Kansai Scene Magazine


Art space Osaka

Public art in the big city

Outside a Starbucks on Nakanoshima in Osaka, I stumbled upon an art installation that felt rather out of place. For a start, being installed in the foyer of a Japanese office building, it was in English and Jenny Holzer’s artwork rarely comes in any other language. Secondly, this work Serpentine (2002) was, as are most of her electronic LED signs, political and seemed especially combative in such a corporate environment. As I sat over my cup of coffee, I watched and read the scrolling blue text from beginning to end, occasionally laughing to myself and reflecting on the power of her statements in its odd home. In this moment, being the only foreigner in the vicinity, this installation felt like it was here just for me and it only cost me a coffee, and then I found myself wondering how many more artworks are publicly dotted around Osaka.

One of the things about public art is that it is intended to be site-specific and viewed by anyone and everyone. It can also occasionally be discreet. Walk along the south side of Nagahoridori from Yotsubashisuji towards Midosuji and you might only see wide boulevards and a few designer shops. Look up and you will see Osaka Vicki (1997-1998) by Roy Lichtenstein. For the uninitiated, Lichtenstein is most famous for his large scale rendi- tions of comic book strips made during the Pop Art era of the sixties and here, painted on the side of an air conditioning cool- ing tower of Crysta Nagahori is a version of an older work called Vicki (1964) modified especially for Osaka. Overlooking the street, the 37x15 metre image consists of a woman’s face as an anonymous man says “Vicki! I—I thought I heard your voice!” As with Jenny Holzer’s piece, one has to wonder what this has to do with its surroundings. When something is placed in a white gallery, that white space is usually considered to be neutral so that the painting or whatever it may be can be seen as intended. There are very few white public spaces in Osaka so in view of such a bizarre choice, can we begin to say that the grey public space is the new white one, and that someone somewhere is treating the streets like their own museum?

If there is someone dotting these artworks around the city as if curating a museum, then they had a field day with Midosuji.

I find it best to think of this part of the city as the ‘Bronze Room’ and to view of all of the works in this room might take an hour or so, unless you have a bike (something you unfortunately can’t have in a ‘confined’ museum) but be prepared to dodge all manner of things such as cyclists, shoppers and small dogs.

The entrance to the ‘room’ is marked by a kinetic sculpture titled Astral Traveller by local and world-renowned artist Susumu Shingu. Situated at the corner of Nagahoridori and Midosuji in front of the Luis Vutton store, this steel structure, like many of his works scattered around Japan, balances finely against the wind on its base and draws attention to the state of motion that everyone in this area seems to be in. In fact, and this is just a personal observation, I never seem to see it pointing in any other direction than towards Shinsaibashi. Like the obligatory museum shop, its almost as if it is suggesting one should go get some ‘souvenirs’ when you are done. If you do have an intention to come back and do some shopping, I would suggest starting by going up the west side of Midosuji (sheltered from the sun) and coming down the other. Positioned on either side of the street as far as Yodoyobashi station are 26 bronze sculptures by a variety of Japanese and international artists. Here you will find works by Henry Moore, Churyo Sato, Emilio Greco, Shinya Nakamura and August Rodin to name but a few. Taking up the theme of ‘In Praise of Mankind’, all of these pieces are works inspired by the figure and according to some of the web guides are intended to encourage people as they are walking by, to stop and engage with the feeling of history. Some of them are beautiful examples of the sculptors’ skills but the sense that I got was not one of history, but rather one of money. After all, this ‘stretch’ of Midosuji between Shinsaibashi and Yodoyobashi is often referred to as the business district and the fact that a large majority of the pieces were donated by businesses and corporations left me with the feeling that I was walking around the palace gardens and that I was supposed to be impressed. That aside though, it was refreshing to see classical works in Japan without having to buy a ticket for the privilege. If we were to pay a ticket price for this museum and have a walk round, are we getting good value for our money? If we move north from the ‘Bronze Room’ we might enter the room for ‘Up and Coming Artists’ (Nishi-Tenma). Move east of that and we might enter the room for ‘Historical Arts’ (Osaka castle park). Alternatively, head south of the ‘Bronze Room’ and we reach the ‘Pop Art Room’ (Amemura), bear east of that through the ‘Digital Arts Room’ (Den Den Town) and you might eventually find the ‘Korean Arts Room’ (Imazato) somewhere in the corner of the ‘museum building’. This ‘museum’ would have a fair variety of rooms, it would seem. Perhaps these ‘rooms’ are merely wide generalizations, as many would argue that Osaka is simply just a cosmopolitan city. The various districts as in any multi-faceted modern city coexist with each other like different parts of the body but something different takes place here and the various works of public art dotted around the city suggest a method more akin to curation. Jenny Holzer’s installation can be found at the far reaches of the financial district. Roy Lichtenstein’s wall painting marks the northern access to Amemura, a centre of popular culture. And the ‘Bronze Room’ typically marks the classical feel of Midosuji.

The 19th Century Scholar Tenshin Okakura once commented that: “Japan is a museum of Asiatic civilisation”, arguing that “Japan’s ‘insular isolation’ made her ‘the real repository of the trust of Asiatic thought and culture.’” He then went further as to consider “Japan itself to be an ‘art museum’”. Although a very nationalist statement at the time, if you were to choose any loca- tion in the world to place one sample of everything and seal the door, then Japan, with its natural sea walls and experience might well be the Noah’s Ark of culture and her cities, the perfect museums of art. Okakura was referring to an inner ability to collect and in Osaka there seems to be someone who really likes collecting, but who? Whoever it was also saw it fit to take Susumu Shingu’s Astral Traveller ‘off display’ not long after writing this. Maybe they have moved it to another part of the museum?

Text & photos: Gary McLeod

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Public art in the big city


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Osaka as a backdrop for urban guerilla artists

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Schedule and city guide

Airing your art in public

KOBE BIENNALE 2007, OCT 6–NOV 25, 2007

In keeping with the 21st century trendy fascination for art fairs, biennials and biennales, Oct 6th 2007 marks the opening day of the first ever Kobe Biennale. Inspired by the theme of ‘Encounters’, this event, which runs until Nov 25th will consist of events and exhibitions but will primarily showcase the work of Japanese and international artists in 45 empty, 40ft dry containers, representing the city’s trad- ing history as a seaport; containing art works that respond to the city’s values and history whilst at the same time, using the power and potential of art to think ‘outside the box’. In addition to the ‘art containers’ there will also be the resulting exhibitions of the ‘Robot Media Art’, ‘universal design poster’, ‘street performance’, ‘modern ceramic art’, ‘artistic photo’ and ‘floating object’ competitions as well as other exhibits and events. All of these will take place at Kobe’s Meriken park although some exhibits will extend beyond the parks boundaries, deeper into the public sphere, taking over shopping malls as well as the fashion museum.

For more info: www.kobe-biennale.jp/html/biennale_e.html
Tel: 078-322-6598 • Fax: 078-322-6136
Email: [email protected]


Kansai International Airport, International departures. Whilst queuing for the inevitable aisle seat, look up and you might just recognize the free-moving steel shapes of Susumu Shingu (quite popular in airports apparently) swinging and swaying above your head. Standing in the centre of Osaka’s expo park in Suita is Taro Okamoto’s Tower of the Sun. Symbolic of the 1970 expo and its themes, it depicts the past, present and future of the human race. Not necessarily in Kansai but a nice weekend away anyway, the island of Naoshima is in fact an island of public art and art museums. It can be reached by boat from Uno or Takamatsu, and features public art works by the likes of James Turrell, Tadao Ando, Tatsuo Miyajima and a shrine by the world renowned photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto.