Chapter 9. A Pile of Problems

*

Niki and Yoko

 From a Shitamachi Okami to a Niki de Saint Phalle Collector

*

*

Written by Yuki Kuroiwa

 

Translated by Nasuka Nakajima

 

*

Chapter 9. A Pile of Problems 

*

Symbol of Oppressive Tradition

 

Yoko was troubled. A few weeks before, she had sent Niki several books of photographs showing Japanese shrine and temple structures since Niki wanted visual inspirations for the Niki Museum. Consequently, Niki had suggested that she design the museum roof after old temples in Kyoto. That was the source of Yoko’s trouble.

While Yoko was impressed with the beauty of traditional Japanese architectural style, it also reminded her of Japan’s authoritarianism and war experience in her childhood. Because of the torment and subsequence anger, Yoko had sought totally new and liberal values after the war.

She explained her anguish in a letter to Niki:

I understand that you pay attention to the Japanese traditional structure, because of your respect to my being a Japanese national.

But dear Niki, dating back in Japanese history, many shrines and temples in this country were built as symbols of authoritarianism. Consequently, when I look at Japanese traditional architecture — in that it derived from Shintoism and Japanese Buddhism — I am forced to fall in antimony. As I mentioned before, I was shocked by your works. Your strength swept off the heavy pressure, which is peculiar to the traditional Japanese social system. I esteem your own work, your originality that is not at all bound by any tradition.

Shortly, Yoko received a reply from Niki. It was a colorful illustrated letter, with the drawings of a hand, a flower and a snake.

Thank you for your wonderful, fascinating letter. I am happy to make you a place to dream. Beautiful dreams and no more nightmares. My idea at the moment is to make you a huge sculpture of “Oiseau Amoureux” (Bird in Love) 20 meters high standing near the museum (not inspired by Japanese temples!) As soon as I have a model ready, I will let you know.

 

 

A Potential Museum Site in Nasu

 

Yoko at a potential museum site in Nasu.

 

After a several discussions on the museum building between Niki and Yoko, in 1989, a long-awaited museum maquette arrived. It was nothing short of remarkable.

The top part was a female head. The Goddess shone in a golden color like Mt. Fuji is bathed in the morning sunlight. There was the “third eye” as if to penetrate one’s insight. While Yoko gazed at it, she felt like her body was exuding energy. Water was pouring out from the bright red lips.

The ceiling had several holes so that visitors could to see the blue sky. The outer walls were lined with mirrors, bordered by a crawling snake, painted in bright red, blue and yellow. The pouring water from the snake’s mouth flew over its body to fall to the pond at the entrance.

Yoko was speechless and immensely moved.

 

While Niki had been working on the maquette, Yoko was making every effort to find a potential site for the museum. The times then were a period of Japan’s speculative bubble economy; land prices were skyrocketing, which made it almost impossible for Yoko to purchase land big enough for a museum. What was worse, the Tokyo suburbs had been completely developed. Thus, it was difficult to find a piece of land surrounded with pristine nature as desired by Niki. At first, Yoko tried the Izu Peninsula. Next, she had to expand target sites to all around the Kanto Region.

And then, one land contractor contacted Yoko, informing her that there was a good tract of land on the Nasu Highlands, Tochigi Prefecture. She wasted no time going there. It was in a resort area on a slope inclined toward the mountainous region. The site used to be a resort of a major manufacturer. The topography was rugged, with abundant maple trees and a stream running through it. The area was a little over 2,500 tsubo (approx. 89,000 sq. ft.), nearly perfect. Yoko was also attracted by hot springs there.

“If Niki comes here, she can soak in the hot spring. It’s good for nerve pains and rheumatoid arthritis.”

After considering some other places, in the end, she decided on this Nasu site. Yoko wrote to Niki, “I will visit you as soon as I finish signing the land acquisition contract. Then, I will be able to talk with you much more about the plan for our museum.” Niki wrote to her back, “I am absolutely thrilled with the photos you sent me and the news of the site for your museum. I found it all very exciting.”

