I wish I had a thousand-yen note for every journalist who, over the past decade, has asked me whether Japan is still as futurologically sexy as it seemed to be in the ’80s. If I did, I’d take one of these spotlessly lace-upholstered taxis over to the Ginza and buy my wife a small box of the most expensive Belgian chocolates in the universe.
I’m back to Tokyo tonight to refresh my sense of place, check out the post-Bubble city, professionally resharpen that handy Japanese edge. If you believe, as I do, that all cultural change is essentially technology-driven, you pay attention to Japan. There are reasons for that, and they run deep.
Dining late, in a plastic-draped gypsy noodle stall in Shinjuku, the classic cliché better-than-Blade Runner Tokyo street set, I scope my neighbor’s phone as he checks his text messages. Wafer-thin, Kandy Kolor pearlescent white, complexly curvilinear, totally ephemeral looking, its screen seethes with a miniature version of Shinjuku’s neon light show. He’s got the rosary-like anticancer charm attached; most people here do, believing it deflects microwaves, grounding them away from the brain. It looks great, in terms of a novelist’s need for props, but it may not actually be that next-generation in terms of what I’m used to back home.
Tokyo has been my handiest prop shop for as long as I’ve been writing: sheer eye candy. You can see more chronological strata of futuristic design in a Tokyo streetscape than anywhere else in the world. Like successive layers of Tomorrowlands, older ones showing through when the newer ones start to peel.
The world’s second-richest economy, after a decade of stagflation, still looks like the world’s richest place, but the global lea lines of money and hustle have invisibly realigned. It feels to me as though all that crazy momentum has finally arrived.
So the pearlescent phone with the cancer thingy gets drafted straight into props, but what about Japan itself? The Bubble’s gone, successive economic plans sputter and wobble to the same halt, one political scandal follows another … Is that the future?
Yes. Part of it, and not necessarily ours, but definitely yes. The Japanese love “futuristic” things precisely because they’ve been living in the future for such a very long time now. History, that other form of speculative fiction, explains why.
The Japanese, you see, have been repeatedly drop-kicked, ever further down the timeline, by serial national traumata of quite unthinkable weirdness, by 150 years of deep, almost constant, change. The 20th century, for Japan, was like a ride on a rocket sled, with successive bundles of fuel igniting spontaneously, one after another.
They have had one strange ride, the Japanese, and we tend to forget that.
In 1854, with Commodore Perry’s second landing, gunboat diplomacy ended 200 years of self-imposed isolation, a deliberate stretching out of the feudal dreamtime. The Japanese knew that America, not to be denied, had come knocking with the future in its hip pocket. This was the quintessential cargo-cult moment for Japan: the arrival of alien tech.
The people who ran Japan - the emperor, the lords and ladies of his court, the nobles, and the very wealthy - were entranced. It must have seemed as though these visitors emerged from some rip in the fabric of reality. Imagine the Roswell Incident as a trade mission, a successful one; imagine us buying all the Gray technology we could afford, no reverse engineering required. This was a cargo cult where the cargo actually did what it claimed to do.
They must all have gone briefly but thoroughly mad, then pulled it together somehow and plunged on. The Industrial Revolution came whole, in kit form: steamships, railroads, telegraphy, factories, Western medicine, the division of labor - not to mention a mechanized military and the political will to use it. Then those Americans returned to whack Asia’s first industrial society with the light of a thousand suns - twice, and very hard - and thus the War ended.
At which point the aliens arrived in force, this time with briefcases and plans, bent on a cultural retrofit from the scorched earth up. Certain central aspects of the feudal-industrial core were left intact, while other areas of the nation’s political and business culture were heavily grafted with American tissue, resulting in hybrid forms …
Walk into Junya Ishigami’s new office in the Roppongi neighbourhood of Tokyo, and the first thing you’ll notice between the model-laden desks and workstations is a large, gaping hole in the concrete floor slab. I peer down into the basement: a sea of models from past projects are haphazardly piled in stacks as far as the eye can see. Ishigami’s collaborators (relatively few, considering the office’s prodigious model output) seem to have become so accustomed to the abnormality of a gaping void in the office floor as to no longer notice it, and seem mildly baffled by my surprise. Like all exceptionally true visionaries, Ishigami operates by creating a powerful reality-distortion field, and the hole in the floor is perhaps the least exceptional thing his collaborators must learn to metabolise. Each project is an opportunity to question the basic assumptions of every aspect of architectural practice: from engineering to furniture and from climate control to circulation, Ishigami envisions a condition or an experience, then stretches architecture to the limits of impossibility to realise it. Much as with the James Turrell’s Skyspace installations, in which extraordinary lengths are taken to isolate the simplest of experiences—the act of observing the sky change colour — for Ishigami the experience is the architecture, and the envelope is simply a device that triggers the experience. As a result, there is an utter indifference to the effort required to produce this experience: Ishigami’s architecture runs the spectrum from near-impossible engineering challenges to simple gestures of displacement.
