One of Tokyo's major art events returns with Kusama, Antenna

Take a break from reality at Roppongi Art Night

by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, Michael J. Boskin and Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

At one end of town there will be a young girl in a polka-dot dress standing some 10 meters tall. At the other, a team of large yellow mice will host a festival complete with portable shrines. Tokyo’s Roppongi district is a spectacle at the best of times, but come March 24, it promises to outdo even itself.

Roppongi Art Night is the one time of the year when everyone in the Japanese art world can let their hair down. And they make the most of it, with dozens of street performances, public displays of artwork, exhibitions and much more starting at 10 a.m. in the morning of the 24th and continuing right through the night until the evening of the 25th. For the casual passerby it’s a delightful distraction; for the committed art fiend, it’s a marathon of creative indulgence.

Fumio Nanjo, the director of Roppongi’s Mori Art Museum who chairs the event’s organizing committee, recommends visitors to arrive at sundown on the 24th for the official opening ceremony at Roppongi Hills. At precisely 5:56 p.m., a giant inflatable statue of a young girl — along with a separate 4-meter statue of her pet dog — will appear at the Roppongi Hills Arena.

The statues are the work of Yayoi Kusama, who is best known these days for her immersive polka-dot-themed installations. Kusama’s attendance at the ceremony is still to be confirmed but, considering she made the trip to London earlier this year to attend the opening of her current major retrospective at the Tate Modern, the chances are she’ll be there with bells on — or polka-dots, perhaps.

The giant sculpture of a girl titled “Yayoi-chan,” is Kusama’s depiction of herself as a child. Nanjo says the message in the work is about the future: It is as though the young girl has traveled through time to meet her own destiny.

“Kusama often uses the expression, ‘The future is mine,’ and what she means is that we each have our own future that is ours and ours alone,” he explains.

In a message especially for The Japan Times, Kusama writes: “With the love of the giant Yayoi-chan, I want to fill the lives of all the people in the world with an emotional thrill more wonderful than fireworks!”

This year’s Roppongi Art Night is especially significant for Kusama because she had been scheduled to star at last year’s event, which was planned for late March but was canceled after the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred on March 11.

“This is the Roppongi Art Night we’ve been waiting for for so long,” she writes.

Nanjo echoes the sentiment, explaining that he and the other organizers had been keen to deliver the event they had promised to do last year. “Almost all the artists scheduled to participate last year will be here,” he says.

After ushering in the Kusama sculptures, Nanjo suggests punters head to Tokyo Midtown, on the other side of Roppongi, where another hive of activity will be unfolding — some of it involving those yellow mice.

Antenna is a Kyoto-based artist collective that mines the rich seam between Japan’s traditional and contemporary cultures. At Roppongi Art Night 2012 they will create a giant outdoor installation modeled on temple and shrine architecture. However, their structures won’t be dedicated to traditional gods, but something far more contemporary: giant, cartoonlike yellow mice with pictures of Mount Fuji on their chests.

Nanjo says the project’s significance lies in the act of celebration. Within this seemingly sacred installation, the Antenna artists and their collaborators will hold a cathartic festival of the sort for which the tsunami-affected region of Tohoku is famous.

“The holding of a festival is both a sign of recovery of a community and also commemoration — it can encompass an entire world view,” he says.

Several other events at Roppongi Art Night 2012 will be more directly related to commemorating the disaster. After taking in the festival at Tokyo Midtown, Nanjo suggests making your way back to Roppongi Hills, where a series of events and workshops related to March 11 will be hitting their peak around 7 p.m. or 8 p.m.

Tohoku University of Art and Design will host a workshop in which visitors will be asked to help build wooden benches. The project, an extension of similar ones already carried out by students in the tsunami-affected areas, is aimed at building a sense of community through the act of collaborative work, and then also providing a venue — in the form of a public bench — for further communal exchange to develop. Benches built in Roppongi will be taken up to Tohoku.

Meanwhile, artist Hikaru Fujii will display a sobering series of videos taken in the tsunami-affected regions. But instead of presenting the kinds of scenes of devastation to which we are now all accustomed, Fujii’s stationary camera has captured wide-open landscapes that at first glance appear normal. It’s only after several moments of concentrated viewing that it becomes apparent just how abnormal they in fact are. Fujii’s videos will be shown and in a dedicated pavilion at the Roppongi Hills Arena near Kusama’s giant sculptures.

And it’s only after taking in these two attractions that Nanjo — who turns out to be quite the night owl — suggests seeking out a nice restaurant for dinner.

“Enjoying art is about so much more than the act of actually looking at the works,” Nanjo says. “A lot of restaurants and cafes will stay open late especially for Roppongi Art Night, so you should go and find a warm place to sit and chat about everything you’ve seen.”

One idea might be the spectacular Brasserie Paul Bocuse le Musee, located atop an upturned conelike structure within the cavernous National Art Center, Tokyo. Eating there will mean you’re in a good position for a postdinner dash through the center’s current exhibition, “Noda Hiroji 1981-2011,” which features paintings that Japan Times critic C.B. Liddell described as “epic, turbulent, and dynamic.” The center will extend its hours till 10 p.m. especially for Roppongi Art Night, but you’re going to want to be as dynamic as the paintings and get out the door by about 9:15 p.m., for there is still so much to see.

Last admission into 21_21 Design Sight at Tokyo Midtown is at 9:30 p.m. and you won’t want to miss the venue’s “Irving Penn and Issey Miyake: Visual Dialogue,” which catalogs 13 years of the former’s photographs of the latter’s clothing design. The museum closes at 10 p.m.

From there head across the Tokyo Midtown lawns (mind the Kusama sculptures, which will be exhibited outdoors here, too) to catch the current exhibition of Chinese ceramics at the Suntory Museum of Art, which closes at 11 p.m. (Last admission is at 10:30 p.m.)

Then you can afford to take a breather, as the other key museum — the Mori Art Museum, which sits atop Roppongi Hills and currently features a solo show by Korean artist Lee Bul — will remain open until 6 a.m. So it’s a good time to head out into the Roppongi night and try to catch up with one of several so-called walking actors who will be roaming the streets entertaining passersby.

“I want to give people a taste of the unknown,” walking actor un-pa tells The Japan Times. Dressed in a silver suit and with silver body paint to match, he is unlikely to disappoint.

Nanjo explains that such performances on public footpaths are rare in Japan, where police have veto power over such events, so he encourages visitors to seek them out.

Roppongi Art Night is organized by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Tokyo Culture Creation Project and a committee that brings together local art museums and the local shopping association. This year it also has the support of the national government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs.

Nanjo jokes that it is a small miracle that so many organizations manage to come together each year to host the event. Still, if you elect to finish off the night as Nanjo suggests — with a glass of wine or a cocktail in one hand, overlooking the glittering Tokyo skyline from the Tokyo City View observation deck just one floor below the Mori Art Museum — then chances are you’ll be thankful indeed for that small, rare miracle.

Roppogi Art Night will be held from 10 a.m. on March 24 through 6 p.m. on March 25. “Core time,” when most events will be concentrated, is from sundown (5:56 p.m.) on the night of the 24th till sunup (5:38 a.m.) on the 25th. For further details, visit