At this point, Yoko never doubted that the museum building could be constructed according to Niki’s maquette once she acquired the land.

 

 

Blocked by the National Park

 

Yoko purchased the land in Nasu and began with a meeting with engineers of the construction company.

However, she quickly learned in the meeting that the site was located within the Nikko National Park. Yoko had no idea about that. The National Parks Law was very strict about buildings on the premises of the area. She had been ignorant of that, too. The Management Plan of the Nikko National Park designated the color of any roof to be “burnt umber,” and that of any wall to be “cream, beige, brown, white, or gray.”

“We can’t paint in these colors,” an engineer in charge of this project said, looking at Niki’s maquette.

“You don’t mean that. No.”

Yoko was aghast.

He added, “There are problems about the structure, too. Since Nasu lies on a volcanic belt, quake-resistant measures are important as well. And since we have severe winter weather here, we must take countermeasures against it, too.” The future of her museum appeared completely grim. Who knew we couldn’t create the museum based on Niki’s maquette?

 

Until then, Niki and Yoko each had tackled respective tasks, Niki on creating the museum maquette and Yoko on finding the site. Despite her bad health condition, Niki had put priority on creating the Tarot Garden as well as the maquette, and reported to Yoko every progress by fax. Niki had revised the maquette again and again before finally completing it.

“If I can’t found the museum based on Niki’s maquette, I won’t build it here,” Yoko declared. The construction company staff was stunned. “What?! What are you going to do with this land, Mrs. Masuda?”

Yoke was thinking, “I will start all over again.” The same day, Yoko wrote to Niki.

So, the planned construction involves a series of difficult environmental problems restricted by the National Park Law. At any rate, our vessel “Niki” has finally sailed out. We will do, or should do, our best to cope with whatever problems that may come up.

 

 

A Husband-and-Wife Collaboration

 

Yoko’s husband, Tsuji, who had been appointed the CEO of PARCO in 1988, decided to resign the next May. Since he did it over a scandal involving PARCO’s management, the print media carried a number of speculative articles on the matter. Yoko got the lowdown on it directly from occasional conversations with him. It often pained her to read untrue or excessive media coverage. Still, she felt proud as his wife and a fellow business manager, observing him address each of his problems head-on.

One day, in the midst of a media coverage frenzy, Yoko and Tsuji had a late breakfast at their Sakuradai house. They had not done it in a long while; they had been preoccupied with work and had little time for each other.

“Thank you for working hard for all those years, Tsuji-san. Take a nice, long break,” Yoko said. Tsuji replied, “Maybe I’ll have more time to help you launch an art museum.”

They had never jointly worked as a husband and wife. Yoko was quite happy that Tsuji would be understanding of her and give her a helping hand. It was great that she had acquired a collaborator in Tsuji in the second stage of her life. It’s all because of the fact that I encountered Niki’s works. Yoko felt a somewhat mysterious feeling in that.

 

In a letter to Niki, Yoko reported Tsuji’s resignation and wrote, “There is no doubt I will also take time until we are both restored to a quiet state. At any rate, however, both of us are all right and in good spirits. So, please don’t be much disturbed.” She also translated Tsuji-related magazine articles into English and had them sent to Niki.

Soon Niki wrote back.

I am sad for you and for your husband that you must live through the most difficult trial of all. I can well image how you and your husband must feel.

My uncle Alexandre had a bank here in Paris. He lost his bank, money, everything.

You have been struck by the lightening (the card of the falling Tower). One of the two falling people does not let himself be crushed and destroyed by this terrible fall. He picks himself up and goes on stronger.

The tarot tells us that these terrible blows of fate that happen to us can in the long run indicate us to be detached and stronger not to react in a passionate way. This is the time when you will discover many things.

Dearest Yoko, I have lit a candle for you and will light one every day until this bad moment is past.

