Human reeds swaying in a museum maze


It’s dangerous to talk to an artist. Whatever you think of their art, after a conversation with them, you are bound to walk away intrigued, enchanted — maybe even disgusted (which isn’t necessarily bad) — but mostly, hopefully, enlightened by a new understanding of their work.

The new installation by Tadashi Kawamata had seemed modest at the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo’s exhibition/retrospective of his work, especially in contrast to the photos of Kawamata’s ridiculous swirls of teetering timbers swarming over urban landscapes. In 1982, when Kawamata was still a 28-year-old student, he became the youngest Japanese artist to create a solo show for the country’s national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the longest running of these major contemporary exhibitions that pop up in cities every two years.

He’d been discovered in the early ’80s when Tokyo galleries were searching for something exciting after conceptual movements such as Mono-ha, “The School of Things,” which valued materials in their natural state — stones in galleries — over the artist’s touch — sculpting the stones. Instead of simply crafting objects, Kawamata created environments in which you could be immersed.

“I had been studying oil painting, but I wasn’t really interested in painting. I just enjoyed standing in front of a canvas in the studio,” says Kawamata at the MOT last Friday. “People were watching the models and then looking at the canvas, and back, so they were constantly moving between their canvases. I was really interested in this ‘passing’ between these walls and this constant motion. It was more interesting than any painting.”

Soon after this realization, he had an exhibition in which he filled a gallery with easels and blank canvases. After that he did something similar, taking the fabric out and leaving just the frames. Despite playing with the tools of a painter, both shows were less about the art form itself and more about exploring space and point of view.

Following his success in being given Venice, Kawamata started creating sprawling, scaffold-like structures that latched themselves onto existing buildings across the world. Perhaps most well-known is 1992’s “Kawamata Project in Roosevelt Island.” On the small island in New York City’s East River, the artist wrapped a decrepit hospital in a cascade of discarded lumber, giving it the appearance of a whirling tornado of wood.

“Mono-ha wasn’t really inspiring as it was already finished, and nothing was happening at that time,” he says at a wood table in MOT’s large atrium. On the wall are scribbled notes made during a lecture in the new exhibition. “I really wanted to see works — such as land art — in other countries . . . I just really wanted, you know, to figure out how to get out of Japan!” he says laughing.

If you are familiar with his older works at all, you might expect the MOT exhibition to see the building’s cavernous spaces filled up by Kawamata’s spiraling wooden beams. Instead, approaching the building, it appears as if there is construction being done on the outside walkways. And this sense continues inside the building, where the smooth boards propped up by two-by-four supports and sandbags hide the interior of the MOT. Kawamata has lined them through the halls and rooms, creating a maze that, if you don’t look up, keeps everything slightly out of your sight.

Now in his early 50s, the veteran artist was the creative director for the Yokohama Triennale in 2005, where he spent a lot of time thinking about the flow of human traffic through the two giant halls the event occupied in harbor-front Yokohama. Continually considering the pacing, path, and the impact of works in that exhibition, he became fascinated with the idea of the “walkway” itself.

Couple that with the idea of people swinging back and forth between canvases — walls — and you have the current exhibition. Don’t go with expectations of seeing a straight-ahead retrospective — the photos of earlier works, obscured by the walls, aren’t even chronological — or of finding something that will overwhelm you with its volume. Instead, go to get lost and to look at other people doing the same.

“I didn’t have a nostalgic kind of feeling for an exhibition in this museum. I just wanted to forget about how people talked about my works — normally they are described in terms of an ‘urban situation’ or of architecture,” explains Kawamata. “But here, in such a huge museum, I wanted to see how people move through the space. So I came up with a ‘walkway.’ “

The exhibition has evolved since it’s opening and will continue to throughout its run. In corners cordoned off by the installed walls, seven “laboratories” are manned by artists and volunteers who are either making work or helping visitors create their own. In one on the bottom floor, you can make a self portrait — a project Kawamata originally organized for hospitals; another has research about old coal mines in Japan, the kinds of sites that he has used for installations before. Substantial-size models of such earlier works by Kawamata have also started to appear on the MOT walls. (And, for the hardcore, due to a recent move to Paris, he has brought all his project-related documents and filled up an archive — a treasure trove of “how to” documents for aspiring artists.)

But what’s most visibly on display are the visitors and how they navigate Kawamata’s barriers. Half the fun of a museum is seeing who else has dragged themselves out to look at art in their free time, so a peaceful afternoon at the MOT will allow you to concentrate on your fellow Tokyoites’ motions through designed space — and their fashion sense — free from the distraction of the usual art on the walls.

“I want to break through the too ‘artistic’ museum- and gallery-oriented way of looking at art,” says Kawamata. “I really prefer normal, ordinary life — art and life, they are close to being equal, so this is more interesting to me.”

“Tadashi Kawamata: Walkway” is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo till April 13; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (closed Mon.); admission ¥1,000. For more information call (03) 5245-4111 or visit www.mot-art-museum.jp