“Hiroshima has a blank history,” says Akiko Goto, Public Relations Officer at the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (Hiroshima MOCA). “Because we lost everything from our past in the bombing, we have to look to the future. And what better way to envision that future than through art?”
Probably most people come to Hiroshima MOCA via the Mapuru-pu (Maple Loop) Bus, an hourly tour bus which stops on Hijiyama, the forested hill on which Hiroshima MOCA stands. The bus option works particularly well for those wishing to pop into the Hiroshima Manga Library, Japan’s only public graphic novel repository, since the bus stops essentially right between the library and Hiroshima MOCA.
However, today I’m taking a more leisurely route from the Aeon Mall on the north side of Hijiyama (accessible by the #4 bus, or on foot, from Hiroshima Station), where a set of long escalators awaits.
Best of all, this approach puts me in a position to wind my way up the hill toward Hiroshima MOCA through the beautiful greenery of Hijiyama. With numerous sculptures surrounding the museum, some expressive of the Hiroshima bombing, my art experience begins well before I reach the lobby. A perfect blend of art and nature.
In addition to seeking out works from new and emerging fields of art, Hiroshima MOCA also houses the largest repository of works related to Hiroshima — no surprise, considering their location and focus. With special exhibitions rotating seasonally, and permanent exhibits showcasing works from their collection arranged according to themes which change throughout the year, Hiroshima MOCA delivers a powerful array of contemporary art in every genre, and always has something new to see.
As I near the front of the building, one sculpture in particular catches my attention — a large, bronze gateway of sorts just down the steps from the entrance on what looks to be a viewing spot overlooking the city. Yet something about it seems to express a sense of finality, so I turn up the steps toward the museum, making a mental note to check it out when I reemerge.
As it turns out, the lookout spot faces toward ground zero of the atomic bombing, and was originally intended to accompany not only Hiroshima MOCA, but a proposed Hiroshima history museum as well. However, a lack of funding forced the city to postpone those plans.
Yet even without the planned history museum nearby, Hiroshima MOCA manages to represent the full spectrum of history all on its own. Designed by Kisho Kurokawa, the museum features a stone foundation on bottom, tile in the middle, and aluminum on top, as well as structural elements drawn from both Japanese and Western architecture. As a result, Kurokawa’s design embodies the transnational human progression from ancient to modern.
And yet despite occupying a hilltop, you can’t catch so much as a glimpse of Hiroshima MOCA’s evocative architecture without actually ascending Hijiyama and standing in front of it.
“Kurokawa didn’t want to break the Hijiyama landscape by putting a big building on top — so he subsumed most of the building into the hill.”
As the first public museum of contemporary art in Japan, established 1989 — and one of only four such museums in the nation even today — Hiroshima MOCA has a big role to play in Japan’s art scene.
“Because there are so many traditional arts in Japan, Japanese people often don’t have a lot of experience with contemporary art,” says Goto. “So we host workshops here at the museum and conduct community outreach through local schools.”
But their efforts to promote contemporary art aren’t confined to Hiroshima — or even Japan. Hiroshima MOCA also hosts exhibitions by winners of the Hiroshima Art Prize, which Hiroshima City awards every three years to artists whose work promotes the “Spirit of Hiroshima.”
So what is the “Spirit of Hiroshima?”
“Of course it involves a wish for world peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons,” says Goto, “but it goes much further. We also consider candidates who, through their art, address discrimination, poverty, gender issues, and so on, because those inequalities lead to conflict and war.”
The most recent recipient of the Hiroshima Art Prize, Mona Hatoum, creates art which draws on her experience as a Palestinian born into an exiled family to confront political oppression and the suffering of alienated people — subjects deeply connected with the “Spirit of Hiroshima.”
After touring their two galleries and film exhibition room, I head up to the cafe for a bite to eat. With a selection of fresh sandwiches, hot curries, coffee, and tea, Hiroshima MOCA clearly stands well equipped to satisfy hankerings for food and culture alike.
With lunch on the table, I take in a quiet meal and contemplate the artistic creations I’ve just seen.
At Hiroshima’s Peace Park, A-bomb Dome, and Peace Memorial Museum, you can see the physical ways that the atomic bombing affected people’s lives. But art shows us something inside. Hiroshima MOCA honors what happened in the past while looking forward to the future, and in so doing provides a look into Hiroshima that you can’t experience simply by viewing artifacts.
“As the number of hibakusha becomes smaller and smaller, the role of art, and the responsibility of Hiroshima MOCA, grows,” says Goto. “We want to show people all over the world what Hiroshima’s art can accomplish.”
At last I head outside to where the immense bronze gateway, a statue by Henry Moore appropriately called The Arch, leads toward a beautiful spot overlooking the city of Hiroshima.
Scanning my eyes over the modern metropolis below, I envision the broken nothingness from which it arose, and consider in turn the countless artists all over the world who, through their creations, continue to lend an immortal voice to the “Spirit of Hiroshima.” But on second thought, perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised at the towers which now crowd the once empty space.
For after all, nature abhors a vacuum — and art a blank canvas.
Photographs by Peter Chordas & MOCA Text by Peter Chordas