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letter from tokyo
by Kay Itoi  

Maywa Denki

Maywa Denki

Maywa Denki

Maywa Denki play
Pachi-moku right and
Chikkoi-beat (left)

The Museum of
Western Art building
by LeCorbusier, 1959

Landscape with Dancing
Satyrs and Nymphs

by Claude Lorrain

by Vincent van Gogh
in the National Museum of
Western Art, Tokyo

Parisiennes in Algerian Costume/Harem
by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
in the National Museum of
Western Art, Tokyo

Sketch of the proposed bridge

Les pont des arts
in Paris
(Built 1804)

Les Pont Des Arts
by Renoir

Paris, le pont des Arts
(year unknown)
by Stanislas Lepine

The Yamanashi museum building

Summer, the Gleaners
by Millet

The Sheperd Taking Back
a Flock of Sheep at Dusk

by Millet

Woman Feeding Chickens
ca. 1851-53
by Millet
   Low-tech avant-garde art of Maywa Denki
There are many ways to measure an artist's place in the world -- internet presence being one of them. The brothers Masamichi and Nobumichi Tosa, ages 33 and 31, respectively, could say that more websites -- dozens of them, in fact -- are devoted to their work than any other Japanese artist.

Since they won a Sony-backed art contest in 1993, the duo, who call themselves Maywa Denki, have enjoyed a kind of cult following, particularly among a young, technology-savvy crowd. With their quirky yet acclaimed first museum exhibition behind them -- not to mention their Sony sponsorship -- Maywa Denki is ready to break into the international arena.

"Maywa Denki" refers to Maywa Electronics, the name of a small, now-defunct electronics company that their father ran in the 1970s. As children they observed Japan's rapid development into a technological powerhouse. Incorporating that experience, the brothers now create "low-tech" parodies of high-tech merchandise. Their works -- which they call "products" -- are strange, even silly, electronic appliances that have little or no practical use.

In August, the Haokone Open-Air Museum in the mountains west of Tokyo exhibited 50 works from the past six years by Maywa Denki. Sava-O is a bodiless (face-only) ventriloquist's dummy. It is a fetus-like face whose mouth moves by triggering an attached toy gun.

Pachi-moku is a kind of musical instrument worn on the player's back. Two castanet-like mechanisms (called "mokugyo" in Japan) are attached to wing-like structures, which are then rigged to the player's hands. When the player snaps his or her fingers, the "castanets" on the "wings" are activated.

Another musical object is Guitar-la, made of six acoustic guitars attached to a fan-shaped metal stand. The resulting fan of guitars is attached to a pedal organ, which activates the guitars when played.

As to be expected, Maywa Denki plays these instruments. At their last performance, they played in worker's blue-gray uniforms to a packed house. In an earlier show, they turned the gallery into a tiny factory, where they produced art pieces to sell to visitors.

In most cases, their art is sophisticated and beautiful, however silly. They seem to express a nostalgia for a pre-technological time, and a sympathy for pioneers like their dad, who dreamed of improving the world through his inventions. At the same time, they poke fun at the society created by those high-tech advances.

Maywa Denki has yet to perform outside of Japan. Plans for a show in New York were recently canceled. Maywa Denki's "products" do seem perfect for a large gallery space in Chelsea. Anybody interested?

Tokyo's National Museum of Western Art Reopens
After two years of extensive renovation, the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo reopened on Sept. 15, 1998, with new gallery spaces and cutting-edge anti-earthquake measures.

The Le Corbusier-designed museum was built in 1959 to house the western art collection of the legendary prewar businessman Kojiro Matsukata. Though stylish, the main building soon proved too small. A new wing was built in 1979 and three new exhibition galleries were constructed beneath the museum's front courtyard.

Altogether, the museum is 1,500 square meters, with eight-meter-high ceilings. The walls have been painted tan to suit the museum's older western paintings, and the floors are covered with bacteria-resistant linoleum.

But the most important aspect of the renovation is the anti-earthquake features. Since the Great Hanshin Earthquake damaged hundreds of artworks at museums and galleries in January, 1995, art experts throughout the country have sought ways to protect artwork from natural disasters. Despite the lingering recession in Japan, the government found the resources for the National Museum project.

At the cost of $64 million, multi-layered rubber sheets and steel plates were placed beneath 49 pillars of the main building. The museum is the first building in the country to undergo the newly developed process, and is expected to get a lot of attention and visitors because of it -- the retrofit construction can be seen through a section of the basement floor.

The museum is inaugurating its new galleries with a retrospective of Claude Lorrain (1604/5-1682). On view are 60 paintings, drawings, and prints from the National Gallery in London, the Louvre, the Prado and elsewhere, as well as some 30 works by other artists in the manner of Lorrain. The exhibition runs until Dec. 6, 1998.

Kyoto says no to French art bridge
Kyoto is a strange city. It is Japan's 1,200-year-old ancient capital, filled with hundreds of beautiful old temples, shrines and wooden townhouses. But it is also home to plenty of ugly architecture. Take, for example, the gigantic, steel and glass Kyoto Station building completed only a year ago. Or the hideously bright neon signs of karaoke bars, pachinko parlors and cheap motels.

