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Sunday, July 22, 2001


Reaching higher than the sun

Staff writer

The determined individualism and unique artistic vision of Taro Okamoto (1911-1996), a leader in Japan's 1960s-'70s avant-garde art scene, continues to be a source of inspiration to many people today.

"Tower of the Sun", a 70-meter sculpture for the 1970 Osaka Expo

"His way of thinking will never go out of date," says Hiroshi Osugi, curator of the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art in Kawasaki. "His straightforward attitude toward life gives direction to youngsters who are not sure how to live in today's society."

Almost as famous for his wacky personality as his art work, Okamoto was often depicted as an eccentric character in the media. The commercial in which he shouted out "Geijutsu wa bakuhatsu da! (Art is an explosion!)" only strengthened this image.

Taro Okamoto

But Toshiko Okamoto, his secretary and adopted daughter, says that the impression people had of him was not entirely accurate.

"He was a powerful character with an unlimited amount of energy for anything he became interested in, but at heart he was a sensible and tender gentleman with the innocence of a little boy," she says.

Born in 1911, Okamoto was brought up in an extraordinary environment: His father, Ippei, was a successful manga artist and his mother, Kanoko, a talented novelist, had a lover, who lived under the same roof. Different lovers came and went throughout the years, but Okamoto's father approved of his wife's free-spirited attitude, and their extraordinarily open relationship continued until Kanoko died in 1939.

Okamoto's most famous work is the "Tower of the Sun," a 70-meter-high sculpture that he created for the 1970 Osaka Expo. With its three faces and two outstretched arms, the primitive-looking work was intended to challenge to the expo's focus on advanced technology, which, he said, excluded Third World countries from participating. Rather than being a competition to show off technological prowess, he believed the expo should be like a festival to which everyone was invited.

In a symbolic gesture emphasizing the importance of traditional wisdom and ways of life, Okamoto designed the tower to be tall enough to penetrate the 30-meter-high roof of the expo's central Symbol Zone. He also connected the two arms of the tower to the second floor of the futuristic structure surrounding it, thereby symbolically linking it to exhibitions of the past, present and future displayed on the structure's basement, first floor and second floor.

After the expo, all the site's structures were torn down, but the tower still remains, adorning Suita City's Senri Expo Park.

Although many other talented artists, such as Tadanori Yokoo, Yusaku Kamekura and Isamu Noguchi, were active at the same time as Okamoto, he stood out in the crowd due to the fact that he did not limit himself to art, but also worked in the fields of architecture, Japanese calligraphy, stage design and writing, and also appeared on TV and spoke at symposiums.

He was also deeply interested in ethnology, which he studied while living in Paris from 1929 to 1940, and worked to increase appreciation of the artistic merits of Jomon-shiki earthenware.

When asked what his occupation was, he would answer that he was not an artist, but simply a whole human being, and he continued to explore different fields throughout his life.

"There's no one like him in Japanese history," says Toshiko Okamoto. "Everything he did was coherent and was absolutely 'Taro.' He was an outsider in the art world. If there were two roads, one safe and the other dangerous, he would take the risky one.

"He will continue to be a hero. Even though he is dead, in many ways, it is almost as though he is still alive. He keeps on challenging us with new ideas."

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