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Friday, March 27, 2009
Roppongi art festival to mark end of party?
By EDAN CORKILL
When the all-night outdoor art extravaganza Roppongi Art Night kicks off at 5:59 p.m. — sunset — on Saturday, it will represent the realization of many different goals long held by many different people.
Soon after the Mori Art Museum opened within the Roppongi Hills development in 2003, people were looking ahead to 2007, when it would be joined nearby by the National Art Center, Tokyo, and the Suntory Museum of Art, in the Midtown development. When all three museums opened, people thought, they would surely get together to hold some big art event that would firmly establish the night-club mecca of Roppongi as Tokyo's new cultural center. Those expectations were expressed in the pages of major newspapers, meetings within the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and in action plans within Minato Ward.
At the center of it all was Fumio Nanjo, then deputy director, now director, of the Mori. In his capacity as Roppongi Art Night Organizing Committee chairperson, he explained how expectations for Roppongi resulted in the upcoming event.
"So there were three museums," he said. "The first thing everyone said was, 'Why don't you do an exhibition together?' " It didn't take long to realize that this was a more difficult proposition than it sounded. Exhibition schedules are determined by a number of factors, from shipping schedules to the timing with which the institution's budget is finalized.
"We realized it was all but impossible to synchronize the exhibitions' calendars of three institutions of such a size," Nanjo said. What would be possible was "a short-term event that would take place outside the museums," he explained.
Enter the French Embassy. Nuit Blanche is a one-night-only art event that has been held each year in Paris since 2002. With copycat events spreading worldwide — some called by translations of "Nuit Blanche," others not — the embassy proposed Tokyo hold something similar.
"The idea fit our needs perfectly," said Nanjo. "Holding it for just one night meant we were limiting our expenditure in maintenance and security costs. If you were to do something like this for a month it would take enormous energy."
Nanjo's focus on the logistic aspects of the event is an indication of the difficulty in getting anything like this off the ground in Tokyo, where every inch of public space seems to be controlled by a different bureaucracy. Even something as simple as replacing illuminated panels with photo collages in a walkway under Roppongi-dori proved difficult. After the idea was initially rejected (on the grounds that it was a public road) Nanjo himself had to get involved in the political jockeying to get it through.
Ironically, the decision to hold the event outside the museums meant that its success depended on areas that were largely outside their spheres of influence. Luckily, of course, they could rely on the cooperation of the management companies of Roppongi Hills and Midtown, whose signing up to the plan secured the use of large swaths of open, public land for outdoor-installation and parade-style events.
"We also hoped that if we had Roppongi Hills and Midtown involved, the areas in between would join in," said Nanjo.
Which means, of course, the rest of Roppongi, including the famously boisterous intersection. One of the true tests of Roppongi Art Night's success will be just how much of an impact it can make in an area that is already chockablock with thousands of shops, clubs and advertising billboards all screaming for attention.
The most audacious foray into the city proper will be the "Ginga" parade, which is being organized by artist Jiro Hirano. Some 1,000 people, each holding a glowing balloon, will walk a zig-zagging path across Roppongi, from the National Art Center to Roppongi Hills and then back to Midtown. It will start from 7 p.m. on Saturday night and take about two hours.
Still, the parade's route is hardly designed to maximize its impact: It will take a back street so as to avoid Roppongi intersection. That makes it doubtful whether the passing balloons will even be noticed by Roppongi's regular Saturday- night denizens — in other words, the legions of visitors to, and employees of, the area's night clubs, only a fraction of whom ever find their way into the comparatively swanky Roppongi Hills.
Nanjo points to the very short preparation time (just two months) in explaining why it was not possible for this year's event to make a bigger splash.
"Next year I want to put more art in places where it is least expected," he said. In addition to locations such as Midtown and Roppongi Hills' outdoor areas, in future he wants to "put art in unusual places, like in the window of a closed shop maybe, so people experience the surprise of discovering it themselves. That would make it much more powerful."
For the moment, Roppongi Art Night is planned to reappear next year, although, as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which is covering half of this year's costs, finds its tax-generated revenue greatly eroded with the recession, there are no guarantees about which programs will or won't suddenly find themselves axed. (If one thing is certain, it is that if Tokyo is named as host of the 2016 Olympics, then, barring some accident this year, Roppongi Art Night will become a permanent fixture in the city's cultural calendar — at least until 2016.)
Though not a major financial contributor to this year's event, the role of the Roppongi Shopping Street Association, a group of local shop owners, is also worth noting. The association has long been one of the most vocal proponents of the idea that Roppongi is in the midst of a transformation, from night-club central to culture capital.
It is no coincidence that as preparations for Roppongi Art Night are being made, workmen are busy replacing their famously kitsch "Roppongi: High Touch Town" sign on the expressway at Roppongi intersection with a snappy new "Roppongi" logo designed by Kaoru Kasai, the same graphics man responsible for the Suntory Museum of Art's symbol. The town's official catch copy has also be been changed to "Roppongi geijutsu sanpo" ("Roppongi art walk, or stroll"); the slogan will not appear on the expressway with the logo.
More than the Roppongi Art Night, which may turn out to be short-lived, it is these developments that provide an indication of where Roppongi is headed in the future. The weekend may turn out to be a one-off "battle" fought between the existing hard-boiled Roppongi and a vision of its cultured future. It seems likely that the hastily organized art night will come off second best, but there is no doubting that in the longer-term "war" the tables will be turned.