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Sunday, Aug. 19, 2001

Going public

Japan tries to take art out into the open

In a dirty little public square just a cigarette-butt toss from Yurakucho Station in Tokyo, workmen are putting the finishing touches to their restoration of a long-neglected feature of the Ginza landscape.

For decades, Taro Okamoto's public art piece "Young Clock Tower," donated to the city in the 1960s by a local chapter of the International Rotary Club, stood its ground against the sun, the rain and the air pollution of central Tokyo. But time eventually took its toll on the work.

Artist Robert Indiana has made his contribtuion to Tokyo's I-Land.

Even during the halcyon days of the bubble economy, when parvenus sipped coffee from solid-gold cups in the area's overpriced cafes, no funds were allocated for maintenance of the playful white sculpture with its colorful clock face. It seemed that, like most of their counterparts across Japan, Tokyo officials did not know how to deal with the idea -- or reality -- of public art.

Only in the last decade has that attitude begun to change. This is due in no small part to the work of a cadre of curators that includes Fram Kitagawa, who staged the ambitious Faret Tachikawa public art collection of work by 92 artists from 36 countries, and Fumio Nanjo, an internationally respected critic and curator.

"It was in the late 1980s," explains Nanjo, "that the term 'public art' first started to catch on, reviving a concept previously known as 'outdoor statues,' usually used to indicate committee-chosen nude bronzes in the style of Rodin." One of Japan's first major public art projects, titled i-Land, was organized by Nanjo and unveiled in Tokyo's West Shinjuku in 1995 contemporaneously with the opening of Faret Tachikawa. i-Land comprises dozens of works, many rather understated, with a couple of eye-catchers by Robert Indiana and Roy Lichtenstein thrown in.

"Wave," by Lichtenstein, rises prominently on Ome Kaido. It is a splash of cascading yellow complete with the trademark dots of the famed Pop artist, a powerful counterpoint to the gray skyscrapers rearing up around it. And great fun too.

Tucked in at an intersection just south of "Wave" is Robert Indiana's "Love," a red, blue and green stack of vowels and consonants more than 3 meters high . . . spelling out you-know-what. A riot of colorful letters, since its installation "Love" has moved beyond its status as artwork. "A sort of urban myth has grown up around the piece," says Nanjo. "It is said that if a young couple meets there, then their love will be fulfilled." And so the sculpture -- a public piece of art embraced, at least, by the embracing -- is scrawled with the names of hopeful lovers, albeit that their testimonies are painted over during routine maintenance. The liberal use of contemporary art in stations on Tokyo's new Oedo subway line and in newly developed districts such as Fukuoka's Hakata seems to be further proof Japan is starting to catch up with the West in its acceptance of public art. It has, however, a way to go.

Although many councils have passed guidelines "requesting" private developers to devote a certain amount of money and space to public art, these are usually just suggestions that carry no penalties and are routinely ignored. As a result, much of the recent impetus for public art in Japan has come from either public project coordinators or architects keen to add flourishes to their buildings.

Public art was a buzzword of the 1980s and early '90s in Japan, and most of this country's public art projects were commissioned during that period of financial abundance. Then, too, a few faltering steps were also made in some areas toward setting aside a proportion of the construction costs of large new buildings for public artworks. However, that promising development, akin to the successful U.S. and European Percent for Art programs, soon bit the dust amid post-bubble belt-tightening.

So why now, with the economy perhaps gloomier still, is Tokyo taxpayers' money being spent to give Okamoto's "Young Clock Tower" its facelift? A clue may lie in the artist himself.

Okamoto, whose "Sun Tower" welcomed visitors to the 1970 Osaka Expo, and who has several dozen public art pieces spread across Japan, was never without his critics. Quite a few, indeed, simply dismissed him as a self-aggrandizing braggart.

However, a good way for a society to preserve the legacy of a controversial eccentric is to elect like-minded people to public office. According to a source close to the restoration, the work on "Young Clock Tower" was personally ordered by longtime Okamoto admirer, failed artist, and current Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.

Whatever else you may think of him, with "Young Clock Tower" soon set to resume ticking, Ishihara deserves some credit for his approach to public art. Only time will tell whether such policies -- and individuals -- will continue to resonate through recession-plagued Japan.

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