The World is a Stage: Stories Behind Pictures
Mori Art Museum, Tokyo
29 March - 19 June 2005
As Shakespeare wrote, the world is a stage on
which everyone is a player. At Mori Art Museum's current exhibition,
'The World is a Stage: Stories Behind Pictures', the meaning behind
the art is everybody's story. Dave Hickey, US art critic and theorist,
once said that art has the power 'to redeem our isolation'. This
exhibition provides viewers with the opportunity to share artists'
feelings about the world in which they live and the paths that their
lives have taken. The exhibition presents works by 14 individual
artists and groups from all corners of the world. The artists represented
work in a variety of media, including painting, photography, sculpture,
film and video installations, to 'describe, exorcise or critique
a real world which seems full of conflict and anxiety'.1
Curator of the exhibition, Araki Natsumi, explains
that she conceived the exhibition as a book, in which the artists
each tell their story in chapters. In many cases, the stories are
obscure and visitors are encouraged to make up their own. Natsumi
hopes that the show can help to change the public's opinion of contemporary
art - which, she believes, is often considered to be incomprehensible
- and to make the viewers feel that there is a connection between
their own lives and those of contemporary artists.
Natsumi is right to feel optimistic about her objective, as the
works she has selected convey messages in a narrative style that
will, most likely, be accessible to viewers. Narrative as the most
ancient technique of storytelling is also widely used by many contemporary
artists in their works. But the narrative themes used in contemporary
art differ greatly from conventional ones. In ancient Greek and
Roman art, and pre-20th century religious artwork, narratives typically
focused on the lives of the elite and their societies, or around
their myths or religions. Contemporary narratives explored in this
exhibition focus on the experiences of ordinary people. They are
about 'all sorts of physical and psychological experiences that
are part of human life, including intense emotion, desire, absurdity,
taboo and humour'.2
Family life, for example, is a subject to which most people can
relate and has great emotional relevance. We all hope for a harmonious
family in which each member is happy and fulfilled, and this hope
often results in a tendency to idealise our family situations and
obscure the problems that inevitably arise in relationships. A number
of works in the show aim to reveal the conflicts between family
members and to show how difficult, or impossible, it is for human
beings to behave in a rational way in such emotional contexts. Some
examples are Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila's 'Me/We, Okay, Gray',
a three-channel video installation and 'Consolation Service', a
two-channel DVD installation; Swedish artist Annee Olofsson's 'Unfamiliar'
series of type C prints and Iraqi artist Jananne Al-Ani's 'A Loving
Man', a five-channel video installation.
American Artist Karen Yasinsky and Japanese artists Leiko Ikemura
and Motohiko Odani use forms of human beings and animals to tell
stories. In Yasinsky's 'Fear', a two-channel video installation,
clay dolls with hairstyles and clothing from the 1950s and 1960s
are shown as passengers in a plane; among them are a woman and man
who occasionally shed tears. Although the dolls' facial expressions
remain unchanged, the tears that roll down their cheeks may deeply
touch viewers and remind them of the fear of separation and loneliness
that all human beings experience at one time or another in their
lives. Similarly, when viewers look at the girls with blank faces
in Ikemura's paintings and sculpture, they will feel a connection
to their own memories of being hurt and feeling helpless.
Odani's black and white two-channel DVD installation, 'Jackal',
shows a diorama of a house on the left, and a dog walking in circles
inside the house next to it, on the right. The dog's intestines
dangle down and its muscle tissues are visible. Both the changing
weather outside the house and the fast-spinning hands of a clock
on the wall inside the house in which the dog walks indicate the
passing of time, but the dog continues to walk aimlessly in circles,
occasionally eating its own droppings. This provocative scene forces
viewers to reflect on the creature's life, devoid of hope, desire
Some of the artists represented in the show reveal social or political
issues in their works. South African artist, William Kentridge's
DVD animation, made from charcoal drawings, entitled 'Tide Table',
is one example. Even if the artist denied his intention to 'incorporate
political value judgements into his work',3 one can easily sense
the issue of race being examined in the story, which is conveyed
by fast-changing images of startling characters: slaughtered cattle;
ill and dying black people in an overcrowded hospital and a white
businessman wearing a suit, who peers out from a hotel balcony through
his binoculars and reads a newspaper in his chair at the beach.
Similarly, when viewers stand in front of American artist Kara Walker's
politically charged silhouetted paper cut-out, 'The Long Hot Black
Road to Freedom, a Double-Dixie Two-Step', which was glued on to
three walls in the gallery, they may find themselves relating the
images to well-known stories of how black slaves fought for their
freedom in the American Civil War.
Taking advantage of the more flexible means provided by modern technology,
contemporary artists also challenge traditional ways of reading
narratives. In this exhibition, Irish artist Teresa Hubbard and
Swiss artist Alexander Birchler's 'Single Wide' (high-definition
video) diminish the beginning and the end-points in telling their
story. The camera moves around to film a trailer home from the inside
and outside. The moving image is a frustrated woman sitting in a
pick-up truck who suddenly rams the truck into the trailer. She
gets out of the truck, goes into the trailer to examine her wound
in front of a mirror, and goes out again to sit in the truck. Depending
on the point at which each viewer begins to look at the video, he
or she will develop a different narrative.
German artist Stefan Exler and British artist Mark Wallinger seem
to be very successful at playing tricks on our minds. Exler's 'Untitled'
series of photographs portray scenes of rooms that are so chaotic
that one doesn't know where to start to tell the story. He achieved
this disturbing visual effect by shooting the photos directly from
above, without leaving a shadow on any single item. It is not possible
to focus on any one object and the result is that viewers may feel
helpless in their pursuit of meaning, or narrative.
Looking at the slow motion scenes of people walking out of an arrival
gate at an international airport in the UK, in Wallinger's video,
'Threshold to the Kingdom', and listening to the solemn church music
playing in the background, viewers will have to wait for some dramatic
events to happen. But, after 11 minutes and 10 seconds, they will
realise that they have been fooled by the association of 'church
music with the sublime, and slow motion with decisive moments.'4
Also in the exhibition are works by American artist Gregory Crewdson,
Japanese artist Tomoko Konoike and Australian artist Tracy Moffatt.
The show runs until 19 June 2005.
1. Elliott D. Foreword. In: The World is a Stage: Stories Behind
Pictures, Tokyo: Mori Art Museum, 2005.
2. Natsumi A. Narratives Spun by Art. In: Ibid: 154.
3. Natsumi A. Ibid: 162.
4. Natsumi A. Ibid: 158.