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Publiv Art in Japan

by Monty DiPietro

            In a dirty little public square just a cigarette butt toss from Tokyo's Yurakucho station, a team of technicians is putting finishing touches on the restoration of a long-neglected piece of the Ginza landscape.

For decades, Taro Okamoto's public art piece "Young Clock Tower," donated to the city in the 1960s by a local chapter of the International Rotary Club, stood its ground against the sun, the rain, and the air pollution of central Tokyo. But time continued to take its toll on the work. Even during the halcyon days of Japan's bubble economy, when parvenus sipped coffee from solid gold cups in the area's overpriced cafés, there was no money allocated for maintenance of the playful white sculpture with the colorful clock face. It was obvious that the Tokyo officials simply did not know how to deal with the idea of public art.

But in Tokyo and across Japan, that appears to be changing, thanks in part to the work of a cadre of curators that includes Fram Kitagawa, who curated the ambitious Faret Tachikawa public art collection of work by 92 artists from 36 countries, and Fumio Nanjo.

"It was in the late 1980s," explains Nanjo, "that the term 'public art' first started to catch on in Japan, reviving a concept that had been known previously as 'outdoor statues,' usually used to indicate committee-chosen nude bronzes in the style of Rodin."

Nanjo, an internationally-respected critic and curator, organized one of the Japan's first major public art projects, I-Land, unveiled in Tokyo's West Shinjuku in 1995, about the same time Faret Tachikawa opened. I-Land comprises dozens of works, many of them rather understated, with a couple of real eye-grabbers by Robert Indiana and Roy Lichtenstein thrown in to add zest.

"Wave," by Lichtenstein, rises prominently on Ome Kaido. It is a splash of cascading yellow and the pop artist's trademark big printers' dots, a powerful slap against the gray skyscrapers that surround it. Great fun.

Tucked in on an intersection just south of "Wave" is Robert Indiana's "Love," a red, blue, and green stack of letters that stands more than three meters high, spelling out you-know-what. Since its installation, "Love" has become more than a just a riot of colorful letters, it has acquired an almost supernatural identity.

"A sort of urban myth has grown up around the piece," explains Nanjo, "it is said that if a young couple meets there, then their love will be fulfilled."

            And so the sculpture is scrawled with the names of hopeful lovers, these regularly painted over during regular maintenance regiments.

            Considering also the liberal use of contemporary art in stations on Tokyo's new Oedo subway line and in newly-developed districts such as Fukuoka's Hakata, it appears that Japan is catching up with the West in its acceptance of public art.

            In 1967 the American government set up the Art in Public Places Program to encourage the proliferation of public art, The idea caught on, and local governments backed up the project with "percent for art" schemes requiring developers to dedicate a proportion of their budgets, often one percent, to public art.

But things did not always run according to plans -- take Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" for example. The government-funded $175,000 sculpture was installed in 1981 -- a 40 meter long, three meter tall steel wall bisecting the Federal Plaza in New York City.

It soon became evident, however, that curators may not have given sympathetic consideration to the area's pedestrian traffic when they approved this piece -- anyone wishing to cross the Federal Plaza found themselves faced with one heck of a detour. A heated public debate ended nine years later with the court-ordered removal and scrapping of the piece. Argued a defiant Serra, "I don't think it is the function of art to be pleasing, art is not democratic."

            Notwithstanding a few glitches, the modern world is almost certainly a better place because of public art. In urban environments increasingly devoid of nature and choked with advertising of every imaginable variety, art for art's sake provides the public with something other consumption options to contemplate.

            Although many municipal councils in Japan have passed guidelines "requesting" that private developers devote a certain amount of money and space to public art, these are usually nothing more than suggestions, don't carry penalties, and so are routinely ignored. As such much of the recent impetus for public art in Japan is coming from either public project coordinators or architects keen to add flourishes to their buildings. While this may not be a perfect situation, it has produced some encouraging results.

Public art was a buzzword of the 1980s and early 1990s in Japan, and most of this country's public art projects were commissioned during that period of economic prosperity. So why now, with the economy in a slump, is Tokyo taxpayers' money finally being spent to give Taro Okamoto's "Young Clock Tower" its facelift? A clue can be found by looking at the artist himself.

Okamoto, whose "Sun Tower" welcomed visitors to the 1970 Osaka World's Fair and has several dozen public art pieces spread across Japan, was not without his critics, had quite a few of them in fact, many of whom dismissed the artist as a self-aggrandizing braggart.

Maybe the best way for a society to preserve the legacy of a controversial eccentric is to elect like-minded individuals to public office. According to a source close to the restoration, the work on "Young Clock Tower" was personally ordered by long-time Okamoto admirer, failed artist, and current Tokyo Governor, Shintaro Ishihara.

Whatever else you may think of the him, with the hands on "Young Clock Tower" set to soon resume turning, Ishihara deserves a cautious nod of approval for his positive approach to public art. Only time will tell whether these sort of policies can continue to resonate through a recession-plagued Japan.

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