Contemplative in Gunma

Hara Museum opens a new addition to its Shibukawa location

by Yoko Haruhara

The Hara Museum ARC in Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture, has just opened a revolutionary new space designed by world-renowned architect Arata Isozaki that interweaves motifs of Japanese traditional architecture and art with modern ones. Called the Kankai Pavilion, the exciting new exhibition space is being launched with “Beyond Time, Beyond Space,” an exhibit running till Sept. 23.

The Kankai Pavilion was built to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Hara Museum ARC, the annex to the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo. The pavilion houses a rare collection of traditional Japanese and Chinese art acquired by Rokuro Hara, great-grandfather of the museum’s current director, Toshio Hara. The collection includes fusuma (sliding door) panels decorated by Kano Eitoku (1543-1590) and other members of the prestigious Kano School. Dating back to the Momoyama Period (1573-1615), the panels are from the Nikko-in guest hall at Miidera Temple in Shiga Prefecture.

Extremely compact at 117 sq. meters, the Kankai pavilion is reminiscent of traditional Japanese tea rooms. The visual compression that takes place within the pavilion results in a perception of expansiveness that belies the actual room dimensions. Entering the pavilion, visitors will be struck by the interplay of light and volume within the space, which is subdivided between an outer perimeter and an inner area that is 18 tatami mats in size (30 sq. meters), the dimensions of a shoin room of the Momoyama Period.

In designing the pavilion, Isozaki drew inspiration from guest halls at Miidera Temple, integrating elements of shoin- style architecture with contemporary elements. Features derived from the shoin-style include tokonoma (a raised alcove) with chigaidana (shelves). The result is a display space that, according to Isozaki, is intentionally “dark and obscure.” Akin to the dimly lit interiors of Momoyama architecture, the LED display by Shozo Toyohisa maintains a warm glow that would traditionally have been cast by candlelight.

The exhibit, which was conceived by Isozaki, juxtaposes art from diverse periods and places, allowing viewers to enter into a delightful dialogue between each piece. The works of traditional Japanese masters of art such as Kano Eitoku, Kano Tan’yu (1602-1674) and Mori Tetsuzan (1775-1841) are placed side-by-side with luminaries of the Western contemporary art world such as Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Yves Klein (1928-1962), and Jan Fabre (b. 1958).

The first two works one encounters are “Red on Red” (1969) by Rothko and “Landscape of Yodo River” (1765) by Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795). The somber black plaster wall, traditional in design, provides a striking contrast to Rothko’s brilliantly red abstract painting, reminding the viewer of the continuity between traditional and contemporary modes of expression and reiterating the timeless nature of this artwork. Across from it is Maruyama’s 18-meter-long hand-scroll painting, predominantly colored in blues and greens, that depicts the landscape of Yodo River in Osaka. While scroll paintings were not originally conceived to be viewed at a glance, the display format here allows one’s eye to sweep across the picture plane, imagining the lazy, peaceful journey of boats down the river.

The adjacent wall showcases Tetsuzan’s “A Hundred Cranes.” A late-Edo Period (1603-1867) painter, Tetsuzan delighted in creating large-scale vignettes in which the artwork becomes a dramatic backdrop for the entire room. The left set of six-paneled screens depict cranes gathered under a pine tree and flying off in an arc into the sky, while the right set of panels shows the birds in various positions, many in repose. Such large-scale treatments of Edo Period art in formal spaces were common at the time, lending an air of dignity to a room.

In the middle of the pavilion, dramatically displayed in a glass case, is “Blue Sponge” (1960) by Kline, a lover of all things abstract. Kline would have been dazzled by the setting, for its placement indicates the piece’s importance at the symbolic center of the installation.

It is likely that the inclusion of “Blue Sponge” in the exhibit is a reference to the pavilion’s name, Kankai, which means “viewing the ocean” in Japanese. No water is actually visible from the site, so visitors are intended to see this iconic work and imagine the deep, blue sea that lies over the horizon.

One of the most precious works of art in the space is Kano Eitoku’s ink painting, “Tiger in a Bamboo Grove,” which dates to the late 1500s. The large hanging scroll depicts a crouching mother with its sleeping cub. The iconography of tiger and bamboo motifs was brought to Japan from China with the introduction of ink painting in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333.) Bamboo forests were believed to be a natural habitat for tigers.

The ink-painting style and iconography have strong Buddhist associations. The tiger is a symbol of strength and courage while the bamboo grove represents strength and resilience, reminding viewers of the admirable human qualities embodied in the natural scene.

In the life-size carving of a locquat branch that sits in a prominent position on a staggered shelf, contemporary artist Yoshihiro Suda (b. 1962) asks visitors to consider the interplay that exists between nature and art, form and image. Suda modeled the sculpture after a branch from the garden of the Hara Museum in Tokyo, to not only play with notions of the real and representational, but to provide a symbolic link between Hara’s Tokyo space and its newest addition in Gunma.