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Dueling Dangos

Jun Kaneko's dumplings define VMFA's new outdoor garden.

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There are dangos all over the place at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Ten of them are on the grounds of the E. Claiborne and Lora Robins Sculpture Garden. Plus a 9 1/2 foot high, gigantic, blue ceramic head that seems to be standing guard over the rest of the ovoid forms. If that were not enough, two more punctuate the lobby of the museum's McGlothlin Atrium.

A dango, in Japanese, means dumpling. But real dumplings are never as large or thick as sculptor Jun Kaneko's inedible, massive, intriguing forms, which are hollow. The Japanese-American sculptor has been creating colossal ceramic sculpture for at least 40 years. His totemlike structures are the inaugural exhibition of the renovated and rejuvenated museum's new outdoor garden.

John Ravenal, who curated the exhibition, recently answered some questions about this striking garden installation. Ravenal is the museum's Sydney and Frances Lewis family curator of modern and contemporary art.

Style: Why did you choose Jun Kaneko?

John Ravenal: His work is accessible. … It is impressive because it is larger than human scale. It is truly monumental and attention-getting. The pieces are also boldly painted and patterned. He has taken ceramics to a monumental scale and elevated hand-building to a different level. The VMFA is now the people's museum and for these reasons Kaneko's work made sense as the inaugural sculpture garden exhibition.

They are happy and playful, aren't they?

Yes, there is an upbeat quality to them. They are big, totemic and hint at having a ritual quality to them, almost like Stonehenge, so there is something ancient, yet also contemporary and global about them. They really do resonate in a lot of different ways.

What are Jun Kaneko's primary materials?

Clay is his primary material but he sometimes works in glass and other materials. He is eclectic -- he has even done innovative opera set design for Opera Omaha's "Madame Butterfly" and the Philadelphia Opera's "Fidelio." His sculpture is rarely wheel thrown and can take years to make -- half a year to build and often a year to dry. Plus firing and glazing. They weigh at least a ton and the large head weighs 2 1/2 tons.

Is there a religious significance to his work?

He is interested in Shinto concepts; he is interested in the intervals of space between objects as well as what is nontangible and invisible. All objects are connected by the space between them, so the space is as important as the objects. His work is loosely spiritual in this way.

What is an installation?

To me an installation means that all the parts form a whole that create an environment that the viewer can enter. Our exhibition verges on being an installation because the placement of all the pieces in the garden was so carefully considered by the artist. They are arranged peripherally and they define and interact with the plot of land, the building and backdrop, forming an integrated whole.

What made him do that?

I sent him a plan and photos of the designated plot of land at the center of the new Robins Sculpture Garden and he decided to work with that triangular wedge of space and push pieces to the outer edges, leaving the center open. It was a good way to define the ovoid forms in space and relate them to the new building.

For more information, go to vmfa.state.va.us.

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