The more cautious traveler will always have time to kill at an airport. Maybe they’ll peruse a few shops, look for a cafe or just vacantly stare at the flight information board. There’s usually not much else to do. Imagine their astonishment if they were to stumble across a huge contemporary artwork, one so unusual, it begs to be approached.

Yuri Suzuki and Miyu Hosoi’s new “Crowd Cloud” sound sculpture at Haneda Airport offers that element of surprise. A conceptual but playful work, the copse of tall golden and black trumpet horns dominates a corner of the domestic departure floor, inviting visitors to wander around it, lean in and listen to a chorus of soft, relaxing sounds. Step farther away and the notes dissipate into the white noise of its location.

At 10 meters wide and 5 meters tall, Suzuki and Hosoi’s installation is the centerpiece of “Vision Gate,” a series of artworks curated by New York’s Museum of Modern Art curator Paola Antonelli for Haneda and Narita airports. It’s just one of dozens of works now on display in terminal buildings across Japan as part of “Culture Gate,” a major media arts exhibition split between seven airports and one international cruise port.

“We didn’t actually expect anything quite this large,” says Reiri Kojima, director of the Arts and Culture department of Haneda Future Research Institute Inc., commenting on the physical size of “Crowd Cloud.” “It wasn’t easy to negotiate the requirements of installing such a piece, but we are really happy that something of this scale was designed for us.”

The sound sculpture 'Crowd Cloud,' by Yuri Suzuki and Miyu Hosoi, plays soft, relaxing notes to visitors to the domestic departure floor at Haneda Airport. | PHOTO © TAKASHI KAWASHIMA
The sound sculpture ‘Crowd Cloud,’ by Yuri Suzuki and Miyu Hosoi, plays soft, relaxing notes to visitors to the domestic departure floor at Haneda Airport. | PHOTO © TAKASHI KAWASHIMA

Organized by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan, “Culture Gate” brings together 29 creatives and regional artisans to promote not only Japan’s contemporary art but also its cultural assets. On the mainland, Kansai Airport presents manga interpretations of eight areas in southern central Japan, while Chubu Centrair Airport pairs samurai with video and ninja history with digital sculpture. In Kyushu, Fukuoka Airport brings together Arita-yaki ceramics and other regional crafts with digital art and animation, while airports in Hokkaido and Okinawa focus on visualizations of indigenous culture.

“Airports make great exhibition spaces. People often spend long stretches of time there and can be pleasantly surprised to find opportunities to learn something new,” Antonelli says of the project. “Travelers disembarking from international flights are often in a state of semitrance, tired but excited, unfocused and slowed down, but still curious and receptive.”

Artist and scientist Sachiko Kodama’s 'Gravity Garden' is a montage of footage of her ferrofluid sculptures swirling and morphing into different shapes. | © SACHIKO KODAMA
Artist and scientist Sachiko Kodama’s ‘Gravity Garden’ is a montage of footage of her ferrofluid sculptures swirling and morphing into different shapes. | © SACHIKO KODAMA

For Haneda and Narita, Antonelli’s curation of exhibits allude to Japan’s traditions and customs in a subtle manner.

“Japan is not just about Mount Fuji or geisha,” says Tetsuya Kawabe, senior managing director of Haneda Future Research Institute Inc., on the more conceptual approach to Tokyo’s airports. “What impressed us about Paola’s vision is that she saw Japan as being not just about history, but also about the future.”

It’s the details of the contemporary artwork “Crowd Cloud” that introduce its audience to Japanese craftsmanship and culture. The golden sheen and black coating of Suzuki’s 68 horns were achieved with brass plating and coloring by Sanomasa and Sugimoto Bisou, artisans in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture, which is an area with over 400 years of metalworking history. Listen carefully, and Hosoi’s soundscape, first seemingly random notes, reveals itself to be a deconstruction of Japanese phonetics; its consonant, vowel and diphthong sounds arranged musically by an algorithm.

“Miyu not only distilled the sounds of every letter of the hiragana alphabet, but also their variations, for example, ga, gi, gu, ge, go,” Kojima explains. “She recorded each one individually (using her own voice) in short, medium and long tones, and in two octaves.”

To welcome visitors directly after disembarking, Antonelli also utilized 56 overhead monitors along the second-floor 1,200 meter-long arrivals concourse to present six video works, all of which are also on view on larger screens at Narita Airport.

“When I saw pictures of the moving walkways, long corridors and the suites of monitors at Haneda, I imagined a series of short videos that would follow the guests walking along them,” says the curator. “Taken together, they would represent the multifaceted experience awaiting newcomers to Tokyo, but moreover, every single artist I selected already manifested a tension between past and present, and tradition and innovation in their work.”

