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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture, and design exhibitions at art museums, galleries, and alternative spaces around Japan.

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image image Hidden Gems: Public Art in Hyogo Prefecture
Christopher Stephens
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Shimamoto Shozo's Proof of Peace (1999) is a permanent fixture in one of Nishinomiya's yacht harbors.

Part of the Kansai region of western Japan, Hyogo Prefecture stretches from the Seto Island Sea in the south all the way to the Sea of Japan in the north, bordering on the prefectures of Tottori and Okayama to the west, and Kyoto and Osaka to the east. As in other parts of the country, statues and monuments are scattered throughout Hyogo, but a handful of these public works do more than decorate, highlighting the role that Kansai has played in Japanese art history.

Shozo Shimamoto (1928-2013) co-founded the Gutai Art Association with his teacher, the painter Jiro Yoshihara, in 1954. In addition to coming up with the name Gutai (meaning "concrete" but unrelated to the Western art movement of that name), Shimamoto edited the group's bilingual journal, which was dispatched to curators and artists all over the world -- Jackson Pollock among them -- in an effort to build up an international following. Shimamoto's own work was among Gutai's most radical. As early as the mid-1950s, he was assembling sound collages, slashing and boring holes in paintings, and firing paint out of homemade cannons. Shimamoto remained with Gutai until the collective disbanded in 1972. He later displayed a flair for capturing media attention with outrageous performances in which he used his shaved head as a support medium, projecting images on the back of it, attaching objects to its surface, and inviting others to draw on it.

Also a key figure in the mail-art movement developed by Ray Johnson, Shimamoto affixed stamps to things like dried octopuses and sandals, and sent them. He was also known for smashing bottles of paint against the canvas, a technique he devised in 1956 and frequently revisited throughout his career. A later example can be found in Shin Nishinomiya Yacht Harbor (a short bus ride from Hanshin Nishinomiya Station). Shimamoto's Proof of Peace was conceived as an annual project, which would continue for 100 years on the condition that peace prevailed in Japan. It began in 1999 when the artist dropped bottles of paint on a concrete slab beside the harbor while suspended in the air from a crane. Regularly updated by other artists and members of the public, this explosion of glass shards and paint splatters stands as a tribute to Shimamoto's unique and humorous vision.

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Kenji Yanobe's Sun Sister (2015) overlooks the bay behind the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art in Kobe.

Behind the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, slightly east of central Kobe, stands a towering figure called Sun Sister (2015). Made by Kenji Yanobe (born in Osaka in 1965), the statue, depicting a female character with enormous eyes and snaky black hair, is clad in a metallic dress with matching boots and underwear. She looks out over the bay toward the horizon. Erected to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, the girl (later dubbed "Nagisa" by local residents) holds a silver sun in the palm of her hand, and stands strong and tall, guarding against future calamities.

Yanobe's futuristic anime-inspired creations -- fire-breathing robots, giant cats in helmets and boots, ventriloquist dolls in yellow Hazmat suits -- convey an uneasy mix of charm and danger. In August 2018, for example, he unveiled Sun Child, a male twin of Sun Sister, near Fukushima Station as a memorial to the earthquake and nuclear accident that devastated the Tohoku region in 2011. A Geiger counter built into the chest of the boy's Hazmat suit read "000," and he held his helmet in one hand and a sunlike ornament in the other. Casting his eyes toward the sky, the boy seemed to be saying that the future was bright and the air was now safe to breathe. However, local residents, many of whom had survived the disaster, took a different view. They were convinced that the statue would give people the wrong idea or that it was simply lacking in taste. Two months later, Yanobe was forced to remove the work. For his part, the artist argued that Sun Child, like Sun Sister before it, was merely a symbol of post-disaster recovery.

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Noboru Tsubaki's Pease Cracker (2014) partially obstructs the sidewalk that leads from JR Nada Station to the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art.

Associated with the Kansai New Wave movement of the 1980s, Noboru Tsubaki (born in Kyoto in 1953) was one of seven artists who participated in Against Nature, a now-legendary traveling exhibition of emerging Japanese art that began in San Francisco in 1989. Tsubaki's contribution, Fresh Gasoline, was a room-sized yellow mass with the appearance of a heart or some other internal organ, with spindly nerve-like branches growing out of the top. The exhibition title, coined by Tsubaki, was intended to counteract the Western stereotype of Japanese people living at one with nature. Fresh Gasoline established Tsubaki's reputation as a sculptor of massive forms, many of which combined elements of animals with mechanical parts to create vaguely threatening mutant organisms.

