Friday 8 July 2011


At Home in Japan – beyond the minimal house, Geffrye Museum of the Home, London

At Home in Japan is the brainchild of anthropologist Inge Daniels, who spent a year researching homes in the Kansai region of Japan in 2003. In addition to the exhibition, she has also produced a book on the subject. Daniels’s stated aim is ‘to question the widespread stereotype of the minimal Japanese house, characterised by large empty spaces devoid of people and things’, and though this might appear a fairly cold anthropological target, the resulting exhibition shows a great deal of warmth and affection.

Combining Susan Andrews’ photography of Japanese home interiors with a large collection of typical Japanese objects (towels, shoes, even photo albums), the concept is to create a typical Japanese house within the exhibition space: this, we are informed, is a ‘2LDK’, with two bedrooms and a living/dining/kitchen area. Each room is meticulously detailed, and a large number of notes are at hand to explain the significance of everything on display. The facts to be learned range from the curious (we learn that towels are ‘very popular generic gifts’ in Japan, and most people therefore have far too many) to the crazy (‘It is also common to eat a bean for every year of your age’), and they document everything from rubbish collection etiquette to gardening habits. The attention to detail is miraculous, and visitors are encouraged to explore as much as possible, by opening drawers, scrutinising clothes and cutlery, and leafing through albums and books.

The combination of photographs and objects makes for an original conceptual approach, more interesting than either just photos or just things would have been. On the floor at the entrance to the exhibition, for instance, is a photograph of a welcome mat with several pairs of shoes. And on top of this photograph are several real pairs of shoes, clearly chosen to resemble closely (but not exactly) the shoes in the photo. This lively interplay between the two- and the three-dimensional can also be found in the kitchen, with its photo of a sink area with a real drying rack sticking out of it, and also in the ‘Western-style’ bedroom (so called because of the lack of tatami mat). This one was my personal favourite moment: an actual-size picture of a cabinet and chest of drawers which, after a minute or two, you realise contains two real drawers, filled with sheets and pyjamas.

Maybe the most interesting fact I learned from the exhibition was that Japanese houses are generally thought to have a lifespan of ‘about four decades’, after which time they are demolished and rebuilt. A slideshow documented the jichinsai, a ritual which traditionally precedes construction, and the rebuilding process of a typical house. Putting this display – surely the most extreme moment of ‘culture shock’ for a poorly-informed Westerner such as myself – at the entrance to the exhibition had the effect of casting everything that followed very much as the documentation of a genuinely remote culture. It meant, effectively, the assumption of difference rather than similarity. So while Daniels and Andrews are certainly successful in debunking the myth of the minimal Japanese house, I wonder if their exhibition doesn’t nonetheless remain slightly dependent on a conception of the Japanese home as something mythic and distant.

This is not, though, to say that I felt distant from the substance of the exhibition. Several videos playing on loop gave the whole space a gentle ambient buzz, which helped to ensure that it never felt like I was intruding into somebody’s home. Rather, I was a welcome guest, whose hosts were eager to tell me all about their lifestyle and show me their holiday snaps. I half expected to be given a towel on the way out. Overall, it was impressive how un-voyeuristic the project seemed, given its focus (unlike the rest of the Geffrye Museum) on contemporary and real homes. The careful presentation made this a truly fascinating way to learn about Japanese domestic culture.

And this is an important subject in particular in the aftermath of Japan’s tragedy this year. Though the areas photographed and researched were not severely affected by the earthquakes or tsunami, one can only imagine that all these events have affected daily life across the country. Perhaps the very least we can do is learn more about Japanese life, in order that our sympathy be slightly better informed. And, of course, contribute to the collection box in the museum foyer.

At Home in Japan – beyond the minimal house is at the Geffrye Museum of the Home till 29 August 2011.

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