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Picturing Japan

Samurai swords are harder to find in Japan than stuffed dogs. In sushi land, now matters more than yesterday, writes Damini Purkayastha.

world Updated: Aug 08, 2009 22:23 IST
Damini Purkayastha

There were 11 of us, from nine different countries, staring at the plane beyond the glass panel. The Haneda airport in Tokyo had suffered a rare technical failure and no one was sure when, if at all, our flight to Kanazawa would take off.

Having spent the previous day walking in Yokohama watching people shatter glass and make impromptu sketches in the name of ‘performance art’ at the Yokohama Triennale, none of us were overly concerned about getting to yet another art destination.

Nevertheless, a nerve-wracking plane ride and a colourful tour bus later, we found ourselves in Kanazawa — ‘the marsh of gold’.
New use of the old: Hundreds of individual pictures form an image of Mona Lisa at the International Tokyo Toy Show 2009. Japanese puzzle maker Beverly has designed this new puzzle that goes on sale in September. Yuriko nakao/ Reuters
We had a two-point agenda here — a traditional Bento box lunch and a two-hour stop at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Arts — in that order. Slightly sick from the sashimi (first-time woes) my first impression of the contemporary arts museum was that it looked like a stark white community centre. A particularly happening one of course, judging by the number of people lining up to get in.

Built in 2004 and hailed as a landmark, the glass walls of the museum are surrounded by large picnic-friendly fields, setting the mood for a chilled out experience rather than stuffy, standoffish viewing of inexplicable art. I was jealous! In India, the first sight that welcomes you at a museum is a surly receptionist and dilapidated walls, not hip and happening youngsters, no matter how funky the exhibition.

The museum is divided into categories like People’s Gallery, nursery, kids’ studios, 15 different gallery spaces, lecture halls, an art library and even a breast-feeding room. This was not a gallery for the so-called arterati, it was a space for everyone. Spanish artist Leandro Erlich’s two-way swimming pool installation marked the way towards the masin area where Japanese digital artist Makoto Saito’s exhibition Scene [0] was on. Saito’s melting digital images depicted a surreal contemporary world inches away from damning self-realisation. Outside, a floral wall with matching chairs worked as an installation cum resting area, and large, life-sized Anime (animation art that originated in 1917) had pride of place in the courtyard.

While others in my group trouped off to stare at British sculptor Anish Kapoor’s gaping hole (his work —a large hole carved into white concrete), I found myself amidst a Moonlight Serenade. Japanese pop artist Yoshitomo Nara had dressed up a house like the moon, little kids as puppies, and brought them all together to ‘Pup up the dog’, that is, fill a flat stuffed dog toy with old discarded clothes. It was the cutest and most un-art-like exhibit I had ever seen.

But Yoshitomo got a run for his money the very next day, on the 53rd floor of the Roppongi Hills towers in the heart of Tokyo. French installation artist Annette Messager’s exhibition was on at the sky-scraping art destination, Mori Art Museum (MAM) and rooms of pale white space was lined with bizarre, colourful stuffed toys.
Sky high: Galleries, museum shops and a restaurant makes Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum a premium art destination.

Another 21st century tribute to contemporary art, MAM began in 2003 with the singular aim of drawing people into the arts. Being part of a building with over 200 shops, cafés and restaurants is not the star attraction of the museum. As you step out of the lift at the 53rd floor (with your stomach fluttering at the change in atmospheric pressure) you are welcomed by a glass panelled wall that offers you a unique bird’s eye view of Tokyo. As a tourist attraction it’s perfect and what’s even smarter is that the only way out seemed to be through the exhibition areas! With seven galleries, museum shops and a fancy restaurant on the premises, MAM is, literally, heaven.

It seemed strange to me that a country with artistic history dating back to 11,000 BC (the Jomon period) would be so proud of its contemporary arts. After all, it was the Kedo period (1603 to 1868) that gave the world Bunraku pottery, erotic shungya (sex) art and ukiyo-e (woodblock prints). And yet, the country, unlike ours, is not obsessed with its past masters and age-old heritage. Just finding a Samurai sword and ninja miniatures was like a holy quest — I had to decode a map, change three metro lines and find a 12th century Buddhist temple. Curiously enough, the only readily available imprints of the past I came across were images of men and women in Victorian gowns and riding gear pasted on PET bottles.

It’s almost as though living in the present and celebrating it, is the ethos of this country. For all its glories, Japan has a history littered with tragedy.