Tokyo: Art & Photography exhibition – review by Sandra Smith

Every now and then an exhibition comes along that is a must-see. So our thanks go to Sandra Smith who was kind enough to review just such an event for Annabel & Grace readers.

The West’s fascination for Tokyo, as unrelenting as the sprawling metropolis, extends further than a generic interest in a capital city. Even a capital city that, arguably more than others, exudes energy, ambition and intrigue. Perhaps this is because Japan’s capital, with its multi million population, evolved from modest beginnings – the small fishing village of Edo. Plus, of course, we associate the country as much with economic success as iconic landscapes. But the bottom line is, from food to art, traditional dress to work ethic, our admiration is tempered by a sense of not quite understanding a culture that is so radically different from ours. Immensely interesting? Yes, of course. But do we, in the West, actually get it?  

Well, regardless of how much you know and admire Tokyo, the Ashmolean’s latest blockbuster of an exhibition is sure to excite you. Tokyo: Art & Photography encapsulates a city that has suffered natural devastation and man-made tragedy, is known for skyscrapers and an enviable level of efficiency, and boasts a modern attitude while celebrating its historic roots.

Ninagawa Mika’s installation

Showcasing 400 years of art and culture, the exhibition begins with Ninagawa Mika’s immersive installation in which thousands of photographs of pink cherry blossom represent the renewal of the city. Such is the impact of the collage, it’s tempting to convince yourself you can smell the flowers’ aroma.

The remainder of the exhibition is divided into three themes: urban environment, the city’s inhabitants and innovative art. If, at this point, you question your knowledge of Japanese art, a series of Hiroshige prints are likely to be familiar. And then there’s Tokyo Station, a well-known and deceptively simple woodblock print by Koshiro revealing a bright, carefree scene despite being created in 1945 following Tokyo’s devastation caused by Second World War air raids. A more recent concept, a photographic light show by Takano Ryudai, repeats images taken daily of the prominent landmark, Tokyo Tower.

This exhibition, however, does not shy away from the less glamorous side of local life. Photographs of cardboard houses in which homeless people sheltered during the 1990s (the lost decade) are given ample space to breathe as is a display case housing a small selection of books.

The second and largest room is dedicated to people. From Samurai rulers to screens depicting audiences watching archery, and black and white photographs focusing on many aspects of Tokyo’s nightlife alongside elegant 1930s woodblock prints of modern beauties by Ito Shinsui, energy pervades every space. There are images of popular Kabuki theatre, too, while Enrico Isamu Oyama’s digital drawing emblazoned high on the walls and ceiling, captures the city’s vitality.

The final space is dedicated to Tokyo as a hub of modern art and innovation. Look out for neon colours inspired by American pop art, Yoko Ono and Super Rat.

Tokyo: Art & Photography, (originally planned to coincide with the 2020 Olympics, which it has), is for those who are knowledgeable about the capital’s artistic heritage, and those who aren’t; for those who are familiar with Tokyo’s arts scene, and those who cherish this aspiration. In content and staging, the exhibition is at times provocative but in every aspect enjoyable. Visitors are guaranteed to not only experience the soul of Tokyo, but engage in a people, society and culture that are, in many ways, unlike the West. The power of art, after all, lies in its capacity to inform, entertain and educate. That’s the Ashmolean’s winning formula too.

Tokyo: Art & Photography (until 3 January 2022), Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PH

More information and tickets can be found here

Sandra Smith’s website can be found here