New York

“Shinjuku: The Phenomenal City”

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Land in Shinjuku, a busy transportation center in Tokyo, may be the most expensive in the world, costing up to $200 a square foot. Shinjuku is one of the places where they invented the professional subway packer—a uniformed employee who throws his weight into making sure that every car is filled to capacity. In the large entertainment and shopping districts that surround the rail center one may see a giant gorilla clutching a plastic hamburger, a huge, science-fictiony crab in front of a seafood restaurant, and plastic leaves and blossoms that are changed to match the seasons.

These bits of information come from a curious show at the Museum of Modern Art intended to investigate the consciousness a cityscape like Shinjuku fosters. The show consisted of maps of both above and below ground areas, a group of cubes with pictures on several sides (suggestive of a poor department-store window display) and a kind of shrine of advertising elements. This shrine included plastic food samples, signs, lights, banners, and examples of those plastic cherry blossoms. There was also the inevitable slide show, and although it depicted more of Shinjuku than any other part of the exhibit, the account it gave was very different: it displayed a more open, more pleasant place than the maps implied. A frieze of photos around the perimeter of the gallery showed the Japanese who work and play in Shinjuku; it was more decoration than an integral part of the exhibition.

The maps are the most interesting part of the show, but they are not its center; in fact, the show lacks any well-defined core. Entering the gallery, one had little immediate idea what one was seeing or where to begin seeing it. The usual introductory copy block was separated into several segments tucked inconspicuously against one wall. The physical middle of the gallery was occupied by the advertising shrine but had no special attraction. These elements were properly background material and, besides, one had no idea whether the plastic food samples which catch the eye are stand-ins for real food served in the area or the advertising devices they actually turn out to be.

The centerlessness of the layout also signals the chief problem with the content of the show: what should be at its heart is the experience of the actual area or at least a complete sense of its physical layout. I can’t imagine how this sense was to be rendered short of flying visitors to Tokyo, but without it there is no test for the “experience maps,” and the show flounders.

The maps—with their beautiful diagrammatic colors—are intended to show the way people feel about different areas of Shinjuku. They variously trace patterns of anticipation and desire, of choices between public and private spaces, of “bubbles”—cushiony environments of sensation—and “thorns”—sharp, specific stimuli. They register the extent of individuals’ knowledge: people of different sexes, ages, occupations mark the places they go to and know about on identical outline maps.

That series of maps, however, is the only one which explains how it was made. For example, no source is given for the information used in plotting “Valleys of Anticipation” (the language could be from Bunyan). I suspect that these sensations and feelings are simply imputed to pedestrians in Shinjuku according to criteria of mere reasonableness. It seems perfectly likely that the pedestrian in Shinjuku could feel more passionately “purple” as he ambulates from “go-go bar” to “love hotel”—as the map indicates—but does he say so? The map does not tell us.

The key to another map does tell us that while Westerners tend to perceive city spaces in a perspectivist manner, with things lining up in an order that subordinates parts to wholes to ever larger wholes, the Japanese perceive a sequence of perspectives. From the map (which though muddled is still clearer than its key) this sequence seems to consist of an ongoing series of choices, as of forking roads, between more public and more private spaces. As he opts for the private space, the network of these choices leads the individual into a kind of Nighttown of pleasure places more like a quartier in an old European city than like the linear sequence of appeals in Times Square, where the interface between public and private spheres is thin and ill-preserved, a membrane of advertising.

The full extent of cultural differences and similarities between Shinjuku and Times Square, however, is barely probed. Even the private/public map reminds one of the simplistic, Hermann Hesse types who impressively explain that while we Westerners see time as a river, Easterners view it more as a lake. Technical distinctions and terms—e.g. “microspace”—cannot disguise the fundamentally speculative and esthetic nature of the exhibition. These maps have the feel of elaborate fictions, maps of cities of the mind, models of possibility that only loosely fit a body of experience that we, never having been in Shinjuku, do not possess. The colors and conceptions of these maps are reminiscent of the literary cities of Cortazar’s 62: A Model Kit or Italio. Calvino’s parablistic Invisible Cities, which—as those authors tell us—exist differently and therefore exist only in the minds of those who perceive them.

In the map of “Valleys of Anticipation,” Desire is represented as seabed to the ocean of the subconscious. Lurking in one of the valleys—apparently as an artist’s whim—is a small version of the Yellow Submarine. That craft would be a good symbol for the tone of the whole show. For us, Shinjuku remains a cartoon of some fantastic place.

––Phil Patton