Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tokyo National Museum

Ueno is a unique area of Tokyo. To the north-east of Ueno railway station, a number of museums are surrounded by trees and grass. To the south-east spreads Ameyoko, very Asian market streets full of food and clothes shops.

One of the museums in this area is Tokyo National Museum. The museum consists of four buildings, one of which is the Gallery of Horyu-ji Treasures designed by Yoshio Taniguchi before(?) he became famous for his redesigning of the MoMa in New York. I'm struck by his modernist approach to architecture. These days, new buildings almost always feature some curvature in them. Taniguchi's design escapes from it. Although foreigners (Wallpaper* City Guide, an FT columnist) praise this building, I'm not particularly impressed. But that's probably his aim: a building that does not obstruct or intrude into your mind just like kaiseki cuisine, which is actually quite difficult to achieve.

The exhibition inside is a bit disappointing. The explanation for each set of items on display is rather confusing. But some pieces of art are impressive.

Gallery 2 houses nearly 30 gilt bronze statues of sexy Guan-yin (Avalokitesvara in the female form). Local warlords in Japan back in the 7th century possess and worship these statues (about 50cm tall). 1400 years on, some Japanese people today possess figures of anime characters. Our preference does not seem to change much over the long history of Japan. :)

Another impressive piece is Kaikikyo (in gallery 5). This is a mirror given to Horyu-ji temple by Empress Komyo in 736. It depicts a sea with four islands at the edge in a 90 degree interval. The center is the sky while the edge is the ground. Within waves of sea and islands, animals and human beings are inserted. This is a piece of art back in the 8th century of Japan. It's beautiful. Its pictures on the web do not do justice to its beauty. You have to look at it with your own eyes.

The Museum Shop is unexpectedly good. Various items featuring pieces of Art in the museum are on sale. Dancing People catches my eyes. These figures (called haniwa) are made of clay and buried in the tomb of important figures back in the 6th century. I buy a keyholder of this pair of haniwa.

Then I go to the gallery where the Dancing People is on display. On the way is a gallery of Japanese art in the early 20th century. The gallery is spacious without too many objects so viewers can watch pictures from a distance. There are quite a few good and interesting pictures drawn by artists like Yokoyama Taikan. These guys take the Japanese drawings to a next level by incorporating Western ways of painting. One of Yokoyama's paintings draws Buddha preaching his followers in two hanging scrolls side by side. Buddha is in the the left scroll, and all the followers in the right, suggesting the difference in the level of enlightenment between the two. Although the way these figures are drawn is quite traditional Japanese, Yokoyama uses very vivid color of green, unusual for traditional Japanese paintings, to paint tree leaves above Buddha and the followers. The mixture of previously incompatible things, and the use of canvas (scrolls in this case) to suggest something more than what the picture itself tells, is very much like today's contemporary art.

No comments: