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Tokyo: Future and the Arts - Barbara Roether

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

Mori Art Tower at Roppongi:

Future and the Arts: AI, Robotics, Cities, Life:

How Humanity Will Live Tomorrow:

What is true affluence? What is it to be human? What is life?

by Barbara Roether

The Mori Tower at Roppongi is a short walk from where I live. The walk takes me along the edge of Arigusawa park, with its ponds and bridges, up the hill, then past the long façade of the Chinese Embassy. The façade is decorated with giant photographs of the wonders of China, rice fields, rivers, the Buddhas of Dunhuang and Shanxi, carved into the sides of cliffs 1500 years ago. The tower is vast, a modern monument, clad in glass and circular. Simply finding the right entry way into the complex is challenging. In Tokyo I am often lost or finding my way from being lost or actually arriving. Thousands of other people are lost in the same uncertainty, grasping their phones as Google maps propels their steps along the incomprehensible streets. I am reminded of sleepwalkers, being guided by objects in a dream.

The Mori Art Museum takes up the top floor of the tower, two escalators and an elevator, which is filled precisely by a beautiful escalator woman who thanks us for stepping in, before we ascend to the Tokyo City View observation deck, where the galleries also begin. The view of Tokyo curves around in all directions. The city below looks like an image that has been pixilated, so many small buildings, straight edges, overlapping boxes, each pixel another someone’s home. I can see my neighborhood but I am also forced to see that it is but a tiny section of the giant swathe of buildings, pale and white that stretch to the horizon. I realize that the illusion I have sometimes of feeling familiar with Tokyo is just that, an illusion. I have no idea what all that is. It is hard not to think of all the people living alone, or in ignorance of each other in such a landscape. We think of the future but who will share it, what awareness will residents of any city have, of sharing a future together? In the distance, a thin line of blue, the Bay, the water, the reminder that we are on an Island.

The exhibits seem to speak directly to the view out the window. There is a room full of high tech models envisioning future cities. There are cities that float, an answer to rising sea levels. Floating cities can be moved around like barges. There is a city made of plants that grow inside of white plastic hives. There are cities made of wood and paper that can be taken down and rearranged as populations and industries change. Most of old Edo and other parts of Japan were made of paper and wood a long time ago, that’s why they kept burning down. Why are we attached to permanence? The Japanese love to think of change. Adapt to it.

The future of food may be a digital printer that looks like a giant carnival vending machine. Ground up crickets, high in protein and mixed with soy are put in the funnel on the right, press the button and voila, a beautiful bento box lunch comes out. The cricket bento is one of many insect alternatives offered.

In the next room, children are petting robot dogs and other cute robots that have big eyes that blink. There is a very old woman wearing fuzzy slippers, who pets the plastic dog and talks to it. Next, a room of projections, in random sequence and sizes, all the faces in the room as they move through coming and going, and the images move as well, flowing across the white walls then disappearing it is a virtual melting pot, and the Japanese who have never been a melting pot seem to love this room. They are not shy of looking at themselves. Or each other. I go out and come back in. My image is projected across the images of other faces. The museum is crowded, it’s a Sunday soon after New Years, people of all ages are here. Everyone is dressed up, museums are a formal sort of occasion, looking at art is serious.

There are other exhibits. I skip some of the films of Tala Madani, and a photo exhibit of fictional babies who have been surgically altered. I’m not really interested in degradation of the body.

Out in the exit hall, a female attendant in a black uniform ushers us back into the elevators for the final descent. She puts both hands together and bows deeply, before the doors close. On the descent down I’m haunted by her bow. This ancient gesture made amidst the unfathomable technologies of the future. It seems like the farewell scene in a sci-fi movie, they load the last spaceships from a doomed earth. Farewell it seems to say, and good luck to humanity.

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