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At Tokyo’s Watari Museum the exhibition dedicated to Arata Isozaki conveys the image of a post-humanist man of letters – a critical mannerist in spirits reflected in his own theory and practice.
This small scale, yet comprehensive presentation at Tokyo’s Watari Museum focuses for once on architect Arata Isozaki’s performative approach to space as a contingent texture that is read, written, experienced, eventually produced in dissonance, dialogue and sometimes – silence.
An ironic poster design by Hans Hollein on occasion of the 1976 MAN transFORMS exhibition placed as prelude at the entrance of the show introduces Isozaki stripped off his skin, dissected in a comparative anatomy where vital organs and muscles are attributed to icons, such as Michelangelo or Giulio Romano (the heart), and Marilyn Munroe (the buttocks). The exhibition conveys the image of a post-humanist man of letters – an ambiguously critical mannerist in spirits reflected in his own theory and practice.
Isozaki managed throughout his career not only to join different media, practices, and artistic milieus, but also to multiply our sensibility for local and temporal specificities, emphasizing travelling concepts in the humanities, instead of binary oppositions, while still resorting to the homogenizing constructions of ‘East’ and ‘West’ as a backdrop. In this sense the exhibition picks up on issues Isozaki previously addressed in fervent comments on the critical notion of “Japan-ness in Architecture” (2011), relating it to aims for representation, as well as the crisis of representation.
If the exhibition title “12x5=60. Thoughts Beyond Architecture” calls for the rigid logic of a mathematical equation, or a grid-like matrix, rigidity is first and foremost found somewhere else – in Mario Botta’s concrete ceiling for the five story, triangular Watari-um exhibition space, established 1990 between Takamitsu Azuma’s iconic brutalist, pseudo-monastic family dwelling “Tower House” (1967) and Gaienmae station.
Starting from a conceptual structure of Isozaki’s alternative projects treating motives recurrently affecting his architecture, they are grouped in 12 thoughts beyond architecture, 12 collaborative works, 12 places to live, 12 travels (the Oriental volume), and 12 travels (the Occidental volume), these conceptual charts are reshuffled, and eventually spread rhizomatically over four floors – a parcours indexing ephemeral spaces in posters, graphite drawings, conceptual sketches and notes, models, moving images as well as photographs, publications or reproduced stage props summarizing about 60 years of practice. Isozaki’s “works” concerned with environmental design and spatial experience assemble to roughly thematic agglomerations, avoiding a linear narrative.
The first floor is still dedicated to one of his earliest concerns: the experience of the unbuilt as a relational space in-between that is invoked by different sensory mechanisms and social behavior affected by rituals. Besides all brushing against the grain of temporal axes, a reference to his maiden building, the White House, a studio space conceived for friends such as Masunobu Yoshimura, or neo-dada artist Akasegawa Genpei, established in 1957 in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward (today a café) as initial reference seems to locate a starting point in his performative interest. In the show it bridges the motives of light and darkness in a set of posters, leading on to an array of projects dealing with different notions of the acoustic media environment at a nexus of material and immaterial reality that affects or manipulates bodily perception.
While the projects put on display in waist high, square vitrines designed by Teppei Fujiwara architects-lab are loosely allocated throughout the gallery, and span a complex network of production, evident in collaborations with film director Hiroshi Teshigahara and artist Tomio Miki (see “Face of Another”, 1966), video artist Toshio Matsumoto (“Ki-Breathing”, 1980), or resounding more recently in a project with Anish Kapoor and the Lucerne Festival (“Ark Nova”, 2013) – a velvet colored, inflatable concert hall of a contorted, continuous donut-shaped surface that tours the disaster-stricken Tohoku area again this fall, represented by models and photographs.
His analogue iterations of Marilyn Monroe’s leg shape “Marilyn on the Line” (1965) or “Angel Cage” (1976) point to the later implementation of computer-aided tools to iterate form in the design process and its inherent juncture of architecture and technology, slicing up lived experience. Yet two rebuilt physical arrangements mediate his consciousness or search for alternative proposals, triggering intellectual and bodily performance: firstly a layout of two elevated tatami-mats surrounded by two distorted Mondrian compositions on thin wooden panels hanged from the ceiling that invite the visitors to take a contemplative rest, “Mondrian Teahouse” (1978). The installation restages a prop derived from the world-travelling exhibition MA. Space-Time in Japan, curated by Isozaki.
His curatorial process is documented in rarely seen conceptual drawings on stationery with the hallmark of his office, one of many archival highlights of the show. His stilted “Tree House” (1982) on the other hand is reachable only via a narrow ladder that forces visitors to leave hindering ballast behind in order to find their balance and experience this intimate room conceived for self-reflexion. The simple wooden recluse-cell devoid of any communication media infrastructure exists on a tree-covered hill in Karuizawa. Transferred to bustling Tokyo, it establishes a dialectical tension of site and non-site. The press release aptly describes it as an “aviary” in contrast to our urban dwellings, which Isozaki mostly deems birdcages.
Spiraling up around this studiolo the gallery upstairs picks up again on the topic of the cage, presented in the “Palladium” project (1985), a discothèque space commissioned by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager to gather and expose the New York club and art scene of the 1980s. On the same floor space is also perceivable in graphic design by Kohei Sugiura. His 3D “illu-stereo-visions” depict plans of houses selected by Isozaki such as Frederick Kiesler’s Endless House for 12 covers of the monthly magazine Toshi Jutaku (Urban Housing). These written surfaces are displayed along a library of Isozaki’s own writings and a documentation of the theoretical “Any” conferences, taking place between 1991 and 2003, gathering a palmares of architects, amongst which protagonists as Peter Eisenman, or Ignasi de Sola-Morales. Eventually the stroll through Isozaki’s universe is concluded as well as extended again in the top floor gallery, where his travels, the graphic presentation of actual and fantastic landscapes in his sketchbooks lead in morphological analyses, vedutas, mazes and records of cultural ruins far beyond the limiting notion of a grid.
If the exhibition evacuates the static from architecture represented by buildings and matter, it emphasizes process-oriented practices. Yet, of course a matrix stays a system, even if it tries to criticize such from within. Nevertheless the exhibition is reflecting and weighing the ambiguity of space in a setting that aims despite – or rather because of its inherent complexity and contradiction to differentiate between dispositions, productive interstice and homogenizing spectacle.