 

 

Niki’s Self-Portrait

 

In June, the next year, a Niki de Saint Phalle exhibition was held at two galleries, Galerie de France and the JGM Galerie in Paris. Yoko, accompanied by Tsuji for the first time to France, visited them.

“Yoko! Tsuji!”

Niki welcomed them happily. It was Tsuji’s first meeting with Niki.

“Nice to meet you, Niki. I appreciate that you cared a lot about us last year,” Tsuji thanked her.

“I have long wanted to see you, Tsuji. It’s an honor to see you,” Niki replied.

After these routine greetings, Niki whispered to Yoko, taking her arm.

“Tsuji has charming eyes. They twinkle with intelligence.”

At the galleries, Yoko, apart from Niki and Tsuji, studied the exhibitions. Both exhibitions were impressive; many of Niki’s major works in the 1960s, including Shooting Paintings were displayed. Most expressed a primitive emotion and a rage. It was quite fascinating to see the process, in which strong emotions had galvanized Niki’s ideas and then had helped shape her artistic images leading to such works as The Red Witch and Kennedy-Khrushchev (both in 1962).

“I can’t say enough about how wonderful The Red Witch is.”

Yoko imagined this piece being exhibited in a museum designed by Niki.

“First, visitors will be surprised at the museum building. Next, they will encounter this Red Witch and be taken aback again. Its unexpected appeal will generate so much interest. In addition to the Japanese, foreign tourists will be also attracted to the Niki Museum, no doubt.”

As Yoko’s dream expanded, her excitement grew and grew. She went to Niki and began as if she had given tremendous consideration to this matter.

“I have many of your nice works in my collection, but when it comes to the question of an independent museum, it lacks a core work which will attract the interest of the visitors. In other words, I need a core which directly expresses your rage and sorrow as a woman. The Red Witch represents your theme and is most suitable as a core of the museum, isn’t it? Please be generous enough to help fulfill my wish to acquire this work of yours.”

Niki looked surprised.

“What a mysterious coincidence! Laura before the show told me, ‘I hope The Red Witch ends up in Yoko’s museum.’ I’m really touched by your explaining your choice of The Red Witch. You deserve to have it!”

 

Thus, The Red Witch joined the collection of the to-be-founded museum. The witch, painted all red from head to toe, wore red high heels and had a gaping hole in each of her breasts. A stark blue heart was beating in the hole. In the hole on the right thigh, a skull was devouring a child. It looked like a very grotesque, horrifying work. Yet, the witch was conceived with a Holy Virgin Mary inside the bosom.

When Yoko first saw this, it was too painful to look straight at it. But as time went by, she came to understand that “it is none other than Niki’s self-portrait.”

 

 

Back to Square One

 

The Tochigi prefectural authorities officially told Yoko that she could not obtain permission to construct a museum building in Nasu based on Niki’s maquette. Right away, Yoko began scouting for other potential locations.

One of Yoko’s friends gave her a piece of information; a city in the Kanto Region had been planning “a cultural village” in a hilly forest area. She suggested that Yoko provide the committee with materials for consideration. In fact, when she had informally told the committee about Yoko’s plan, they said that their mayor would be interested in an art museum. It was a heaven-sent opportunity. Excited to hear that, Yoko decided to visit the site, also wondering, “Will the location please Niki?”

Yoko was rather satisfied with the venue. She was also glad to hear that the city would take the responsibility to negotiate with the landowner. The city’s ordinance was not as strict as the National Park Law, either. Thus, Yoko was told that the colors of the museum would be probably permitted. Yoko felt relieved.

But, reality being as it is, the land acquisition negotiation ran into rough waters. After changing their story several times, the city authorities demanded an unexpected condition. The city will “provide the site and the building; in return, Niki’s works will be transferred to the city.” Yoko could never accept such a condition. Niki’s work was Yoko’s treasure; it was part of the soul Niki and Yoko now shared. I would definitely never part with Niki’s works.

Once again, Yoko’s land quest had to return to square one.

