For all the criticism that can be levelled at the conventional “white cube” gallery space — its quasi-religious, sanitized hush and incongruity with large-scale interactive installations and other emergent forms of media art — as a visitor, it’s at least unlikely that you’ll wander into the path of a stray cyclist as you muse over canvases and ponder brush strokes.
Since 2009, Roppongi Art Night has been turning the eponymous Tokyo district into a sprawling exhibition, taking over not only its art galleries and museums, but also temporarily repurposing other urban spaces, parks and even the streets themselves for the whole 32-hour duration.
At the helm again this year is artistic director Katsuhiko Hibino, who, by now, is well aware of the unique challenges that come with an event of this scale (700,000 visitors attended last year’s event) and relishes the opportunity to work with one of Tokyo’s busiest and most recognizable districts.
“In an art gallery, most variables are guaranteed, but when you go out into the city you have to take into account automobiles, the safety of pedestrians, noise and temperature, the level of light according to morning, daytime and evening and so on,” Hibino says. “That brings certain difficulties, but on the other hand, if you harness and utilize those elements then you can produce things otherwise impossible in a gallery.”
Indeed, in this, its sixth edition (the event didn’t run in 2011), Roppongi Art Night looks set to embrace its metropolitan setting more than ever before. “Hello Lamp Post” by London-based designers Tom Armitage and Gyorgyi Galik playfully tackles urban gamification by inviting people to converse with lamp posts via their mobile phones, while “future past perfect pt. 03,” a short film by German installation artist-cum-electronic musician Carsten Nicolai, depicts an autonomous vending machine giving its own performance.
Elsewhere, potential highlights include a special cinematic showcase by Kyoto collective Dumb Type at the Toho Cinema in Roppongi Hills, a “senseless drawing bot” created by So Kanno and Takahiro Yamaguchi that spontaneously and chaotically sprays graffiti, which will be on display at Tokyo Midtown Canopy Square, and an interactive fireworks display by tech-specialists TeamLab at the Mohri Garden.
If you’d like to harness the capabilities of your smartphone further, you could even hack portals and study anomalous energy fields — without even leaving Roppongi. Google’s location-based territorial game “Ingress,” previously exhibited at the most recent Japan Media Arts Festival, will again be on demonstration as part of a series of affiliated events, which also includes a neo-shamanic workshop by feminist art collective Go! Push Pops at the International House of Japan.
Despite this year’s lineup unquestionably weighing heavily toward media art and new technologies, its theme, “Haru wa Akebono” (“In spring it is the dawn”), dates back over a millennium to the Heian Period (794-1185) — it’s a line from one of the earliest classics of Japanese literature, Sei Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book.”
The theme will be represented by what looks set to be the centerpiece of the festival: two art trucks dubbed Hal and Akebono, produced by the Daito Manabe-spearheaded multidisciplinary creative collective Rhizomatiks. Akebono (“dawn”), a neo-futuristic piece of machinery equipped with giant mirror balls, will drive around the streets of Roppongi stopping off at three locations — Roppongi Hills Arena, the west gate of The National Art Center and Tokyo Midtown Atrium — for special live performances. Meanwhile, Hal, a “sentient” vehicle, will gather data on Tokyo and Roppongi before presenting it visually on its exterior from its location at the Tokyo Midtown Canopy Square. Hal might be pronounced the same as the Japanese word for “spring,” but it’s impossible to look past its namesake: the computerized antagonist of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” As puns go, it’s a good one, but it also echoes the broader message of this year’s event: That for all the rapid technological advancements and digital wizardry on display, we should not lose sight of our core human senses, and the dialogue between people and nature.
Hibino is no stranger to juxtapositions. A renowned artist in his own right, he was known for his striking cardboard sculptures in the 1980s and ’90s that were lauded as “heta-uma” — a style that could roughly be translated to “primitive but skillful.” It’s no surprise that under his direction, the artistic inspiration behind this year’s event can span two millennia and still remain coherent. Standing side by side with projection mapping and interactive installations will be “Flower Art Awards” (art exhibits using floral arrangements) at Tokyo Midtown, Edo Period paintings at the Suntory Museum of Art, and silent dancing at the neighboring Mikawadai Park.
” ‘Haru‘ and ‘akebono‘ are old Japanese words that have been in existence from over 1,000 years ago,” Hibino explains. “Since then, the technology may have changed, but human senses have remained the same. The fact that the Earth rotates around the sun is not going to change. It will always get light in the morning when the day breaks. These are things that you have to experience physically — it’s important not to lose that sense of corporeality.”
The latter is something that has previously been emphasized via the annual ritualistic sunrise viewing from the top of the Mori Tower, which also marks the end of Roppongi Art Night’s “core time.” The Sky Deck sadly remains closed for renovation work this year, so the views of the sunrise will be less spectacular than previous years, but the core program will nonetheless symbolically finish at 4:56 a.m. to coincide with the first rays of daylight.
That’s not to suggest that Roppongi Art Night finishes as soon as the trains start running. The event will continue until 6 p.m. on Sunday, April 26, and there will be plenty on offer for visitors who stick around, including special sunrise talks and a communal breakfast held by Hibino himself, in which he will invite attendees to reflect on their dreams from the night before. The only problem: With so much on offer, who’s going to have time to sleep, let alone dream?
Roppongi Art Night takes place at various locations around the Roppongi district in Minato-ku, Tokyo. The event starts at 10 a.m. on April 25 and runs until 6 p.m. on April 26, but the Core Time, when most works are on display, lasts from 6:22 p.m. on April 25 until 4:56 a.m. on April 26. The event is free, but some venues holding the exhibits may charge entrance fees. For more information, visit www.roppongiartnight.com/2015/en.