The many faces of love

Tokyo's Mori museum looks at the universal emotion, from the kitsch to the mundane to the sublime, writes David McNeill

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 1:54pm

There can't be that many galleries that wedge Marc Chagall into the same exhibition space as John Lennon, Salvador Dali, Gothic Lolita and the psychedelic polka-dot art of Yayoi Kusama. That's before we get to Frida Kahlo, Tracey Emin and New York-based artist Laurie Simmons, who brings a faintly creepy photographic collection of Japanese sex dolls.

What could possibly bind them all together? Love, says the Mori Art Museum.

The Tokyo landmark, sitting atop one of the city's tallest buildings, is celebrating a decade in business and nearly 12 million happy customers, with a look at Eros, amore and plain old ai ("love" in Japanese). The distinction is important: Mori is trying to cast its net around not just romantic but familial love, and love for humanity. If that sounds like an artistic version of mission impossible, you can certainly admire the scattershot ambition and eclecticism of "All You Need is Love", while trying not to get dizzy from the abrupt shifts in tone.

So for the price of entry - 1,500 yen (about HK$118) - you get Auguste Rodin's erotic masterpiece The Kiss and Chagall's iconographic painting of lovers floating above humanity in Above the Town. Brit bad-girl Emin has brought along a harmless pink neon exhibit called You Made Me Love You.

Lennon is here in a series of well-thumbed images with Yoko Ono taken during their famous 1969 "bed-in" episode, when the pair stayed horizontal for two weeks to protest against the Vietnam war. Even John Constable makes a showing in The Bridges Family, a portrait of smug 18th-century English bourgeois life.

When it's not art, it is decoration. All art worth its name is critical
Alfredo Jaar, Chilean Artist

So far so conventional - but then the exhibition gets really interesting, even disturbing. British photographer Richard Billingham's remarkable, jarring document of the relationship between his alcoholic father and his chain-smoking, obese mother is a particularly dark look at familial bonds. Mako Idemitsu explores the repressed desires and queasy attachment at the heart of the family in Hideo, It's Me, Mama, showing a doting mother keeping constant surveillance over her son.

The haunted, battered face of American photographer Nan Goldin stares back at us, one month after she was attacked by her abusive boyfriend in a relationship gone sour. Young Taiwanese artist Chang En-tzu, meanwhile, offers a warped take on the western fairy tale in her drawings of a disturbingly sexualised Snow White and her prince in What is 'They Live Happily Ever After'. Walt Disney will be turning in his grave.

This discordant path to love even takes us to the carnage of mid-1990s Rwanda in Alfredo Jaar's Embrace, showing young boys with their arms around each other amid the horror of the mass slaughter of Tutsis. Does he feel out of place at the Mori? Not at all, says the Chilean artist. "I never thought I would take part in an exhibition called 'love'" but his piece is steeped in compassion and it fits, he says. "The kids are expressing in this body language all the love, all the solidarity, all of the pain that we did not express as an international community."

An artist known for reacting strongly to social and political issues, Jaar says he believes in the critical function of art. "When it's not art, it is decoration," he says. "All art worth its name is critical."

So what does he make of the company he finds himself in at the Mori? Jaar chooses his words: "I was surprised at the scope. There are a lot of clichés, déjà vu, kitschy stuff, quite naïve and simplistic. But they're necessary; there is also work that has a lot of complexity and takes you in different directions so I applaud the effort."

The kitschy description might apply to Hatsune Miku's work, a singing synthesiser in the shape of cartoon characters that is as far removed from Jaar's work as, well, a manga sketch to a Dali. Kusama's beautiful, frothy Love is Calling, meanwhile, expresses her belief that polka dots are a symbol of the sun and the moon: "Round, soft, colourful, senseless and unknowing." And Masayuki Yoshinaga offers a straightforward photographic look at Tokyo's Gothic Lolita scene and perhaps by extension what Japan calls moe: pseudo-love for a fictional character.

The piece likely to be most embraced by Tokyoites after the rest of the works have been stored away or taken back to New York's Museum of Modern Art is Kin no Kokoro (Gold Heart), a permanent installation by French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel. Basically a giant heart sculpture on the pond next to the Roppongi Hills complex, the installation is a canny attempt to bring a lofty artistic idea down to the street among people who might never take the elevator up to the top of Mori Tower. Othoniel says he is trying to trigger contemplation and wonder. "It's more about the deep profound love that everyone can share, not just straight couples who are 20 years old," he says, laughing.

If that's too sweet for some, we're soon stepping back into the dark side again with Iranian artist Gohar Dashti's striking photographs of family life in a war zone. Inspired by growing up near the border with Iraq during the 1980s, the photos show couples going about their lives, apparently oblivious to tanks, sandbags and the detritus of war all around them.

It's a long way from Miku's whimsy, but Dashti says she has been won over by the Mori's catchall embrace. "At first I was really shocked at how a war series could be [seen] among a love theme but I'm living in another country with different political issues, and Japan is a different culture so you cannot push it." In her case, she reacted against what she saw around her as a child. "When war happens, life continues and love is part of life," she says.

As for those spookily real-looking sex dolls, Simmons places her silicone model in a variety of domestic poses: in one she wears a wedding dress; in another, she sits on the kitchen floor after a baking session. Given that the dolls are basically masturbatory aids, are the photos a feminist comment on domestication or an ironic look at neediness and objectification? Simmons isn't saying, only that her art is almost entirely "intuitive". "My work is not a manifestation of a political thought," she said recently.

What will the viewers make of all this? Mori director Fumio Nanjo hopes they'll step back and consider "the importance of love" amid the turmoil of the past few years, capped by Japan's triple disaster of March 2011. "No matter how ephemeral human life may be, love promises to give our lives meaning," he says in the exhibition's introduction.

Who could argue with that? Just don't expect the obvious at the Mori.

"All You Need is Love: From Chagall to Kusuma and Hatsune Miku", Mori Art Museum, Apr 26-Sept 1