Smashing ideas on future design and technology

by Cameron Allan Mckean

Special To The Japan Times

While contemporary art is still transfixed by its own reflection, veteran Japanese curator Yuko Hasegawa has focused her cultural microscope on something quite different. “Bunny Smash Design to touch the world,” the current group exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, is a hit-and-miss exploration of how design is intermingling with science and art (MOT).

This intermingling is nothing new (Japan’s media arts festivals and museums are testament to that), but it’s the thread weaving these strands together that makes this show notable. Or rather, threads. The show has a number of divergent themes, but essentially they’re all about new ways to “touch” (and not just look at) the world that we are “out of touch with,” says Hasegawa. The works pose unusual solutions to our modern problems — from surviving natural disasters in walled cities and creating machines from plants to solving East-Asian conflicts through competitions on a floating U.N. baseball stadium (part of a sarcastic series of works by Yosuke Ushigome).

This is a show about alternative futures proposed through critical design, a relatively new field pioneered by Anthony Dunne, author of “Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming” (2013). In the show’s catalog, curator Hasegawa writes: “Using design in this manner overlaps with contemporary art in the way that it critically challenges the status quo.”

The awkward title of the show refers to the White Rabbit who leads Alice down the rabbit-hole in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” a figure that “smashes up” logical perspectives, according to the press release. Bunny Smash features an eclectic group of 21 artists, designers and architects from Japan and abroad, whose work is spread out across two floors of the museum in an environment that is suitably lab-like rather than spectacular.

It opens with Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich’s “Lost Garden” (2009), a windowed room that appears to house a small, lush green garden built into the museum. Looking through the window at another window on the far side of the garden room, you won’t see your own reflection. Instead you’ll see the person standing next to you looking back at you.

But Bunny Smash is about more than smoke and mirrors. Deepening this theme of altered states is a “haptic telephone” developed by Hiroshi Ishii (advisor to Hasegawa for this show) and Tangible Media Group/MIT Media Lab (MIT almost seemed like an implicit partner in this show). Here, one person moves a set of rollers and the movements are digitally transmitted to another person on a different set of rollers.

The show then flips from these perception-challenging installations to diagrams, maps and design objects, with visual works, including branding material for the European Union, from OMA*AMO, Rem Koolhaas’ architectural and design firm. This flip between installation art and more graphic work continues throughout the exhibition.

Architects Atelier Bow-Wow, working with Tokyo Tech and Tsukuba University, created an almost floor-to-ceiling drawing depicting modern Japanese cities residing safely behind walls — an ancient solution to modern resiliency problems.

On the facing wall is a collection of paintings by Michael Lee that reveal the floor plans of famous and infamous homes. You can’t help but speculate about the pasts and futures of the real residents: Which room would Osama bin Laden have been in during his final moments, and what would a U.S. prison facility look like during a riot?

The most imaginative works on the first floor are by two artist groups: Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen, who propose devices that use animals to power life- support systems for humans, and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & Sascha Pohflepp, whose videos, illustrations and objects are based on the real emerging science of synthetic biology — part biology, part engineering. Their imaginary yogurt that changes the color of our feces is posed as a self-diagnostic tool to help us determine when we are sick.

Ginsberg & Sascha Pohflepp also consider plant factories, where genetically engineered plants would grow machine parts.

British sculptor Richard Wilson’s room, which contains a tank of black, depthless liquid, drew the longest lines at the exhibition. The sensation of stepping into the narrowing corridor surrounded by the dark pool, precariously filled to the brim, was so strange to some that, against the written warnings of MOT, they dipped their fingers into the liquid. Breaking the illusion not only sent MOT staff into a swift cleanup, but left the culprit wandering the museum with black hands and stained clothes.

Hidden architecture and its possibilities are explored further by Sissel Tolaas’ olfactory map of Tokyo and her walls painted in emulsion containing microencapsulated scents taken from the sweat of different men. The room of “difficult smells,” was alive with visitors and yells of “kusai!” (“stinks!”).

“Bunny Smash” also features a number of artists talks and lectures. Perhaps the most interesting and related was that given by Dunne on Oct. 10, titled “The Aesthetics of Unreality: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming.” Dunne is almost the patron saint of this show and works at provoking designers to focus less on creating ideal or better solutions to our problems, and more on thinking about alternatives. In an essay by Hasegawa, Dunne is quoted as saying: “This kind of design exists in a very interesting space between problem-solving and commentary. The former tries to change or fix the world while the latter is directed at changing perception, and therefore values and behavior.”

Bunny Smash isn’t groundbreaking, but Hasegawa and her curatorial team deserve praise for bringing genuinely new perspectives to MOT and, lets hope, increasing levels of tolerance for interdisciplinary at contemporary art museums in Japan.

“Bunny Smash: Design to touch the world” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo runs till Jan. 19, 2014 (Sun); open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed Mon. For more information, visit www.mot-art-museum.jp/eng/2013/usagi_smash