Unless you’re a hairdressing student and want to study the backs of heads, don’t go to an art museum on a Sunday in Japan. The line to get into a popular show can wind right around the building (Dali at the Suntory) and there’s no guarantee that you’ll see much once you get in (Ukiyo-e at the decrepit Osaka Museum in Tennoji). You can’t really blame the spectators for this –virtually everybody in the country has the same day off, and gallery hours are not exactly chosen with the customers’ convenience in mind (5PM closing on Sundays is the norm). The trick, if you’ve got the time, is to come at about 3:30, see what you can for an hour or so, then double back at 4:30, when they stop admitting new ticket holders. This gives you half an hour to take a good look at anything you especially liked – sometimes, if you dawdle too long, with the guards following you at a less and less respectful distance. Not the best way to look at pictures, but needs must.
Going to a gallery in Osaka is certainly a different experience than anywhere else. First of all, unless you get to go midweek, there’s always the crowd, which of course you take for granted if you grow up Japanese. Then there’s the commentary. Yes, there are the art-Luvvies and art-Pseuds, same as everywhere, but the phrases you most often hear in an Osaka gallery are:
– Muzukashii naaa. Muzukashii desunee. (Boy, it’s difficult. Difficult, isn’t it?)
– Wakaranai…wakaranai. (I don’t understand. I don’t understand.)
– Zenzen wakaranai. (I don’t get it at all / I don’t get any of this).
– Kawaii! Metcha kawaii! (Cute! Is that ever cute! )
You only ever hear the last one when a puppy or bunny appears in an artwork. The rest are almost chanted as meditational mantras. People wandering or shuffling along looking baffled or bemused. Yet so many people still have this feeling that it’s somehow edifying to walk around a gallery full of stuff that leaves them cold. A curator has put this together, the papers say it’s great art, and who are we to argue with the experts? Not to tar everyone with the same brush, but Japanese culture still retains a respect for the Teacher, the Explainer, which we’ve all but lost in the West. Just being around great things and ideas is enough to hopefully absorb something from them (this explains some of the comatose classes I’ve observed over the years). So even if you’re baffled, you can still say “I saw it,” and even if you didn’t get it, well so what? You’re not an expert, after all. It’s Good For You.
Of course, to anyone of my culture and generation, that phrase automatically conjures up boiled spinach. Other than Buckley’s Cough Syrup and Presbyterianism, Canadians shy away from anything which is unenjoyable but purportedly “Good For You.” Many of the patrons at a gallery in Japan are there because they’ve won giveaway tickets from a paper or magazine (I do it all the time). I’m trying to imagine my local paper back home giving away art show tickets. As far as that goes, I’m trying to imagine anyone writing away for them if it did. Who are the bigger philistines? I wonder.