 

One day, Yoko and Tsuji sat in stone silence in Shinkansen bullet train seats. Grim in expression, they were disappointed about yet another location hunt for the future museum. This time, the site was on a wide-open place. The problem was that a group of residential complex buildings were in sight, with the laundry fluttering in the air. Yoko found that questionable for a site of an art museum.

In the previous five years, the number of potential sites they had visited exceeded well over 80. They even went to the Amami-Ohshima Islands once. Still, because they wanted to introduce Niki’s work to as many visitors as possible, it was preferable to acquire a site in the Kanto Region, not too far from the capital city of Tokyo.

 

They were worn out. Yoko was thinking about an episode she had heard. In 1966, Niki, Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt, a Finnish artist [1927 – 2006], continued discussions for many days about what to create for the show at the Modern Art Museum in Stockholm. They could not come up with any good idea and became exhausted. Finally, Tinguely said, “Let’s give up the show and defect to the Soviet Union.” In reality, they would end up creating a huge Nana, HON.

I want to escape somewhere with Tsuji, too. So tired… Yoko felt. At that moment, Tsuji blurted out:

“The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Nasu is the best place.”

That was another eye-opening moment for Yoko. The land in Nasu was better than any other sites they had visited. The attractive environment, rich in greenery and rugged features with a stream in the middle, was protected as part of the National Park. There was no residential area nearby. Niki had often emphasized the important relationship between her work and its surrounding environment.

Tsuji was wondering, “The problem is the restriction on the use of colors.” The image of HON began swirling around in Yoko’s head.

“Although HON was a huge sculpture, it was installed in a museum building. A structure in another structure… like a child in the womb …” Yoko continued to mumble. Tsuji had an idea. “That’s right, dome! We can cover Niki’s maquette-based structure in a dome.”

He slapped his knee repeatedly. The dome idea helped them feel revitalized.

“And Niki’s works should be placed here and there in the entrance hall of the dome.”

“The exterior of the dome should be in the shape of a breast or curved lines of the wing of a bird. It will symbolize Niki’s works, won’t it?”

As they became more excited, their voices grew louder and louder. New ideas popped up one after another. Tsuji, a handy sketcher, explained his ideas while quickly making drawings.

Even after they returned home in Sakuradai, they continued their museum-related discussion into the wee hours.

 

 

Dome and Mirror

 

Yoko’s museum-building idea sent to Niki.

 

Soon after Yoko informed Niki of their dome plan, a quick reply arrived from Niki. Niki decided to give up her original plan of colorful maquette and suggested yet another idea that was different from Yoko and Tsuji’s.

 

Let me tell you that I think your crazy idea is possible. Your idea gave me another idea! What about doing the museum entirely in mirror on cement? Mirrors only reflect what is in front of them so I don’t see what objection the park commission could have. The museum would reflect the trees and the sky.

Both ideas could be fine. When we see each other we can see the advantages of each one.

 

The meeting between Yoko and the engineers resumed. Yoko explained them Niki’s mirror idea. But their prospect to implement it was not very positive.

“We have much rain. Nasu is at 700 m (approx. 2,300 f) elevation, and it’s cold in winter. If tiles or mirrors are used to cover the exterior of a structure in a cold climate, the rainwater will soak into the exterior wall. And when it gets frozen, those tiles and mirrors will easily peel off. Therefore, we should minimize the use of mirrors for exterior walls in the area like Nasu.”

Once again, Niki’s idea may not be utilized. Yoko felt desperate to solve the problem. After spending several days, she came up with a new plan:

As a general concept, we will follow Niki’s words, “Le monde est rond, le monde est un sein. (The world is round, the world is a breast)” This was the sentence Niki had written in the catalogue for her retrospective exposition issued by the Pompidou Center in 1980. The dome-formed structure would definitely be the embodiment of our general concept. The passageways that link the domes will be in the form of a tube. Visitors will go through a tube to get into the first dome. How about the entrance of the tube designed by Niki in the form of, for instance, a snake head, a Nana body or a bird? Mirror tiles will be used at least for the part designed by Niki.

