Thursday, May 29, 2008

Emily Kame Kngwarreye vs. Turner Prize Winners

Roppongi has become a place for art lovers. Located within a walking distance are three major art museums in Tokyo. I visit two of them today: The National Art Center Tokyo and The Mori Museum. (The third museum is The Suntory Museum.)

Photo: The lobby hall at the National Art Center Tokyo.

The National Art Center Tokyo exhibits the works by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, an Aborigine painter. The exhibition collects about 100 pieces of her work, spanning her entire career.

The first glance at them puzzles me. All the paintings are very abstract, presenting a very different world. The curator's explanation in a video playing in a separate booth from the gallery helps me realize that her paintings reflect the place where she lived in her entire life: a desert in the middle of Australia. She basically drew what her eyes had always caught. Once I'm used to her ways of expression, I start noticing her mind-blowing sense of color. She mixes different colors in a pleasant way. This aspect of her talent blossoms in Earth Creation. Now that I have had an experience to seeing green leaves and colorful flowers burst into blooming suddenly right after the end of winter in Stockholm, I can appreciate what Emily painted in this work.

Another aspect of her talent, the use of dots to paint a canvass, allows the picture to look three-dimensional. The best to watch her paintings is from a distance. (And this exhibition is laudable in that it allows viewers to do this by using the vast exhibition space fully.) It is like when we see the cityscape from the top floor of a skyscraper as beautiful. Each dot is rather ugly, but when these dots get together and viewed from a distance, they produce a beautiful picture. How did she manage to envision this effect when she was drawing on a canvas on the ground (that's her way of painting)?

Once she established her fame in the contemporary art world by the early 1990s, she changed her style. That was when she was over 80 years old. She stopped using dots. Instead, she focused on line drawing. The exhibition shows her pieces of work during this period, which are honestly speaking not very good. But she made a break-through by painting Big Yam Dreaming with white lines on a black background, that is, by ditching what made her famous: dot painting and the incredible use of colors. That was just one year before her death in 1996.

Even after that, she tried a new approach. In the last series of paintings (drawn just two weeks before her death), she discarded even line drawings. She attempted to create a new world just by her keen sense of color. Would you start doing a new thing when you expected the end of your life in the very near future?

The pictures of her painting are scattered on the web. None of these do her any justice. Her works are best appreciated by watching the original from a distance. If your city invites her exhibition, do visit it. You won't regret it.


After Kngwarreye, contemporary art pieces by Turner Prize winners displayed in the Mori Museum inevitably look small-scaled. Each artist does reveal something new. In Mother and Child, Divided, Damian Hirst, for example, makes me realize the difference in what is inside the body between a cow and a calf. It's not like every part of the body becomes larger when one grows up. In a project House, Rachel Whitered managed to visualize the space inside a house that is going to be demolished, that is, something nobody cares about, by making a concrete cast. In a video entitled Deadpan, Steve McQueen shows what each person cares most about is different. (And I realize one of the video works that I saw in Venice Biennale 2007 (Sophie Whettnall's Shadow Boxing) is basically a copycat of McQueen's work, although I prefer Whettnall's.)

Overall, however, what Turner Prize winners try to convey to viewers appears to be rather trivial in comparison to Kngwarreye's works. Maybe because Turner Prize winners fail to produce beauty.


Tokyo is not just a city for great foods and amazing shopping experience anymore. It is now a place to allow the luxurious comparison of totally different strands of great art. Chanel has chosen Tokyo as the second city to exhibit Mobile Art. Tokyo allows its residents to keep up with what's happening in the world.

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