Takubo’s building renovations turn art outside-in


A lot of the restlessness and energy in contemporary art actually stems from a sense of emptiness and frustration that young artists feel as they flail around trying to find their true artistic voice. This certainly seems to have been the case in the career of Kyoji Takubo, a 62-year-old artist, who is now enjoying his first major solo show in Tokyo at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

After entering Tama Art University in 1968, Takubo’s artistic odyssey in the 1970s and ’80s took him into performance art and anti-art. One of his works from this period was a video of himself drinking bourbon all day. In another he put a bottle of Calpis (a soft drink) on display as a piece of sculpture. Then there were the clothes that he wore, set fire to and extinguished, then displayed as “art.” He also once hammered a nail into a wall in front of an audience then left it on display for a week.

Such early derivative forays into artistic expression could perhaps be typified as brattish incontinence, showing more ambition than inspiration.

Takubo finally enjoyed a modicum of success with aesthetically pleasing sculptures made from scrap wood and rusty hardware, partially covered in gold leaf. But these, too, failed to satisfy his inner muse.

It was only in 1987 that he finally started to find his true artistic direction. This was with his “Absolute Scene” project, which involved taking two old houses that were to be torn down in Tokyo, stripping out all the walls, doors, and tatami mats so as to leave only the beams and pillars, and then laying down thick, tempered glass as floors. This was intended to give viewers an abstract sense of the life that had once occupied these buildings.

Although aesthetically arid and very temporary — the structures were demolished two weeks later — this marked an important switch in Takubo’s art from erratic gallery-presented material to a long-term interest in art based on locations and buildings.

“I started to have doubts about art focused on art museums and galleries from around the start of 1986,” he explains in a recent interview. “I became interested in art that reflected everyday environments and specific locations. I wanted to create a comforting place where I could share my experiences with my audience.”

This interest took him to France, mainly because there he could find the kind of property that he needed for his work. This was an old, disused church in the village of Saint-Martin-de-Mieux in Normandy that he had heard about through a friend living in France. After he saw the church, he arranged a meeting with the local people and got permission to “make the chapel full of life once again,” as he put it.

With corporate sponsorship from Japan, he then moved with his family to the nearby town of Falaise and proceeded to work on creatively refurbishing the church. This involved practical measures, such as new roof support beams and fresh stonework, but also aesthetic inspirations, including colored glass tiles that let the light in from above, decorative sculptures and walls decorated with an apple motif that gave the building its new name of “The Chapel of the Apple Trees.”

Just as important as his artistic input was preserving the church as a symbol of local community and allowing the neighborhood people and landscapes to influence him. The apple pattern, for example, was inspired by the many apple trees he saw in the area.

But why did he feel it necessary to decorate the inside of the church with a motif that could so easily be enjoyed in its natural state outside?

“The building is behind walls, closed doors and windows, so I wanted to express the connections between internal and external,” says Takubo. “Nature is not eternal nor universal, but it is something that is repeating moment by moment. I painted the inside of the chapel to borrow the essence of that particular location.”

The exhibition includes drawings, designs and models from this project, to which Takubo devoted 10 years of his life, as well as artwork that wasn’t used in the final version. For this show, he has also created a large space decorated with oya stone called “Chapel of the Apple Trees, Tokyo Version,” but this seems cursory and uninspired by comparison with the original.

More satisfying is the presentation of the ongoing work at Takubo’s latest on-site artistic refurbishment, Kotohira-gu Shrine, a famous place of pilgrimage in western Kagawa Prefecture. The camellias that grow in the gardens are depicted on large Arita-ware porcelain tiles and a suite of fusuma (sliding door) rooms. Takubo’s dynamic designs give voice to the flowers’ symbolic meaning of rejuvenation, echoing the course his own art has taken.

“Kyoji Takubo” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo runs till May 8; admission ¥1,200; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.mot-art-museum.jp