Director’s Desk: Dispatches From Japan

Teshima Museum

Here, a long-looking interlude in Teshima Art Museum collaboration between architect Ryue Nishizawa and artist Rei Naito.

Hard to believe it’s been over a month since we took a Phillips trip to Japan as part of our travel program. Over the course of a week and a half, we traveled to Tokyo, Kyoto, Kurashiki, Naoshima, and Takamatsu. Here are a few snapshots of the people, places, and studios we visited.

Benesse Museum Naoshima

Wonderful view from the Benesse House Museum designed by Tadao Ando on the island of Naoshima.

Dorothy and Gormley on Naoshima

In the elegant Benesse House Hotel. Makes me think back to the great Antony Gormley installation here at the Phillips in 2012.

2015TPCinJapan_TUA Studio Visit with artist James Jack1

Enjoying a studio visit with artist and professor James Jack at the Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai). The pigments of each of these squares is composed with one dirt sample collected from various sites at which the artist has lived.

Kiyomizu Temple Kyoto_side by side

Our trip also embraced the traditional arts if Japan. We visited the Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto where the serene garden made me think of the Impressionists’ deep love of all things Japonisme.

Meiji Shrine Tokyo

We learned a lot from the Shinto priest who accompanied us on our visit to the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.

2015TPCinJapan_DK and Mr.Ohara outside Ohara  Museum in Kurashiki

Meeting Mr.Ohara outside the Ohara Museum of Art in Kurashiki.


I adored this gorgeous work by Hiroshi Sugimoto that the artist showed our group. It is an interpretation of a historically important screen, a national treasure.

Postcards from Japan and A Tokyo Night

The museum’s Annual Gala took place last week with the theme “Postcards from Japan,” followed by the Contemporaries Bash: A Tokyo Night at Dock 5 at Union Market. Check out photos from the festivities below.

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Table setting at this year’s “Postcards from Japan” themed Annual Gala. Photos: Pepe Gomez

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Guests enjoying the Contemporaries Bash: A Tokyo Night. Photo: Pepe Gomez

Tokyo Night_pepe gomez

Guests enjoying the Contemporaries Bash: A Tokyo Night. Photo: Pepe Gomez

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Guests enjoying a SnoCream truck at the Contemporaries Bash: A Tokyo Night. Photo: Pepe Gomez

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Guest at the Contemporaries Bash: A Tokyo Night

Other-Worldliness: The Rothko Room, Laib Wax Room…and Japanese Tea Rooms


The Rothko Room, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Photo: Ben Resine

Intimate relationships with artworks invite us into the artist’s world, in which we are all equal.

As intimacy is essential for communication in human society, this experience is also very important for communicating and connecting with modern art; it is the intimate relationship between art appreciators and the artworks themselves that encourages viewers to think about the concepts and philosophy behind a piece.

In The Phillips Collection, a personal connection with the art is provoked by the special environment—intimate, immersive rooms. The museum also has two permanent installations which are significantly smaller than other galleries—the Rothko Room and the Laib Wax Room. Because these installations are set apart from the rest of the galleries—rooms entirely designed or created by the artists themselves—they evoke a unique sense of other-worldliness. Upon stepping inside, we feel the artworks and the artists with all of our senses, as if we know them very well, regardless of how much we know about the artists’ lives. This experience allows us to feel as if we are isolated from the real world and invited to the world of the artists.

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The Laib Wax Room. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

As a native of Japan, I find the experience of the Rothko Room and Laib Wax Room similar to that of a Japanese traditional small tea room. While not all Japanese tea rooms are small, some are deliberately so, for other-worldliness is the basic concept of the design. Additionally, it is interesting to note that the rooms are small in order to make people confront the tea, the teamaker, and the ritual behind creating and drinking it. The smallness of the rooms creates an intimate relationship between people and their tea.

There are also similarities in atmosphere. When a tea ceremony takes place in the small tea rooms, tension floats among the participants, which gives the ceremony a ritualistic feeling. This distinctive atmosphere can be also experienced in the Rothko Room and the Laib Wax Room by virtue of the closeness and the visual perception of the environments, which remind me of churches or the tombs of ancient Egypt. The solemn atmosphere often makes me both interested and hesitant to enter. My footsteps slowed as I entered these rooms—I would describe the experience as a feeling of awe.

However, there is a difference between the Rothko and Laib Wax Rooms and Japanese tea rooms; the size of the entrances. Doorways into tea rooms are so small that most people need to stoop down to get in, requiring each person to bend his or her head as if bowing. As you may know, the act of bowing is the traditional Japanese way of showing respect. Performing this act upon entering shows that social class is not valid in the tea ceremony; everyone enters as equals. Although the entrances of the Rothko and Laib Wax Rooms are of normal size, the same idea can be applied. Social status has no use in these artists’ worlds, as we are isolated from the real world.

Aya Takagi, Curatorial and Center for the Study of Modern Art Intern