The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art at Kanazawa, Japan

By Debbie Cheung

I have always wanted to return to Japan since my last visit there as an exchange student fourteen years ago. Opportunities to travel overseas for extended periods of time diminish as my life gets busier with work. That said, this winter I decided to embrace my broken Japanese and hopped on a plane to Asia.

For about two weeks, I roamed the streets of Tokyo, Kanazawa, Kyoto, and Osaka in search of independent and publicly-funded galleries and museums. Kanazawa impressed me the most with its preservation of the old and creation of the new. Located on the west coast of Honshu, the small historical city has an award winning art museum designed by Japanese architect Kazuyo Seijima and Ryue Nishizawa (SANAA), the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (CMCA).

The open ground outside of 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

Situated in close proximity to Kenroku-en, one of the three great gardens of Japan, the museum was designed as a single-level circular building dressed in glass windows. Surrounded by open green space, the CMCA is both a park and a museum. Visitors can enter the cylindrical structure at four cardinal points and enjoy some of the permanent exhibits for free.

Many of the public pieces in the outdoor area were created with the community in mind. Florian Claar’s Klangfeld Nr.3 für Alina (2004), for example, invites visitors to communicate with each other through twelve pairs of tuba-like megaphone pipes. Another popular piece is Olafur Eliasson’s Colour Activity House (2010). The installation echoes the form of the museum with its curved transparent colour panels, allowing visitors to experience different shades of colour as the sun moves from east to west.

Colour Activity House, Olafur Eliasson, 2010


The feeling of lightheartedness continues inside the museum with Leandro Erlich’s The Swimming Pool (2004). A full size pool is installed in one of the courtyards and here visitors are confronted with the surreal scene of people walking under water as if they are on land. The exhibition spaces are mostly lit by natural daylight through glass walls and moveable transparent dividers, which created a sense of openness and fluidity.

The Swimming Pool, Leandro Erlich, 2004. See the slideshow below to see how
Erlich defies the law of physics.

As I wandered from one exhibition to another, I realized the programs offered at the museum are quite diverse and multicultural. It’s exhilarating to see the abstract paintings of French artist Monique Frydman displayed in rooms adjacent to the sock-puppets and stuffed animals created by the public who attended the workshops of Japanese artists Shugeibu and Hideki Toyoshima. The project Home Disco, by visiting artist Peter MacDonald, is also a lot of fun. The public is invited to create art and perform with MacDonald in a stage-like room furnished with beanbags, giant speakers, and a DJ turntable.

The gallery room where Home Disco takes place

Paintings by UK-based artist Peter MacDonald

It is difficult to host exhibitions with such diverse topics under one roof without causing some confusion, but the CMCA is able to do this with its accessible, fluid space. I was impressed by the museum’s attention to detail and dedication to the local community. It also showed me that an internationally acclaimed museum does not necessarily require wavy steel exterior panels or an impressive grand entrance. On this rare January sunny day in Kanazawa, I was truly inspired by simplicity.

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