Tokyo: Mori Art Museum
18 October 2003 – 18 January 2004
Happiness today is a troubled concept, and it has a slippery meaning. Happiness: A Survival Guide for Art and Life, the inaugural exhibition at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, is therefore appropriately and staggeringly ambitious. Co-curated by David Elliott, Happiness features over 180 artists, and winds its way through some trenchantly ambiguous themes. The ambition of the exhibition is almost immediately evident in the titling of the themed galleries – Arcadia, Nirvana, Harmony and Desire.
The exhibition sprawls through the numerous galleries housed on the top floor of the immense Mori Tower, which commands spectacular views of the Tokyo environs and provide a somewhat distracting backdrop for the museum itself. In keeping with its general theme of expansive inclusiveness, the works range from the classical to the modern and the postmodern, and artists have been carefully selected from around the world. There is certainly much to admire in the exhibition, and with artists ranging from J.M.W. Turner to Jeff Koons and many others beside and beyond, the exhibition delights in incongruity.
The weighty preponderance of those themes
notwithstanding, there is much whimsy and much pleasure to be found in the
work on show. The exhibition is curated with a visible spirit of playfulness
– possibly best captured by the specially commissioned works, including Abel
Abdessemed’s Happiness in Mitte (2003), a series of small LCD screens
unobtrusively placed in corners and on the floor throughout the galleries,
featuring cats lapping at bowls of milk. The simplicity of these projects is
the underlying strength of the exhibition rather than the self-declared
importance of its themes.
Certainly there is something courageous in the sincerity and optimism of the project, and it seems almost churlish to criticise the sheer good-natured jollity of it. But much of this general mood of happy inclusiveness is undermined by the fact that the museum’s galleries are perched atop entrepreneurial wonder Mori’s eponymous skyscraper, and couched within a newly-built luxury shopping district, Roppongi Hills. In order to leave the gallery, visitors have to pass through not one, but two, separate museum gift shops before being let out onto the brand-spanking new shopping mall housed in the lower levels of the tower. And for all the loftiness of ideals present in the exhibition, it is almost overwhelmingly obvious that the happiness proclaimed by the exhibition title is, in truth, the happiness of consumerism and capitalism.
And indeed, the failings of the exhibition lie mostly in the way the dank underbelly of happiness are by and large left unexplored. Happiness can no longer be an uncontested term; surely we are witnessing one of the most troubling manifestations of the American constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness, and all the unreasonable effects of that formulation. Our cultural conception of happiness is increasingly indistinguishable from the imperialism of capitalism and its vapid fulfilment.
Strangely, only a handful of artists undertake the idea of this troubled happiness, and for the most part those who do so fail to posit a particularly inquisitive attack on the subject. The Luo Brothers’ I Love Tienamen Square (1996-7) offers a fairly glib juxtaposition of Chinese propoganada images and American advertisements for Coca Cola and Oreo cookies. Tatsuo Miyajima’s wonderful Counter Void (2003), also a specially commissioned work, offers a more rendered interpretation of aesthetics and consumerism; overlaying the windows of the gallery with the digital graphics found in banks and similar commercial institutions, Miyajima seamlessly combines the dreamy landscape outside with the hardened aesthetics of capitalism. Of course, this being the Mori Tower, the view outside is itself another declaration of the privileges of capitalism, and so the overlapped images of the work resolve into capitalism on consumerism.
Indeed, the other artist who seems to critique this kind of consumer happiness is none other than – rather predictably – Takashi Murakami. Critiquing from the inside, Murakami’s skilful manipulation of the worlds of art and commerce is admirable, and it is somehow fitting that Murakami is also responsible for the branding of the Mori Art Museum. Indeed, his presence is ubiquitous in the museum and its surrounding environs; his hysterically happy flowers dot the landscape of Roppongi Hills – on signposts, on posters, inlaid in the pavement itself. They burst out of the museum’s gift shop and achieve their final flourish within the gallery in the specially commissioned Cosmos (2003), a reflective room papered over in screechingly smiley flowers. With its sense of Prozac-addled haziness, it’s a brilliantly claustrophobic work, and the one that comes closest to articulating the menacing nature of our cultural preoccupation with the pursuit of happiness, and with the consumerism we enlist as aid to our cause.