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Introducing modern Japanese art to China
From:Shanghai Daily  |  2020-05-30 04:29

THE charisma of Japanese contemporary art, culture and architecture has recently swept China, especially since the number of Chinese tourists to Japan has skyrocketed in the past decade.

Last year, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Japan climbed to almost 9.6 million, accounting for the largest share of foreign tourists in Japan, according to Statista Research.

A cluster of shining names, such as Tadao Ando, Isozaki Shin and Yayoi Kusama, won the hearts of many Chinese

The new book “Presence: Dialogue with Famous Contemporary Japanese Artists,” written by Pan Li and published by Shanghai People’s Fine Art Publishing House, is a guide for art lovers who want to better understand modern Japanese art.

A visiting scholar at the department of art history at University of Chicago since 2018, Pan studied at the Tokyo University of Arts from 1998 to 2001.

During his studies in Japan, he published China’s first comprehensive introduction to Japanese contemporary art — “Japanese Art: From Modern to Contemporary.”

After returning to China, he traced the origins and systematically studied Ukiyo-e, a genre of Japanese art that flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries, during his doctoral studies at Renmin University of China.

Pan’s “Presence” contains a series of one-on-one dialogue between Pan and 23 well-known Japanese in the arts, including architects, photographers, artists, theorists, curators, historians and gallery owners. The first interview for the book — with Nobuyoshi Araki — was conducted in September of 1999.

Pan introduces each artist’s background, their creative thought processes and comments on key events in their lives, unveiling the mystery of Japanese art with first-hand information.

Q: What inspired you to focus on contemporary Japanese art?

A: My writing plan wasn’t clear at the beginning, but I’ve been doing a lot of research since I studied in Japan almost 20 years ago.

At that time, no one in China had ever introduced contemporary Japanese art to the domestic market, let alone Araki. So, I published the first book “Japanese Art: From Modern to Contemporary,” which introduced more than 50 Japanese artists. I used the book as a medium to directly contact artists and deepen my understanding of them.

Araki is a contemporary Japanese photographer known both for his prolific output and erotic imagery. I was quite interested in the artworks he created, so I chose him to be the first interviewee.

I thought his works not only reflected his personality, but also revealed the commonality of Japanese culture, which was very different from China’s photography at that time.

Q: Was there any standard for selecting who you interviewed? What impact did the experience have on you?

A: The standard was mainly based on my own judgment and personal interest. For example, I chose several architects in the book due to my interest in modern Japanese architecture.

After completing my interviews, I had a new understanding of Japanese artists. It seems they no longer linger in their pictures or words in publications, but came alive with me, shortening the distance between me and celebrities.

When encountering them directly, each person is akin to a profound book and at the same time an ordinary person.

Of course, other people have also interviewed them, but a planned series of interviews like mine has seldom been done, which strongly positions me in the field of Japanese art research in China.

Q: Can you tell the story behind the interviews that most impressed you?

A: The planning and outreach prior to each interview was actually quite problematic.

My first interview with Araki was the most impressive. When I called his studio, I expected to be transferred to his assistant as usual, but it turned out Araki himself answered the phone and said, “This is Araki!”

It was my first direct conversation with a celebrity I’d never met, and I was totally unprepared. But Araki’s humor neutralized the sense of distance in my heart and gave me confidence.

After that, I approached more legendary characters like Yayoi Kusama, known for her extensive use of polka dots and infinity installations, and Yoshitomo Nara, best known for his paintings of children and animals.

Japanese artists are relatively unfamiliar with modern China, in contrast to their familiarity and intimacy with Europe and America. However, they are full of respect for traditional Chinese culture. I was very impressed by their friendliness and profound cultural knowledge.

Q: What do you think of the Japanese contemporary art circle today?

A: I think the most prominent characteristic of Japanese contemporary artists is that most of them don’t have any utilitarian ideas — their inspiration is entirely derived from their personal interests and hobbies.

At the same time, they’re not pretentious and have little concern about social responsibility. It seems they indulge in their own world, but the works produced are very impressive. Although the ideas behind their works may be simple, the result is complex.

Something that shouldn’t be ignored is the Japanese contemporary art circle as a whole is relatively marginalized, and the art market is also very small.

Q: What academic research are you doing now?

A: I am currently a visiting scholar at the East Asian Art Center at the University of Chicago. Focusing on American art history is an extension of my previous research.

It includes two aspects: One is the theme related to Ukiyo-e.

For example, the world-renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the collectors of Ukiyo-e. Wright’s designs were greatly influenced by Ukiyo-e. He once said “If I erase Japanese prints from my experience, I don’t know where I’m going.”

At the same time, the design of contemporary Japanese architect Kuma Kengo also reflects Wright’s influential traces. Kuma Kengo visited more than 100 buildings designed by Wright in the United States, a meaningful phenomenon of cyclic exchange between Eastern and Western cultures.

The other is on the mutual influence of post-war American and Asian art.