On my flight over from Hong Kong to Tokyo for the new Mori Art Museum's opening, the first thing that caught my eye in the in-flight magazine were the words "Roppongi Revolution" emblazoned in black and white. The article also featured a digital rendering of the recently opened Mori Tower in the city's district of Roppongi (I believe its meaning stems from six original trees and relates to a myth of the feudal lords). Here, the museum, along with an arts centre is located high up on the 52nd and 53rd floors of the showcase building, along with a sky-deck that forms a major tourist attraction to this multi-purpose structure within the 11.6 hectare Roppongi Hills development.
The article took up more column miles than the one devoted 'Three perfect days in Las Vegas', making it seem that " Learning from Tokyo" may well turn out to be a sign of the future for Japan's growing urban addiction towards culture. Mori Tower certainly resembles a vertical city within a city, not unlike Prianesi's architecture of the labyrinth, all upward spirals, and downward configurations, except that Mori is offering a better world in the here and now.
The show's title "Happiness", also seemed fitting and timely, with the gloomy Asian economy of late; disasters and wars world-wide, as well as recent viruses, that have hit most of our shores. The theme with its four Sufi-like "stations" Acardia, Nirvana, Desire, and Harmony, may well turn out to be the perfect antidote; and I was keen to get a shot of it myself.
I also found the article's choice of headline referring to a new revolutionary idea of museum-going practice by combining culture with commercial activities, to be highly pertinent. It bodes well for a revolution for difference, and for the presence of contemporary art in Japan under David Elliott, the Mori Art Museum's first, and only non-Japanese appointed museum director.
Having spent five years at the Modern Museet, Stockholm, and previously almost twenty at MOMA Oxford where I worked with him, David Elliott is no newcomer to cultural diversity even if it courts controversy, and he invariably defends the right for art to be different. Elliott's curatorial abilities to open up unusual perspectives between art and ideologies, also seem timely for turning the face of contemporary art in Asia into an alternative direction for the future. His stance has often been refreshingly polemical, and formulated outside of the usual mould for promoting a singular perspective on what is art. Particularly for other non-western cultures presented to British audiences since the '80s, with the first ever Russian Constructivism exhibition; a later look at the Czech avant-garde; Diasporic art from China, in the 90's and much more, all during his time at MOMA. By combining non- - high art forms of artistic expression, whether Japanese Manga comics, or wire toys made in the streets of South Africa, his views have challenged the status quo on numerous occasions.
As Elliott insists in the article, there is a need to get past the way art is "packaged" whether Japanese or Western, but also the necessity to promote art from the country, whilst "finding a culturally sensitive way to create a larger audience through outreach programming and exhibitions"
The Mori is also a long-term dream for its founder, and construction magnet, Minoru and Yoshinko Mori, who see their role as cultivating a growing "art-intelligence" within Japan.
For this vast, vertical architectural art power house that also combines luxury brand outlets, restaurants, a cine-complex, residential apartments, clubs, bars and a new hotel, that all look promising signs. So its fitting that "Happiness" should set its heights on attempting to look the universes most unanswerable questions - What is, and can we have, or attain pure happiness?
I was curious to see how the works would be contextualised and how have David Elliott and another major player in the concept, selection and direction of the exhibition, Pier Luigi Tazzi (working together for the second time from "Wounds"- at Stockholm's Moderna Museet.). The exhibition also benefited greatly from the expertise of special adviser Yuji Yamashita on the old Japanese works of art.
Arriving a short time before the opening, I whizzed over from the hotel a ten minute taxi ride to Roppongi, for the first of two grand parties, to join a long line of cars snaking its concentric way to reach the epicentre of the Mori Tower. It is difficult to gauge the scale and presence of the building at first, as I hadn’t really the opportunity to see it from a distance except the sense of spiralling into a vortex. Mori staff lined the route to the entrance, with warm 'yosoko' - or welcoming gestures while ushering guests speedily towards the escalators to begin our journey upwards and upwards.
