Beside Stephan Balkenhol’s sculpture “Big Head with Three Part Relief” a note reads, “Nothing here is as it should be.” This figureless “head” set against a black void represents “Mr. Everyman,” that common figure, detached from his surround and considering his place in the world.

Balkenhol, having experienced the reunification of Germany, perhaps found himself questioning his own identity against the backdrop of his country’s past, with the wooden head of his work unconsciously representing the way we view the urban landscape around us.

The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo’s current show, “Unconsciousness of the City,” is a tale of familiar places and sometimes faces set in the context of urban construction. It introduces us to the fate of the individual in urban extremes and the kinds of imagery that inspires photographers, painters, activists and filmmakers alike.

The exhibition explores an array of understandings, with the show covering three rooms and three key themes: Palimpsest, Skyline and Underground. Like the title from a nearby poster for artist Koki Tanaka’s show at this year’s Venice Biennale, abstract ideas, uncertainty and collective acts underline the themes and preoccupation of the artworks within the show.

Palimpsest explores layers of images and material present at street level and beyond, Skyline draws across the heights and precarious edges of overhead views, while Underground concludes by noting city subversion and anarchy, the constructions buried below street level and the utilities required to maintain them.

In Palimpsest, Osamu Kanemura and Yutaka Takanashi both photograph Tokyo seemingly at the edge of despair as a mass of pure infrastructure. Kanemura’s signature of large black-and-white photography, appears as drastic as it is impenetrable. His “All The Needles on Are Red,” with scenes of signage and a decade’s worth of cabling, is matched in density by the vivid color of Takanashi’s “Text of the City, Shinjuku,” which replaces day with night, and exposes back alleys and other corners deep within Shinjuku’s Golden Gai bar area.

Next door in Skyline, Kunihiko Katsumata’s photos render the tops of buildings as no more than an abstract outline framing the sky above. Meanwhile, Oscar Oiwa’s huge paintings offer more by the way of possibility. Rooftops become gardens dotted with color — a hint at the way the skyline has been altered by a fear to build upward after the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York. Hiroji Kubota’s overhead views of New York recall the city as fragile and restless as the sun sets over lower Manhattan at rush hour. The appearance of New York’s iconic skyline distorts the aspirations of those who see the city as the home of ultimate freedom of expression.

The cover of Hanashi no Tokusyu magazine, issue 98, depicts a small group of people staring out across an open desert, at the back of which sits a nameless collection of skyscrapers with a mountain range beyond it. This fantastic cityscape by Tadanori Yokoo hints at utopian idealism, its combination of many different skylines pushing the limits of promise and believability.

The final room, Underground, mixes infrastructure with politics and propaganda. Photographs by Naoya Hatakeyama show the Shibuya network of rivers, their waters reflecting the city they pass through. Chimei Hamada’s etching of a Roman catacomb, along with Noboru Kitawaki’s geometric print titled “Dislocation” echo Hatakeyama’s photography. Hatakeyama also photographed the catacombs of Paris, seeing them — along with the structures depicted in his work here — as a reflection and echo of the world above ground, one that is secretive and has been embedded over time.

This revelation of underground secrets continues through periodicals and photography. Images by Daido Moriyama, Kazuo Kitai and Takuma Nakahira represent Shinjuku as a place of provocation as seen through a charged artistic lens. However, a book on display by the early 20th-century Italian anarchist and communist Errico Malatesta, stands out above everything else. “Museifushugi Soshikiron” a Japanese reprint of “A Project of Anarchist Organisation” from 1929, outlines the role of anarchy within an organization while stating the workers’ struggle to be a collective social responsibility.

He challenged the distribution of wealth arguing that the nature of ownership and material gain was not something to be afforded by the rich alone. It was something that needed to be spread evenly throughout society with power and wealth shared not dictated.

Placed beside this manifesto is the arresting image of Kitai’s “Narita Resistance,” printed in Asahi Camera, No. 457. While living among the farming communities of Sanrizuka in Chiba Prefecture, Kitai documented farmers being forcibly evicted by the Japanese Government. Riot police were sent in to force local farmers, who protesting the construction of Narita International Airport, off the land they were peacefully defending. This struggle between the people and government is significant when seen in the context of the whole country, as it shifted from being a more rural to more urban one.

Though such protests failed to prevent the inevitable, the relationship between the public and government matured. An awareness of protest spread and a tradition of resistance formed. The government, forced to acknowledge the social change, had to interact with it. MOMAT’s exhibition cleverly places Malatesta’s seminal manifesto among these later historical moments of social unrest — occurrences that were influenced by a city which was growing and adapting with advances in modern technology.

Such technology — which is used to manage water, monitor disease and revitalize stagnant rivers — concludes the show through a public information film made by the Tokyo’s Bureau of Sewerage in 1966. A beautifully shot and enlightening film, it reveals the intricacy and scale of manmade constructions below us — constructions that we sadly take for granted.

“Unconsciousness of the City” is thus a starting point. As we view the show, constructions we take for granted begin to become as important to us as the urban framework responsible for them in the first place. The exhibition becomes an insightful introduction to looking at cities differently. It defines some of the more abstract and ridiculous aspects of everyday urban life while adding vital impressions of parts of the city that seem familiar and parts that we’re unaware of.

“Unconsciousness of the City” at the National Museum of Modern Art runs till Aug. 4; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥420. Closed Mon. www.momat.go.jp

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