Tatsuya Tanaka at Dubai Expo 2020 Japan Pavilion
By Sophie Arni
Published on February 11, 2022
With over 10 million visitors, Dubai Expo 2020 is the talk of the town. On view until March 31st, this month marks your last chance to visit this spectacular event. Invited to visit the Japan Pavilion, I was very excited to discover the ways Japan represented itself ahead of the next Osaka Expo in 2025.
For the past 170 years, the Expo is one of the world’s major international events, held every five years in a new city. Dubai Expo 2020 marks the first Expo ever held in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, a historical moment for this region often dubbed as part of the Global South. Delayed by a year because of the pandemic, Dubai Expo opened its doors in a majestically large location 30-minutes drive from downtown Dubai. Pavilion after pavilion have been designed to reflect their respective countries’ materials, shapes, or thematics - often in postmodern style. Glass and metal materials have been preferred, perhaps because of environmental and weather concerns, which added to the “Dubai-ness” of the whole affair. Inside each pavilion, immersive digital installations have been the preferred mode of expression to showcase cultural insights, histories, as well as future technological developments of each participating country. While the UK dedicated their pavilion to Artificial Intelligence technology, Pakistan chose a vibrant rainbow of colors for its impressive pavilion architecture, to symbolize amongst others the richness of its craftsmanship - with a dedicated bazaar on-site - and a plethora of street food cultures. Arguably the most popular pavilion after the UAE host pavilion, has been Saudi Arabia’s. Standing taller than most, the striking slanted structure was designed in cooperation with Boris Micka Associates, with an architecture fusing digital technology and receiving the LEED Platinum Certification - the highest internationally-recognized sustainability rating.
In this maze of Opportunity, Mobility, and other positively-worded Expo Sections, the Japan Pavilion stands out for its glass-studded architecture. Distinctively Japanese, the structure boasts a water garden in front of it. The architecture was designed by Yuko Nagayama, in cooperation with NTT Facilities, with heavy use of glass (produced, manufactured, and imported from Japan). The design refers to a “three-dimensional expression with Japanese Origami shapes,” as the architect recounted to Arab News Japan. Nagayama explained the triangular shapes were also inspired by Egyptian pyramids, that she called “the ultimate form of geometry” and a nod to the broader MENA region.
Under the theme of “Where ideas meet”, the Japan Pavilion is meant to be an immersive, digital-first experience to acquaint visitors with the rich history of Japan from the Jōmon period to current era, passing through the Edo and Meiji periods. More importantly, I felt a certain sense of futurism linked with the specific narrative of the Pavilion’s audiovisual experience. Perhaps quite removed from the daily realities of Japanese daily life - especially Japan under coronavirus scare and closed borders - the narrative focused on diversity of thought and people coming together in unison.
While Tokyo, Osaka, and other major cities are very fast-paced, Japanese culture is also rooted in its slow motion and ability to focus on one thing at a time. This attention to detail is best exemplified by Tanaka Tatusya (b. 1981, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan), the chosen visual artist to represent Japan to Dubai’s eager public. Tatsuya’s installation is made of 128 displays of miniatures which were personally and individually assembled for the events. Categorized in 4 themes - Space, City, Sea and Land, the miniatures showcase elements of Japanese life and many scenes featuring palm trees and swimming pools - perhaps a nod from the artist to his visions of Dubai. Tatsuya’s tongue-in-cheek miniatures are tiny, cute, and makes visitors smile, combining common objects with an immense library of tiny figurines. The result is scenes that are relatable to a wide audience, from all ages.
Tatsuya, whose background as an Art Director as a design firm informs his rich sense of color and detail, began creating his Miniature Calendar in 2011 and has since gained a lot of visibility in both the art world and popular media. Very active on Instagram with 3.1 million followers, he is known as the first “miniature” photographer, shooting one “miniature” photograph a day for more than 10 years. His traveling exhibition “Miniature Life Exhibition: Tatsuya Tanaka’s World of Resemblance” has attracted over 1,600,000 visitors in Japan in August 2021.
While the artist choice of Tatsuya made the installation very accessible to a wide audience, especially those not unfamiliar with more conceptual art exhibitions, my curatorial inclinations would have liked to see the inclusion of other digital-first Japanese artists from a younger generation. I can think of Heijiro Yagi, a brilliant graphic designer and student of Tokyo University of the Arts, who could have produced incredible abstract calligraphy models with CGI technology, or Rintaro Fuse who curated an exhibition of silence and digitalization in an abandoned shipyard at Creative Center Osaka. While these younger artists may not have the notoriety of Tatsuya, his appealing sense of humor, nor the experience of exhibiting to large international audiences, it would have been interesting to see ways they would bridge Dubai to Osaka as a site for the next Expo iteration – while also bringing home the theme of diversity of thought running throughout the entire Pavilion. Tatsuya’s choice was a very intelligent one and responded directly to the Expo’s visitors demands and expectations, yet I wonder how a group exhibition would have complemented the “Where ideas meet” theme.
Tatsuya’s choice was a very intelligent one and responded directly to the Expo’s visitors demands and expectations, yet I wonder how a group exhibition would have complemented the “Where ideas meet” theme.
The pavilion ended with a presentation room about the next 2025 Osaka Expo. Showcasing the many economic and natural resources of Osaka’s Kansai region, the room marked a fresh break from the digital immersive experience and gave visitors insights into the next Expo to come.
I understand that the pandemic has made logistical installation very difficult, and I applaud Japan Pavilion for their efforts to create an incredibly rich glimpse into Japanese culture. The tour guides - flown in from Japan and staying months at a time on-site at Dubai Expo - made the digital experience feel humanized and participatory, which is quite a challenge in the middle of social distancing measures.
The Japanese cultural experience is one that is deeply intuitive, rooted in the unsaid and unspoken feeling that a certain object or encounter can produce. This sense was very much alive at the Pavilion thanks to its digital activations, soundscapes, and Tatsuya’s miniatures. I certainly look forward to visiting the host Japan Pavilion at Osaka Expo in three short years.
5. Scene 6, Japan Pavilion Dubai Expo 2020. Image courtesy of Japan Pavilion Dubai Expo 2020.
Learn more about the Japan Pavilion.
Visit Dubai Expo.
Sophie Arni is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Global Art Daily. Also an independent curator, her research interests lie in the history of cultural exchanges between the Arabian Gulf and Japan. She graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi with a BA in Art History and a MPhil in Curatorial Studies from Tokyo University of the Arts.