Inside this imposing architectural monument, it is easy to see how this skyways ambition reflects back to Minorkio Mori's complete vision for the building, which opened earlier, in April- it is a veritable maze of entries and exits, verticals and horizontals. Entering through a conical shaped steel and glass façade that emitted a gentle lilac/purple hues, there is an abundance of gigantic colourful petal-like sculptural forms suspended as garlands and twisting their way along the circular stairwell and outside the entrance. This is Choi Jeong-Hwa's aptly named "Flower Paradise" a appeared to grow before your very eyes.
Guests continued to emerge from the Express skylifts on and into the galleries, with others coming from the internal lift systems and corridors. The whole encounter was not unlike the experience of entering Dr Who's tardis - emerging from a narrow walkway into the extraordinarily vast atrium with my eyes immediately distracted upwards and onto the walls, where colossal images of Morimura Yasumasa bedecked an bejewelled as dazzling deviant Deities - staring out and across his domain.
In the centre of the space, as if it had descended straight out of the clouds, was Korean's Jeong So -youn's exquisite, 'Stairway to Heaven', a vertiginous, ladder-like sculptural form made from hundreds of thousands of tiny white billowing feathers. This skyways journey continued as we made our way up another escalator into the main lobby, where Minori Mori, joined by his wife Yoshinko, also Chair of the Board for the museum, along with David Elliott, who greeted all.
I then caught up with Indonesian artist Heri Dono, long acquainted with since his MOMA exhibition 'Blooming in Arms' so diverse is his range of strangely familiar figures floating in space. As we chatted while walking past maze-like rooms, - he'd read somewhere that Mori was designed around the labyrinth and desire, and proceeded to expand upon the ideas behind his "Flying Angels" - that had been renamed "Unpacked Happiness", for the show - a gangling group of all male, and one female, wooded doll-like figures suspended on high from the ceiling. Their existence, Heri added owed themselves in part to two of his favourite personalities, Neil Armstrong and Flash Gordon. They would have been easily missed however for those focusing directly on Anish Kapoor's gloriously seductive black marble stone below: a work that appeared to engulf you into its rich, dark, infinite abyss.
The concept of nothingness seemed to emanate out from Kapoor's piece, and resonated in other works such as Yoshihara Jiro's "Black circle on white", Cristina Iglesias's "Passage with its hauntingly beautiful shadows created by the simple rushed matting suspended in space, and that reverberated between form, absent body, and emptiness, Still each of these was the sense of a process of spiritual evolution at work.
Happiness is an uplifting, giddy journey- it is not only a survival guide but a way into re-connecting with classic Asian art, such as a fragmentary stone Northern Qi Dynasty Chinese "Bodhisattva" and Kamakura-period Japanese scroll painting "Descent of the Amida Triad”. There were far too many works to note in detail, but just getting a sense of how the exhibition tried to combine ancient artefacts: mandelas, manuscripts scrolls, contemporary art, sculpture, installations and videos with juxtapositions that provide insights into presented object often in ways I wouldn’t usually connect.
There appeared an intense relationship to the spiritual in certain works and the abstract and representational or figurative whether inferring to the body directly or indirectly. This is immediately apparent in Ad Reinhardt's stunningly intense black paintings that appear to involve a process of concentration similar to Zen thought.
Happiness was not without its frivolous elements, as obvious as some of the works were. Smiles and even raucous laughter abounded in a series of strikingly comic Noh and Kyogen masks that stemmed back to the 14th century to a 6th century stone bodhisttva that also graces the cover of the catalogue, through to Louise Bourgeois's raunchy, white marble phallic heap entitled 'Cumuli" (`cu", also being an impolite French word). There is the excruciatingly kitsch, "Bear & Policeman" by Jeff Koons, and The Luo Brother's melange of rosy cheeked cherubs promoting consumerism and propaganda, to the extremely engaging piece by the late Juan Munoz: two resin and bronze life sized male figures crouched on chairs laughing at each other, linked by a row of tiny figures one of which appears to be the artist himself, touchingly, having the last laugh.
