Mori: art for the insomniac

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Mori: art for the insomniac

Since it opened two years ago, Mori Art Museum has enjoyed a mass public appeal that other Asian museums of contemporary art would kill for.
Maybe its success owes to the museum’s bold handling of its administration, its radical decisions such as the museum’s choice not to own its art collections and instead focus on constantly-changing forms of art.
Or it could just be the museum’s monumental presence. The Mori Museum, which is located on the 53rd floor of a 54-story Mori Tower, covered in glass walls, offers a dizzying glimpse into the future of urban living and art. Just off the museum escalator, visitors have access to Tokyo City View, an observation deck that allows a stunning panoramic view of the city.
Whatever it is, Mori Art Museum, built by Japan’s most powerful real estate tycoon, Minoru Mori, and opened in October 2003, has undoubtedly become Asia’s center for contemporary art, a field often criticized for disturbing representations of contemporary issues.
After all, Mori deserves some credit.
It is probably the first contemporary art museum in Asia that is open 12 hours a day, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. except Tuesdays. (During Mori’s inaugural exhibition, the museum was open until midnight on weekends. As part of an inaugural event, the museum was kept open until 6 a.m.)
The constant flow of visitors to the museum over the past two years is a testament to Mori’s gamble.
According to the museum’s records, an average of 7,800 people visited a day during the 2003 inaugural show, “Happiness: a Survival Guide for Art and Life,” a major exhibit of contemporary art that included seven Korean artists. The following year, “Roppongi Crossing,” a group exhibit of contemporary Japanese design, art, fashion and architecture, drew about 5,500 artists.
A Korean clerk at the entrance of Mori Tower said an average of 5,000 people a day visited the site during the summer. About 100 of them were Koreans, he added.
The museum’s current exhibit, “End of Time” by Hiroshi Sugimoto, is the first major retrospective of a Japanese artist at Mori, showing a vast range of the artist’s photography from the 1970s to the present. The show is one of Sugimoto’s few complete retrospectives, and will travel to the Smithsonian Institution and the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, Texas, and several other cities after Mori’s exhibit.
“As a wholly new institution, the Mori Art Museum has been able to rethink what a museum of contemporary should be,” said David Elliott, a British director at the museum. “By its nature, contemporary art is in a constant state of development and flux. A museum has to be able to adopt to this, reflecting and evaluating what it shows on grounds of quality.”
Indeed, Mori is part of a new breed of art museum that stimulates energy at even the most unlikely places.
The museum’s art shops, seen one after another throughout the building, present a luring collection of arty souvenirs, gazettes and home accessories by cutting-edge designers and artists.
At Mori Garden, outside the building, an odd mix of a Japanese-style garden with a sculpture of a bizarre cartoon character named “Tongari-kun,” or in his English name, “Mr. Pointy,” supposedly representing an image of Buddha modernized by the Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami, presents a queer vision for Japan’s increasingly hybrid culture in a modern society.
Overall, the urban landscape of Roppongi Hills is a monumental form of art in itself, with its sprawling development of luxury housing, designer shops and its office headquarters of many foreign firms.
Commissioned works of public art and design are scattered all over the hills’ main streets, Keyaki-zaka Dori. Some of the public artwork in the surrounding area include Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider and Choi Jeong-hwa’s plastic flower near Sakurazaka Garden.
The museum even commissioned Shigeru Uchida, Japan’s leading furniture designer, to collaborate with other designers to produce custom-made benches and a bus stop in the area; mascots of six different cartoon characters by Murakami, who designed Louise Vuitton’s Cherry, are all over Roppongi Hills, to represent the “six trees” that roppongi means in Japanese.
Though some local media coverage was less than positive about Mori’s spending up to 3 million yen ($26,250) to prepare for the museum’s opening ceremony in 2003 ― the museum was said to have invited 8,000 VIP guests from all over the world for the opening night ― Mori and its surrouding complex have over the past 2 years earned the nifty title of “artelligent city” among the locals, referring to the center as a place for both art and intelligence.
Will Mori be the next MOMA in Asia?
Perhaps. But even if it doesn’t, what could beat a red eye museum with a great view?

by Park Soo-mee

Mori Art Museum offers a joint admission system with Tokyo City View observation deck. The museum is open every day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. On Tuesdays it is open until 5 p.m. Admission fees are different for each exhibition. For more information, call (03) 5777-8600.

[INTERVIEW]‘A museum itself serves the public’

IHT-JAD: “End of Time” is the first major retrospective of a Japanese artist at Mori. How has the response been so far?
KIM: It’s unexpectedly good. Our method of presentation was quite unusual for the exhibit. Instead of just showing the artworks, we’ve used our gallery space as part of the exhibit, adding a layer of solidity.

In terms of the popular taste of audiences, have you observed any significant differences between Japan and Korea?
The main difference I found is that in Japan the popular taste is more layered and diverse with the influence of otaku (fans obsessed with cultural uniqueness) and regional characteristics. Maybe because of its dense cultural development in a small land, audience preferences in Korea seems to be more uniform.

Has there been any criticism about the museum’s chase for profit making? How do you maintain the balance between the corporate interest and the public’s education?
A museum itself serves the public interest. The reality is that it’s almost impossible to for a museum shop to make a profit. If you consider the high cost of manpower and living expenses in Japan, there is an enormous cost that goes into the program maintenance alone. Of course, it was easier when the Mori Building gave generous support to the museum in the beginning. Now out funding has been cut by a third. Maintaining art shops at Mori is a way to facilitate the museum’s operation. Our consensus is that in order for the museum to produce quality programs, certain profits need to be secured.

What was the title of the exhibit at Mori that was the most successful? What was your contribution to it?
I took part in the museum’s inaugural show. I was also a curator responsible for the exhibit of MOMA’s permanent collections. The two exhibits have been Mori’s title shows, though “The Elegance of Silence, Contemporary Art from East Asia,” a show that I organized, was held in March, 2005 and was received very well considering its limited budget. It was Mori’s first East Asian exhibit that looked into the issue of tradition of contemporary art in Asia. It was meaningful in that sense.
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