The six video works, made by a selection of established and up-and-coming artists, also span the diversity of digital media. Mariko Mori uses a CGI avatar to perform a futuristic and minimalist water ritual, an allusion to the “Kojiki” legends of the birth of Japan, while Sachiko Kodama’s swirling ferrofluid sculptures morph into otherworldly shapes in lacquer-like reds and blacks, matcha green and indigo blue.

Two works reference traditional Japanese crafts. The artist collective Party addresses global warming with satellite images of the world visually bonded together by gold lines of kintsugi, the practice of repairing ceramics with silver or gold, and Jun Inoue brings a graffiti flair to shodō ink calligraphy with a performance piece.

Jun Inoue uses both shodō ink painting and graffiti techniques to create 'Hitoshobu (One Shot).' | © JUN INOUE
Jun Inoue uses both shodō ink painting and graffiti techniques to create ‘Hitoshobu (One Shot).’ | © JUN INOUE

Rounding out the collection are Monika Mogi’s nostalgic reflection of her life in Japan, featuring friends filmed in the sun-dappled colors of 16-mm film, and Acky Bright’s light-hearted animation, the only work depicting the iconic cultural imagery that some visitors may be expecting — Mount Fuji, kabuki, Godzilla, temples, robots and more.

With so much on offer, it’s a shame that “Vision Gate” and all the other “Culture Gate” showcases should launch during the COVID-19 pandemic, when airports are seeing fewer visitors than ever.

“Neither I nor Yuri and his collaborator, Gabriel Vergara, could travel to Haneda,” says New York-based Antonelli, who curated “Vision Gate” online with Suzuki in London and Hosoi and other artists in Japan. “Miyu was not only our great partner, but (as the only “Crowd Cloud” collaborator able to visit the location) also our avatar and our medium.”

Nevertheless, Antonelli sees the sonic experience offered by “Crowd Cloud” to be a timely one.

“Art is essential to life and fundamental when survival is at stake. It soothes, motivates and inspires,” she says. “Suzuki and Hosoi allowed the horns to do what humans right now are not allowed to do because of the pandemic — gather close to each other and talk for hours.”

What to see at other airports

Kansai Airport: “Life” (Terminal 1, Floor 2 Atrium): Eight areas in and around Kansai, from the Sanin Coast to Kii Peninsula, have been reimagined into large-scale artworks by manga illustrators from across Japan — Daisuke Igarashi, Sumako Kari, Machiko Satonaka, Yuki Sekinie, Yuki Urushibara, Yoshihiro Yamada, Yoshikazu Yasukhiko and Yuichi Yokoyama.

Chubu Centrair International Airport: “Motion” (Terminal 1 Arrivals Lobby): Creative group Euphrates’ “A Box of Signs” is a mechanical work that traces ninja poses with dots of light and brings them to life as moving constellations within a black box. Meanwhile videographer Yusuke Shigeta’s “Folding Screen of Painted Sekigahara Landscapes” uses pixel animation to animate a traditional-style painting battle scene.

Fukuoka Airport: “Pattern” (Domestic Terminal Arrivals Entrance, Floor 1): Mirai Mizue’s “Mandala-Q,” a collection of circular kaleidoscopic animations inspired by Hakata-ori textiles, Baramon kites, Satsuma Kiriko glass and other Kyushu crafts, is paired with elaborate ceramic pieces, designed by botanical digital illustrator Macoto Murayama in collaboration with Arita pottery maker Fukusen-gama.

New Chitose Airport: “Invisible” (Domestic Terminal 1 Entrance, Floor 1): An installation by digital media artists Naked, Inc., “Imagine Ainu” uses surround-sound audio and atmospheric lighting with augmented reality and digital animation to showcase Ainu culture, including folklore, music and food.

Naha Airport: “Memory” (Domestic Terminal Area, Departures Security Checkpoint C, Floor 2, and International Terminal, former location of Check-In Lobby, Floor 2): Okinawan artist Satoru Higa’s interactive video installation “Portrait, Landscape” takes viewers through a visual landscape of colorful digitally animated views from the airport, depictions of the Seiden main hall of Shuri Castle and an imagining of Niraikana, the spiritual home of Okinawa’s Ryukyu gods. Equally colorful is animator nuQ’s lighthearted mural of Shuri Castle surrounded by historical and contemporary Okinawan motifs.

Tokyo International Cruise Terminal: “Back Tokyo Forth” (Location yet to be announced): The only cruise terminal showcase of “Culture Gate,” “Back Tokyo Forth” is yet to be officially launched but will feature the work of six artists and artist groups, all working in the field of visual media.

“Culture Gate” is scheduled to run through September. For full details on all the terminal building showcases, visit culture-gate.jp.

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