Timeless Conversations 2020: Voices from Japanese Art of the Past and Present


This exhibition unites works by contemporary artists working at the forefront of art, photography, design, and architecture with masterpieces of classic Japanese art. Along with pieces by legendary Edo Period figures such as Enku, Kenzan, Shohaku, Sengai, Hokusai, and outstanding examples of flower-and-bird paintings, swords and Buddhist statuary, the exhibition presents works by eight important contemporary Japanese artists: Kawauchi Rinko, Konoike Tomoko, Shiriagari Kotobuki, Suga Kishio, Tanada Koji, Tane Tsuyoshi, Minagawa Akira, and Yokoo Tadanori. This integrated approach promises to shed light on artistic and spiritual similarities and affinities concealed within creative work of the ancient and modern era.

Date *Dates Changed
June 24 (Wed.) – August 24 (Mon.), 2020
Closed on Tuesdays
Opening Hours 10:00-18:00
*10:00-20:00 on Fridays and SaturdaysNo extended hours until further notice
(Last admission 30 minutes before closing)
Venue The National Art Center, Tokyo,
Special Exhibition Gallery 2E
7-22-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-8558
Organized by The National Art Center, Tokyo; Kokka-sha; The Asahi Shimbun;
Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan; Japan Arts Council
With the sponsorship of Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd.; UACJ Corporation



Admission(tax included)
General 1,700 yen (Adults), 1,100 yen (College students), 700 yen (High school students)
Advance 1,500 yen (Adults), 900 yen (College students), 500 yen (High school students)
<Advance Reservation System (specified date/time ticket)>
In order to ease congestion, this exhibition requires everyone - including those who already have exhibition tickets- to make an online reservation for a "specified date/time ticket". Please check here for details (in Japanese only).

<How to use tickets you already have and how to obtain a refund>
You can use purchased tickets or free-admission tickets that display the old exhibition dates (March 11 to June 1, 2020) to access the exhibition during its new dates (June 24 to August 24, 2020). However, please note that to enter this exhibition you will also need a separate "specified date/time ticket", which can be reserved for free online. *Free admission ticket which display a specific deadline may also be used to access this exhibition throughout the new exhibition period.
Furthermore, those who wish to have a refund can complete the refund procedures through the respective Play Guides or stores where the tickets have been purchased. Please visit here for details (in Japanese only).
  • Visitors who are junior high school students or younger will be admitted for free.
  • Disabled persons (along with the one assistant) will be admitted for free upon presenting the Disabled Person’s Booklet or an equivalent form of government-issued ID.
  • Free entrance to the exhibition for high school students from March 20 (Fri.) to March 22 (Sun.), 2020, upon presenting student ID.
  • Advance tickets on sale from January 10 (Fri.) - March 10 (Tue.), 2020 (sold at the National Art Center, Tokyo only until February 28 (Fri.), 2020).
  • It has been decided that Group Tickets will not be sold for this exhibition.
  • Reduction (100 yen off) applies to visitors who present the ticket stub of a concurrent exhibition at The National Art Center, Tokyo; Suntory Museum of Art; or Mori Art Museum (Art Triangle Roppongi).
  • Reduction (100yen off) applies for visitors who present the ticket stub or entrance receipt of one of the exhibitions below:
    Honkan Room T4 and T5, Tokyo National Museum Exhibition "Passing on Cultural Heritage: Buddhist Murals and Sculptures of Horyuji"(Dates: TBC - May 10, 2020)
    National Museum of Nature and Science Exhibition "Special Exhibition WASHOKU Nature and Culture in Japanese Cuisine"(Dates: TBC - June 14, 2020)
    Heiseikan, Tokyo National Museum Exhibition "KIMONO: Fashioning Identities"(Dates: April 14 - June 7, 2020)

    Mutual discounts for the four exhibitions have been cancelled to ensure smooth operations. We apologize for the inconvenience, but we appreciate your understanding.
  • Students, faculty and staff, of “Campus Members”, can view this exhibition for 900 yen (students) and 1500 yen (faculty/staff).
  • Credit card (UC, Master Card, VISA, JCB, AMEX, Diners Club, DISCOVER) , e-cash (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, etc.), iD, J-Debit and Union Pay are available for purchasing tickets.
Inquiries +81(0)3-5777-8600 (Hello Dial)

Composition of the exhibition

Sengai × SUGA Kishio

The Indian Buddhist concept of sunyata (emptiness) not only negates the existence of all things in this world, but at the same time affirms the existence of an auspicious realm based on everything that will appear in the future. Although in Zen Buddhism, enso (circle) symbolizes a state of enlightenment, Sengai’s joke about trying to eat up the circle embodies the notion of emptiness, which is intended to lead to a new form of consciousness by dispensing with the idea of an absolute being and an attachment to the self.