This is my plan! Yoko nodded in satisfaction. She immediately wrote to Niki about it.

“Please let me hear what you would think of the entrance of tube. In the form of what?”

Yoko was overcome with an urge to found the museum as soon as possible.

 

 

Death of Jean Tinguely

 

In 1991, ten years had passed since Yoko met Niki for the first time. One July day, Yoko received a letter from Niki that made her feel uneasy.

I too like you believe in reincarnation rather than resurrection. In the next few weeks I will write down my thoughts about death and dying and religion. This is to clarify (put a light on) what I feel about these fundamental subjects. Why don’t you do the same thing and then we will compare notes?

 

Yoko crumpled up the letter, crying, “No!” She was surprised Niki had written about death and had a bad premonition. She prayed.

“What’s the matter with Niki? Is she obsessed with death? Niki, you should live. Live the life! May the God give you the spirit to praise life!”

The letter turned out to be what could be called a Niki prediction. In August the same year, Jean Tinguely, Niki’s love of her life and artistic partner, passed away from a sudden illness. He was 66 years old.

Tinguely was a celebrated artist from Switzerland. It was said that he had received a hero’s funeral in his native land.

Tinguely’s death was extremely hard on Niki. It came as a major shock. After the funeral, she told her whereabouts only to her close friends including Yoko, and stayed hidden for a long time.

Yoko wrote many letters to Niki to cheer her up. Niki expressed her gratitude in her reply.

The sign of Scorpio, as you know is the Phoenix rising from its ashes, so I think I have to find the energy to do that, but it will take time.

It is very difficult for me not to hear the telephone ringing every morning before breakfast, to wake me up with Jean’s voice, and so many memories crowd in from the past.

Nevertheless, I think it is what he would have wanted. As an artist he never compromised his work and the work of the last few years is among the best he has done. He leaves behind an entire life’s work.

I have framed Jean’s name and put it in my studio. I look at it every day!

 

Yoko read this letter with tears streaming down her cheeks.

After his death, Niki created the sculpture series Meta-Tinguely. It was her first kinetic art; they emitted flashes of light and made sounds. Yoko perceived it as an homage to him.

 

 

Design on the Japanese Side

 

The year 1991 was about to come to an end. After Tinguely’s death, it became difficult for Yoko to discuss with Niki the making of the museum. There were two reasons for that. Niki had been under the weather and busy sorting out legal paperwork resulting from Tinguely’s death. In addition, as both Niki and Yoko had turned age 60, they were forced to notice a gradual decline in physical strength.

Yoko had grown impatient. They had been sharing a number of ideas toward launching the museum. Yet, those days Niki had very limited time for it. Yoko was concerned about Niki’s emotional strength, too. Yoko, who had been focusing on nothing but founding the Niki museum for years, felt, “There is no time to be lost.” She sent Niki a letter.

I thought over the matter throughout this year. Considering your present situation and my health, I’m so afraid nothing will get done. To let go this opportunity means to give up my dream. We still have enough energy left. This is the very chance to carry out the project. So, I have a request. How about this idea that you will leave us the question of the designing and the construction material of the museum building, and get the project started? I won’t waste all the ideas we have exchanged in the past. I will make sure that every visitor to the museum can experience the genuine “Niki World.”

 

In the reply to her, Niki accepted Yoko’s request without objection. Yoko submitted the architectural design drawing based on the dome idea to the Environment Agency (now the Ministry of the Environment).

Once again, however, her idea was turned down. “As a rule,” the authorities would accept only three styles of traditional triangular roof, “the kirizuma gable, the yosemune hip, and the irimoya hip-and-gable.” What nonsense, incredible! The regulation didn’t sit well with her. Still, she collected herself and reported to Niki, “We will try all possible ways to materialize the best plan within the restrictions. You will see what we can do!”

 

 

Museum Construction Begins

 

 One of the architecture drawings Yoko sent to Niki.

