Japan has been called a land of contradictions. Both isolated and integrated, aggressive and refined, old and new. Perhaps it is no surprise then that the country’s contemporary art, a reflection of these qualities, may appear bewildering. Their subjects, compositions, and themes often have no parallels in Western art. In “See/Saw,” Ivan Vartanian and Kyoko Wada attempt to impart a greater understanding and appreciation of the modern artistic landscape by providing a context rooted in the country’s past. It’s a compelling approach to modern criticism and it works — most of the time.

The premise of the book is simple: pieces of contemporary art, from notables such as Takashi Murakami and Makoto Aida, are paired with classic works from Japan’s past. These image combinations are organized to present a general overview of Japanese aesthetics. While it seems jarring to see a flask from Japan’s Muromachi period coupled with a modernist stool from the 1950’s, the connection becomes clear when placed within the framework of “Space.” Although the works may be hundreds of years apart, the book reveals that the tropes and thinking of classical art continue to inspire and inform the artists of today.

These visual comparisons are accentuated with an examination into Japan’s creative history. See/Saw demonstrates that much of the country’s contemporary art is a reaction to the hegemony of Western art. In an age of ever increasing globalization, artists reference classical masters like Sasetsu Kano and Hokusai Katsushika in an effort to protect and celebrate their own nationality. By recasting traditional elements in contemporary terms, the modern artist bestows additional layers of meaning and resonance to their creations.

See/Saw is at its best when illustrating examples from past and present that have clear, well defined connections. Discovering the parallels between a waste incineration plant erected in 2004 and a 17th century imperial villa is illuminating. However, at times the bonds uniting two pieces are deeply tenuous. In one case, the book compares a modern sculpture created from industrial waste to Buddhist ritual implements noting that both pieces closely share a feeling of solemnity. Yet the same could easily be said about art from any culture or any time period. With very little justification, instances like this struggle to justify their inclusion. Overall, the book’s argument is sound but sometimes you can’t help but feel that the authors are trying to establish a tie that doesn’t exist.

The book is organized into seven chapters, each focusing on a guiding principle of Japanese art. There are sections devoted to the concepts of “Allusion,” “Animism,” “Empty,” and others. The explanations of these ideas are clear and written in a style that is general rather than academic. A profile of artists both classic and contemporary and a chronology highlighting key moments in Japanese history are also included.

The scope of See/Saw is vast. It contains over one-hundred full color prints drawn from some 5,000 years of artistic development across multiple disciplines. There are paintings, sculptures, magazines, gardens, manga, 18-wheelers and more. At only 176 pages, the book appears cursory but the information is concise and elucidating . Whether glancing through a few pages or going cover to cover, the reader comes away with an enhanced appreciation for Japanese art new and old and the threads that tie them together. As long as one can excuse the scattering of puzzling comparisons, See/Saw is a recommended introduction into the world of Japanese art.

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