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Here and There :
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Here and There introduces art, artists, galleries and museums around Japan that non-Japanese readers and first-time visitors may find of particular interest. The writer claims no art expertise, just a subjective viewpoint acquired over many years' residence in Japan.

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image image Born to Be Wild: The "Untamed Mind" at 21_21 Design Sight
Alan Gleason
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Takuya Watanabe, Installation on Tools and the Act of Making, Case 1, exhibition view, Wild: Untamed Mind, 21_21 Design Sight

21_21 Design Sight may be forgiven its daringly oxymoronic attempt to do a show about "wildness" within the confines of a museum -- and a design museum at that -- since it entertains and provokes on so many levels, some of them unintended. The keyword, yasei, translates as "wild" or "feral." The premise, that the human mind is most creative -- indeed, perhaps can only be creative -- when its primordially wild nature is set free, is a cliché that hardly bears repeating. Still, the examples of "wildness" gathered here make for an enjoyable jaunt through the galleries.

As often happens when a guest curator is invited to develop a show at his or her whim, Wild: Untamed Mind all too obviously parades the pet interests of exhibition director Shinichi Nakazawa, a philosopher, anthropologist, and scholar of Tibetan Buddhism who heads the Institut pour la Science Sauvage at Meiji University. As the institute's name suggests, Nakazawa is clearly enamored of wildness as a concept, and he is eager to share what he sees as evidence of that impulse as a creative force in human endeavors through the ages.

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"Entrance to the Untamed Mind": Maruishi stones with "Maruishi-Gami" photo series by Takayuki Toyama in the background

The most impactful presentations appear in the first two galleries, compact spaces whose corners meet at crazy acute angles. Here architect Tadao Ando's raw concrete walls provide an apt background to the displays (concrete is, after all, a "natural" material, as its admirers are fond of reminding us). We first encounter a gigantic ball of stone, a full meter in diameter: a specimen of maruishi, which occur naturally in certain streambeds in the Yamanashi mountains. Worshiped since prehistoric days, these solemn spheres are truly awe-inspiring -- and, significantly, not made by the hand of man. The wall behind the centerpiece stone is covered with some lovely photographs of maruishi in natural settings or enthroned on the altars of rustic shrines. Their beauty needs no further explication.

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"Mitomi-mura, Higashiyamanashi-gun, Yamanashi Prefecture" (Photo by Takayuki Toyama)

In the next chamber we are wrenched from the animistic past into the future-as-now with a light show that pulses across three walls and flashes real-time camera images of those viewing it. Created by the art unit Aircord, the work is a visualization of "the untapped part of the human brain" and the complex neural-network interactions that flit through it.

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Aircord Creative Studio, Finding Perceptions

Cited here is the Buddhist concept of engi, the Japanese translation of a Sanskrit term usually rendered in English as "dependent arising." The notion that the universe is a vast web of mutually dependent interrelationships, rather than a product of linear cause-and-effect, is fundamental to Buddhism, and Nakazawa brings it up more than once in this show. He finds a link between engi and yasei in the life and thought of Kumagusu Minakata, a Meiji-era botanist, folklorist, and Buddhist philosopher from whom Nakazawa appears to have drawn much of his inspiration for this project. In any event Minakata is introduced early in the exhibition as an exemplar of the "untamed mind."

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Kumagusu Minakata's tools with glass works by Mika Aoki, The forest that leads to you

What little we learn about Minakata through the displays and written explanations indeed suggests he is a brilliant and fascinating personage deserving of wider recognition -- and, preferably, his very own exhibition. Here, however, we only get to see a few of his research tools -- specimen cases, microscopes and whatnot -- juxtaposed somewhat unconvincingly with delicate glass sculptures by Mika Aoki inspired by slime molds, the mysterious neither-plant-nor-animal organisms that Minakata devoted much of his life to researching. (He famously presented the Emperor Hirohito, himself an amateur biologist, with a candy box full of slime mold samples.)

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Mika Aoki, Between You and I (Photo by Alan Gleason)

The exhibition then expands into the museum's main hall, a cavernous space filled with all manner of works displayed cheek by jowl. It's great fun to wander around this part of the show, which is titled "Keys to Open the 'Field of Wildness'." Familiar touchstones of "wildness" are revisited -- the dreams of the subconscious mind that obsessed the Surrealists, the ritual masks of tribes in Africa and New Guinea -- as well as a section devoted to kawaii imagery which makes the dubious claim that cuteness, too, is a manifestation of the untamed mind. Besides Hello Kitty icons and Ainu bear carvings, we are offered ancient dogu and haniwa figurines as proof of the primitive origins of the kawaii aesthetic. That of course raises some eye-of-the-beholder questions: did the sculptors really think their figures were as cute as we do?

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Seizo Tashima, The Howling Beast, exhibition view, Wild: Untamed Mind, 21_21 Design Sight

There are also some impressive installations by contemporary artists which, wild or not, make clever use of natural materials. Standouts include Seizo Tashima's The Howling Beast, a vast field of swirling clouds of brown, wormlike magnolia pods; Takuya Watanabe's Installation on Tools and the Act of Making, an array of tools ranging from stone-age axes to digital cameras, all made of brown clay; and Yasuhiro Suzuki's Spontaneous Garden, in which water dripping from above forms tree-ring ripples on a sculpted rendering of a tree stump.

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Yasuhiro Suzuki, Spontaneous Garden: Stump of Water, Stump of the Ground (Photo by Alan Gleason)

Though the philosophical and aesthetic arguments that purport to tie this show together struck me as either tenuous or self-evident, the resulting agglomeration of art and natural objects is well worth indulging. Perhaps the real wildness in this show is to be found in its unruly sprawl. Was that by design? If so, kudos to the curator and the museum for making your point!


All images courtesy of 21_21 Design Sight. All photos by Satoshi Asakawa unless otherwise indicated.


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Wild: Untamed Mind
20 October 2017 - 4 February 2018
21_21 DESIGN SIGHT
Tokyo Midtown, 9-7-6 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Phone: 03-3475-2121
Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (entry until 6:30); closed on Tuesdays, the New Year holiday, and during installation periods
Access: 5 minutes' walk from Roppongi Station on the Toei Oedo Line or Nogizaka Station on the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda Line
 
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Alan Gleason
Alan Gleason is a translator, editor and writer based in Tokyo, where he has lived for 30 years. In addition to writing about the Japanese art scene he has edited and translated works on Japanese theater (from kabuki to the avant-garde) and music (both traditional and contemporary).
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