Art al fresco in Daikanyama

by Andrew Lee

Years ago, Daikanyama was one of those places you could visit for a bit of peace and quiet in Tokyo. It had beautiful tree-lined streets and lovely old traditional Japanese houses. There was also a slightly bohemian edge to it, with small independent shops and galleries littered among the back alleys. These days it’s just another of Tokyo’s many homogenized shopping areas — the quaint old neighborhood having been replaced by expensive stores and exclusive apartments.

But for three weeks starting this Saturday, visitors to the area will once again have a reason to go besides shopping, as the biannual “Daikanyama Installation” public art project begins.

This will see the work of 12 artists being installed in 12 sites around Daikanyama, and is the brainchild of Fram Kitagawa, chairman of the Daikanyama-based Art Front Gallery. Kitagawa has built a reputation over the years for championing public art in Japan since he directed “Faret Tachikawa” in 1994. That project, which Kitagawa still sees as one of his most successful, saw 109 works by 92 artists from 36 countries installed permanently in Tachikawa, western Tokyo.

“Before ‘Faret Tachikawa,’ public art in Japan usually meant monumental art located in a vacant space,” Kitagawa says. “But Tachikawa took into account the kind of public art happening around the world, and we focused more on the concept behind the art and where it was located.”

Kitagawa’s concern for how art interacts with its environment continues today but he says he feels that “public art is still too architecturally based” and would like to see how the fabric of time and history can become factors in art work.

“In Daikanyama, particularly, the inhabitants and the history of the community itself can be visualized by this kind of event,” he says.

Among the works to be shown this year, “Utsushi Kagami (Mirrored Reflections)” by Sayaka Ishikawa perhaps captures this pet theme of Kitagawa’s the best. Situated in the grounds of an old teahouse, Ishikawa’s work is made up of 600 small recycled mirrors (many from makeup compacts) tied to 100 strips of red material, which stand out strikingly against the green of the trees from which they hang.

“This place overlooks the old family home of one of the area’s largest landowners. So there is a strong sense of history — the past is reflected in the mirrors. Also, because the installation is in a kind of secret place near a temple, I feel it has a meditative quality. I hope that when people look in the mirror and see themselves as they are now, they will also think about their past and their future,” she wishes.

This blending of time and place is also part of the work of the only foreigner in the show, Annalise Rees, an Australian who has installed a life-size image of a row of Sydney terrace houses onto the facade of the Sanno University building. “My work explores place and identity — the idea of place both as a geographical location that you might travel to, but also as something you carry with you as a means of identifying who you are and where you come from,” says Rees.

“I think architectural styles are often determined by their place of origin, and, as such, architecture is one of those physical signposts that tells you where you are. I like the idea of sneaking an Australian building into a Japanese street,” she says, adding that she is curious to see if visitors can place the buildings as being Australian.

Also worth noting is “Minna no Bunranko (Everybody’s Swing)” by Hare tokidoki Ke (Formal sometimes Casual) — an art collective of five architecture students from Chiba University. By using mirrors, their work creates the illusion that benches placed in Saigoyama Park in Daikanyama are hovering above the grass. Long tapered poles rise from the each side of the seats and seem to disappear into the air above. The young artists hope that visitors to their installation will experience a “poetic feeling” as they sit on what appear to be swings hanging from heaven.

This sense of play and interaction is also part of the work by Hirokazu Nakashima that will be installed in the island reserve in the center of the road in Daikanyama. This work is definitely one for the kids, as Hirokazu will install a series of rainwater pipes running down the hill and encourage people to drop glass marbles down them.

Another work that is bound to be a crowd-pleaser is “The Heart of Daikanyama” by Ossu! Shugeibu. Made of red clothes pegs, this heart-shaped installation will hang above the entrance to Daikanyama Station and may — like a certain statue of a dog in Shibuya — become a meeting point for people during the duration of the event. Which begs the question — is the statue of Hachiko public art?

Kitagawa, for one, thinks it is. “Because it is based on a very popular story that everyone knows, everyone can understand the meaning of the work,” he says. “These days however, that kind of story has all but disappeared.”

Kitagawa stresses that trying to create a universal story that will appeal to everybody is one of the main points of the installation project, and he hopes it will help the community understand its roots.

“Daikanyama is a middle-size community, and I associate it with small European communities where the inhabitants and their environments happily coexist,” he explains. “In that sort of environment art can be very effective because it’s a kind of communal language between the people. I aim to install such art so that kind of network can be built here. This would not be possible in somewhere like Roppongi Hills or Tokyo Midtown, where the scale is too big, but Daikanyama has a more human scale. It may only be a small part of Tokyo, but it has a strong local culture, one I would like to keep alive. It is important we don’t destroy our local culture.”

It would be nice to believe he is not too late to save what remains of that in Daikanyama.

The Daikanyama Installation art project runs Nov. 3-25. For more information, visit www.artfront.co.jp/dinsta/english.html