PRINT September 1986


The cultural value and potential of Tokyo may be assessed more objectively, more accurately, by those who live outside Tokyo, outside Japan.
—Yūichro Kōjiro

I WAS THINKING ABOUT TOKYO in Minneapolis, Minnesota, because that’s where I found it, at the Walker Art Center’s “Tokyo: Form and Spirit” exhibition (organized in association with the Japan House Gallery, New York). Like most Americans, I’ve never been to Tokyo, or even to Japan, but I’ve got a full-to-overflowing, thoroughly scrambled image bank of contradicting stereotypes, associations, and fantasies about the place. Minneapolis’ ambitious, stunning interpretation of the continuity of art and architecture in Japan, cocurated by the Walker’s Martin and Mildred Friedman, ran from the Edo period, beginning in 1603, up to the present.

It’s worth thinking about Tokyo because Tokyo is a verb. Thoughts about Tokyo turn liquid, become thinking, which swirls, congeals briefly into thoughts, then dissolves again. The city has grown according to no pattern or focus that we would recognize. It has no city center; it’s a mosaic city, a city without a “view,” without America’s street grids or Paris’ étoile or other European cities’ sense of imposed order. To be in Tokyo is to swim in an undefined space which allows motion and vision in every direction. It inflicts no perspective. That’s why it’s of such interest to us now, when our sense of the linear view we’ve inherited is so decayed. As a noun, Tokyo, like the present, is too overloaded, too diffuse, too complicated to grasp. As William Coaldrake writes in his contribution to the Walker’s elegant, thought-provoking catalogue,1 “Tokyo invites description but defies analysis” Actually, it doesn’t so much defy analysis as put off reaching fast conclusions; with so much clashing information, what occurs in relation to Tokyo is thinking, not fixed thought. Tokyo is a process, not a plan.

“When I walk through the streets of Tokyo,” Tadanori Yokoo writes, “it is not unusual for me to weave back and forth as if I were recovering from an illness—I have the sensation of losing my balance” Tokyo, Minneapolis, struck a compromise between faithfully duplicating this sense of a delirious city and admitting that the exhibition was in part a projection from the outside. In Minneapolis, the dizzying elements of Tokyo were represented eloquently enough to be absorbed; the “grammar” of the exhibition was efficient and to the point. Impeccably installed in a series of rooms built for the show within the Walker’s already striking Edward Larrabee Barnes building, “Tokyo” was divided into sections, each devoted to a verb representing various activities of Tokyo: walking, living, working, performing, playing, reflecting. Each section combined conventionally displayed items—in glass cases and niches, on pedestals—and a futuristic individual space created for the exhibition by different teams of designers, artists, and architects. Walking through Tokyo, Minneapolis, became a series of arhythmically alternating experiences—of swings in time and perspective, in passive and active museum-going (from staring into vitrines to occupying environmental space).

The show’s organizing structure and layout not only represented the sense of dizziness that I imagine I would feel walking in Tokyo, but reconceptualized the experience of the museum. The element of spectacle it offered through the environments broke through the portentousness of the usual museum display, the history-lesson factor, but it still delivered the goods in terms of providing information and context. The vitrines gained a sense of adventure from the spaces, and the spaces gained a sense of context and perspective from the conventionally displayed artifacts; although the spaces inevitably overshadowed the vitrines in their drama and visual pow, the resonance between the two had a singular buzz. As succeeding moods and modes of viewing sent ones thoughts ricocheting like pinballs—or like pachinko balls, a Japanese equivalent—Tokyo, Minneapolis, became not something to see but something to be in.

After a slide-show prologue (better than most of its ilk), the show continued through a series of small rooms displaying historical maps, painted screens, turn-of-the-century photographs, household objects. Then came an anticipatory jolt: a darkened room in which six sculptural columns, designed by Fumihiko Maki and Kiyoshi Awazu, introduced the idea of Tokyo as palimpsest. Withtheir meticulously crafted collisions of themes and images taken from history, legend, and contemporary life, these were truly queer objects, hybrid totems somewhere between radical architects’ models and items for cult worship in a temple of the past and future.

This introductory sequence of a traditional display of traditional objects followed by a startling commissioned installation set the pattern for the rest of the exhibition: the curious objective gaze at the artifacts in the cases, followed by the awed subjective sense of envelopment in the environments. And these environments were spectacular. The “Walking” area offered another series of constructions, seven freestanding “architectural frameworks” by Arata Isozaki setting off Yokoo’s ceramic wall images impressionistically portraying aspects of the city. Encountering them staggered along the length of a long turning hallway and stair, I felt like the pachinko ball bouncing from bumper to bumper. The futuristic “Living” space, next to an installation of a traditional Japanese tea room (a room displayed as an object), sent me on the rebound: with its illuminated glass table, highly polished aluminum floor, stiffened fabric walls, transparent chair, and holographic bamboo shoots set into the wall, this environment, designed by Tadao Ando and Shiro Kuramata, was a dizzying statement about Tokyo as mirror. But it was at the “Working” installation that I got the sense of hitting the postmodern jackpot. This was a series of acrylic panels with complex drawings of human body parts and inlaid circuits etched into their surfaces, and illuminated in sections by a computerized lighting program which controlled flickering diodes, twinkling bulbs, and neon strobes. In a wall statement the room’s architect, Hiroshi Hara, described the installation as “not about the real conditions of working in Japan, but closer to the feelings and thoughts Japanese have about working” Describing the intangible, Hara’s “man-machine” became metaphoric, allowing for a free rein of interpretation. Was this a helpful computer or a doomsday device?

Eiko Ishioka’s and Isozaki’s “Performing” space was another multimedia exercise in polyperception. A jumble of 60 stripped-down TV sets peering up at odd angles through a heavy glass platform and playing Japanese commercials, a kind of totem pole of televisions implanted in a himorogi (shrine), and a number of bamboo ladders all created a space in which the integrated activities of traditional/modern life became the performance. Formal performances, several of which were presented on the platform, were another component of this multipart section. Toyo Ito’s and Kohei Sugiura’s gauzy, gray, comfortably murky “Reflecting” environment generated a meditative state of mind. In a dimly lit mirrored space a walkway cut in the shape of four basic geometric forms, and symbolizing the four elements, ran over a fabric-covered “sea” of flickering lights; with soft electronic music playing continuously, here was a modern meditation room ne plus ultra, a huge womblike isolation chamber in which your gaze was directed everywhere and nowhere. In "Playing:’ Shigeo Fukuda’s huge version of an inu hariko, a doglike traditional toy, reminded me of a Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture in its large scale, bright color, and sense of humor.

Even though “Tokyo” also included a film series, performing-arts events, and lectures along with the vertiginous exhibition, I still wanted more; I didn’t find the paintings, sculpture, and photography of contemporary Tokyo artists in the show A focus on the art of life and on the applied arts is of course nothing to argue over, yet we know that serious Modern and contemporary artists have been at work all along in Japan. If neither we nor, it seems, the Japanese have a context for them, these “anomalies” are worth exploring. But I’m describing a whole other exhibition. “Tokyo” provoked a delicious fever. It was contagious—I caught it in Minneapolis. It seemed to be a verb.

John Howell is the editor of High Times magazine and contributes regularly to Artforum.

“Tokyo: Form and Spirit” can be seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, from September I to October 26; at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art, New York, from December 9 to February 7, 1987; and at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from March 12 to May 10.



1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in the essay are from this book—Tokyo: Form and Spirit, ed. Mildred Friedman, Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, and New York: Harry N Abrams. Inc., 1986.