For famed sculptor, life has been a work of art

BOSTON — Among the more than 100 pieces of art displayed in New York's Rockefeller Center by figures such as Diego Rivera, Isamu Noguchi and Lee Lawrie, mostly from the 1930s and 1940s, a glowing piece named "Light and Movement" by a Japanese-American artist blends into its surroundings, despite its size.
Which is exactly what its creator intended.
"My goal is always for the art to integrate successfully with the architecture," Michio Ihara said in a recent interview at his home-cum-studio in Concord, Massachusetts, near Boston.
The 83-year-old, who describes himself as an architectural sculptor, implies his hobby is work, or vice versa. He creates artistic structures both small and large, including the 3-ton "Wind Wind Wind," which was installed in central Boston earlier this year.
"When the sun shines on this, it creates a very good effect," Ihara said, looking up at the 8-meter-tall structure made with about 200 sheets of kinetic stainless steel.
This new installation and the 1978 wall sculpture at Rockefeller Center are only part of his large collection of works that decorate various buildings and public spaces not only across the United States, but also in cities around the world, including Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore and Auckland.
Born in Paris in 1928 to a painter father who was on a trainee program to study Western art and an accomplished pianist mother, Ihara returned to Japan with his parents the following year, settling down in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward.
Ihara said he was an "ordinary middle school kid" during World War II, just barely young enough to avoid being drafted. He spent much of the final year of the war recovering from a pneumonialike condition brought on by malnutrition and damp bomb shelter air.
The eldest of four children, Ihara said he tried to become a painter soon after the war just as "a carpenter's son becomes a carpenter."
But by the time he completed four years of study of European oil painting at the predecessor to Tokyo University of the Arts in the early 1950s, he knew the craft was not his calling.
"I began to look for my own direction. . . . Like any young graduate thrown into the real world for the first time, I was trying to establish myself, and the only way to do so was to find my own field, like finding a narrow crack in the wall," he said.
Ihara said his lifelong fascination with architectural space started around this time, even though he was not clearly conscious of it. He created an experimental group focused on stage design with a few budding artists. "There is an organic connection — playwrights, audience, performers and the stage."
Ihara then attended a lecture hosted by art critic Kazuhiko Egawa, who introduced him to the art theory of Hungarian painter Gyoergy Kepes.
Egawa talked about a light mural Kepes installed at Manhattan's KLM building, stirring Ihara's interest in new architecture. The Japanese landscape at the time, after all, was "not that far from a bombed-out field," Ihara said.
Inspired, Ihara applied for a Fulbright scholarship in 1959 to study mural art in the U.S.
To his surprise, Kepes, who was teaching at the Department of Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the time, invited the young Ihara to come to study with him, even though his grant was intended for the art category.
"That was a turning point in my life," Ihara said.
After one year at MIT, Ihara was hired by the university as a research associate. As he broadened his artistic horizons, work started to flow in, including a 1963 commission to create and install a wall sculpture in an office building in the Massachusetts city of Waltham.
With the expiration of his visa, Ihara returned to Japan in 1964. He continued to get commissions in the Tokyo area and also taught three years at Musashino Art University's newly established Department of Architecture. At the same time, Japan's postwar economic growth kicked off, with a milestone reached at the 1970 World Expo in Osaka Prefecture.
While Ihara kept himself busy with the expo-related work, the "megasize experience" also felt to him like a "bubble inflated beyond Japan's actual scale," he recalled. He also began to feel fatigued about the cliquish culture in Japan's art world, with its heavy emphasis on personal connections.
As he was repeatedly called by Kepes to join his newly established Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT as a fellow, Ihara decided to move to the United States in 1970. The Hungarian pioneer of visual design became a lifelong family friend.
Ihara got the Rockefeller Center commission through a New York art agent, George Staempfli, who ran a Manhattan gallery known for a variety of European and American paintings as well as sculpture.
"His refined taste reflects that persistent Japanese craving for the cleanest possible design, for the simplest possible functional form of any given object," Staempfli wrote of Ihara's works in 1984.
Asked if traditional Japanese designs inspire him, Ihara said he has "always consciously tried not to bring Japan to the surface" of his mind, so if viewers detect Japan in his works, it is only because it exists in him "naturally."
Even after spending nearly 50 years in the United States, Ihara says he is still as Japanese as he has ever been.
"There is no problem to keep heritage alive because it's within."