Still, new things always meet fierce resistance in Kyoto. For example, two years ago when the city announced plans to build a footbridge over the Kamo River in the style of the Pont des Arts in Paris, a bitter controversy ensued. During a 1996 visit, French president Jacques Chirac suggested the project as a good way to seal the sister city relationship of Paris and Kyoto, and to commemorate the "Year of France" in Japan this year.

The Pont des Arts (1804) was the first iron-framed bridge to span the Seine. Many artists, including Renoir, painted scenes of the bridge. When the city displayed designs for an iron-framed arch, which, in essence, was a replica of the Parisian bridge, the citizens hated it. Activists began collecting signatures against the proposal. Some acknowledged the need for the bridge in old Kyoto's small entertainment district, but protested the design. Others said any kind of new bridge would destroy the old, quiet atmosphere of the neighborhood.

The municipal office tried to appease protestors by adding a few Japanese details. Not surprisingly, critics hated the Japanese-style lanterns they proposed to place on the bridge. By last summer, when the $2.4 million construction was supposed to begin, it had become a national issue, and 300 artists, filmmakers, actors and writers signed a petition against it.

In the end, the city government caved in. Kyoto mayor Yorikane Masumoto gave a press conference in early August and said that he was scrapping the entire bridge plan, "due to lack of understanding" on the part of local residents.

Masumoto has not completely given up, however. Last month, a citizens' group in favor of the bridge asked the mayor to reconsider his decision. Whatever the outcome, it seems that in the hard-to-please town of Kyoto, somebody is bound to disapprove.

Japan Hosts Millet Exhibition
The largest exhibition of the work of Jean-Francois Millet ever in Asia just opened at the Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art, a publicly funded museum in central Japan. The museum is enjoying a chorus of praise for the effort, and hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected to turn out.

Though hard to believe now, it was highly controversial when, prior to its opening in 1978, the Yamanashi museum purchased two of Millet's famous paintings, The Sower (1850) and The Shepherd Taking Back a Flock of Sheep at Dusk (1857-60) for 200 million yen (around $1 million then). At the time, it was almost unthinkable for a Japanese public museum to buy expensive western art. Although numerous museums quickly followed suit, spending millions of dollars on famous European paintings, Yamanashi distinguished itself by concentrating on the Barbizon school, and particularly on Millet, one of the most favored artists of Japanese collectors and museum goers.

While most Japanese museums suffer from a decreasing number of visitors, Yamanashi, widely known as the "Millet museum" in the country, has always been among the most popular despite its inconvenient suburban location.

After it acquired Millet's Summer, the Gleaners (1852-1853) for 398 million yen ($3.7 million) two years ago, the museum boasted a 20 percent increase in visitors. The painting, which had been in the Rockefeller family collection, was sold at Sotheby's New York for $3.4 million to a Japanese dealer in November 1995. The dealer sold it to Yamanashi.

The current exhibition, "Return to Nature -- Millet and the Tradition of Peasant Paintings," was planned to celebrate the museum's 20th anniversary and will remain on view through December 1998. It features Woman Feeding Chickens (ca. 1851-53), recently purchased for 313 million yen ($2.4 million), as well as all of the artist's eleven Gleaners paintings. Rabbits in the Gorges d'Apremont, Sunrise (year unknown), which is in a Japanese private collection, will be on public display for the first time.

Japan Enacts a New Art Law
A new Japanese law to encourage private collectors to put their property on display will be implemented in December, 1998. The Japanese government, which has long been accused of doing nothing to remedy Japan's so-called "warehouse art inventory," is trying to put an end to such criticism. Proposed by the Agency of Cultural Affairs, the "Promotion of Public Access to Works of Art Act" was passed in June and is ready to come into force by the end of the year.

Under the new law, owners of important artworks can register their property with the Agency of Cultural Affairs. The agency then recommends museums suitable to display the works, and organizes a contract between the owner and museum. The contract obligates the museum to take financial responsibility for the art, and to put it on public view for five years.

"It is a fact that numerous important artworks are stored away, hidden from the public in Japan," explains Emiko Kakiuchi, director of the cultural policy planning office at the agency. "Many collectors would like to show what they have, but need help in arranging and paying for such exhibitions."

Kakiuchi claims that the system is appealing because the museum takes care of the expenses and collectors can remain anonymous if they want to. Because many Japanese museums have an annual acquisitions budget of less than $1 million, the new law will benefit them too.

In addition, the law enables people to pay inheritance taxes with art. The Japanese tax authority has never accepted art in lieu of tax payment, except in a single case. With the new law, the Agency of Cultural Affairs will organize a committee made of art professors, dealers and museum directors to appraise works for tax-donation purposes.

"We think that there is a good chance that significant artworks will surface," says Kakiuchi.

KAY ITOI is a Tokyo-based critic and journalist.