I Love Art at the Watari-Um Museum

by Monty DiPietro

In fact, Koichi Watari says he grew up rather disliking art, and that part of the reason was his mother Shizuko’s habit of dragging her children to museums. "They were really crowded, almost holy places," recalls Koichi, "and I hated visiting them."

But the constant cultural exposure piqued some interest in the boy, whose eyes were opened to what a museum could be during a family visit to Europe where, of course, his mother dragged him and his sister to all the best museums. Now, some thirty years later, Watari is curator of the remarkable Tokyo art space his mother built, the Watari-Um Museum of Contemporary Art. The institution’s current exhibition, "1999 Passage – I Love Art," is the annual showcase of its permanent collection which this year, along with the Warhols and Nam June Paiks, features recent acquisitions from Fabrice Hebert and Cai Guo Qiang.

The Watari-Um is one of Tokyo’s most consistently interesting private museums, and it is a delight to see what the Watari family have done with the space for this show. Naturally, when a visiting artist exhibits here, it is the artist who decides where and how to display work over the museum’s three floors and almost 250 square meters of exhibition space. During the "I Love Art" shows, however, the Wataris design the layout and it works wonderfully. Nine silkscreen prints from Warhol’s "Flowers" (1984) series hang on the seven-meter high walls of the museum’s first gallery, in such a manner that they may also be surveyed from a vantage point on the floor above. The two largest pieces in the show are Paik’s "Passage" (1986), and the amusing tribute piece "Beuys" (1988), a couple of the multi-television mixed-media sculptures the Korean-born artist is best known for. These also benefit from the high ceiling and ample natural light in the Watari’s big main gallery – the scale working so well that it almost seems the pieces were made for the room.

A smaller, fourth-floor gallery space plays a nice counterpoint – dimly-lighted, the air is toned with incense from a new and eerie Cai Guo Qiang installation that features a he-and-she pair of suspended, crude wood mannequins.

Other pieces of note include the weighty, rusting steel "Emergency Ladder" (1992), from Huang Yong Ping, and the haunting "Monument (Odessa)" (1988-89), a photo-portrait-and-light work from Christian Boltanski’s "missing children" series. The exhibition’s obligatory "wacky" flavor is supplied by Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul’s on-site ramen stall.

Now entering its tenth year of operation, the Watari-Um replaced a much-smaller gallery that Shizuko Watari had run for some twenty years. It was Shizuko’s contacts in the New York art scene that helped built the Watari-Um. Occasional financial or exhibition support for then-struggling Paik, for example, was repaid with work – thus about one-quarter of the 400 pieces in the Watari-Um collection are Paiks. In the fabulous style of a rarified art-eccentric, Shizuko lives in a tatami-mat apartment that architect Mario Botta plopped down on the roof of the museum, which stays solvent, barely, adds Koichi, with help from corporate sponsors including Shiseido, Toyota, and Omron. The Watari-Um also houses one of Tokyo’s best art bookstores, and a smart museum shop selling a variety of things artsy that includes Keith Haring flip-books, Frida Kahlo mousepads, and a selection of 10,000 postcards.

"I Love Art," is more than the title of the museum’s current exhibition, it is, for Koichi, Shizuko, and the rest of the Watari clan, practically a family motto.

notes: Until Apr 18 1999 at the Watari-Um (3402-3001).
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