Morikami Museum Gets Spooky With “Ghosts, Goblins and Gods” Japanese Art Exhibit

In Japan’s native religion Shinto, people share the world with spirits that inhabit humans and animals along with inanimate objects such as rocks and lakes.  The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens will open explores these spirits in “Ghosts, Goblins and Gods: The Supernatural in Japanese Art,” which opens Tuesday, May 22.

Consisting of paintings, woodblock prints, masks, sculptures and folk toys,  “Ghosts, Goblins and Gods” explores the thousands of spirits in Japan’s legends and myths.  Some are regarded as gods while others are seen as harmful demons and tricksters.

The mythical spirits live on today through literature, art, film and philosophy, shows such as Pokémon use the Japanese monsters as inspiration for its many characters.

Along with Pokémon, the exhibit, which runs until Sept. 16, features deities of happiness, good fortune and wisdom, including Ebisu, the god of fishermen, Daikoku, the god of agriculture, Hotei and his feminine duplicate Okame, the gods of cheerfulness.

The museum didn’t forget about the pranksters of Japanese myth, on view are the tengu, half-man half-bird creatures who abduct children and anamorphous foxes and badgers in the forest.

Source: PB Pulse
Photo Source: Eastern Art Online

Privacy is lacking in this Tokyo glass home

I saw this interesting article on Yahoo yesterday, fascinating stuff:

In a connected world where privacy is a valued, but diminishing part of daily life, home remains a reliable refuge. But here’s one home that intentionally strips away even that illusion for its inhabitants. In this nearly transparent Tokyo home, known as House NA, outsiders can see everything and everyone inside.
Tucked into a quiet residential neighborhood, this three-story, 914 square-foot home was created by an award winning Tokyo architect named Sou Fujimoto. His unusual design, with high glass walls and varying sized modular tables, contains 21 “floor plates” for residents and guests to sit, work, cook, eat, sleep, or play. Some of the floor plates are heated to provide comfort in the winter.
Surprisingly, Fujimoto’s multi-level home design wasn’t inspired by stacked phone booths but rather by the concept of a tree with perches on both high and low branches. “The intriguing point of a tree is that these places are not hermetically isolated but are connected to one another … “ said Fujimoto, a lecturer at Kyoto University, in a statement explaining House NA.
Though the home is almost entirely transparent, there are curtains that provide some modicum of privacy for occupants. Still, living in a fishbowl might make residents think twice about climbing down to breakfast without first getting dressed.

By Rusty Weston, Yahoo! Real Estate
May 12, 2012

Asian Art Museum's 'Phantoms of Asia' connects

That giant red lotus that sprang up in San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza on Saturday - a 24-foot-tall "Breathing Flower" of kinetic fabric in the form of the ancient Asian symbol of spiritual illumination and renewal - is the most visible artwork in an exhibition that explores the invisible energies and forces summoned by artists in 200 B.C. - and just last week.

Created by the Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa, the monumental lotus stands across the street from the Asian Art Museum, where 60 other contemporary pieces play off and connect with the museum's prized historical objects in "Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past," an expansive and ambitious show that opens Friday.

Ancient Chinese and Indian devotional sculptures, created by anonymous artisans to access the divine, and 19th century Tibetan thangka paintings depicting the cosmos share space with contemporary works such as the sublime-seeking minimalist abstract paintings and light boxes of Tibetan-born artist Palden Weinreb. A section of the show about death and the afterlife brings together the 17th century Korean scroll painting "A King of Hell" - which portrays the underworld and the cyclical Buddhist view of death and reincarnation - and a seriocomic video by Thai artist Araya Radsjarmrearnsook called "The Class." It shows the artist talking about death to a group of shrouded corpses.