Occupying the middle of a sidewalk along Kobe's Museum Road, which runs from the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art to the Yokoo Tadanori Museum of Contemporary Art, is Tsubaki's Pease Cracker (2014). A gigantic pea pod extends from a stalk that is sprouting up out of the concrete. Near the front of the pod are a pair of powerful hands (one red, one green), which seem to belong to some sort of devilish creature, shooting up from the ground and breaking open the husk. The creature's fingers penetrate the shell like tendrils and emerge through the other side, and a few peas are scattered below on the sidewalk. The spelling of the word "pease" probably alludes to the fact that in Japanese the words "peas" and "peace" are homonyms, suggesting that some dark force is intent on causing unrest.

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Keiji Uematsu's Flower -- touch of spiral (2006) shares the plaza next to the Hyogo Performing Arts Center with a group of trees and benches.

Since the late 1960s, Keiji Uematsu (born in Kobe in 1947) has used stone, metal, and other materials to create sculptures that defy the laws of gravity, and to explore themes related to nature and the links between things terrestrial and cosmic. Among the artist's most common motifs are cones (some bright red, others metallic), which stand upright with their tips precariously balanced on a round stone; large rocks bridging a narrow gap between two horizontal stone blocks; and curved bronze branches with small twigs jutting out from them that hover in midair. Simple and attractive, Uematsu's work can be found in parks and around buildings all over Japan as well as in Germany, where he lived for many years. Currently based in Minoh, Osaka Prefecture, he has shown in numerous European galleries, and represented Japan at the 1988 Venice Biennale.

Uematsu is also part of an artistic dynasty that includes his wife Nobuko Watanabe, who stretches fabric across wooden frames to make pieces that recall color-field paintings with subtle dips and bulges; and the couple's two sons, Takuma Uematsu, a multimedia artist, and Atsushi Uematsu, a museum curator. Uematsu's 2006 sculpture Flower -- touch of spiral is installed in the plaza outside the Hyogo Performing Arts Center (immediately south of Hankyu Nishinomiya Kitaguchi Station). The work consists of a chiseled stone pillar topped with a thin swirl of bronze curving around a post to embody the flower of the work's title. A meter or so apart is a dimpled brownish stone slightly elevated from the ground on a low pedestal, suggesting perhaps the process by which unformed matter evolves into something of beauty and splendor.

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Chu Enoki's Amamama (1986) is a favorite stop for young visitors to Amagasaki Memorial Park.

For many years, the Kobe-based artist Chu Enoki (born in Kagawa Prefecture in 1944) held down a day job as a lathe operator in a metal-processing plant while using his free time to make art. This arrangement suited Enoki well. He had easy access to scrap metal and machine parts, which he repurposed into models of sci-fi cities, functional cannons and other firearms, and square tombstones whose centers have been melted into globs of metal dripping out of an empty space. Enoki also staged cutting-edge performances, such as shaving off the hair, mustache, and beard on one side of his head before embarking on a trip to Hungary, and then, after letting it grow back, shaving off the other side. He has also periodically donned women's clothing to bring to life an alter ego named Rose Chu (a reference to Marcel Duchamp's female persona Rrose Sélavy), who serves customers in a makeshift bar set up in a museum or other venue.

In 1986, Enoki was commissioned by Amagasaki to create a monument marking the city's 70th anniversary. The result is both a sculpture and a piece of playground equipment. Amamama, assembled from black pipes, resembles a huge insect with antenna fashioned out of insulator units from a utility pole, and spiny metal frills ornamenting its body. Children enter the beast through its hindquarters, and exit via a slide that serves as its mouth. Its tubular legs and abdomen provide many spaces to explore and hide in, and light seeps in through the insect's opaque glass eyes and small bumps that stud its body. Enoki apparently arrived at the design through a series of discussions with children. But not long after its completion, the work proved to be a magnet for homeless people, prompting the city to close it for several years. It took a letter-writing campaign to the mayor to reopen the park.

Under normal circumstances, we might well pass by public displays of art as something unworthy of our attention. But in times like these, all the givens are gone, leaving us with an opportunity to explore the unknown and rediscover things that have long since faded from view. Art is all around.


All photos by Christopher Stephens.


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Christopher Stephens
Christopher Stephens has lived in the Kansai region for over 25 years. In addition to appearing in numerous catalogues for museums and art events throughout Japan, his translations on art and architecture have accompanied exhibitions in Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, South Korea, and the U.S. His recent published work includes From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents (MoMA Primary Documents, 2012) and Gutai: Splendid Playground (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2013).
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