This is a baggy, overly stretched show with some outstanding artworks. It’s aimed at representing the “creative, dynamic and thrilling” Japanese capital, across hundreds of years of history. A tough brief, but I longed for a bit of focus: one single cabinet contained a samurai sword, a tea set, a pair of Noh masks and a lacquered screen. That cavalcade of national symbols ended up making the show look a bit provincial, ironically enough.
The Ashmolean has an incredible permanent collection of 19th century Japanese woodcuts: several of the classic Hiroshige prints of views of Mount Fuji are on show here, looking gorgeously hand-made and irregular under the spotlights. And there are some fascinating more contemporary views of the same city in the same tradition: I loved a set from Yamaguchi Akira featuring the iconic red and white striped Tokyo Tower.
Around half way through, there’s a really great series of black and white photos from Tokyo Romando. Part of the Rest 3000~ Stay 5000~ project, the artist visited several “love hotels” in the city, and photographed herself in various provocative poses.
As the title of the project suggests, these hotels are rarely booked for the night: historically, they were used by couples looking for an escape from family life, but of course they’re also used by hookers and their johns. There are a bunch of outstandingly tasteless interiors, revealed in their tired griminess by Rumando’s pitiless eye.
Clad in heels and a basque, sipping some beer from the minibar or sprawled on synthetic fabric sheets, she looks serene and contemptuous. It’s a sharp, deep stab at a very specific subset of urban life.
Actually, that’s a lesson the Ashmolean curators could have learned. There are a lot more styles, eras and movements in the remainder of the show’s three rooms - actually, far too much for the exhibition to be coherent. How much more powerful it would have been with those woodcuts, or those incredible Love Hotel scenes, as the centrepiece.
Whatever - I’ll remember those black and white photos.
Tokyo: Art & Photography is at Ashmolean (Oxford). 29 July 2021 - 03 January 2022