing the resolution. The other day I saw a TV show where they shot the Monna Lisa, la Gioconda with 8K resolution. But I thought, we don’t want to see this kind of cracked Monna Lisa, la Gioconda. It is much more satisfying to see the real Monna Lisa, la Gioconda with its timeworn charm combined with various memories and ambiguities. This is the crucial point: When you increase the reality (or resolution) too much, it sometimes has the opposite effect – it cancels out the indescribable allure that is exuded by the work’s texture. I would suggest that the real value of a museum lies in its ability to display the work in a manner that brings out subtle nuances by, say, adjusting a single light.

In the Dumb Type: Actions + Reflections exhibition, which is currently underway at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, they have used 4K-resolution to revive moving images from the past that had the potential to simply become “nostalgic images” in an undefined context. This new medium breathes new life into the works, giving them greater longevity. It is significant that a project of this type was initiated by the museum. In other words, in addition to collecting art, the museum plays an important role as a creator of new art movements.

Reanalyzing Things That Have Become “Distorted” and Turning Them into Contemporary Art

Since I’m an installation artist, the place or space where I install my work is nearly as important as the work itself. In that sense, Mitsubishi Ichigokan is well suited to 19th-century paintings. Sculpture might also work, but it is especially suited to works that are smaller than human scale – pieces that are the size of your face or hand. If I was going to show my work at this specific museum, I would reduce the size of it and give special consideration to aspects such as the distance between the viewer and the wall. Also, since by and large the gallery spaces have an intimate quality, due in part to the beautiful furnishings, I would like to combine my work with a wall clock, place it on top of the fireplace, and display things to create the feel of a real living space.

I have thought about various things I might do to create something interesting at the museum. Based on the idea of making things smaller, you could, for example, assemble a group of European-style things made in Japan during the Meiji and Taisho eras. I think it would be interesting to do a project in which you bridged things associated with something “distorted” (Japanese, Western, the past, and the present, etc.) and skillfully created a firm foundation for them.

One of the things I’m currently interested in as an artist is reanalyzing and restructuring things that have traditionally been distorted and feeding them into media art. This began with a permanent exhibition I did called Digitally Natural – Naturally Digital at the Miraikan [The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation]. In this exhibition, I took things from traditional Japanese contexts, such as a bamboo forest or a temple, and replaced the bamboo with silver poles, or dismantled the temple structure and deliberately displayed things from inside of it (hanging scrolls, ikebana, bowls, Daruma figures, bells, deer scarers, etc.) in separate places.

As suggested by the words “wabi” and “sabi,” Japanese-style crafts and artworks have spread all over the world. But it seems to me that contemporary art that deals with these folk-derived pieces as a material have yet to receive the same sort of attention abroad. With this in mind, I would like to create media art in which I assimilate, and reanalyze and restructure these sources. For example, when tea utensils are turned into media art, it is only natural that the work be displayed in a Japanese living space. The things I reanalyze and restructure might, for instance, be installed in a place like ancient Izumo, the industrial society of what I call “post-Showa” Japan, or in the bubble era of the 1980s. At any rate, there is a potential for creating contemporary art by firmly integrating this type of Japanese context.