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Art in a pandemic: Tokyo show tests if fans will come

This photo shows staff members wearing face shields next to “Pop up flower” by artist Takashi Murakami during a media preview of “STARS: Six Contemporary Artists from Japan to the World” at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.-AFP photos

It’s a blockbuster exhibition, featuring some of the biggest names in Japan’s contemporary art scene. But will people flock to galleries in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic? That’s the question on the mind of Mami Kataoka, director of the influential Mori Art Museum, which reopens on Friday after a five-month hiatus with one of its most high-profile Japanese art shows in years. “We live in a time when we are asked, ‘What is the role of museums and what is the role of art?'” Kataoka told AFP at a press preview of the “STARS” exhibit this week.

The exhibition was supposed to open in April, running through the summer to attract visitors in town for the Olympics, with works by leading Japanese art figures like Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami. But the coronavirus has forced a year-long delay of the Games, and the museum closed its doors in February as infections began to climb in Japan. “In this situation, it’s difficult to manage (a museum),” Kataoka said.

The exhibition is going ahead despite the challenges, and even as the city’s governor has warned of a second wave of infections in the capital. The star-studded exhibition features well-known works such as Murakami’s “Miss Ko2” sculpture imbued with Japanese “otaku” subculture, as well as Kusama’s abstract Infinity Nets paintings.

It also showcases works by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lee Ufan and Yoshitomo Nara, who is now preparing a major retrospective in Los Angeles. Kataoka said the show features artists who burst onto the global art scene after struggling for years in relative obscurity. Some represent minimalist styles and others favour less traditional aesthetics, drawing from animation, pop culture and subcultures.

“I was grateful… that this museum was able to reopen with this powerful exhibit of works by artists with long careers.” Acclaimed installation artist and sculptor Tatsuo Miyajima told reporters that the pandemic will test what art people feel they need to see in person. “We now only go to places and see people we really need to see and visit,” said Miyajima, who is exhibiting at the show. “I think there will be a selection process and museums are not exempt from that. People will come to see things that they truly need to see.”

Japan has seen a smaller virus caseload than many countries, with around 33,000 infections and just over 1,000 deaths. But Tokyo is seeing a spike in cases, and authorities have warned more measures may be needed if infections rise further. Exhibit visitors will be asked to book in advance, wear masks and sanitize their hands frequently.

In a bid to recoup costs, the museum is raising prices and stretching the exhibit run longer. Despite the challenges, Kataoka is convinced fans who do come will find themselves pleasantly surprised. “Visitors will be able to experience the show in this uncrowded space. I think you’ll see an improvement in the quality of viewing experience.”-AFP

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