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[BKARTS] Review: "The Artist and the Book in Japan"

WOID XVI-24. Museum Watch: Ehonté

Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan
Through February 4, 2007
New York Public Library, New York

This is the second-worst curated show I've ever seen. The worst was "The
Splendor of the Word," which also played at the New York Public Library,
this February past (WOID #XIV-5).

The earlier show was about European Medieval books and the present one
is about the Japanese book. Or rather it's described as a "Breathtaking
Collection of Japanese Artists' Books." 

I think we've found your problem, sir. This one's not about bringing up
interesting examples of Japanese books and then encouraging the curator,
the contributors and the interested public to build a narrative about
them, it's about digging up books that happen to fit the contemporary
conception of "artists' books", quite the feat since nobody's very
clear, even today, as to what artists' books are. And if nobody's clear
about the concept now you can bet your bottom yen the concept has
undergone even more girations since 764, the date for the earliest work
on display. The best part of this show is in a small separate gallery to
the South of the main area, containing early Buddhist sutras and such.
It's a relief because you can look at these few works without feeling
that someone's trying to force some inapplicable theory down your throat. 

As to the rest of the show, the word "incoherent" would be kind. The
main gallery is divided into sections with titles like "Origins,"
"Humanity," "Industry." Actually "Industry" isn't in this show, you'll
find it in the art deco bas-reliefs up at Rockefeller Center, but no
matter: this show tries to do for the Japanese Book what
nineteenth-century Medievalism did for illuminated books and 'Thirties
Art Deco for the human body: it uses formalism to evade the lived
problems of historical and social determination. The irony is, that so
much of Japanese culture, past and present, is about the simultaneous
experience and evasion of cultural determinations, usually imposed from
without. This can be said of the adaptation of Chinese writing to
Japanese speech; of the importation of European systems of book
production and their retooling in the sixteenth century; and of course,
of the brilliant formal experimentations of present day comic-books.

But this is precisely the kind of formalism that this show will not
tolerate - tellingly, there are no comics to be seen. The unspoken,
unconscious and perhaps unwilled effect is the repression of the very
possibility of visitor participation, an imperative so close to that of
present-day neo-conservative art criticism that I had to check the list
of sponsors to see if the American Enterprise Institute was on it. 

As in the Medieval show, the lighting is poor; and I'm not talking about
muted, folks, I'm talking about bump-yer-shins darkness.  The various
books are displayed with a consciousness of all that's imperfect about
not actually holding the work in one's hands and turning the pages or
unrolling the scroll, but there's amazingly little effort to understand
how the works themselves were originally adapted to the conditions of
their own reading. A brilliant, incredibly long woodcut scroll by Ito
Jakuchu and Daiten Kenjo (circa 1767) is presented unrolled to its full
length - close to forty feet - and loses thereby all of its tension,
like a visual version of Yuppie Zen. Compare this lax display with the
1554 version of the Tale of Genji in the South Gallery of the Library,
where the cramped, boxy dimensions of the rolled scroll offset the play
of diagonals. 

Other works have nothing to do with book structure at all. There is a
section devoted to "Calligraphy," accompanied by such statements as
"Calligraphy is a performance. The brush dances." That's funny: when I
asked it for a fox-trot it turned me down. There are works by Yoko Ono,
supposedly because she comes from Japan, and works by Vija Celmins and
Eliot Weinberger, who supposedly don't. 

One of the great clichés of neocon art criticism is that
"post-modernists" don't really look at the work itself, by which is
meant that post-modernists are interested in ideas extraneous to the
close observation of the work. That's not totally unfair, except that
there are so many ways of not looking at art, or making sure the viewer
cannot look at art, that they easily embrace the most traditional forms
of art-appreciation. I wish I could recommend the catalog to this show -
it costs a whopping fifty dollars. The copies on display had washed-out
colors, and the written entries seemed no more illuminating than the
signage. The curator writes: "Ehon provide relevation, energy, and
inspiration and turn willing readers into artists. They empower people.”
Hey, what's wrong with that?
- Woelfflin Jack

WOID: A journal of visual language

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