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Sunday, Aug. 24, 2003

PUBLIC ART

Is anyone out there looking?


Staff writer

In streets and parks, at schools, airports or shopping centers, you won't go far in Japan these days without encountering artworks in some shape or form, from monumental sculptures to decorative tiles underfoot -- or even simply children's drawings on display.

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However, children tend to be the most enthusiastic appreciators of works such as "Where did this big stone come from? Where does this river flow into? Where am I going to?" by Katsuhiko Hibino.

But with the proliferation of places in which to view art, does it follow that the public's appreciation of art is increasing?

To try and find out, I went along to Roppongi Hills in Tokyo's Minato Ward. This massive redevelopment project, opened with much fanfare in spring, showcases nearly 20 public artworks and items of "street furniture" scattered around its 11.6 hectares. As it is a declared aim of its developer, Mori Building Co., to make Roppongi Hills a major new cultural node in the capital, there seemed no better place to go on the last weekend of the Bon holidays to see how people react to public art.

Perhaps the most eye-catching work on display there is a 10-meter-tall bronze spider, titled "Maman." Inspired by memories of her unconventional childhood, this towering arachnid is the work of 92-year-old French artist Louise Bourgeois, who dedicated it to her mother.

Located right in front of the 52-story Mori Tower, the sculpture is what Mori Building Co. President Minoru Mori has called "the landmark of the district." This, he has said, is because in myth, spiders are symbols of wisdom, while their webs allude both to the modern cyber age and to his hope to lure people and ideas to Tokyo and Roppongi Hills from all over the world.

"Maman" is certainly in a prime spot, with a stream of humanity continuously flowing past it. However, it didn't even take me five minutes' people-watching to realize that of those who passed by the sculpture, few actually glanced at it, and fewer still stopped to look up at it in earnest. Mostly, people just walked right on by -- unless they paused briefly to have their picture taken with "Maman" in the background.

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An art tour led by an employee of the Mori Art Museum pauses to admire "Maman" by Louise Bourgeois.

Approaching a group of three young women in their 20s who were trying to find the best spot for their snapshot, I asked them if they had known of the sculpture before visiting.

"Yes, it was in a guidebook," one replied, showing me the picture in question. "We wanted to take a photo from the same angle as a memento of our visit."

As the guidebook didn't say anything about the work, even its name, I briefly explained what I knew.

"What! This spider is a reflection of the artist's mother?" one of the women exclaimed. "I can't understand why she'd do that."

Hmm. I pointed out that the spider has eggs in its belly, a detail intended to suggest a mother's tenderness.

"Oh, now I understand a little better," she said. "My first impression was that it is grotesque, but I can see a different angle to it now."

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"Arch," by Andrea Branzi got not a glance from one passer-by.

I asked the women if they were at all interested in public art, and whether they'd known there are nearly 20 artworks around Roppongi Hills.

"No," they said. "We just want to walk around and then go to Yokohama for a dinner," the young woman replied. "Contemporary art is beyond me."

And with that they disappeared into the crowd.

Pitching the same kind of questions to others using the spider as a photo-opportunity, I found not one person who knew anything about it or any of the other public art around. Most explained that they didn't have time to view the pieces, many by famous artists; they had come to hit the shops or go wining and dining.

As I was about to leave, feeling rather rueful about the public's art awareness, a woman with a small boy asked me to take their photo.

"Sure," I said, taking the camera.

"This way," she said to the boy, motioning him to stand under the spider. But the boy wouldn't budge.

"Come on, come on," she said insistently, trying to take the boy's hand and lead him there. But still the boy wouldn't move, and by now he was getting upset. "I don't like it. It's scary," he said in a tearful voice.

Finally, she gave up and said to me, "Sorry about this. We'll find another shooting spot."

Well, children are honest -- the boy merely expressed his true feelings.

So, having failed to find anyone who appreciated the work, I walked down to Keyaki-dori, where there are more than 10 pieces of artistic "street furniture."

As I walked back and forth, I noticed people were forming long queues in front of Le Chocolat de H and Toraya Cafe -- but not one was even glancing at the artworks.

Here again, it was children who were most forthcoming. Two small foreign girls were climbing on the streamlined "sKape," created by U.S. designer Karim Rashid, as if they were in a playground.

"Do you like it?" I asked one of them. "Yeah," she replied, and went back to her parents.

A little further along at "Arch," designed by the Brazilian artist Andrea Branzi, I heard one little girl murmuring "mysterious thing" as she walked past without slackening her step.

Finally, I found a middle-aged woman standing next to a benchlike structure titled "Ripples," by my favorite architect, Toyoo Ito.

Overjoyed, I spoke to the woman, asking: "Do you like this artwork? It's designed by the famous architect Toyoo Ito."

"You mean this is an artwork?" she answered, seeming embarrassed.

"Yes," I said.

"Oh no. So I shouldn't put my bags on it," she said, moving to pick up two shopping bags she's put on it.

"No. I don't mean that; I'm sure you can sit on it or put your stuff there," I said.

"Really?" She still seemed suspicious. "I'm so tired that I needed to put my bags down, and I didn't notice this is an artwork," she said.

"If you look, you'll see lots of pieces around here," I said. "Can you see the vivid red thing just across the street? That's a work titled 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love' by Shigeru Uchida," I told her (sounding more authoritative than I liked).

"Oh, I know the song, maybe I should take a look at it," she replied. "The crowds made me so tired, but I'm glad you pointed out the artworks," she said. "At least we can find something that pleases our eyes and lightens our load."

A little consoled, I walked down to TV Asashi's new head office at the end of Keyaki-dori. In line with Roppongi Hills' aesthetics, the broadcaster commissioned U.S. designer Martin Puryear to sculpt the dignified, 5.5-meter, oval-shaped granite "guardian stone" outside the entrance.

From my viewing point I could see into the first-floor lobby of TV Asahi, where an event featuring the famous cartoon character Doraemon was being held. The lobby was thronged with people.

Near the artwork, however, not a single person was to be found.

"This is our nation's cultural level," I reflected.

With that unwelcome thought in my head, I headed back to Roppongi Station past the spider. There, the scene was just the same as before.

I heard a women shouting into her cell phone: "I'm here. I'm here. Under the spider. Please come as soon as possible." Obviously she was using the artwork as a landmark -- just like the locomotive in front of Shimbashi Station or the statue of the faithful dog, Hachiko, by Shibuya Station.

Perhaps that was my discovery: That the public's appreciation of art may be almost nonexistent -- but artworks do make handy benches, photo backdrops and landmarks.

Dismayed, I was plodding off when I was suddenly surrounded by a group of people -- and they were all looking intently at "Maman." It was an art tour of Roppongi Hills, no less. I soon discovered that Mori Building Co. has been operating three tours a day of the complex since it opened, and in July had added this special art tour on Wednesday and Saturday from 11 a.m. at a cost of 1,500 yen a head.

I tagged along, thinking that now, at last, I would be able to bask in shared appreciation of all this art.

In fact, though, of the eight others on the tour just two were art students and the rest seemed merely to be killing time. A hunger for art was not burning in their eyes.

Nonetheless, the tour (more of a mobile Q&A session), led by a Mori Art Museum staffer, was very interesting. Good art provokes questions, and questions there were, covering the works' concept and design and the artists themselves -- as well as "how should we look at this?"

"If I hadn't come on this tour, I could easily have missed the cultural value in this area," one woman said. The others were less forthcoming.

Ah, well. Only time will tell whether such initiatives point to a growing public appreciation of art in all its forms -- or whether such creations are destined to become disregarded features of the urban landscape, beloved by pigeons but few others.



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