 

After reviewing the museum project one last time, Yoko decided to entrust its architectural planning to Tsuji.

Tsuji once aspired to be an architect and was self-taught. Gaudi buildings particularly overwhelmed him. When he was at PARCO, he supervised the design of PARCO buildings as the planning director, and exchanged opinions with the design staff. All PARCO buildings in various cities in Japan strongly reflected his concepts toward architecture. He had also toured around major domestic museums and had been fully familiar with the communication between Niki and Yoko. Yoko considered him the best choice for architectural planning. The couple frequented Nasu and, together, polished up the project.

 

In October of 1992, Tsuji, Yoko and the construction company completed the final design drawings. They characteristically reflected Tsuji’s way of thinking. “Niki’s works predominantly feature round shapes such as breasts and ripples. So, if we incorporate straight lines, the resulting contrast should create an intriguing effect.” His method was to complement the contrasting elements: curves with straight lines; irregular, distorted forms with squares or rectangles; and a feast of colors with a monochromatic tone. In other words, he infinitely sought to get as close as possible to the right solution by sticking to paradoxical thinking. More specifically, the planned museum consisted of simple structures by making best use of straight lines. Six building halls were diagonally connected with cross-gable roofs in a manner similar to a snake making its way on the ground.

Yoko sent these final floor plans and elevation plans to Niki. She readily accepted them. Yoko received the permission from the central government to build the museum. It was indeed “receiving good news after a difficult delivery.”

 

At last, the construction of the Niki Museum started in May, 1993. It was planned that the construction would be completed in next March and the museum would open in late May or early June of 1994.

After the long-awaited construction started, Yoko’s situation had changed drastically. Whether it was decision-making or checking the to-do-list, she had her work cut out for her. She booked a room at a nearby hotel and yo-yoed between Nasu and Tokyo. For starters, she had to build a guesthouse on the premises of the museum, which could function as a lodging facility for the staff, if necessary. Its layout and interior were discussed in detail. Plus, Yoko frequently attended meetings to decide the logistics on how they operate all the exhibitions, not to mention ticketing, printing posters, and the screening of the staff. Even her communication with Niki grew increasingly businesslike as opening day drew closer.

 

 

Niki’s New Relocation Site

 

Yoko. Around 1993. (Photo by Yuki Kuroiwa)

 

In 1994, Niki moved to San Diego, California, in the United States. She had been suffering from a respiratory disease. At her doctor’s recommendation, she had decided to leave the cold climate of Paris and settle in the mild weather of California. There were two contributing factors for this decision: Tinguely’s death, and the fact that her favorite granddaughter Bloum, Laura’s daughter, had already moved to California.

This change of air helped revive Niki’s body and soul. According to her letter to Yoko, she was in the swimming pool at home at 9 am every morning and took a walk on the beach every evening. She became healthier day by day. Once being revitalized, she was soon back to actively engaging in a new series of creative work.

In the middle of that, Niki never stopped caring for Yoko. She wrote to hard-working Yoko, “We must move carefully and thoughtfully.” Niki was concerned about Yoko being myopic about having a large debt during a recession in order to carry out a major project. Niki could relate to Yoko. Niki had also faced financial trouble to finance the Tarot Garden.

However, Yoko’s decision was rock solid.

 

My work to be carried out would be just one grain of wheat in front of your large achievement. And also I may look like a slowly walking cow. But as you know, constant dropping wears the stone.

What I have to do is to realize my lifelong dream of making Niki Museum in Japan. I can’t help feeling that it is my fate because I want to found the museum not only for myself; I’m sure many Japanese women are enthusiastic about your world as much as I. Not only for me but also for them, I should fulfill my dream. If I have to choose a word, I find God’s will in my dream. After going through various hoops, I discovered how strong my will is.

I’m only the manager of a small firm but I’d do everything in my power to make my big dream come true. Please wait and see.

