a writer based in Tokyo
What is Like the Present?
Dayanita Singh, file room, 2011-2013 (from “Sleeping” exhibition)

It’s not as if the question hasn’t been asked this year, but MOMAT’s current permanent collection pictures the Pandemic world by asking What is Like the Present? The collection covers the past 100 years, from Shunkyo Yamamoto, Snow and Pine Trees, 1908 to Yukie Ishikawa, Impermanence, 2014, (although paintings by Kenjiro Okazaki or the recreation of Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing No.769 are both dated 2020). Yet what stands out is how timely this question is. With rooms titled ‘Distance’, ‘Small things’ and ‘Temporality’, the collection wonders how things have been awkwardly interrupted and brought to a virtual (or simulated, in the case of Vito Acconci’s Centers, 1971) standstill. If anything, the ‘Present’ is like going to shake someone’s hand only to be met by their elbow.

Awkwardness is ‘Now’ the way we communicate. Structures are build surrounded by knowledge, no less susceptible to collapse than bricks and mortar. Books by Dayanita Singh file room series that line one room in “Sleeping: Life with Art” another MOMAT exhibition express that archival longing to preserve and contain expressing moments of preoccupation with the world, buried in work catalogued and wrapped in a shifting material of doubt.

“Sleeping…” along with “Male Sculpture” also ask whether that picture of Now alters the way we see ourselves in the heat of the moment or, at the end of a very long 2020, in the deep freeze of isolation? It would be easy thinking all three exhibits are one extended conversation beginning the moment you walk through the museum door; anything touchable has been taped over or removed, and the ritual of temperature-checks and alcohol dispensers are now an immediate reminder of where we are smack-bang in the middle of a pandemic.

Close your eyes and imagine an alternative—Goya dreams; Dali’s paranoiac-critical method turning thought into reality; even On Kawara lives on in his postcard pronouncements. “Sleeping…” renders the image of ourselves as a means of public record. While the statues of “Male Sculpture” present that measurement as skewed, an outdated sign of dominance and a mode of expressing presence in the form of triumph and stoicism. The more fragile moments are more telling and more truthful. The description of Mitsuru Sekiya’s Dengoro, Old man, 1934 points out the dropped shoulder and twisted hand of a 90 year-old man made from wood. This small figure is more powerful than the younger men in the next room. And his face says it everything: neither awake nor asleep he looks far more conscious and more worldly than others.

With the handshake has been replaced in “Male Sculpture” by the arthritic hand of an old man and photographs in “Sleeping…” by Asako Narahashi (half asleep and half awake in the water, 2004) are seen wavering on water drifting in and out of sleep, the real answer to the question of what Now looks like is being caught between the act of doing one thing while thinking of another. Male statues present their own awkward, outdated measure giving way to a more faithful and ambiguous one; a less-certain way of measuring the collective confusion, when pressured with places to GO TO then urged to STAY HOME for Christmas. Some sleep this year would be wonderful a thing.

Dayanita Singh, file room, 2011-2013 (from “Sleeping” exhibition)

In India, archivists design their own structures, whether it be metal or wood, and most of the time also design their own catalogue systems. I find the thought of the secrets and knowledge contained in all that paper deeply moving.

Dayanita Singh, 2013
Vito Acconci, Centers, 1971 (from Room 8: Distance)

Pointing at my own image on the video monitor: my attempt is to keep my finger constantly in the center of the screen—I keep narrowing my focus into my finger. The result [the TV image] turns the activity around: a pointing away from myself, at an outside viewer.

“Body as Place-Moving in on Myself, Performing Myself,” Avalanche 6 (Fall 1972) 
Mitsuru Sekiya 関谷充
Dengoro, Old man 传五郎老人 1934
Eri Takayanagi 高柳恵里
Pocket-gauze, 1998

I can only imagine what it would be like to be free, but such imagination seems to be connected to everything I try to grasp. It’s the very reality of creating a relationship with others through imagination that we seem to understand but can never assimilate.

Eri TAKAYANAGI (Artist statement, 2018)
Kazuo Okazaki 岡崎和郎
HISASHI, 1994

Since 1963, Okazaki Kazuo (b.1930) has created art objects and installations with the concept of “Gyobutsu Hoi” (Object Supplement), a coined term from the Japanese word for object (gyobutsu; honorable things) and supplement (hoi). A “supplement” adds something from the periphery to missing parts of existing objects. The concept of “supplement” has been expanded in scale and space to take in the entire surrounding environment, something that has taken place in conjunction with the development of the HISASHI series. 

‘Garden of Supplements’ exhibition 2010
Bushiro Mori 毛利武士郎
The Letter / to the Earth / He Left Behind I, 1998
彼の/地球への/置手紙 その 1998
Bushiro Mori 毛利武士郎
The Letter / to the Earth / He Left Behind I, 1998
彼の/地球への/置手紙 その 1998
Sol LeWitt ソル・ルウィット
Wall Drawing No.769
ウォール・ドローイング 769
Yukie Ishikawa 石川順惠
Impermanence 2014
青女 2014
Yukie Ishikawa 石川順惠
Impermanence 2014
青女 2014

Yukie Ishikawa’s compositions originate from photographs of subject matter she finds in magazines, newspapers, and books. She deliberately obfuscates the identity of the original source material, adding new layers of lines and grids. This retouching generates a new pictorial meaning within the colors and painted forms on the surface

Yukie Ishikawa: Impermanence