A Brief History of the Future

A recent show traces the creative legacies of an artist and an architect who helped shape Japan’s futurist aspirations

There are two museums devoted to Taro Okamoto, one of Japan’s most entrepreneurial postwar painters, who died in 1996. The Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum (which opened in 1998) uses his original studio-cum-abode to immerse visitors in the gestalt environment in which he lived, worked and created. Tucked away in Aoyama in Tokyo, it’s a wild place. Walking into its cramped rooms is like traversing the pop-surrealist interiors of his paintings. Their bright colours and bold calligraphy fuse ancient Jomon iconography and aesthetics with manga-like figuration and stylization. Too eclectic and caricatured for Japan’s immediate postwar grappling with officiated modernism, Okamoto crucially revived critical interest in the Jomon culture of Japan, and went on to experience a revival in the superflat ’90s.

Yet Okamoto attained fame in his own era. Iconicizing himself in a mode similar to Dali’s media manipulation, Okamoto’s gurn embodied Japan’s post-atomic sensibilities, urging Japanese art to embrace its postwar scars and produce assaultive art – for which he designated the manga-onomatopoeic appellation ‘don!’ (‘kaboom!’).

The Taro Okamoto Museum of Art in Kawasaki (which opened in 1999) is a more austere affair. Sections retain Okamoto’s gaudy mutant biomorphs, while the main space houses temporary exhibitions associated with his oeuvre. While most of these ensure the mythology of Okamoto is kept alive, the recent exhibition ‘Okamoto Taro X Architecture’ is a particularly powerful project. Essentially a survey of the numerous places and sites bearing the artist’s murals, its through-line aligns his practice and outcomes with those of famous postwar architect Kenzo Tange, clarifying the real-world positioning of their shared fantastical ideas.

19eedd7fe618a8b1fba63394689a783a.jpg

Kenzo Tange and Taro Okamoto, The big roof and Tower of the Sun, Expo Osaka, 1970

Kenzo Tange and Taro Okamoto, The big roof and Tower of the Sun, Expo Osaka, 1970

The two enjoyed a longstanding creative relationship through shared commissions and collaborative projects, the most famous of which is the Japanese Pavilion for the 1970 World Expo in Osaka. Tange designed the masterplan for the expo park, commissioning various architects to produce its pavilions. Okamoto’s mammoth installation The Tree Of Life was housed within a gigantic 70-metre statue – the famous Tower Of The Sun, modelled on Jomon figurines and reconfigured to embody Okamoto’s ‘don!’ ideals. Tange’s Festival Plaza was engineered through the radical application of ultra-thin transparent polyester film covering interlocked modular pylons, weighing 48,000 tonnes and sitting on only six main columns. Okamoto's sculpture literally burst through the Plaza’s canopy, after he controversially demanded a circular hole be cut in the roof to allow his work to rise many storeys above. The subtext was clear: partly a self-aggrandizing gesture in an artist/architect sumo bout, the elevation of the Sun God also symbolized Japan’s ongoing technological rebirth.

While this history is well known in Japan, ‘Okamoto Taro X Architecture’ presented the rarely seen original maquette for the final design of the pavilion. It’s hard to convey the experience of standing in front of this beautiful detailed diorama of futuristic design. Perfectly archived, it looks brand-new, now embedded with an aura not of fine art majesty but of fragile populist craftsmanship. Its presentation in the exhibition acknowledges its status as a shrine of sorts: here is the physical object that augured such a feat to be actualized in the real world. A bevy of sketches, designs, graph-paper plans and blue-prints accompanies the maquette; tantalizing photos document the myriad construction stages, evidencing the radical scale of the undertaking and its skilful resolution through Japanese monozukuri (craftsmanship) building construction.