"We're trying to create a dialogue between art of the past and art of the present, and look at the way in which artists today are exploring many of the same concerns of artists throughout time," says Allison Harding, the Asian Art Museum's assistant curator of contemporary art. "Where do we come from? Where are we going? How is the universe structured? What is the nature of the universe, and what is my place in that unknowable expanse?"

The museum chose to delve into those big questions in its first large-scale exhibition of contemporary art. Over the years, the museum, whose vast and priceless pan-Asian collection spans 6,000 years, has put on many fine solo shows by living artists. With "Phantoms of Asia," which features the works of 31 prominent artists from Japan, Indonesia, Iran, China, the Philippines, India and elsewhere, the museum is trumpeting its intention to focus seriously on contemporary art - and connect it to the impulses and traditions that inspired the treasures in its permanent collection.

Open-ended idea

Harding and her colleagues tapped Mami Kataoka, the chief curator at Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, to curate "Phantoms of Asia." She was chosen over 24 other international curators who submitted proposals. Unlike others who suggested merely juxtaposing old and new pieces and talking about stylistic affinities and influences, Kataoka "created a more open-ended idea, setting up a condition for new resonances to occur, not only between the contemporary and traditional art, but between different objects in and of themselves," Harding says.

Kataoka is a contemporary art expert who'd never been to the Asian Art Museum until she took on this project. She became fascinated by the objects in the museum's collection. Looking through its database of images, she had several pieces brought out of storage and put on view, including a magnificent Indian cosmological painting, circa 1750-1850. It's alive with Hindu gods, demons, serpents, and a pair of humans linked by black lines to the celestial and earthly realms that encompass them.

Macro and micro

"It's one of the most important pieces I selected for the show. It just blew me away," says Kataoka, who knew many of the contemporary artists she tapped for the show and met others while doing research in India, Thailand and other locales. "I was very much interested in this fundamental understanding of cosmology, and the relationship between the macro and micro, how your body relates to a large cosmos, and how you feel another cosmos inside your body."

Kataoka began to mull these things deeply in 2010, when she put on the show in Tokyo called "Sensing Nature." It explored the perception of nature and space, "some sort of invisible forces, and how we understand nature in Japan and Asia. I really wanted to explore the sensory understanding of the whole cosmology. The spiritual essences."

Although Asian countries are all different, and changing in different ways, she adds, they share certain ways of thinking. "I was really looking for what could be interconnected. ... We think now because of all the science and technology that we understand what the world is. But there are so many things we still don't understand. I wanted to go back to the time of ancient people who shared our desire to understand how the universe functions."

Unseen forces

Kataoka asked the museum's various curators to highlight pieces that dealt with unseen forces, among them ritual vessels, masks, and incense burners with dragons and birds made to communicate with deities. She sought out contemporary artists whose work gives off its own spiritual hum.

One is the esteemed Japanese-born photographer and sculptor Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose "Five-Elements" installation consists of seven small crystal pagodas, sitting on thin wooden plinths. They were inspired by the 13th century Japanese Buddhist stupas whose geometric shapes symbolize the five universals of the cosmos (earth, water, fire, wind, emptiness). Each glass pagoda encases a photograph from the artist's famed "Seascape" series, letting the viewer look at sea and sky through an ancient Buddhist prism.

"The light comes through the crystal pagoda, and you can imagine how ancient people looked at the landscape," Kataoka says.

Swirling black drawing

Walking into the museum's light-filled north court, visitors will see a swirling black drawing that wraps around the columns and climbs skyward along the wall. It's a pulsing space drawing by New York-based Korean artist Sun K. Kwak, who was creating the piece last week. Loosely working from a sketch she made in response to the light, architecture and feeling of the sky-lit space, the artist laid wide strips of black masking tape on the wall, skillfully ripping them back to form the curves and angles of the flaming, flowing shapes she envisioned.

