Monday, January 09, 2006

Mr. Mori Builds his Museum

Holed up in Tokyo for a day or two with no idea where to go? Want to see art but something a little livelier than 18th Century silk screens, old pots and netsuke collections? You might have heard that Japan’s stock-market crash a decade ago dealt a heavy blow to the art market here and that Tokyo has become art desert.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Tokyo is dotted with exquisite little art museums catering to both contemporary and traditional tastes that are mostly conveniently located near the downtown. Many of them were started to display the collections of discriminating merchant-collectors.

This tradition goes back a long way. Well before the art-buying frenzy of the Bubble Economy years of the late 1980s, Shojiro Ishibashi used his Bridgestone tire fortune to buy French Impressionist paintings and Western-style Japanese art, now displayed at the Bridgestone Museum of Art near the Ginza.

The recently renovated and relentlessly avant garde Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, located in the Bauhaus-style mansion of a former tycoon in Shinagawa, boasts a large number of pieces by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Leichtenstein. The building itself is one of Tokyo’s increasingly rare examples of early modern Japanese architecture.

In the Marunouchi district, around the corner from the Dai Ichi building, one finds the Idemitsu Museum of Art funded by an oil-refining company, whose charter, rather unusually, cites exhibiting art as a corporate goal. Its exhibitions tend to run to traditional Japanese arts, but it also has a collection of Georges Rouault, not to mention a fine view of the Imperial Palace grounds.

Another exquisite little private collection is found just around the corner from the stock exchange and is run by a brokerage house, the Yamatane Museum of Art. The founder held the curious Japanese belief that brokers might benefit by periodically retreating from the hustle of trading floor to contemplate the finer things of life (it has a tea room too).

But the latest exemplar of this grand tradition is Minoru Mori, the enormously rich heir to the Mori real-estate fortune. The Mori interests are concentrated in and around the Akasaka-Roppongi entertainment district, where his company recently built its flagship development, Roppongi Hills.

Take a fast elevator to the 52nd floor of Mori Tower to the Mori Art Museum (MAM). Regardless of what one finds on the walls, the trip up is an event in itself. When clouds clear, it affords the visitor the double pleasure viewing art and a 360-degree view of the chaotic majesty of one of the world’s greatest cities.

Mori owns a large collection of Le Corbusier lithographs, illustrations, models and books. Indeed, he sees himself as a kind of disciple of Le Corbusier in his philosophy of development (he would like to see Tokyo dotted with skyscrapers, like Mori Tower). But he has not chosen to put any of this collection on public display.

Some items can be seen at his ARK Hills Club, but membership to that club is restricted. Le Corbusier was basically an architect not a painter, and it would seem that his works may be a little too specialized to make the kind of impact that Mori obviously wanted to make with his museum.

The real-estate magnate could have used his vast fortune to scarf up dozens of loose Picassos, Reniors and Monets floating around Japan at bargain prices from the rubble of the Bubble Economy. But then his museum would have been hardly different from a dozen others in and around Tokyo.

In fact, the Mori Art Museum has no permanent collection, unless one counts the giant, black-iron spider by the French sculptor Louise Bourgeois at the entrance to the tower. Utilizing its extensive international connections (unusually for Japan, the director is a foreigner, British-born David Elliott) MAM displays eclectic exhibitions of paintings, photography, fashion and architecture.

The museum boasts 2,900 sqm of exhibition space, one of the largest in Asia, and it seems specially suited for oversized a works, such as its recently concluded “End of Time” exhibition devoted exclusively to the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. The next exhibit, “Tokyo-Berlin/Berlin-Tokyo” in conjunction with the Neue Nationalgalerie of Berlin, opens Jan. 28 for a three-month run.

Tokyo has no principal art museum that is a “must see” like the Guggenheim or the Museum of Modern art (MoMA) in New York. The city’s relatively new Museum of Contemporary Art is so far out in the sticks that it is almost inaccessible to the average visitor.

Mori’s ambition is that MAM will become as famous for Tokyo as the MoMA is for New York, that it will become the “must see” museum of the capital, the kind of museum where even if you aren’t a regular museum-goers, you feel compelled to go.

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