Does the museum contain the art or does the art contain the museum? This is the kind of question I sometimes find myself asking when I visit the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. This is because among all the museums in Tokyo, the Hara sees itself less as a simple white cube in which to neutrally display artworks and more as a kind of collaborator and participant in the art.
This is also why it makes perfect sense that it is hosting “The Dream of Polifilo,” the first solo exhibition by Nicolas Buffe, a French-born Tokyo-based artist. Buffe has the kind of expansive and polymorphous imagination that can’t sit politely within the frame of a painting or even stay within the walls of a gallery or museum.
This is evident as soon as you pass through the gates of the Hara, a delightful, Art Deco-ish building set in its own grounds in a well-to-do residential neighbourhood in Tokyo. The entrance has been transformed into a giant cartoon dog’s head, and to see the show you must venture into the beast’s belly — the museum building itself.
Being swallowed by an enormous anime canine is the kind of experience you are only likely to have in a dream — perhaps after eating too much cheese before bedtime — and this is the theme of the exhibition, a surreal dream that provides the perfect licence for Buffe to unpack his creative impulses. These are a weird amalgam of classical European baroque, Disney-esque cartoons, and Japanese otaku influences.
The dream is structured around an obscure 15th-century European story “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,” with the main character of Polifilo seeking the love of his female opposite number, Polia. The various rooms of the Hara almost work like the frames of a surreal baroque comic book as we see the suit of armor our hero dons and then enter an interactive installation where we can become the character’s avatar and do cosmic battle on his behalf.
The best art, however, comes at the end, when we enter the largest room of the Hara. This has been decorated with a rich outpouring of manga-baroque art that shows Buffe’s exuberant creativity and artistic balance, with reliefs and sprawling wall decorations. These are in monochrome and blend perfectly with the interior as they lead us toward the window, through which we spy a small sculpture of Polifilo dreaming in the garden. This seems to say that we too are figments of his dream.
This is an enchanting exhibition, and it is easy to understand why Buffe has recently become a much sought-after stage designer for operas. Also see a complementary smaller exhibition, “Polia’s Nightmare” at the Yamamoto Gendai gallery.
“Nicolas Buffe, The Dream of Polifilo” at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art runs till June 29; open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Wed. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,100. Closed Mon. www.haramuseum.or.jp