It seems almost axiomatic that most public art is bad. Like really, really mind-blowingly f*cking bad. And though it is often well intended, it is nevertheless bad. Not only is it often bad, it’s often controversial, often decided by committee, and often loathed by just about everybody but the artist commissioned to do the work (and even that’s not always a given) and the persons who championed the work and approved it.
But there are a lot of examples of great public art, too. And there are works that may be bad but are beloved by both the public at large and/or the art world itself. And of course there’s that sweet unicorn of scenarios where the art is good, even great, and it’s both a critical hit and popular with the public, a few par-for-the-course detractors aside. These are the signals of excellence to the noise of awfulness.
One standout of excellence is a large marble sculpture at Tokyo Midtown. The sculpture is titled “Ishinki” by the artist Kan Yasuda. It sits in a circular space partially surrounded by curved benches in an underground plaza across from a Muji store and an information desk, bathed in natural sunlight under an oculus window.
The location is important here. Tokyo Midtown is a massive, bustling complex of high-rise office and luxury residential towers linked together underground and above by a multi-level shopping center filled with restaurants, expensive boutiques, a supermarket, a Ritz-Carlton hotel, a couple of museums, cafes and more, all connected to several different subway stations on a massive footprint of valuable central-Tokyo real estate at the most fashionable end of a fashionable neighborhood called Roppongi, a lively artworld and nightlife destination.
In spite of its name, most people we talk to refer to “Ishinki” as the “Midtown Egg” or “Tokyo Egg” because of its shape and location. At most angles and most distances, it resembles a very large pale-gray egg. But on one side of the sculpture is a smooth cave-like gap big enough for a child to comfortably lie in and slide around.
It’s no surprise then that it’s a magnet for kids. Invariably, aside from the tired shoppers resting on the benches, there are usually a few children hanging around, with one or two at a time climbing into “Ishinki,” despite a very obvious sign telling people not to climb on the sculpture. The sign is flagrantly ignored by everybody. Parents stand by watching their kids take their turns in the egg and taking Instagram photos with their iPhones. That little cave-like gap is its magic.
“Ishinki” itself is abstract and inscrutable, devoid of any commentary or statement beyond its inherent curvilinear aesthetics of form, material and color. It’s plain but attractive. Obvious and yet mysterious. Looking at it reminds me of something a friend once said when describing some artwork they had seen at a party of some absurdly wealthy person’s home: It’s art for people with a lot of money and very little imagination. But depending on the viewer, its blankness invites imagination: “What is it? What does it mean?”
So “Ishinki” works. It’s a suitable artwork for this place, at this time. And it’s practical, functional and fun in an understated way that’s often taken for granted with public artwork — it’s a landmark, a shared point of reference for people to meet up, take a break, and let their kids blow off steam while they rest their weary shoppers’ bones. It’s just the right soothing aesthetic object for a place like an underground plaza, across from a Muji store, in a shopping complex filled with luxury shops in a fashionable neighborhood in central Tokyo. It’s beautiful.