Halls of light in a city of horses

Towada Art Center in Aomori Prefecture seeks to freshen up the city's landscape


Something for everyone — that seems to be the motto for the new Towada Art Center in Aomori Prefecture. With cash in hand and a desire to see their town turn around, Towada has banked on art as a way to bring back vitality to an area that has lacked it of late.

The TAC is amazingly forward looking for a prefectural museum, and open-ended. With an art collection selected by international professionals and city representatives, it is: a contemporary museum with permanent installations; a center for cultural events for Towada residents; a tourist attraction to compete with the surrounding natural beauty; and a place to feature the pride of Towada, its Imperial horses.

Fronted by a giant horse made of flowers by South Korean artist Jeonghwa Choi, the complex of 16 freestanding white structures with glass walkways was designed by Ryue Nishizawa — one half of the architectural group SANAE, whose latest success was the recently completed New Museum in New York, a teetering structure of stacked rectangles. The artists, selected with Mori Art Museum director Fumio Nanjo’s Nanjo and Associates, represent cutting-edge, international stalwarts who wouldn’t be out of place in any metropolitan museum.

TAC stands out in Towada city’s downtown like a cool stick of spearmint gum. Located on the town’s Kanchogai Dori, a windblown, tree-lined 1-km promenade, it is part of an open-air art and culture zone that will be completed in 2010 in a bid to revitalize an area that was becoming hollowed out as redundant government organizations were eliminated or moved elsewhere.

Towada itself is a flat grid that is home to a fantastic hodgepodge of architectural styles. So jumbled up that it’s confusing, the city seems to have celebrated every architectural innovation or risk from the past 150 years (Towada was founded in 1859). But most have seen better days, and thus TAC is like a breath of fresh air.

Last Friday at its official opening, as the countryside and downtown Kanchogai Dori were ablaze with cherry blossoms, crowds of the curious came out to this Aomori Prefecture town to see what the new art center housed. In addition to the fluttering flower petals, the city put on a show of its own, with horseback archery competitions in the downtown parks and dance and flag-waving performances on the blocked-off street.

Created for permanent rather than rotating exhibitions, each of TAC’s rooms contains work from an artist that emphasizes experiences. There’s amazing art inside, works that that will easily bear returning to. The artists have taken advantage of the architect Nishizawa’s plan to make it seem as if the museum were presenting works to the city outside.

Starting on the corner is a cafe with a massive glass facade that looks in on a floor done by Taiwanese artist Michael Lin. Lin was in “Space for your Future” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, last fall, where he did one of his typical, overwhelmingly large still-lifes of flowers. At the Towada Art Center, he has anchored the cafe with a bright red floor of floral patterns that hold the room together, warming up its white coolness.

On the other end, Spanish artist Ana Laura Alaez has installed a hexagonal, glowing blue tunnel that beckons visitors from the outside and lightly pulses with music on the inside. In the middle are two more open rectangles, one housing the entrance to TAC, with a bright, zig-zagging floor done by Jim Lambie, who also showed last year at Tokyo Opera City Gallery’s “Melting Point.” The other has a hanging work by New York-based Do Ho Suh. Ho Suh has suspended interlocking glass figurines of men — in an outside, transparent curtain and inside blood red spike — so that they dangle like a massive chandelier. Inviting and contemplative, TAC director Yasuko Murayama says the piece addresses the cycle of life and rebirth in a simple language, suggesting both fragility and the depth of our interconnections.

After those pieces, hints of the interior become more subtle. Other works poke out through smaller windows, such as Ron Mueck’s giantess in a back rectangle. Peak through a distant glass and you see the massive head of a 4-meter sculpture of an old woman by the London-based artist, who currently is having a solo exhibition (see Openings). Inside, the piece towers over you, awe-inspiring in its size and realism, perplexing in the woman’s distract, slightly vexatious stare.

Takashi Kuribayashi’s installation “Sumpf Land” adds to TAC’s facade as well, but only becomes complete as art work on the inside. From the outside, it hides in plain sight as a small garden in a second flower window. But inside the maze of hallways, it’s a revelation. A small room houses a table and chairs, with the only odd element a seal with its head through the ceiling. Climb up on the table and stick your head through a small hole, and the seal’s head confronts you in a lush, fern-filled natural pond — the garden spied from the outside. With the water coming right up to your neck, its a refreshing, unexpected experience.

The marsh in the TAC is unlike the surrounding beauty of the countryside. Nearby is Lake Towada, a large, deep-blue body of water nestled into a caldera. Even more stunning is the Oirase river that flows down toward the city. The valley offers an almost endless series of picturesque views, all pine trees and black stone, silver water and green moss.

With such natural attractions and the new center — as well as the possibility of discovering new ski destinations in the surrounding mountains — there are many reasons to visit. But more will need to be done for the local government to fully accomplish its intention of TAC kick-starting the revitalization of the town. For that to happen, more urban planning will be necessary and transportation to Towada improved. Just over from the new museum is the city’s dilapidated shopping arcade, which in comparison with the freshness of TAC is in need of beautification. A smart redesign of the storefronts and overhanging roofs, in addition to the appearance of restaurants and cafes, would create the possibility of a thriving multiuse downtown. But real estate developers will have to see a reason to come first.

For now, TAC is a stunning addition to the cityscape, a gem of a community center. On Saturday night as visitors strolled on Kanchogai Dori among spring festivals under cherry trees, the museum was glowing with Kyota Takahashi’s light installation. Projected onto its outside, colors slowly cycled over the surface, suggesting untold possible futures. What will the museum be? It depends on who comes, and what they see.

From the film into the room

Artists invited to put art in the new Towada Art Center seemed generally pleased with their time there, enjoying the Japanese countryside and the odd encounters that can happen when you are introduced to a new culture for the first time, or even for the 500th. In the “experiential” art center, a number of excellent pieces take their cues from films that probe the unconscious and the alien. These artists have taken inspiration from the mythical places created in the 2-D world of film and brought them back into 3-D by re-creating mysterious, real-world interiors at TAC.

Børre Sæthre — “Dead Snow World Systems” A Norwegian artist known for ethereal installations, Sæthre has tuned out the world with his stark white room. Treading shoeless on a white carpet, viewers move among a surreal scene with a giant mirror ball in one corner and a white mountain goat with a black tether in the other. With it’s ambient soundtrack and spaceship interior, you feel like you’ve just stepped into Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Hans Op de Beeck — “Location (5)” Op de Beeck should feel free to start designing cafes wherever I live. His “Location (5)” is straight out of David Lynch’s atmospheric playbook, a dark, sleek roadside dinner straddling an endless country highway. Lounge-y music plays softly as you adjust your eyes to the blacked-out surfaces and optical illusion of distance created by the 11-meter-deep diorama of a winding road — the closet light pole is only 4 meters high, the furthest 40 cm.

Mariele Neudecker — “This Thing Called Darkness” Although the German artist was probably shooting for something higher, her indoor forest at TAC evokes any scary movie with a dark forest scene. Cast from real trees, the 60 sq. meter diorama has a heavy, ponderous presence, especially due to the intentionally strong smell of the chemicals used to reproduce the wildlife. It’s as if Neudecker were darkly questioning what it would take to reproduce the natural resources we take for granted.

Changkyum Kim — “memory in the mirror” Using the inspiration of film as a method more than source of images, the Korean artist projects a room onto a room. A film of people looking at themselves in a mirror, as dispossessed shadows cross the room on indistinct objects, evokes changes in time, life and self. The mirror’s memories are as ephemeral as the light projected, and just as beautiful.