If you don’t pay attention while walking through the streets of downtown Yanaka on your way to SCAI the Bathhouse, you might very well miss it, just like I did. The sloped roof of the contemporary art gallery blends into the traditional architecture of the neighborhood, and there’s even a water tank outside that hints at the gallery’s past life as a 200 year-old bathhouse. The giveaway is the Anish Kapoor sculpture shining in the window.
At first glance, Anish Kapoor and SCAI the Bathhouse seem incompatible. The two-room gallery retains enough remnants of its former purpose to maintain the feel of a cozy neighborhood bathhouse; a tiled entryway with numbered shoe lockers, rickety sliding wood and glass doors, echoing high ceilings, and a flood of natural light. Kapoor, on the other hand, makes titanic art. Known for grand sculptures such as “Cloud Gate” (nicknamed “The Bean”) in Chicago’s Millennium Park, Kapoor makes art to be experienced and walked through. Physical space is a recurring theme in his work, and his pieces reflect and bend our reality.
This exhibit (through October 15) downsizes Kapoor’s larger-than-life work, concentrating it into two abstract drawings on scroll-like washi paper, several architectural models, and some discs and wall sculptures that steal the show.
The larger of the two fiberglass discs occupies nearly an entire wall, and if you’re patient enough, an entire gradient of color emerges from the gray and black surface. The smaller saucer is a galaxy of deep blues and grays, and flips the room—and you—upside down in its reflection. The hanging stainless steel sculptures are far from the monolithic pieces for which Kapoor is known. The oblong “Clip” nestles into the corner of the wall and reflects the room in dozens of different ways. “Alice-Double Circle” is a small protruding ring just large enough to frame a face if you look directly through it. It pays to stand and stare at these pieces for longer than seems necessary. They get better every second.
It’s strange to think of the sculpture giant Anish Kapoor contained within walls—especially those of a 200 year old former bathhouse on a quiet street in Yanaka. But it works. The surprises that emerge from, say, walking under “The Bean,” are still present in bite-sized pieces at SCAI. These pieces are comparatively micro but still complex, so you catch yourself at unexpected angles. And not just once, either. What you see in these sculptures shifts when you do, resulting in a constantly changing experience.
In one of these moments, I locked eyes with a Japanese woman who happened to be looking through the ring sculpture at the same time as I was. Expecting to see our own reflections but then being literally faced with each other, we both let out a shocked laugh. Kapoor’s piece is small, but it created a new space for that woman and me in that tiny room.
Make sure to pay attention when you’re walking through the streets of Yanaka in search of SCAI, and when you’re standing in front of Kapoor’s pieces housed inside it. You won’t want to miss either of them.
SCAI the Bathhouse. Tues-Sat 12pm-6pm. Kashiwayu-Ato, 6-1-23 Yanaka, Taito-ku. Tel:03-3821-1144. Closest station: Nippori. www.scaithebathhouse.com/en/