Emptiness is also a concept that resonates in Suga Kishio’s work. Rejecting images as fiction, Suga explores the reality of things themselves, considering the relationship and interactions between things, and things and people. By placing familiar materials, such as stone, wood, aluminum, and wire, which have been modified in the least possible way, in a space, Suga provides people and things with a new place to exist and revitalizes the space. There, matter, the body, and consciousness exist as interdependent and relative entities. Suga’s work frees the human spirit, enabling it to move from a virtual to an actual state, and giving rise to a new realm based on all manner of things. This profound concept, related to emptiness, is also a means of causing a stir in contemporary society, which is marked by rampant intolerance.

Flower-and-Bird Paintings × KAWAUCHI Rinko

Ito Jakuchu apparently kept chickens in his garden, carefully observing and making pictures of them. At a certain point, after dealing extensively with the birds, Jakuchu began to detect a life force in them. This enabled him to paint the chickens and then all kinds of other living creatures freely. Jakuchu meticulously depicted a wide range of animals and plants with various expressions in brilliant colors. In some cases, he faithfully captured minute details such as withered leaves and worm holes. While at once exalting life, Jakuchu also concentrated on its transient nature.

The deep attachment and sensitivity to all living and changing things found in traditional bird-and-flower paintings has parallels with the work of the photographer Kawauchi Rinko. Along with a peculiar light, the flowers, trees, insects, birds, and other animals Kawauchi captures in unexpected moments convey a sense of mutability, which springs up through a crack in everyday life. Kawauchi shoots everything from familiar creatures to the ordinary lives of people all over the world and majestic scenes of nature. She edits her photo books and organizes her shows in a manner that makes the individual images seem to engage in a dialogue with each other. In this exhibition, the dialogue is supplemented by bird-and-flower paintings from the Edo Period by artists associated with the Nanpin, Obaku, and Rinpa schools. Together, the works express the laws of nature and cycle of life, encompassing the struggle between life and death that is our destiny.

Enku × TANADA Koji

Since ancient times, mountains, trees, stones, and waterfalls have been worshipped in Japan as yorishiro (objects representing a divine spirit or deity). In the Nara (710-794) and Heian Periods (794-1185), the practice of carving the main parts of a statue out of a single tree began to flourish, leading to the tradition of locating and worshipping spirits in the trees.

Enku (1632-1695), a Buddhist priest who lived in the Edo Period, developed a unique form of one-tree carving, which bore a close resemblance to the ancient Japanese animistic worldview. Traveling all over the country, Enku, made countless Buddhist statues that found favor with the public. He carved works in standing timber, incorporated rough sections of split logs, and created multiple Buddhas out of a single tree to make the most of natural wood and its individual characteristics. Displaying a similar preference for one-tree carving, Tanada Koji is a contemporary sculptor who has consistently worked with wood. His sculptures of young boys and girls contain limitless possibilities, evoking an unreliable yet strong determination in the face of a world in which curiosity struggles with fear. The spiritual urgency and physical awkwardness of these figures, who still dwell near a divine realm, are juxtaposed with variations in the wood, giving them the appearance of trees. In both Enku’s Buddhas and Tanada’s sculptures, the fluctuations and vibrations of the tree, as a living organism, resonate in our heart and body through these images of gods and people.

Swords × KONOIKE Tomoko

Iron swords, first produced in Japan in the ancient Kofun era, were characterized by their straight blades. But roughly 1,000 years ago in the mid-Heian Period, an era that saw the rise of a warrior class, curved swords began to be produced. In addition to being excellent weapons, the curvaceous beauty of the swords’ appearance, intricate patterns in the tough ferrite, and the elaborately wrought hamon (blade patterns) were linked to a profound spirituality and unique aesthetic, attracting admirers with a brilliance that transcends the ages.

On the other hand, Konoike Tomoko has returned to the notion of the sword as a cutting tool. Konoike has devised a magnificent installation that combines Drop Curtain of Cowhide (2015), a work in which sewn together pieces of animal hide are imbued with a spiritual quality, and swords of varying lengths dating from the Heian Period onward (794-1185). When highly spiritual Japanese swords encounter the familiar material of leather and a primitive landscape filled with chaotic energy, they convey the primordial power of cutting, which lies latent in the sharp stylistic beauty of the blades. Exploring the natural relationship between “eating and being eaten,” Konoike sets out to recover the vitality that has disappeared from modern society. This meeting between swords and leather, forming a connection between art and life, is an attempt to bridge a world that has been plunged into a multitude of binary oppositions.