"I'm interested in orchestrating the energies in the space, and transforming it into a new pictorial reality," says Kwak, 45, a diminutive woman wearing blue Korean sneakers, black pants and shirt. The lyrical drawing, which she describes as full of longing and powerful movement, "is dealing with the invisible energy and the ephemeral quality of it."

After the show closes, the drawing will be taken down and thrown away. "For me, it's a life. It's going to be alive in this space for a limited time then disappear. Just like us. But for people who interact with it, it will be embedded in their minds, so it's not really gone. It's emptiness we're talking about, but in a very positive way."

'Sweep you away'

While the drawing still exists physically, "it should sweep you away," says the self-critical Kwak, who will be pleased if 70 percent of what she intended comes across. "Less than that, it's a disaster," she adds with a laugh.

Elsewhere, you enter two small connected rooms - one harmonious, or auspicious, the other not - designed by the American artist Adrian Wong using Korean ceremonial objects from the museum's collection and the advice of local feng shui experts. Up in the Chinese ceramics gallery, surrounded by pieces adorned with mythological creatures and other traditional imagery, you find a vivid and grotesque painting by Hong Kong-born Canadian artist Howie Tsui. It draws on everything from ancient Chinese mythology and Edo-period ghost paintings to contemporary Japanese anime. Among other fantastical figures, there's a headless guy with a hatchet dancing on a two-headed elephant.

"The artist goes back to all these traditional stories and mythologies and characters and reinterprets and reshapes them his own way," Harding says. "He uses those characters to comment on how in our culture today, storytelling is used more to incite fear, rather that teach moral lessons."

Intricately decorated

Then there are the Han Dynasty bronze mirrors, some dating back to 480 B.C.E. The backsides are intricately decorated with cosmological symbols, deities and constellations. The mirrors reflected not just face of the person holding it, "but also the whole universe," says Kataoka, who found a similar resonance in the work of Filipino artist Poklong Anading. In his "Anonymity" pictures, nine of which are in view in light boxes, he photographed people holding mirrors to their faces to reflect a round flash of sunlight that obscures their image
Kataoka has some advice for viewers, who don't need to know the backstory of these pieces to experience them fully.

"What you have to do is take a big breath and try to feel the invisible energy. Then you begin the show." {sbox}

Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past: Fri.-Sept. 2. $7-$12. Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St, S.F. (415) 581-3500.

Jesse Hamlin is a freelance writer.
This article appeared on page P - 14 of the San Francisco Chronicle