The distinction between three projects currently underway in the office provides a clear demonstration of this contrast. On the same campus of the Kanagawa Institute of Technology where in 2008 Ishigami completed the workshop building that first brought him worldwide recognition for its open plan interrupted only by the slenderest of columns, an even more ambitious endeavour is in the making. Like the partition-free workshop building, it confounds all existing labels for university-building typologies. Ishigami calls it a “cafeteria combined with a semi-outdoor multipurpose space”, and the awkwardness of this rather inelegant description only serves, when one is confronted by the model, to underscore just how extreme the project’s ambition is. On the one hand, the building is the simplest of gestures: a single room, and one with a rather low ceiling at that — 2,3 metres, low enough to be able to raise an arm and brush your hand against it.
On the other, it is one of the most phenomenal engineering challenges to have ever faced a university cafeteria, because this room is the size of a football pitch, and not a single column supports the roof throughout the entire span. This roof is a single, thin (nine-millimetre) sheet of tensioned steel, perforated by unsealed rectangular openings that allow light and elements to enter the space, creating a semi-enclosed garden. Above, a thin layer of soil transforms the roof itself into a landscape of grass and vegetation. It is simultaneously megastructural and intimate, effortless as a gesture and bewildering in its scale, and like Ishigami’s previous works it has a deeply human dimension: as the steel roof plate expands and contracts with changes in temperature, the ceiling height varies by as much as 80 centimetres, as though the building were alive and breathing.
Commissioned to design a home for elderly patients suffering from dementia, Ishigami again side-stepped the conventional route towards building-making. The brief specified the need for an architectural environment that the residents would easily be able to recognise, facilitating the process of identifying their own residence through the unique characteristics of each space. The proposed strategy employs a technique known in Japanese as Hikiya, or moving a house from one location to another without disassembling its structure: in place of a single building, the centre is composed of a multitude of wooden houses collected from villages throughout Japan. In fact, it’s very much like a small village compressed onto the site of a single building: the individual elements fit neatly into one architectural structure thanks to the tatami mat grid that governs most traditional Japanese domestic architecture.
It was a beautiful Thursday morning in May, and everything was going wrong. James Turrell had six days to prepare for the biggest museum exhibition of his life — 11 complex installation pieces at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — but he didn’t have a single work finished, and he was missing crucial parts.
He shuffled into the office of Lacma’s director, Michael Govan, and flopped into a chair with a sigh.
“I’m pretty concerned,” Turrell said. “You know, the computer that came back from Russia was completely wiped.”
Govan tapped a foot underneath the table. The computer was essential. Much of Turrell’s work consists of special rooms that are infused with unusual light, and the computer helps run the show. It had been in Russia for another exhibition, but something went awry in transit.
“There’s nothing in it,” Turrell said. “Nothing’s in it at all! Nothing.”
Govan shook his head calmly. “That happens in Moscow,” he said.
Turrell shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I guess,” he said. “I don’t have a piece that’s finished yet. You know, it’s getting late on everything.”
“Has the lens left Frankfurt?” Govan asked. This was another essential part.
“No, it hasn’t left Frankfurt,” Turrell said.
“I thought it did,” Govan said.
“No, no,” Turrell said. “It has not left Frankfurt. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Now it was Govan’s turn to sigh. “You should have been a painter,” he said. “Five years of planning, three months of construction, and there’s not one work of art.”
The plan had been simple on paper: Turrell would open three major shows inside a month. As soon as he finished the Lacma pieces, he would race to Texas for another huge installation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and then to Manhattan, where he is opening a show at the Guggenheim next week. Taken together, the three-museum retrospective is the biggest event in the art world this summer. As the curator of the Houston exhibition, Alison de Lima Greene, put it, “This is the first time that three museums have mounted exhibitions of this magnitude in conjunction, all devoted to a single artist.” In total, the retrospective takes up 92,000 square feet.
