Imagine a huge, gargantuan building specifically designed to showcase art in the best possible way. Light, space, materials, everything is perfect. The building itself is ideally located in central Tokyo in order to attract hordes of art-starved (and meat-starved, as we will see) patrons of any age, sex, and social standing. Now imagine that you – yes, I mean YOU – can actually show your little insignificant watercolor in this art cathedral. If you think that I’m making fun of you and your crappy painting, think again. I am no liar, sir, and you can really see your pseudo-artistic effort hanging from one of the movable walls of the recently opened National Art Center, Tokyo – provided that you have enough money to pay for the honor, that is.
This is the fifth national art institution to be created – the first in 30 years – and it’s a jewel of a building. It was designed by the late architect Kisho Kurokawa, a founder of the avant-garde Metabolist movement, who died in October 2007 soon after running in the Tokyo gubernatorial election (probably for the shock of losing to the evil Shintaro Ishihara).
The Japanese government exaggerated a little bit and the result is the largest exhibition space in Japan. Now, using all of its 14,000 sq. meters is not easy. Even a particularly big exhibition can use less than half that surface. Therefore in order to put the remaining space to good use – and earn some yen in the process – the museum’s bosses have decided to rent it to the many amateur art associations that infest the country. So back to my opening statement, if you are a member of such groups, your works may end up on the wall of the NACT… Or maybe not, as these associations have already reserved the majority of the NACT’s exhibition space for several years. But I’m not here to judge the goals and intentions of the fine people who run the NACT. I’m here to report on my visit to the museum, and specifically to its grandiose opening exhibition, “Living in the Material World: “Things” in Art of the 20th Century and Beyond.”
The best way to approach the NACT is coming from exit 3 of Nogizaka Station or, even better, exit 7 of Roppongi Station, so you can admire its striking front side all the way from afar. Nogizaka’s exit 6 is actually more convenient because it takes you directly inside the building, but this way you lose the chance to see it from the outside, so I recommend this latter option only to the lazier among you. I chose this one, by the way.
Once inside, you first get to ooh! and aah! at the entrance lobby, a spacious, high-ceilinged public area where people can wander around, do some healthy people-watching, and sit in one of the many multi-shaped comfy chairs provided for free. You can relax and read, bring your lunch box and even doze off, as not few people seemed to do when I was there.
You will undoubtedly notice the massive inverted cone in raw concrete that dominates the lobby. Three floors up is the place that is currently attracting all the name-brand-starved ladies in the city: Brasserie Paul Bocuse Le Musee. I couldn’t care less for such hip places, and nobody would pay me for checking out the expensive menu (if you need a restaurant reporter, please contact me NOW) so I don’t have a personal opinion, but judging from what the food gurus in other English-language publications have written about the Brasserie (big prices, small portions, so-so quality) there are many other better places where you may want to spend your hard-earned yen.
If you really want to stuff yourself, you should leave the food aside and go straight for the art, because with so much space to use, I’m sure there will always be more things to see than one can actually take in. In this sense the inaugural exhibition, “Living in the Material World,” should be a preview of things to come. It was so huge that I actually had to see it twice. The first time I could barely cover the first half. Admittedly, I like to spend an unhealthy amount of time on each work. So if you were like all those people who barely devote a few seconds to each item, you may even finish your “art promenade” in just one afternoon. But all in all it was overwhelming, even because they managed to amass over 500 works into one place. According to the curators, “Living...” “explores materialism in modern art,” a most-apt theme considering the current commodification of art and the way artworks are generally treated as a simple financial investment. Of course, being this a show devoted to “objects,” it was perhaps inevitable that certain areas of the exhibition space would look more like a warehouse than a museum. They didn’t forget anything: stainless steel plates, rocks of considerable size and weight, slabs of cloth, galvanized iron sheets, plywood, tubular steel, concrete, cork, felt, Plexiglas, lead, zinc, burned plastic, metal pipes, colored polyurethane, several totem-like poles made from Oregon pine, porcelain, and then windows, urinals, bicycle wheels, tea sets, snow shovels, bronze flower vases, fountains… at times it resembled an interior studio or gift shop.
The above mentioned Oregon pine totems provided for some fun when I unconsciously managed to break one of the many rules governing art-viewing. I’ve been known for being a trouble-maker at museums. Well, sort of. Stepping out of bounds; walking around art object on the wrong side (that’s what I did with the totems, that were arranged on the floor like bicycle spokes); they seem to go to great pains to ruin the fun.
At this particular exhibition I even found a couple of works that were supposed to move to be better enjoyed. Man Ray’s “Perpetual Motif (Indestructible Object)”, for instance, features the round photo of an eye glued to a metronome. The left-right movement makes it apparent that the eye opens and closes depending on the angle at which you look at it, but in this particular occasion the metronome didn’t move. Maybe they were afraid it would break…
In such circumstances, one has to look for fun wherever he can find it. So I’m very happy to say that I found not one but three – I repeat, three! – big-breasted women among the black-clad staffers who make sure that everybody behaves – not a small feat, considering the rather sad lack of curvaceous women in this country. I even thought about asking them whether I could take their picture, but as you know, I’m a very shy guy. This said, those ladies were true masterpieces.
The first day, something funny happened while I was leaving the exhibition. The second half wasn’t very interesting, and I was briskly walking toward the exit when I saw a copy of the catalogue lying all alone on one of the benches the museum had provided to people with sore feet. On another bench next to it a young Japanese lady was sitting, browsing another copy of the heavy book. Maybe my stop-and-turn was too sudden, maybe the young lady was suspicious of my bomber jacket and unshaven face, but when I sat next to her, she immediately proceeded to move her bag on the other side of her bench, away from me. Later, my wife confirmed that yes, sometimes I look a little strange.
PS All the pictures of the exhibits were taken illegally by yours truly.
(Do you want me to write for your fabulous publication? Let’s talk about it. You can contact me at bero_berto(at)yahoo.co.jp)