Japan’s Best Sculpture Parks | Where Art Meets the Open Air

Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima, Japan
Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima, Japan | Photo by Skaterlunatic on Unsplash
Cassandra Naji

Nature and aesthetics have long had a special relationship in Japanese culture, from the ideals of wabi-sabi to the centrality of the landscape in Shinto Buddhism. The country’s contemporary sculpture parks explore this cultural interplay between nature and art in a modern context, providing new perspectives on the sculpture and on the culture of Japan itself.

Seasonality, landscape and garden design have shaped the development of Japan’s art and aesthetics for hundreds of years. Across the island nation today, sculpture parks showing contemporary works continue to develop that intimate relationship. Whether within the walls of Japanese gardens like the Noguchi Museum, or across an entire archipelago at the Benesse Art Site, open-air sculpture parks in Japan breathe new, contemporary life into ancient traditions.

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Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum

Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, Takamatsu

Amongst the most famous names in Japanese contemporary sculpture is that of Isamu Noguchi, a sculptor, artist and designer who foregrounded the harmonious interaction of space and form in his work. During his 60-year career, Noguchi created sculpture, gardens, stage sets and landscaped environments, a multifarious life’s work that culminated in the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum on the island of Shikoko. The museum, which is located in Noguchi’s former studio, includes over 150 of the sculptor’s works on display in a traditional Japanese garden setting. By preserving the atmosphere of the studio as it was in Noguchi’s time, and archiving scholarly material on his life and work, the Garden Museum has become not only one of Japan’s most popular sculpture parks, but also a renowned forum for Noguchi critical discourse. The 150 Noguchi sculptures on display, many of which are still unfinished, are typical of the sculptor’s naturalistic style. Often rough and apparently hewn by the elements rather than human hand, the stone sculptures have a monolithic quality that belies their formal complexity. The garden as a whole is sculptural in its design, encapsulating Noguchi’s belief in ‘the universality of art, especially sculpture.’

Moerenuma Park

Moerenuma Park

The Noguchi-designed Moerenuma Park in Sapporo also takes a holistic approach to outdoor sculpture. Located on a former landfill site, Moerenuma Park is an ambitious large-scale ‘circular greenbelt conception’, a loop of green space running around the northerly city of Sapporo, linking several different recreational areas. Noguchi designed the loop with the idea of ‘the whole being one single sculpture’, binding together landscape and art in one concept. Rather than merely providing an open-air background for works of art, the Moerenuma Park is a living part of Sapporo citizens’ lives: the onset of snow sees skiers descend on the area’s many hills, and the air conditioning systems of the park’s structures are powered by snow-energy, a region-specific innovation.

Moerenuma Park is full of unusual structures that improve urban living: the Music Shell, a 15 metre-wide curved structure, acts as a stage for summer performances; the Aqua Plaza is a slow-flowing spring and constructed stream into which park visitors can dangle their feet to cool off; the Sea Fountain, a ‘sculpture of water’ that jets 25 meters into the air, is the realization of Noguchi’s lifelong love of fountains.

Kirishima Open Air Museum

At the opposite end of Japan, on the southern-most island of Kyushu, the Kirishima Open Air Museum takes a more traditional approach to the sculpture park concept. Containing works by the likes of Anthony Gormley, James Turrell and Anish Kapoor, Kirishima Museum also features a large number of Japanese-made contemporary sculptures, many of which demonstrate the tongue-in-cheek critical perspective of Japan’s artists today. Takashi Murakami, one of the top-selling artists in the world in recent years, is represented by the typically cartoonish Physical Pie, a conglomeration of soft furnishings and brightly colored bowling balls that, like much of Murakami’s work, seems light-hearted but is actually a critique on popular culture and mass production in Japan. Yayoi Kusama’s High Heel, an oversize scarlet stiletto decorated with Kusama’s signature polka dots, conveys a sense of ‘unknown happiness’, in the artist’s own words: ‘The red high heel was filled with happiness, the happiness that knows no bounds. Where shall I go wearing it?’ The sense of possibility conveyed by High Heel becomes all the more poignant when considered in the context of Kusama’s personal circumstances: suffering from debilitating mental illness for much of her life, the artist has voluntarily spent the last three decades in a psychiatric institution.

Hakone Open Air Museum

In 1969, the Hakone Open Air Museum became Japan’s first dedicated outdoor art museum. Taking to heart Henry Moore’s assertion that ‘sculpture is an art of the open air’ the Hakone Museum displays one of the world’s most extensive collections of Moore’s work in 70,000 square meters of garden nestled in the Hakone mountains. Moore’s conviction that sculpture is best appreciated in the open air informed his creative process, and the 26 works in the Hakone collection are organic forms sculpted from natural materials such as stone, shell, wood and bone, sitting harmoniously in Hakone Open Art Museum’s rural setting.

The Museum’s Moore collection is complemented by over 100 works from some of the world’s most famous sculptors, such as France’s Auguste Rodin, or Joan Miro from Catalunya. Pieces by these canonical Modernist-era sculptors are interspersed with Hakone’s more contemporary works, such as Niki de St Phalle’s Miss Black Power, a gargantuan sculptural paean to feminism and the fight for racial equality, or Arnaldo Pomodoro’s softly rotating sphere Sfera con Stera, a sister work to one found in Vatican Museums in Italy.

Although the majority of works on show at Hakone are the work of non-Japanese sculptors, the museum retains a connection to the traditions of Japan in its relation to the surrounding countryside. The region is celebrated for its hot springs, or onsen, and the sculpture park incorporates a hot spring footbath within site of its symphonic sculpture collection. The sculpture on show is also rotated according to the seasons, in keeping with the importance given to seasonality in traditional Japanese culture.

Benesse Art Site

Naoshima, a small town on an island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea with a population of less than 4,000, seems an unlikely location for one of the region’s most innovative public art projects. But in 1992 businessman Tatsuhiko Fukutake decided to set up the Benesse Art Site on the island, creating a cultural counterpoint to hectic modern Japan. Since then the Benesse Art Site has grown to encompass: Benesse House, a museum-hotel where patrons can live among the art works; the Chichu Art Museum, a contemporary art museum built almost entirely underground; and the Art House Project, an ongoing initiative which transforms Naoshima’s disused houses into works of art.

Site-specific sculptures are found scattered across the whole island, dotting the shoreline and interspersed amongst the streets of Naoshima. Yayoi Kusama’s polka-dotted Pumpkin sits overlooking the Seto Inland Sea at the end of a deserted jetty and in a former dentist’s studio Shinro Ohtake has created a ‘sculptural scrapbook’ of neon light and a two storey replica of the Statue of Liberty. Works by others, such as Korea’s Lee Ufan and Nam June Paik, Japan’s Kan Yasuda, and English sculptor Anthony Gormley, are on display as well, reaching to neighboring islands and transforming the Kagawa archipelago into a living art project.

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