New exhibits at Haifa's Tikotin Museum showcase unique Japanese art

The works of artists Yasuhiro Suzuki and Dani Karavan are on display at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art in Haifa.

Muro Art Forest Sky Tower by Dani Karavan (photo credit: Courtesy)
Muro Art Forest Sky Tower by Dani Karavan
(photo credit: Courtesy)

When Japanese designer Yasuhiro Suzuki discussed which works would be featured in “Blinking,” his new exhibition at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art in Haifa, he asked curator Etty Glass Gissis what attitude Israelis have to waiting.

This bit of news led to a ripple of laugher in the audience – art reporters who headed north on Thursday to cover the new exhibition and were presented with Suzuki’s prerecorded talk in the museum’s auditorium. Israelis, the knowing laughter seemed to signify, are not famous for queuing.

Suzuki’s gentle works, an apple with a constellation on its skin, scales which weigh lightness, seem to humbly approach the Israeli audience and offer it something wonderful, if it can keep quiet and wait a while.

Suzuki discussed a well-known Japanese anecdote concerning military generals and swallows. The first general says: “If it does not sing, we shall kill it.” The second general says: “If it does not sing, we shall compel it by force.” The third general says: “If it does not sing, we shall wait until it does.” He was filmed holding a model of a bird. Now perching on the branches of the Tikotin garden, a large plastic cuckoo was built as part of the exhibition. It does indeed sing for those who wait.

While still we were in the auditorium, Ambassador to Japan Gilad Cohen, who stepped into the position in October, lauded the role of the Tikotin Museum in his own prerecorded message as building “a bridge between these two ancient and splendid civilizations.”

General Director of Haifa Museums Yotam Yakir, who came in person, called Tikotin “a pearl” and hinted at the need for an expansion of the museum. “One or two extra floors should be built to expand this space, which offers something no other place has.”

Writing about Suzuki’s work for this paper in 2005, then shown as part of the Israel Museum group exhibition “Rising Sun, Melting Moon,” the late Meir Ronen referred to Suzuki’s Blinking Leaves – an artificial tree to which visitors are invited to insert paper leaves which depict an open eye on one side and a closed one on the other. An air current inside the tree carries the leaves up and below, causing them to “blink” as they twirl on descent.

Ronen tied Suzuki’s eye motif to the round eyes of Anima characters and “stylized cuteness” which the Japanese call Kawaii.

His intuition was correct; Suzuki does offer Kawaii-style works. His Ginkaku-ji Chocolate, an aluminum foil-covered chocolate model of the 1490 Zen Temple of Shining Mercy in Kyoto, is one. Called the Silver Temple, it is not actually covered in silver. In contrast, the 1397 Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Temple) Kyoto Zen temple is covered in gold.

“So tourists are always asking why Ginkaku-ji is not likewise covered in silver,” Glass Gissis told us, making the work a funny and cute response to that question.

In 2004 Suzuki created the Ship of the Zipper and created an illusion on Lake Hamana. The two spume lines created by the ship’s passage created the image of the lake as a huge fly being opened.

 Zip-Fastener Ship by Yasuhiro Suzuki (credit: Courtesy)
Zip-Fastener Ship by Yasuhiro Suzuki (credit: Courtesy)

All these works and more are now in Tikotin. They were previously presented in the 2011 exhibition “BORDER – Earth, Blinking, Apples, Me” at Hamamatsu City Art Museum and collected in the Japanese 2012 catalogue Blinking and Flapping.

To my mind, the cuteness of Suzuki’s works does not exclude a deadly sense of purpose.

His 2011 Compass of Japanese Islands, a tiny magnetized model of Nippon floating in a water glass, will always point to the true north. The work is shown next to other artistic takes on the Japanese homeland; the 2014 Bench of the Japanese Islands is one example.

These are creative approaches to a very real thing, the homeland, its defense, and the cost of such security. When the Second World War ended, the Imperial Japanese Army dumped Type 4 Chi-To tanks into lake Hamana; they were never found. Suzuki’s “fly” would discover them – had it been real.

A similar work, depicting the Jewish homeland, would raise very uneasy questions of what will be the borders of the model floating in the water glass.

THE OTHER exhibition now on offer, “The Japan of Dani Karavan,” is totally different, as it explores the deep connection Karavan felt toward Japanese culture and presents the audience with his little-known (here) open-space works at Muro Art Forest in the city of Uda (historically, Muro was a village and is now a part of the city) and at the Sapporo Art Park in Sapporo, Hokkaido.

Bereshit, at the Kirishima open-air museum on Kyushu marks the impact Karavan had in Japan – his works are presented on the islands from the south (Kyushu) to the north (Hokkaido).

Kirishima means “Mist Island,” and when one stands in the corridor that leads to the view offered by Bereshit (Genesis) the eye sees what the Japanese call emptiness (Ma), the artist noted in an article included in the catalogue of this exhibition.

For this exhibition, Tikotin workers uncovered the marble floors that originally adorned the hall, offering a living connection to the history of this important museum.

While describing the massive work at Muro Art Forest, Glass Gissis used the large-scale model presented to explain how deeply it connects to Japanese culture. It was built to serve a practical purpose as well as an artistic one: to prevent landslides, which is why it was funded by the Japanese National Ministry for Land, and hundreds of trees were planted in the park during the eight years it took to complete it (1998-2006).

It is also deeply spiritual, with the eighth-century Muro Temple, a major site in Shingon Buddhism, being so close by. Even before the dharma reached China, and later Japan, from India, the land was sacred to a dragon spirit (Zennyo Ryuo), which is still worshiped today.

Writing in the catalogue for this exhibition, Setagaya Art Museum Director Sakai Tadayasu quotes Karavan as having said that “it is only in such a space that I can contribute.”

What Karavan made is an elaborate journey, which includes The Tower of the Sky. Visitors can climb it to reach heaven, then walk to the darkness within. The work combines sunlight and darkness to allow the eye of the visitor to adjust and then behold the rice fields stretching in front of him. These fields are still cultivated today, creating a link between the natural world, art and food.

In her own article, Glass Gissis recommends to visit Muro Temple and climb its steps, before visiting the tower the Israeli artist built.

Karavan’s skillful usage of “clear geometric shapes of circle, triangle and square” brings to her mind the famous Edo period ink drawing The Universe by Buddhist monk Sengai Gibon. Together, she explains, “they are the basis of the whole universe.”

These two exhibitions bode well for Tikotin. Perhaps future shows will allow Israeli art lovers more comparisons between the two cultures. Personally, I would love to see the 2019 video and instillation work The Angels of Testimony by Meiro Koizumi, based on his interview with a war veteran from the Second Sino-Japanese War, coupled with, say, the paintings of David Reeb. Perhaps, with some luck and grace, we could all afford to look beyond Kawaii.

“Blinking” will be on display until April 23. “The Japan of Dani Karavan” has no closing date listed. The public is invited to enjoy guided tours of both exhibitions on Saturday, November 20, at 11 a.m. and noon, free of charge. This is part of the Israeli Saturday initiative, which offers the public free museum tickets during the weekend upon preregistration.

Ticket prices start at NIS 35 for an adult, NIS 25 for those between the ages of five and 18 years of age, children below the age of five enter for free. So do olim during their first year of immigration.

Call (04) 838-3554 or email: for tickets. Tikotin Museum is at 89 Hanassi Boulevard, Haifa. Opening Hours: Sunday and Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday from noon to 8 p.m. Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.