Sun shines on Kenji Yanobe’s children

by Andrew Lee

Staff Writer

In 1971, when artist Kenji Yanobe was a child, he often played in the abandoned site of Expo ’70, not far from his family home in Osaka. A year before, under the theme of “Progress and Harmony for Mankind,” Japan’s World Exposition had showcased a vision of the future that included an array of advanced technologies such as robots and nuclear power.

As the 6-year-old Yanobe wandered among futuristic displays in the process of being dismantled — which he would later call “Ruins of the Future” — he passed beneath Taro Okamoto’s 70-meter-high “Tower of the Sun,” the symbol of the Expo. It was an experience the artist never forgot, and it is no stretch to say that had the young Yanobe not stood before Okamoto’s towering totem back then, he may never have become an artist.

Taro Okamoto would have turned 100 on Feb. 26, 2011, and in celebration of his centenary, several exhibitions have been held to honor the prolific career of this hugely influential artist. The last in the series is “Kenji Yanobe: Sun Child, Child of Taro” at the Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum in Minami Aoyama, Tokyo.

The first thing you notice as you approach the museum is a giant, cartoon-faced child dressed in a yellow and black hazmat suit rising from the museum grounds. Created specially for this exhibition, the 6.2-meter-tall statue of Yanobe’s “Sun Child” stands proud, staring off into the distance. In one hand he holds his helmet, above the other hovers a neon sun, which as evening approaches, casts a yellow glow over the Okamoto sculptures in the garden below.

For more than 40 years, the museum was Okamoto’s home and studio, part of which has been left as it was the day the artist died in 1996, but with one recent difference: For the duration of this exhibition, Yanobe’s work infiltrates Okamoto’s space, fusing the younger artist’s work with that of the master who so profoundly influenced him.

In what was once Okamoto’s living room stands a life-size figure of the artist. At any other time, the figure, the coffee tables covered with teapots and cups designed by Okamoto, the large hand-shaped chairs and the scale models of Okamoto’s giant sculptures, including the “Tower of the Sun,” would be more than enough to look at. At the moment, however, Okamoto’s figure is joined by another life-size model — Yanobe dressed in his “Atom Suit,” with tiny clones of himself spewing from his mouth.

The room is also littered with dozens of Yanobe’s “Mini Torayan” dolls dressed in hazmat suits, and cats wearing space helmets. A ventriloquist-dummy “Taroyan” stands in the corner.

The result is a playful and chaotic scene, punctuated by a soundtrack coming from a TV within a small dollhouse perched atop an elephant-shaped plinth. The TV shows a video of “The World of Taroyan,” a darkly amusing mix of 1960s’ “Duck and Cover” Cold War safety propaganda films and a ventriloquist routine by Yanobe’s father with “Taroyan” spouting advice on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

The danger of nuclear power has long been a central theme in Yanobe’s work. Most famously, the artist visited Chernobyl in 1997 as part of his “Atom Suit Project.” In the wake of the March 11 Fukushima disaster, Yanobe’s dystopian vision of a post-apocalyptic world no longer seems as retro or absurd as it once did. The Geiger-counter displays set into the chest-plates of the “Atom Suits” worn by the “Sun Child” and “Taroyan” figures are now an uncomfortable reminder that people living in Japan today regularly check the weather report for radiation levels.

In this exhibition it is fascinating to see how the various influences behind Yanobe’s work intertwine. The origin of the sun motif held by the “Sun Child,” for example, can be seen in a photo of Yanobe wearing his hazmat suit inside a hastily abandoned school in Chernobyl. Yanobe is crouching down examining the debris of long-forgotten child’s play, and on the wall behind him is a mural of a smiley-faced sun, a melancholy relic of innocence.

The “sun” here, says Yanobe, is the “true sun” — that which humans have worshipped since time immemorial — and not the “fake sun” of nuclear power that has distracted us since the dawn of the atomic age. On the second floor of the museum is “Sun Child Island,” Yanobe’s plan for a cathedral where those who worship the true sun can get married.

Also on the second floor are showings of several films. Among them is “Tower of the Sun Hijacking Project: Special Edition” (2007), which highlights just how essential Okamoto’s work, and the Expo site itself, has been to Yanobe’s creative process.

During Expo ’70, a protest was staged by Hideo Sato, an anti-Expo activist, who climbed up inside “The Tower of the Sun” and ensconced himself in the right eye of the statue’s large golden face — an incident labeled an “eye-jack” by the media. In 2003 Yanobe reenacted the event in his “Tower of the Sun Hijacking Project.” Yanobe also tracked down Sato and interviewed him on film.

Yanobe’s chat with Sato is interspersed with footage of his own ascent of the “Tower of the Sun.” Inside the huge structure Okamoto built a spiraling “Tree of Life” depicting the evolution of Earth’s creatures. Dressed in his “Atom Suit,” we see Yanobe climb up through the tower and emerge at the top. And as he positions himself in the left eye of the gold face, there is a sense that he, too, has evolved — that the boy who once played in the statue’s shadow has finally met his maker.

“Kenji Yanobe: Sun Child, Child of Taro” at the Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum runs till Feb. 26; admission ¥600, open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m., closed Tue. For more information, visit www.taro-okamoto.or.jp (Japanese only).