21st Century Museum | icon 020 | February 2005

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photo: David Levene

words Kieran Long

The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, does not look like a building responding to a crisis.

The low-rise, 112.5m-diameter glass circle is a beautiful, neutral piece of geometry, an idealised ovum that can be entered from four sides, with views through the glass skin extending deep into the building. Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa’s building is one of the calmest you could imagine.

But it is the crisis of late modernist culture that has produced this building and the institution it houses. The great, overarching theories of the modernist period (Marxism, technological advancement, psychoanalysis, functionalism and so on) now fail on their own to describe a contemporary culture that is richly diverse and narcissistically subjective. We now value low culture with high, and ready-made art no longer shocks us. Modernist grand narratives have been cannibalised and hybridised by a global postmodern culture in which everyone’s view is equally worthwhile.

As the canon of modernist art is rehung more opulently and comprehensively than ever in MoMA New York, this much smaller institution is attempting to show how a museum might reflect the diversity of contemporary art practice without describing it all from the privileged perspective of the Western tradition. The Kanazawa museum is starting with a whole new set of assumptions about the production of and the audience for art.

This institution’s self-image is contrary to the motivations of modernist art and curatorial practice, which it characterises as “the three Ms of ‘man’, ‘money’ and ‘materialism’. Kanazawa attempts to rethink the space of the museum and its collection policy as an extension of the multiple personalities that use the museum and are represented there. It calls itself a “catalytic device” that will show and collect forms of expression produced by “the three Cs of ‘consciousness’, ‘collective intelligence’, and ‘co-existence’. The museum also wants to turn away from the idea of the art expert always initiating an exhibition or collection, towards a situation where visitors themselves decide what is shown. “This museum dreams of a time when anyone can decide on what is of value, a time when anyone can become a curator,” says an essay published to mark the museum’s opening.

Despite this, Kanazawa also seems to take on the mantle of a MoMA for the 21st century in attempting to investigate “recent creative developments from Japan and abroad that it considers indicative of the evolution of artistic thought worldwide since 1980.” Just as MoMA took a portion of late 19th- and 20th-century art history that had been seen as a rebellious aberration and made it accepted as mainstream, Kanazawa attempts to identify and collect contemporary art that is different to what the curators call “the formerly dominant classic modernism of the West”.

Perhaps this rather high-flown mission is a simple matter of the Kanazawa museum distinguishing itself from its competitors on the international contemporary art trail. In the press material, it admits that there are over 300 art galleries around the world currently under construction or being refurbished. The consumer appeal of a brand like MoMA or Guggenheim cannot be reproduced by everybody, especially not in a provincial town of 500,000, one hour’s flight from Tokyo. So Kanazawa has had to be different.

The museum’s architecture is quietly radical. One of the chief aims is to democratise art and open the gallery to a broad audience, not through making a spectacular destination building but with a modest structure in the centre of the city with all the gallery spaces on ground level. Inside is a series of generous circulation spaces (there is only 4072sqm of exhibition space in a total area of 17,069sqm) containing four courtyards and white-box galleries of various proportions, some lit from skylights, others artificially.

The implication of the plan is clear. The configuration of the blocks within the embracing circle could easily be altered, and galleries could be made to function separately or in groups. The purity of their geometric forms makes the plan feel arbitrary, like a dense piece of city without a high street or plaza, pleasing and disorientating. There is no didactic sequence, no inherent narrative, allowing the visitor to make his or her own choices and discoveries.

The galleries are highly tuned and demand specific responses from artists. In the middle of the building is a perfectly round gallery, for example, while others are tiny. Gallery five, an all-glass enclosure in one of the courtyards, measures a mere 3m x 6m. These tailored rooms force the artworks to interact with, or at least acknowledge, the limits of the building. Anish Kapoor and James Turrell have taken this to extremes, with permanent installations in dedicated rooms. Kapoor’s The Origin of the World is a black hole in a sloping wall; Turrell’s Blue Planet Sky is a room like a Roman atrium, with part of the roof sharply cut away to reveal a section of sky.

The biggest criticism is that Sejima and Nishizawa ask us to believe in the building’s architectural conceits, rather than making us feel their effects. The plan is clearly approximating an urban arrangement, and making an analogy between the gallery and the city. But being in this building is not like being in a city street, more like being in a highly-appointed hospital with its monochrome colour scheme and long corridors. You feel the authorial intention rather than any poetic connections, despite the many thrilling moments, such as the four glazed courtyards.

But then there are artworks that produce the kind of narrative relationships in the building that can make you laugh out loud. On entering the very beautiful, flower-hung gallery six by Gerda Steiner and Joerg Lenzlinger, I noticed a door on the far side of the room that led to a long, descending corridor. At the end of this tapering passage, and through a small portal, is Brazilian artist Leandro Erlich’s swimming pool. From above, it looks like the fully clothed people in this installation are at the bottom of a full pool. On closer inspection it is revealed as a fake, with a layer of glass covered by just a couple of inches of water.

Such lavish postmodern wit contrasts strongly with the neutral white of the galleries. And that is the point. While the building feels cold and abstract, it allows for wonderful and unexpected relationships between pieces of art that benefit from juxtapositions. The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art allows relationships to develop between spectators and artworks without hierarchy or judgment.

And this is also the problem with the museum. Liberalism of this kind includes people but does not empower them. The language that the museum uses to describe itself is obscure but in the final reckoning banal, appealing to an undefined and vague common consciousness to drive it forward. Has any institution ever been successful as a result of a consensus?

If the museum really hopes to get visitors involved in the acquisition process then it seems unlikely that it will have an art collection of enduring quality, but perhaps that is to miss the point. The 21st Century Museum of Art is not about being a repository for art it decides is of quality. It is more like a curiosity shop, an agglomeration of objects and spaces that suggest their own logic and connections. And in this respect it will be dependent on the interaction of artwork and building to be succesful. But the museum has the luxury of not being judged against its name for another few decades.

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