Buddhist Statuary × TANE Tsuyoshi

The Nikko and Gakko Bosatsu, which symbolize the sun and the moon, respectively, are said to guide and heal people. The entire bodies of the two statues, which have long flanked Yakushi Nyorai, the principal image of worship in Saimyo-ji, an ancient Tendai temple in Shiga Prefecture, are covered with gold leaf and exude a celestial light. For this exhibition, the internationally active architect Tane Tsuyoshi has created a light installation befitting these two bodhisattvas.

Tane has received widespread acclaim for architecture in which he conducts careful research to unearth memories in a given place and uses them to forge a link to the future. This approach recalls archaeological excavation, and the elements of memory, time, and light serve as important sources of inspiration for Tane. Drawn to the Nikko and Gakko Bosatsu, which amass people’s prayers and relieve them of countless sufferings, Tane has created a space that allows viewers to quietly engage with the statues and experience something on a deep inner level. By reflecting on the past and gazing fixedly at ourselves in the present, we can make the most of our realizations in the future. Here, our memories teach us how to live tomorrow.

Hokusai × SHIRIAGARI Kotobuki

In every age, people are revitalized by the spirit of play and humor. Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760-1849) light-hearted character sketches, enhanced by his keen observational skills, richly express the wit of this extraordinary ukiyo-e artist. Referring to himself as “an art-crazed man,” Hokusai guilelessly devoted himself to his craft until his death of natural causes. In one work, Shiriagari Kotobuki, who holds Hokusai in high esteem, depicted the artist dancing and singing, “I love to make pictures / And I love life.” As these lines suggest, play is an affirmation of life and a fundamental means of heightening creativity.

This exhibition features a new video installment in Shiriagari’s Yurumation series, a group of works distinguished by their relaxed touch, which serves as an homage to Hokusai. And in addition to one of Hokusai’s most renowned works, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, we present Shiriagari’s Nearly 36 Somewhat Ridiculous Views (2017), which was inspired by the series. The combination of these masterful woodblock prints – which vividly depict common people in ingenious compositions that incorporate the legendary mountain – with Shiriagari’s fantastic contemporary caricatures conveys the timeless imaginative power of laughter.

Kenzan × MINAGAWA Akira

Ogata Kenzan was an Edo Period potter who elevated ceramics to an art form. Kenzan, who establishing a kiln in the Narutaki district of Kyoto, diligently devoted himself to making ceramics, displaying an innovative and sublime artistic sensibility by, for example, creating vessels in the shape of flower petals. His older brother, the painter Ogata Korin, was also involved with the kiln, decorating Kenzan ware with opulent Rinpa-style designs, and free and relaxed hand-painted lines.

As director of the minä perhonen brand, the contemporary designer Minagawa Akira has proposed a lifestyle centering on familiar items with a high quality design such as clothing, furniture, and tableware. His handmade designs, employing nature-inspired motifs such as flowers, birds, butterflies, and forests, and geometrical patterns are distinguished by their organic warmth and simple splendor. His approach bears a close resemblance to the Kenzan-ware designs developed by Kenzan and Korin.

Here, Minagawa’s textiles, clothes, and fabric scraps are displayed alongside Kenzan’s vessels and shards of pottery. The two artists’ world, a fusion of utility and beauty, are united in a single installation.

Shohaku × YOKOO Tadanori

First drawn to Shohaku in the 1970s, Yokoo Tadanori has made a number of homages to the 18th-century painter over the years. Displaying extreme individualism as creators of fantastic pictures, both artists share what Yokoo refers to as a “dämonisch (demoniac)” attraction to painting. In their works, the two unleash all kinds of sensations that are an inevitable part of life, including its exaltation, anxiety, fear, and a curiosity in the obscene and grotesque.

Shohaku and Yokoo are also similar in that they both transform anachronistic images into creative power. Shohaku dared to imitate the old-fashioned and dynamic style of Soga Jasoku, an artist active in the late Muromachi Period (1336-1573), and recast the majestic qualities of Chinese painting and the Kano school as something vulgar. For his part, Yokoo fills his pictures with myriad images derived from art of every time and place, his personal experiences, and collective social memory without being restricted by time or space. Images of the past are not limited to the past, they live on in the present. In this exhibition, Yokoo will show some new works inspired by Shohaku. This is testament to the fact that a storehouse of images, the accumulated heritage of humankind, can be reopened in any age.

List of Works

日本語 PDF
English PDF


Enjoy the exhibition at home too with this paper-craft kit.

How to make the paper-craft

Related Events

Online Events & Projects can be found on the Exhibition Website.
(Exhibition Website and online events/projects are in Japanese only)