Yet, it was Kim Young-Jin's "Swing- Mother's mirror" that I responded to most of all and remained the most memorable installation in the show, dealing with existence and memory the piece depicted different generations of women from a child to grandmother each on a swing. Each figure projected onto each of the four walls of a darkened square room. As the mechanism in the centre attached with DC projectors swayed to the sounds of a child singing, others began to call out names, some laugh while others cry out - as if to reach each out to one another across time and space through a laminated void.
Voids and apparitions cumulated in other forms, including a very unsignature like- Kusama Yayoi's piece called "God's Heart", a Perspex heart shape with tiny LED red light bulbs that began as a single chain around the frame, but gradually emerging and pulsating into infinity; Vija Celmins, Night Sky oscillated between the macro and micro a superb rendering on the stratosphere that keeps you looking and delving deeper into the sparkling cosmos, as does David Medalla's Cloud Canyons, beautiful billowing bubbles that defy logic.
Another kind of bubbles; champagne and specially design Happiness cocktails preceded dinner and speeches. In the opening speeches, Minoru Mori was keen not to compare the Museum with the Guggenheim, or MOMA New York, for he believes the space aims towards new urban planning in the city, and towards further development of Japan's cultural profile internationally.
Mori used the phrase "artintelligence" in his speech to reflect the desire for the museum to appeal as a place of "intellectual relaxation". He reflected on his initial idea 15-16 years ago to open the museum, as he and his wife had visited numerous museums and thus grew the desire to see Mori as a museum of the 21st century. Yoshinko Mori saw the project as reflecting the status quo of contemporary life- in Japan, initially she was not quite so exposed to modern art but later became an avid collector. She felt people in Japan were hesitant, if not reluctant towards contemporary art, but her own exposure has enriched her understanding and hopes Mori will act as a bridge between art and society. Finally she sees Happiness allowing for older artworks to be-re-appreciated in the context of the new, and looking at the past through new interpretations will bring anther dimension.
David Elliott spoke of the museum as "a beacon of light- waves reaching out beyond city and country in order to put it on the map as un-missable to the world". He also paid tribute to the founder's sense of purpose and passion but then bringing in a whole group of people with vision to run the museum. He also appreciated architect Richard Gluxman's design philosophy, commenting that when he heard who was designing the museum, he was delighted, well respected and appreciated- the look is beautiful and the architectural team a dream to work with.
He also spoke of Jonathan Barnbrooks' graphic design and strong identity for Mori that appeals to the familiar, and the yet undiscovered vision and direction of the museum. As Elliot also writes in the show's lavish, and excellent catalogue "Happiness has everything to do with art" quoting the 4th century Taoist, Lao Tzu - art is a subject that involves "the transformation of thing - especially when thinking about the future." Art presents us with an open field in which we may contemplate, without boundaries or prejudice what is really important to us"
The whole event was a lively bringing -together of so many local, oversees and out of town visitors -it was the largest public gathering at an art exhibition I'd ever experienced to date- people emerged on the sky deck as if in the thousands (I believe there were 4000) resembling in some surreal way Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark- a never ending flow that circulated around the glass vessel.
It seems ‘Happiness’s meaning lies less in turbulent cultures from colliding worlds that seem to dominate art from Asia at present. Rather it aims to shows that, the spiritual in art, a term not widely used, nor I suspect appreciated today, can be shared across differences and similarities in time and space.
Is there such a thing as perfect happiness in the world? The uncertainties connected to this notion, are what links the array of artists and cultures represented in this provocative show, and yet it doesn’t try to categorise art objects, but would just like you to come and see and listen with an open mind.
- Mon, 1 Dec 2003