High atop the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower in Tokyo sits the Mori Art Museum, a contemporary venue with a global vision. It floats 53 stories above the city, but before you even get to see the art your eyes have a feast in store for them. And it’s the sort of visual display that might give any artist second thoughts about exhibiting at the Mori in the first place.
On the tower’s 52nd floor, an observation deck called the Tokyo City View provides a 360-degree panorama. Way on the horizon, if you look toward the Shibuya district, sits Mount Fuji, but between you and those distant mountains are the dense environs some 12 million residents call home. The view is staggering, the sheer information overload of all that teaming life and business, bustle and architecture, heading off in every direction. The museum and the deck are intended to complement each other; one ticket provides access to both. But what in the world sort of art could compete with the man-made marvel that is Tokyo?
Well, from October 14, 2006, through January 8 of this year, the artist to take that challenge was video and sound-art trailblazer Bill Viola, and I had the opportunity to take in the massive exhibit, titled Hatsu-Yume (First Dream), on the final night of my December 2006 trip to Tokyo. Some 16 Viola works, several taking up entire rooms, filled the expansive space. The exhibit took its name from the Japanese tradition of reflecting on the first dream of the new year as a harbinger of what’s to come. Dim lighting and a respectful museum hush, despite the packed Sunday night crowd, helped fulfill Hasu-Yume‘s dream mission.
Among the pieces were slow-motion investigations of human emotions, including “The Greeting” (1995), in which three women interact on a street, their relation to one another traced in the lines of their faces, expressions evoking elation, jealousy, suspicion and sadness. In “The Raft” (2004), a mixed-race group of citizens is pummeled by water, the motion slowed to focus on the physicality of the experience, a high-tech rendition of Muybridge’s famous photographic studies. Some pieces were relatively compact, like “Dolorossa” (2000), in which framed photos turn out to be moving images of a man and a woman one synapse shy of weeping, and “Heaven and Earth” (1992), in which a pair of facing television sets, one dangling above the other, show an elderly woman seemingly on the verge of death and a newborn taking some of its first breaths. Some were massive: “The Crossing” (1996), simply because the artist opted for a dual-sided projection some 20 feet tall and 10 wide, one side showing a man emerging from fire, the other from water; “The Veiling” (1995), because it played out over nine semi-transparent scrims that ushered the viewer into a dense forest.
The visuals held their own against the recent, cornea-searing memory of the Tokyo cityscape by harnessing technological ingenuity and emotional content. And Viola had one additional tool in the unspoken competition between life and art: sound. The view of the city is dreamlike in its own way, to witness such intense density of life but to hear nothing of it. Viola’s exhibit, on the other hand, came with a warning, in Japanese and English: “Some works emit loud, sudden sounds. Please proceed with caution.”
About a third of the pieces combined video and audio. “The Crossing” found homonym-like quality between the sounds of fire and water. An installation titled “The Stopping Mind” (1991) is based on the writings of the 17th-century Zen philosopher Takuan Soho. It consists of four screens suspended from the ceiling, each projecting rapid spews of imagery and accompanying noise before suddenly stopping, for an instant. The effect is a sort of aesthetic whiplash, and the piece stood in stark contrast with the entire rest of Hatsu-Yume, which while still kinetic, emphasized patience. (The work, like the title of the overall show, notes the influence on Viola by Buddhist thought and by Japan, where he lived for over a year in the early 1980s. A video “Message from Bill Viola” was posted on the Mori website, mori.art.museum.)
The show was impressive on its own, but I couldn’t help but contrast it with a Viola show I’d visited earlier in the year at the Oakland Museum of California. While the Mori gave over the entirety of that sprawling top floor to Viola, in Oakland he had a small room in which videos (all with sound) played on a loop: a collection of late 1970s work called “The Reflecting Pool,” plus “Anthem,” “The Passing” and “Déserts,” this last one to music by Edgard Varèse in a performance by Ensemble Modern.
“The Reflecting Pool” was fascinating, in retrospect, since so many of Viola’s tropes are contained in that one piece: symmetry, the single human figure, slow motion, the line where one element (in this case air) meets another (the water of the title pool), and the sound of field recordings. Among the films in “The Reflecting Pool” set was “Vegetable Memory,” shot at the famed Tokyo fish market, Tsukiji. Combined, this was almost three hours worth of video, but those three hours seemed much more formidable than the expansive space in the Mori, where one could wander freely between pieces, rather than feel required to sit dutifully.