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On top of Tokyo, views of modern art

The Mori Art Museum, in a 54-story tower, opens today to whet a contemporary appetite.

October 18, 2003|Colin Joyce | Special to The Times

TOKYO — Few museums in the world can rival the location of the Mori Art Museum. Situated atop Tokyo's most imposing skyscraper in the middle of the city's trendiest area, this prestigious premise within the shimmering 54-story Mori Tower is no mere whim. It is intended to send the message to Japan that modern art is important.

In Japan, interest in contemporary art has never been high, lagging far behind the enduring popularity of the Impressionists and other renowned artists from the past. But the audacious Mori Museum, which opens today, is taking on the challenge of changing the perceptions of a wary public.

"The issue is to get people off the street and up the tower. There is a psychological as well as a physical distance," says David Elliott, the museum's British director. "But it is an absolute tragedy if people cannot see the art of their times and remain trapped in a time warp always looking backward."

Clearly a lot of thought has gone into how to make the art accessible. The masterstroke has been to create a single ticket, for $14, that includes admission to the museum as well as to the 52nd-floor observation deck, which provides stunning views over the sprawling city, out to Tokyo Bay and as far as majestic Mt. Fuji on a clear day.

So when the 30,000-square-foot museum opens its doors, it can expect not just seasoned exhibition-goers but also young couples on dates and older tourists who initially go just for the view.

The museum will do well if it attracts just a tiny portion of the people who pass through its Roppongi Hills site. An estimated 50 million people a year are expected to visit the 28-acre "city within a city" built by the Mori Building Co. and completed in April after 18 years in development. In addition to the museum, the area boasts offices, accommodation and leisure facilities. In one corner lies the peaceful Mohri garden. Nearby stands the luxury Grand Hyatt Tokyo hotel and a 24-hour cinema, a novelty in a city where the final screening of the day typically starts at 7 p.m. About 20,000 people work here, served by 200 shops and restaurants.

The development is intended to serve as a model for a new Tokyo. The idea is that replacing Tokyo's low-level sprawl with high-rise buildings will allow for more greenery and greater proximity to arts and leisure facilities, as well as increasing living space in the city center to help curtail the exhausting hour-plus commutes on crowded trains. In other words, a city more like New York.

Yoshiko Mori, museum chairwoman and wife of the developer Minoru Mori, calls the museum the "heart" of the project. "Roppongi Hills is meant to be not just a collection of buildings but a cultural environment. At the center of that is the museum."

How far Roppongi Hills can live up to its bold aim of changing Tokyo remains to be seen. But even doubters accept that it has raised the profile of an area that was once known mainly for its sleazy nightclubs. And it will make culture more accessible, with the museum open until 10 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends. The city's other highly rated modern art institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, is open only until 6 p.m. and is in the suburbs -- effectively a day trip for most of the city's population.

Mori describes herself as an art amateur whose role is to represent members of the public on the museum board. "Many Japanese have negative feelings about modern art. They feel it is hard to understand or just strange. We wanted to create a museum that people can easily come to so art can be part of their everyday lives."

The first exhibition, "Happiness, a Survival Guide for Art and Life," provides hints about how the museum will set about its task, putting challenging contemporary art alongside works from more familiar artists. John Constable landscapes are next to 11th century Cambodian statues. Monet is a stroll away from a video by Brit Art's Tracey Emin, a Jeff Koons creation or a Yoko Ono work.

"This is quite a challenging exhibition and very dense," Elliott says. "It is meant to be accessible, but it also makes the statement that contemporary art is not made in a ghetto. It is made by people who live among us and who are busy with ideas that were worked upon by artists for thousands of years, though they are finding new forms of expression. Happiness is one of the big subjects of art."

The museum isn't what the average Japanese would expect, and that's the point. The 54-year-old Elliott, who was curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Stockholm, is the first foreign curator of a major Japanese museum, and he was clearly brought in to create a stir.

"Being a foreigner can be an advantage, especially if you want change," he says. "Because of the lack of friendships and obligations you are a freer agent."

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