 

 

Another Problem Surfaces

 

A poem appeared in the catalogue of a major Niki retrospective held at the Pompidou Center, Paris, in 1980. It was The Round written by Niki.

 

I love the round.

I love the round, the curves and the ripple.

The world is round, the world is a breast.

I do not like the right angle, it scares me.

The right angle wants to kill me, the right angle is an assassin.

The right angle is a knife, the right angle is hell.

I do not like symmetry.

I love the imperfection.

My circles are never quite round.

It is a choice, perfection is cold.

Imperfection gives life, I love life.

I like the imaginary as a monk can love God.

Imaginary is my refuge, my palace.

The imaginary is a walk inside the square and round.

I am a blind woman, my sculptures are my eyes.

The imaginary is the rainbow.

The happiness is the imaginary, the imaginary exists.

 

One April day in 1994, Yoko boarded a plane at Narita Airport for Los Angeles. It was her first time to visit Niki’s new home in San Diego. On what should have been an exciting day for her, she was pale and shivering, holding a maquette of her museum.

Yoko reiterated part of Niki’s poem in her head.

I do not like the right angle. The right angle wants to kill me… Yes, I’ve known very well about this poem, haven’t I? Why didn’t I notice that?”

Several days before, the museum building had been finally completed. As Yoko had wanted to show it to Niki as soon as possible, she took a lot of photographs and sent them to Niki. The reply came quickly. She opened the envelope, thinking, “Niki must have loved it, too.” It was far from what she had expected.

Niki was furious.

What made her mad was the ceiling parts of the exhibition halls. Evidently, Niki could not see those interior structures from the elevation plans that Yoko had sent. The interior parts of a cross-gable roof consisted of sharp-edged inverted triangular cross sections; Tsuji described them “diamond cuts.” Architectural experts raved about this design, “acute-angle patterns are lavishly incorporated.”

Niki loathed pointed shapes. So, it was understandable that she had felt as if her own works were in danger of being stabbed by those acute angles. Her letter was fraught with anger, almost out of control. Yoko didn’t know what to do.

Niki, I see. Let’s find a solution. I’m coming to San Diego with the maquette.

 

 

I Hate Acute Angles!

 

Welcoming Yoko at LAX was Rico Weber who used to be Tinguely’s assistant. Rico saw Yoko was in low spirits and tried to cheer her up. But all she could do was nod her head. The weather in San Diego was marvelous; a fresh breeze was blowing and people were enjoying spring. Only Yoko was too absorbed in her thoughts to enjoy the scenery.

They arrived at Niki’s studio in La Jolla, a big house with white stucco walls and beautiful arched windows. There was an oval swimming pool in the backyard.

Yoko and Niki had not seen in a long while. They firmly embraced each other. They renewed their old friendship with an innocuous chat, touching on only “safe” subjects. Then they began discussing business, looking at the poster Niki had created for her eponymous museum. There was a lot that needed to be discussed.

Finally, it was time to talk about the museum building. Yoko gingerly and hesitatingly put the maquette on the table. Niki stared at it intensely. As her eyes focused on the interior ceiling structure, her expression turned stern. And she began to get angrier by the second.

“No! Not this shape! Make the acute angle parts round. I hate acute angles!”

As she became upset, her voice grew high-pitched. She pointed out problems one after another. Her staff members were too shaken to do anything but pace around nervously. They went out of the room by ones and twos.

Niki began crying, crying in anger. Characteristically, she became more authoritarian and stubborn.

“No acute angles. Make them round. You absolutely have to change them!” Niki shouted.

Yoko was too daunted to speak. At that time, Rico, who had been watching two women in silence, made a suggestion, pointing at a section of the maquette, “How about covering the ceiling with a dome to hide the acute angles?” Yoko thought it was a good idea. It could work relatively easily.

“Niki, I will discuss with the engineers how to make them round as soon as I go back to Japan,” said Yoko.

Niki had stopped crying. Her outburst seemed to have subsided. She spoke in her usual tone.