Assembling any Turrell show is a complicated affair. Unlike a show of paintings and sculpture, every piece must be built on site, and even more than with most installation art, his work requires elaborate modifications to the museum itself. Windows must be blocked off or painted black to obscure the outside light; zigzagging hallways are constructed to isolate rooms; and each of the rooms has to be built according to Turrell’s meticulous designs, with hidden pockets to conceal light bulbs and strange protruding corners that confuse the eye. Even the drywall must be hung and finished with exacting precision, so that each corner, curve and planar surface is precise to 1/64th of an inch. It can take hundreds of man-hours to finish a single room; he was erecting 11 at Lacma.
Turrell at 70 is a burly man with thick white hair and a snowy beard. He tends to dress in dark clothing, like Santa Claus in mourning. We had been spending a lot of time together as he prepared for the shows, and I had followed him to Los Angeles to see the final stages. After the conversation with Govan, I retreated outside and found a bench in the shade to do some reading. I expected to be there a while. Two hours later, I looked up and saw Turrell standing there with a smile. “Well,” he said, “we’ve got one ready. Come on, let’s take a look.”
I followed him inside the building, and we rode an elevator to the second floor. We stepped into a dim lobby filled with construction equipment. “This way,” he said, turning into a dark hallway. I walked behind, my hands groping for the walls. Turrell stayed a few steps ahead, muttering directions — “forward now, another step, this way, and turn” — until I rounded the final corner and saw the piece materialize before me. It was a looming plane of green light that shimmered like an apparition. The rush of blood to my head nearly brought me to my knees.
It is difficult to say much more about the piece without descending into gibberish. This is one of the first things you notice when you spend time around Turrell. Though he is uncommonly eloquent on a host of subjects, from Riemannian geometry to vortex dynamics, he has developed a dense and impenetrable vocabulary to describe his work. Nearly everyone who speaks and writes about Turrell uses the same infernal jargon. It can be grating to endure a cocktail party filled with people talking about the “thingness of light” and the “alpha state” of mind — at least until you’ve seen enough Turrell to realize that, without those terms, it would be nearly impossible to discuss his work. It is simply too far removed from the language of reality, or for that matter, from reality itself.
The piece that day at Lacma, for example, was one of his “Wedgeworks” series. The room was devoid of boundaries, just an eternity of inky blackness, with the outline of a huge lavender rectangle floating in the distance, and beyond it, the tall plane of green light stretching toward an invisible horizon, where it dissolved into a crimson stripe.
I suppose it would be fair to say that all of this was an illusion. The shapes and contours I saw were made entirely of light, while the actual walls of the room were laid out in a way I could never have guessed. When, after a few minutes, a museum worker accidentally flipped on a bright light, I was surprised to see a small chamber in the back, with a workman’s ladder propped against the wall. Turrell lurched toward the doorway in a panic, crying out, “What the hell are they doing?”
Other pieces by Turrell are even more disorienting. His “Dark Spaces” can require 30 minutes of immersion before you begin to see a swirling blur of color, while some of his rooms are so flooded with light that the effect is instantly overpowering. Stepping into one of his “Ganzfeld” rooms is like falling into a neon cloud. The air is thick with luminous color that seems to quiver all around you, and it can be difficult to discern which way is up, or out.
Not everyone enjoys the Turrell experience. It requires a degree of surrender. There is a certain comfort in knowing what is real and where things are; to have that comfort stripped away can be rapturous, or distressing. It can even be dangerous. During a Turrell show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1980, several visitors to a piece called “City of Arhirit” became unsteady in the bright blue haze and tried to brace themselves against a wall made of light. Some of them fell down. A few got hurt. One woman, who broke her arm, sued the Whitney and Turrell for more than $10,000, claiming that the show made her so “disoriented and confused” that she “violently precipitated to the floor.” Another visitor, who sprained her wrist, sued the Whitney for $250,000. The museum’s insurance company then filed a claim against Turrell, and although a member of the Whitney family put a stop to the suit, Turrell still gets sore thinking about it. He spent $30,000 to defend himself, but it’s not the money that bothers him the most. It’s the lingering feeling that the work didn’t … work.
“On some level,” he told me, “you’d have to say I failed.”