Designed by the ubiquitous Tadao Ando and planned by the Miyake Issey Foundation, 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT is the brainchild of several of the biggest names in Japanese design. Built as part of the new Tokyo Midtown complex, it opened in 2007 with the ambitious aim of serving as "a place where people can view the world through design ... not so much a museum as a research center for design." In fact, however, the facility seems to be run rather straightforwardly as a design museum with regular exhibitions and occasional workshops and lectures. That said, 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT is inarguably one more feather in the cap of Roppongi, the entertainment district that seems to have embarked on a relentless image upgrade as it adds one museum after another to its resume.
For one thing there is the building itself. A low-slung, space-age, one-story structure is all that is visible on the surface, but the deceptively modest footprint extends down into a cavernous subterranean space with two galleries and a sunken courtyard (only the lobby is on ground level), with a total of 1,700 square meters of floor space.
In the facility's first year of operation, Miyake and his fellow directors appeared to be taking turns organizing shows around their own pet projects. This year, however, they have been handing the reins over to a series of guest curators. The current exhibition, "Whispered Prayers," which will remain up through 23 September, is directed by Katsumi Asaba, another prominent designer who describes himself as an "explorer of the world's written languages." And indeed that is what his show is about, at least in part.
The entire production is entertaining if a bit scattershot in a self-indulgent way (one wall is covered with pages from Asaba's own journal). Divided into two sections, half of the show is devoted to "The World of Written Languages." These exhibits range from a wallful of newspapers in different languages, to a colorful series of posters by designer Kohei Sugiura featuring iconic uses of characters, to an exhaustive presentation on the pictographic Dongba script used by the Naxi tribe of southwest China (evidently a subject of intensive research by Asaba). One of the most delightful exhibits in this section is a small gallery where words from a poem by Andreas Muller swim randomly back and forth across the wall like schools of little fish in an aquarium.
The other half of the show, the ambiguously titled "Traces of Human Thought," features works that seem only obliquely related to language; what many of them share with written text appears to be the power inherent in repetition. Among the most intriguing, even poignant, are a collection of blank envelopes hand-folded over the course of 15 years by octogenarian carpenter Hiromu Kouzaki (the 700 on display are a mere fraction of his total output -- 5,000 envelopes!), another wall covered with 650 rough, colorful little prints of the Buddhist deity Acala (Fudo Myo-o) by woodblock artist Yasuhiko Kida, and a row of two dozen tiny, primitive-looking houses, made with earth from the mountains of ceramic artist Jissei Omine's home island of Okinawa.
Whether the iterative nature of these works was the point or not, I don't know, but they produced a cumulative impact with greater emotional heft than the edifying but drier exhibits next door devoted to the written word. Director Asaba was wise to leaven his linguistic tour-de-force with these text-free works.