“I wish I could go with you. But I have to attend an unveiling ceremony of my work in Paris. I’ll send Rico for me. He can offer you a number of ideas.” Niki squeezed Yoko’s hands in encouragement.

 

 

Final Decision After a Series of Discussions

 

Exhibition halls of the Niki Museum. (photo by Kosuke Ogawa)

 

Upon returning to Japan, Yoko immediately gathered all the personnel concerned: those from the design department, the on-site construction chief, interior decorators, Rico covering for Niki, and Tsuji as well. Every day, the meeting lasted until midnight. Some suggested to round the acute angles, but it was too difficult to do in practice. The maquette Rico had made showed that the ceiling was covered by a dome, thereby concealing the acute angles. The key was to find a practical way to do it.

At first, this task seemed easy. But they soon realized that there were many problems: the complexity and large size of the interior of the roof; and the intricate way the building materials were interconnected in a small space. One of the designers said, “Even if we cover the ceiling with a dome, the covering material have to be lightweight like paper, cloth, bamboo or wire.” A test was conducted with cloth, but the result left a lot to be desired. One interior designer asked Yoko, a little concerned, “Even if this could be done, will Niki like it?” Yoko answered, “In any case, please calculate the weight and the cost. We need to verify if the whole structure can support the dome materials.”

The findings suggested that construction would take three to four months and the total cost would increase substantially. The dome would suffer in appearance, and its disaster prevention measures remained problematic. The plan was not easy to implement. Although the museum building was completed, there were many other unfinished facilities like a parking lot, a garden, a fence and lodging accommodations. And Yoko’s pocket was not very deep.

In the meantime, Tsuji was convinced that Niki’s work could be best utilized in exposed triangular-roof structures, or linearity in abundance. From the beginning, he intentionally designed the ceiling without an attic because he wanted the inside of the museum to appear wide and spacious.

 

Yoko was troubled. Niki’s maquette, mirror-covered exterior walls, a dome-shaped roof … every plan failed in the end. At least, I want to hide the acute angles of the roof. But, that would put me in a money crunch. Nothing seemed to be working for her.

That night, Yoko had a terrible fight with Tsuji. Accumulated stress and frustration were the cause for both of them. Those emotions instantly erupted in a big explosion. Yoko was in the most hysteric state in her life; the quarrel even developed into divorce talk. As with almost anything else in Japanese society, the construction industry was a male-dominated world. When they were asked whose opinion they would second, Yoko’s or Tsuji’s, they would often pick Tsuji’s. That angered Yoko. Later, looking back on this fight, Yoko would laugh it off as a funny episode. But, it took them several days to reconcile and resume working together on the project.

 

Three months later, after all the efforts in numerous meetings to respect Niki’s demand, they came to the decision, “it is impossible to change any of the finished parts of the museum.”

Yoko couldn’t but take the responsibility. She reported Niki about this decision. As expected, there was no reply from Niki. “She must be angry,” assumed Yoko. At any rate, Yoko awaited a letter from Niki since Rico, back in the States, would explain the circumstances in Japan to persuade Niki.

 

Yoko entered the First Exhibition Hall of the museum without thinking. She was going to display in this small room Niki’s illustrated letters, small works Niki had given to her and documents and materials on Niki. The purpose of the hall was to share with visitors the precious tie between Niki and Yoko in a private, intimate space.

Yoko stopped and looked around. She found the surrounding walls lacking something.

“That’s right. I’ll have them painted pink. I don’t care who’d disagree. This is my museum.”

Yoko was excited. She didn’t hesitate a second to call and order the workmen. It was done in a flash. Yoko wrote to Niki.

 

I found one way to settle my frustration: that is painting the inner part of your and my room in pink. I satisfied my wants, felt refreshed and recovered my temper. How will you react? I’m very curious. How would I be glad if you like the colors and side with me!

 

Under these circumstances, while Yoko remained a little concerned about her communication with Niki, opening day of the museum was decided to be October 6, 1994.