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    Letter from Tokyo
by Kay Itoi
Triennial curator Fram Kitagawa and artist James Turrell in
The House of Light
The House of Light
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov's figures in the rice paddies
The Kabakov work, showing text and "frame."
Mandan Lal's tulips
Poster for
"Issey Miyake: Making Things"
Tastumi Orimoto
as Breadman
Orimoto's mother performs.
Yayoi Kusama
at Ota Fine Arts
The new Noguchi bio.
An image from Nobuyuki Oura's "Hobling Perspective" series.
From "Holding Perspective"
The Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial
One of the largest-ever open-air exhibitions is planned for the Echigo Tusmari region in Niigata prefecture, which is located on Japan's main island opposite Tokyo. Hosted by a consortium of six local governments, the new event is dubbed the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial 2000 and runs July 20-Sept. 10. It features works by 140 international artists, including Daniel Buren, Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, Tadashi Kawamata, Cai Guo Qiang and James Turrell.

Residents of the region, an area known for huge snowfalls in winter as well as industrial decline and shrinking population, are betting that art will help revitalize the local economy. They hired Niigata-born curator Fram Kitagawa to orchestrate the ¥600 million ($5.7 million) project. He is having the artists site their works in schools and public buildings, in abandoned houses or in the mountains and in rice paddies. Visitors (who are advised to wear sneakers) will "touch nature and art at the same time, and become aware of the cooperation between the artists and local citizens," says Kitagawa.

One of the notable site-specific artworks is Turrell's The House of Light. The famed California Light and Space artist designed a ryokan, or traditional Japanese-style inn, with a sliding roof, that is timed to open at sunset and expose the changing color of the sky. The delicate interior lighting of the room adds to the effect. "I like the physicality of the light as a material," Turrell said.

The Kabakovs planted colorful figures in the rice fields, supposedly silhouettes of traditional farmers. The viewer stands on a balcony, which was set up to face those figures, and sees the sculptures through wire frames. Japanese texts are attached, so the effect is as if reading a picture book.

The Spanish artist Jaume Plensa created a tall House of Birds to "connect" earth and sky, while the Indian artist Madan Lal placed 60 tulip-shaped stones around a natural pond, commanding "the beauty of nature." The triennial includes dozens of related events, such as artists' workshops and concerts.

Issey Miyake at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art
"Issey Miyake: Making Things," which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Apr. 29-Aug. 20, was a triumphal homecoming for the Japanese designer. The globe-trotting survey of his 35-year career originated at the Fondation Cartier in Paris and stopped at the Ace Gallery in New York before arriving here. The show presents, among many other things, a demonstration of how Miyake's new clothing line, Pleats Please, was conceived as giant origami. Another featured gallery is called "Jumping," in which pleated cloth hangs from the ceiling, moving and swinging -- swaths installed to seem like they evolve into actual dresses. It is the greatest part of the exhibition, which also features Miyake's collaborations with artists, including Cai Cuo Qiang and Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, and 10-minute videotape of clips from Miyake's past collections.

The most astonishing thing that happened at this fun exhibition was a cheerleading performance at the opening reception. Over 100 cheerleaders from nearby high schools and colleges bounced, danced and screamed for a good half an hour, wearing adorable uniforms created by local design students. Miyake suggested the collaboration between young designers and cheerleaders to promote "the joy of making things."

Tastumi Orimoto at Hara Museum
Tastumi Orimoto, whose work is currently on view at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, June 10-Aug. 27, is a Japanese photographer known for his "bread man" events and pictures. He "wears" several loaves of bread around his head, concealing his face, and visits various cities around the world. He stages mini-performances, doing things like taking a train or eating at a cafe, and documents them.

At Tokyo's Hara, we get to see the funky "bread man" pictures from the 1990s, as well as the "Art Mama" series, in which he documented the everyday life of his 82-year-old mother, who suffers from a mild case of Alzheimer's and depression. It presents a slightly funny but still very touching family portrait.

Yayoi Kusama at Ota Fine Arts
Since 1995, Yayoi Kusama has showed every summer at Ota Fine Arts in Tokyo. This time the Japanese artist returned to her favorite Tokyo gallery with 23 colorful new acrylic "Infinity Net" paintings. Only one painting in the show (which was on view June 14-July 15, 2000) dates back to 1988. At 71, she is still kicking-and painting, full of colorful energy.

Noguchi bio
The new Japanese biography of Isamu Noguchi, titled Isamu Noguchi: Destiny's Transgressor, was written by award-winning Japanese journalist Masayo Duus. Published by Kodansha in Tokyo last April to critical acclaim, the book is the most complete and comprehensive biography yet published of the Japanese-American artist who died in 1988 in New York. It is expected to win a score of journalistic prizes by the year's end.

In addition to listing Noguchi's accomplishments as the internationally renowned sculptor and landscape architect, the author explains, with many examples, how Noguchi was forever torn between the two countries and thus two identities, going back to a twisted relationship between his father, the well-known Japanese poet Yone Noguchi, and mother, the Irish-American Leonore Gilmore, whom the father used to perfect his writings in English but never married.

The author also goes into Noguchi's scarcely known stint in the WW II detention camp for Japanese-Americans in Poston, Ariz., and his high-profile affairs with celebrity women, including Frida Kahlo and the Japanese actress Shirley Yamaguchi (whom he married and divorced). The publisher hopes to have it translated into English, though there is no concrete plans yet.

The Oura Case goes to the Supreme Court
An important freedom of expression lawsuit is headed to the Japanese Supreme Court later this year. The case involves collages by Nobuyuki Oura, which contain images of the late Emperor Showa. The Toyama Prefectural Museum of Modern Art bought the works, a series titled "Holding Perspective," in 1986. Local politicians and right-wingers thought claimed that the collages were disrespectful, and in 1993 the museum sold them -- and even burned catalogues that carried the images.

Oura and his supporters sued the prefecture in 1994, demanding it re-acquire the "Holding Perspective" series and and pay an additional ¥4.4 million in damages.

In 1998, a judge ruled that a museum could not constitutionally prohibit the public from viewing works in its collection. In February, the Nagoya High Court overturned the lower court decision, stating that a museum could reasonably decline to exhibit certain works. An appeal to the Supreme Court is underway, with the first court date yet to be set.

The Japan Foundation and the City of Yokohama have announced plans for an art triennial to be held in a gigantic storehouse, a Meiji-era red-brick building in Yokohama, from September through November of next year. Some 100 international artists will be invited.

This summer, the Japan Broadcasting Corp., the country's public TV station, is dsponsoring four giant exhibitions at four museums. The subject? What else but the world's "Four Civilizations" (Chinese, Egyptian, Mesopotamia and Indus). The shows all start in early August, and are scheduled to open at the Yokohama Museum of Art, the National Museum in Tokyo, the Setagaya Museum of Art in Tokyo, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum.

KAY ITOI writes on art from Japan.