When it comes to public space, Atelier Bow Wow barks up the right tree

by James Jack

Special To The Japan Times

A group of joggers works its way around Hiroshima, but they are not just exercising. As they pass different sites, the members listen to a running commentary describing often overlooked aspects of their surroundings. This social experiment, involving 50 local participants developing a physical and cultural relationship with the city, is part of the latest work of architects Momoyo Kaijima and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto.

Together they form Atelier Bow Wow, a shining example within a growing group of socially engaged architects.

Their partnership name, which is based on Kaijima’s family dog named Ume and nicknames her father gave the two of them, is suggestive of their work ― playful, open and easy to relate to. And the jogging event is just one of many workshops that exemplifies Atelier Bow Wow’s approach to what they term as “micro public spaces.”

“Our artwork is really basic, not so special,” Kaijima states in a frank but cheerful manner as she explains the premise of their work.

During visits to Hiroshima, the two attended baseball games, observed how people exercised before dawn and visited oyster farms. From these experiences they drew on local elements for two new works made specifically for Hiroshima: a gigantic public drawing of the Peace Memorial Park, and a staircase composed of natural materials commonly found in the regional landscape. Students from three local architecture schools also collaborated on the grandiose new drawing as well as another work titled “Jumbo Origami Arch.”

For another ongoing work, which began in Busan, South Korea, chalk drawings are sketched and erased on the blackboard of a mobile classroom. The whole room, titled “School Wheel,” is collapsible so that its stools, mesh roof and other parts become a portable trailer.

Like most of Atelier Bow Wow’s works, “School Wheel” is not an artwork to be appreciated from a distance — it’s an open stage to be used by the community.

A sign at the exhibition entry reads, “Please feel free to touch, sit on or try out the artworks on display,” and on the day I visited, one school group from the island of Etajima did just that by holding an event there. A sixth-grade teacher utilized the space to read out notes of encouragement given to her students, a tradition that normally takes place in their school classroom at the end of each year. To one student she reads, “Always smiling so gently, you support all of us.” To the next, “You tell others they are so great; it is always so fun to be with you.”

Coincidentally Kaijima and Tsukamoto visited Etajima during one of their research trips. While traveling on the island they came across the practice of stringing scallop shells into long lines for oyster cultivation. In the mountains surrounding Hiroshima, they also observed farmers hanging rice stalks to dry on racks, a slowly disappearing custom in Japan. These experiences became the inspiration behind “Shan Shui-ism, Hiroshima,” a new staircase structure they created for the Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art.

“We imagine the upper level (of the staircase) is like the mountain,” explains Kaijima. “And coming down it is like going into the sea.”

Once in this imaginary ocean of the museum’s first floor, the spirits of nine cities across the world are captured through video recordings of their inhabitants’ everyday behavior. Actions, such as stretching a leg on a fence or riding a bicycle through a busy intersection, collectively become “Garden of Behavior.” Here the main concept of “Micro Public Space” becomes clear, as Kaijima explains: “In this collection of small public spaces, everybody behaves freely and accepts (their) individual spaces, understanding who they are and what happens in that place. As we accept each other, we (also) start to communicate in the process. That is our image of how to make public space.”

The challenge lies in how to emphasize the vitality of these participatory works in a museum context. In particular, that of the outdoor pieces, such as the two “Yatai” (mobile stall) works from Niigata Prefecture, which appear lonely placed in the indoor atrium. While videos make the original functions of each work easily understandable, sometimes these records interfere with their potential playfulness, and the experience of encountering something that is unfamiliar-yet-familiar is at risk of being forgotten. The workings of openings inside an arc structure, a bookshelf with extended arms or a tricycle that appears to be backward must be completed in the imagination of the visitor. While the urgency of touching, reading, rearranging, sitting or playing is sometimes pacified by the record of someone else using the objects in a particular way.

However, the main purpose of such social experiments is not to provide answers but to raise questions about public spaces, and Atelier Bow Wow has succeeded in initiating a dialogue on how the museum functions as a public space. So far, jogging, folding a giant origami arch and an event with handmade puppets have taken place — and the open invitation to the local community to hold more events still stands. Meanwhile Tsukamoto and Kaijima wonder: “What kind of synergy will result? We can’t wait to find out.”

“Micro Public Space: Atelier Bow Wow” at Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art, through May 6, 2014. 10:00-17:00. Closed Mondays. ¥1,000. www.hiroshima-moca.jp/main_e/bowwow.html