maquette_yoyogi_national_gymnasium_kenzo_tange_1964_tokyo_olympics.jpg

Kenzo Tange, maquette of theYoyogi National Gymnasium, built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Kenzo Tange, maquette of theYoyogi National Gymnasium, built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, included in the catalogue for ‘Okamoto Taro X Architecture’. Courtesy: Taro Okamoto Museum of Art, Kawasaki

Another maquette resonates with equal presence: Tange’s final design for the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. More adventurous and groundbreaking engineering mark this work, with its stupefying cable connections that suspend the entire roof. It resembles a cross between a morphed fan and the bamboo amigasa hats worn by dancers in bon odori (summer folk-dance) festivals. Architectural history locates Tange’s practice within Metabolist discourse of the late 1950s, as a kind of father figure and leading exponent of the movement, whose guiding principle was the design of buildings according to principles of biological formation. However, his sense of spatial occupancy and auratic objectification is equally aligned with Japanese phenomenal presence, wherein singular objects work contextually with negative space, seasonal conditions, material relations and holistic awareness. The maquette is a perfect vehicle for communicating this, and accordingly is positioned prominently within the exhibition’s narrative design. Accompanying it is extensive documentation of the mosaic murals Okamoto designed for its interior.

‘Okamoto Taro X Architecture’ deftly braids the creative trajectories and legacies of Okamoto and Tange, charting how they contributed to visually shaping Japan’s futurist aspirations following the nation’s failed imperialist plan and the subsequent devastation experienced following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tange’s first – and perhaps most famous – commission was the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park & Museum (1955). Documented in the exhibition, it proves to have been a calling card for his metaphysical application of form and space to articulate the spatio-temporal juncture between past and present. On the razed site of molecular destruction of over 140,000 bodies, Tange carved an invisible through-line tying the Memorial Cenotaph (holding records of the dead) with a large rectangular block raised on concrete stilts. Part floating palace, part modernist hall, it merges Shinto reverence with Bauhaus progressivism. Most importantly, its site consciousness accords with the most traditional precepts of Japanese architectural design.

taro-okamoto-myth-of-tomorrow-mural-at-tokyos-shibuya-station-tokyo.jpg

Taro Okamoto, Myth of Tomorrow mural, c.1970, discovered in a Mexican suburb in 2003 and installed in at Tokyo’s Shibuya station in 2008

Taro Okamoto, Myth of Tomorrow mural, 1969, discovered in a Mexican suburb in 2003 and installed in at Tokyo’s Shibuya station in 2008. Photograph: Hector Garcia

Both the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Yoyogi National Museum still stand today, as does the Sun God statue in Osaka. Currently, the Hiroshima museum is undergoing a technological refit, while the Yoyogi gym – now devoid of Okamoto’s murals – is being prepped for the 2020 Olympics. Often regarded as a nation of great and longstanding tradition, it is also a land of continual renewal and ongoing reconstruction. From earthquakes to firebombing to tsunamis to atomic bomb blasts, Japan’s architectural ‘planscape’ is forever changing. Just as the famous Ise Grand Shine is ritually disassembled and rebuilt every 20 years, so does Japanese architecture accept the lifespan of its material constructions being modulated by waves of presence and absence. Much of Tokyo is now becoming ‘absent’ (huge swathes of Shibuya and Ginza, for example) in preparation for the 2020 Olympics; the same happened in the lead-up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Okamoto’s long-lost mural The Myth Of Tomorrow (1969), originally commissioned for the lobby of a Mexico City hotel but never displayed, was unexpectedly unearthed in a suburb of the city and reinstalled as a key panoramic wall feature at Tokyo’s Shibuya Station in 2008. ‘Okamoto Taro X Architecture’ wonderfully raises the consciousness of how images and objects were activated by and in spaces in Japan’s postwar rejuvenation. It equally confirms the process as a vital aspect of urban Japan today.

Main image: Taro Okamoto, Tower of the Sun, 1970, installed in the Expo Commemoration Park, Osaka, Japan. Photograph: Kingei Marui

Philip Brophy is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia.

Most Read

A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018