In the shadow of the great wave

THE ocean has been a motif in Japanese art for centuries. Hokusai's woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa, of a rearing breaker bearing down on two fishing boats, is perhaps the most famous artwork to emerge from this archipelago.
Now, through last year's tsunami, the power of the sea has reasserted itself as a key influence on the country's artists.
The wave that tore into the coast of northern Japan and the ensuing nuclear disaster washed away the Japanese people's faith in a benevolent government and benevolent corporations.
Japan's art world is focused not just on the disaster but on the more cynical world-weary Japan that is emerging from the rubble. These grim times -- with rising fears over radiation and atomic energy, the economy and the ever-present possibility of another devastating quake -- seem almost tailor-made for six-member activist art group Chim Pom. The young provocateurs who make up Chim Pom (the name alludes to the Japanese slang for penis) got their start with works they say symbolised the battle for survival of youth (such as them) who didn't fit Japan's rigid corporate and social structures. They already had an anti-nuclear bent to their work, so it's no surprise that what happened at Fukushima is one of the key influences on their latest exhibition, Turning Around.
Chim Pom's Ryuta Ushiro shows us through the exhibition at Tokyo's Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo's hip Shibuya area. He brings us first to a piece comprising several stuffed rats dyed yellow-green and mounted in glass cases in heroic poses. Ushiro says it's a reworking of Super Rat, a video work the group did in 2006 that involved catching rodents on the streets of Shibuya. Chim Pom viewed the rats as a mirror of itself back in 2006, but in the later piece Ushiro says they represent survival.
"This time around they were much harder to catch. It just goes to show they are great survivors," he says "We wanted to present a vision of how Japanese people will have to go on living surrounded by radioactivity."
Soon after the tsunami, and at the height of fears about the nuclear plant, Chim Pom produced another typically subversive piece combining shock value and a political message. It painted a panel depicting the wrecked Fukushima reactors with black clouds styled as demons hovering above them in the same style as Japanese painter Taro Okamoto's anti-nuclear, post-atomic bomb mural The Myth of Tomorrow.
The mural is displayed in Shibuya station and is notable for the small rectangle cut out of the bottom right corner, a legacy of the space for which it was originally designed. At 9pm on April 30, Chim Pom entered the station and placed their panel into the gap in the original work. It took less than minute but people in the station saw it happen and snapped pictures on their phones.
"The rumour exploded on social media as soon as we installed our painting, and the following day the police came to remove it," Ushiro says. "But ever since we did our installation, people have come to view The Myth of Tomorrow with our piece on Fukushima attached."
Other works in the exhibition shaped by the tragedy on March 11 last year, include a mural depicting an emergency exit burned on to a wall with gasoline fumes and an installation with a falling
glass arrow. Both relate to the heightened quake risk in Tokyo.
Since the disaster, Chim Pom's members, like many Japanese artists, have visited affected areas and met victims. Red Card (2011), the piece used on the brochure for the group's Turning Around exhibition, took this a step further.
Chim Pom's Toshinori Mizuno got a job among the thousands of day labourers toiling at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant. He used the opportunity to photograph himself dressed in a radiation protection suit, holding up a red card against the backdrop of a mangled reactor building.
Ushiro believes the March 11 disaster will shape the group's art for a long time, and says Chim Pom is planning new versions of one of the more moving pieces in the exhibition, Destiny's Child. The work consists of a doll of a child in a gas mask and nuclear protection suit that sits in the corner of a lift, fingers locked in the V pose young Japanese adopt in pictures.
Ryuji Enokida's volunteer project, the Recovery Assistance Media Team, sought to directly involve the victims of the disasters in the creation of art.
Enokida, a musician and visual media lecturer, gave cameras to children in tsunami-affected areas, where tens of thousands of homeless victims were staying in evacuation centres for months after the tragedy, to document their experiences.
"I thought by giving the children the opportunity for interaction and the chance to tell this story to people outside, it would lessen their mental burden," he says. He expected to experience despair when he first visited northern Japan, but came away with admiration for the strength of character of the victims.
Sixty of the images shot by the children, including those from Kamaishi East Junior High, will be displayed in Messages for Our Children -- 3/11: a New Beginning on display at the Japan Foundation Sydney's gallery from this week.
The pictures will be displayed with comments that Enokida says make for a form of visual haiku. "By combining picture, caption and title, it gives us a very interesting sensory effect," he says.
This is the first time the pictures have been shown outside Japan.
Just as budding young artists have been moved by the tragedy, so too have some of the big names of the Japanese art world.
Yoshitomo Nara lives near Fukushima and spent the months after the disaster volunteering with relief organisations. He told The Wall Street Journal that he abandoned art for a time as the whole enterprise felt "superficial" after what had happened.
Nara says he had to go back to his old art school in Aichi prefecture and work alongside students to rekindle his enthusiasm. He has returned to the fray, albeit with a slightly new style.
His trademark pastel-hued comic-style portraits, according to the WSJ, have also changed, with the recent work featuring children with softer and more natural facial expressions.
"It's weird to admit this, because I'm already an adult, but I feel I've just grown up," he says.
Messages for Our Children -- 3/11: a New Beginning is at the Japan Foundation's Sydney gallery from Thursday.