Japan's new reality show a picture-perfect trip
When visiting Japan, it’s worth remembering -- and stop us if you’ve heard this one before -- that there’s more to the country than kimonos, sushi, tradition and temples. A lot more.
According to those in the know, Japan is one of Asia’s hot spots for contemporary modern art -- manga and anime, anyone? -- and exhibitions worth at least a half day out of your trip are thick on the ground.
The Hoki Museum, about an hour’s drive from Tokyo, is one of a slew of outstanding new centers that take Japan’s reputation for cutting-edge art to another level.
Currently, it’s taking a fresh look at Realist art through one of the year’s must-see exhibitions, “Beauty of Existence -- Look, Smile, Sorrow.”
The astounding-looking building, which opened a few months before the 2011 earthquake, is the creation of Tomohiko Yamanashi, the architect behind the stunning art venue.
The museum is dedicated to the contemporary Realist art collection of retired tycoon Masao Hoki, whose lifelike portrait is one of the works on display.
“When people see this kind of painting at a glance they say it’s like a photograph,” Yamanashi tells CNNGo.
“But if it’s a photograph, people cannot be so attracted. If you look at it very carefully, you see it’s done by hand, and you start to realize it is very well-controlled pigment,” he says.
“When you focus on details like the brushwork, then the paintings also become very modern and abstract.”
Breaking down walls
Yamanashi’s building is designed to aid this process of intense contemplation by “erasing architecture,” as he calls it, and bringing us closer to the paintings.
But don’t worry -- erasing the building doesn’t mean it’s going to fall down. That’s just architectural jargon for making the things that comprise the structure, such as pillars, joins, corners, doorways and light fixtures, less obtrusive, allowing the viewer to enter more fully into the reality presented by each painting.
Rather than having rooms like a normal gallery, the Hoki takes the form of a gently curved continuous tube, folded over on itself to create three levels.
This presents a relatively continuous and seamless space in which the paintings can be enjoyed sequentially with no aimless wandering.
In a good light
Another key feature is the lighting system. This uses myriad small, adjustable LED lights set into the ceiling in a scatter pattern that is both aesthetically pleasing but also breaks up any regularity that might distract from the paintings.
As many as 20 lights can be trained on one painting, creating varied lighting in different parts of the canvas.
So, what do the artists make of it all? Despite the fact that they are creating what many people would regard as old-fashioned art, they seem extremely pleased.
“I’ve never seen such a futuristic museum as the Hoki,” Sousuke Morimoto, one of the artists in the exhibition, tells CNNGo. Kazuhiro Uno, another painter agrees.
“I like the Hoki Museum,” he says. “The light is good to view paintings. The interior design is simple, so that we can concentrate on the paintings.”
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One of Uno’s works on display, “The Forest Seen in a Dream” shows the figure of a beautiful naked woman floating as in a dream.
It is actually an excellent symbol of how the Hoki works.
As you proceed from the top level to the lower levels, the museum gradually becomes darker and the walls further apart, making the museum building appear to disappear, and creating the illusion that the paintings are somehow floating unsupported towards you, like Uno’s dreamer.
“That’s why we designed the museum this way, and that’s why the final section is darker,” Yamanashi explains.
“In the first gallery many people are talking about something, but in the next gallery people start to be quiet, and in the final gallery no one speaks.”
Looking both ways
But while the museum is designed to greatly enhance the viewing experience, its existence also highlights the fact that Japan has many excellent contemporary realist artists.
One of Morimoto’s paintings is entitled “The Future,” and is a statement of hope concerning not only the genre of Realist painting, but also Japan’s recovery from last year’s earthquake.
Using his usual meticulous technique, it shows a thoughtful young woman pointed in one direction but casting a tentative glance behind her.
“When I started to paint this, I had not decided the title,” the artist explains. “On March 11 we were struck by a strong earthquake, and my workshop was damaged.
“Two paintings I was working on fell down. One was ruined, but the other fell on the palette and was smeared with oil paint,” he says.
“But, after wiping it with a cloth, it was OK. I called this painting ‘The Future,’ thinking of its survival and of the disaster area.”
Getting there: You can view “Beauty of Existence -- Look, Smile, Sorrow” and the permanent Hoki collection for ¥1,500 until May 20.
Hoki Museum, Asumigaoka Higashi 3-15, Midori-ku, Chiba City, Chiba Prefecture. Nearest station, Toke Station on the JR Sotobo line. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, closed Tuesday. +81 (0) 043 205 1500, www.hoki-museum.jp
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