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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008

Standing room for sale

Staff writer

A heady atmosphere of spending hung over the opening of this year's Art@Agnes, the "art fair in a hotel" that has in the last four years become a regular fixture of Tokyo's art world. Take 20 to 50 years off visitors' ages, strip them of their designer clothes and their well-polished courtesies, and you'd be left with a group rather like children barnstorming through a lolly shop on pocket-money day.

News photo
A series of sculptures, called "Everyday Daddy," by artist Chiharu Nishizawa in the Agnes Hotel EDAN CORKILL PHOTO

Most of the 33 galleries that rented rooms in The Agnes Hotel in Tokyo's Kagurazaka district for the three-day event last weekend brought along art designed to fuel the fire of the spur-of-the-moment purchase. Small paintings or editioned photographs by well-known artists were going for anything from ¥10,000 to a few hundred thousand.

Who could say no to a clever set of six photographs by designer-turned-artist Naohiro Ukawa? His "San Francisco Earthquake/Loma Prieta" showed a funky and infectiously carefree woman who had apparently confused seismic shifts for disco riffs, and was just ¥39,000 at Nanzuka Underground gallery (room 307). Very cool, and with a big-name signature to boot, it said one thing: Buy! And a Japanese collector did just that — within 30 minutes of kickoff.

A peek inside Kenji Taki Gallery's room 503 revealed a feast of small works: Tetsu Imamara's simple but satisfying image of a boat was going for about ¥250,000, and a glittering light fixture by Kengo Kito was a no-brainer (for those with the wallet to compensate) at ¥350,000.

Galleries at the event — which the hotel operator organizes with a group of gallery owners — were also trying to make the most of reflected glory. Many of their artists had recently featured in big museum exhibitions. Imamura and Ukawa have both recently shown at Mori Art Museum; Kito is still showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.

Kodama Gallery had filled room 207 with a lot of works, including many of Zon Ito's small stitching-on-canvas pieces and Olaf Breuning's infamous "EatMes" sculptures. In a hotel-room context, these mutant wax food samples — a loaf of bread hollowed out into a car driven by chestnut people, etc. — gave new meaning to "room service." And that about summed up the day: we've reached the hands-on stage in Japan where what you see at a museum one day you can buy at a gallery the next and have delivered to your room the next.

Tokyo Gallery + BTAP had some other low-priced treats, including Chiharu Nishizawa's series of small, ¥10,500 sculptures called "Everyday Daddy" — salarymen with comb-overs — that were heading out the door in droves.

Gallery Koyanagi, which shared room 508 with Wako Works of Art, had brought along the young Ataru Sato. Still a student at Kyoto University of Art and Design, the 21-year-old was recommended to the gallery by another of their charges, his university teacher, Tabaimo.

"This is the first time for me to actually experience an art fair and see the people who are buying the work," Sato said, shifting around the room so as not to obscure views of other works. A representative of the gallery explained that his detailed, almost psychedelic drawings of people assembled like a collage from scraps of paper on which he had drawn had been popular at the Art Basel fair.

And was the gallery confident they'd sell his ¥220,000 work at Art@Agnes?

"We just did," she said, smiling.

"Really!" exclaimed Sato. "I didn't know."

Apparently it went to "an international collector" who divides their time between Korea and Japan.

How does Sato feel about exhibiting in a hotel room?

"I think it's an interesting experience," he said. "It's refreshing to see the work in a very normal, residential context."

A man and woman in their late 30s, who moved to Japan from California three years ago, said they had bought three works. "We love Japanese artists," the man said, particularly Yasuyuki Nishio and Koji Tanada. "We first saw Japanese art back at Art Basel Miami Beach — at Tomio Koyama Gallery's booth — and since we moved to Japan (they work in entertainment publishing) we began collecting."

How did they like Agnes?

"It's the lazy way to see art!" he said. "In Tokyo the galleries are spread out so much; here you can see them all together."

But it's still a hotel, right?

"At first we thought the lighting was not good enough, but actually the hotel room is closer to a home environment, so you can really test the work before you buy it. Galleries, with their bright lights, are really artificial — anything looks good in them."

Other galleries, such as Galerie Sho Contemporary Art in room 302, had tried to re-create the gallery feel by putting up half-height artificial white walls on which they hung photographs by the likes of Brassai and Helmut Newton.

Others again had sought to avoid the bazaar style in favor of more refined solo shows. Mizuma Art Gallery devoted room 407 to Koji Tanada, who showed large, flat-backed but three-dimensional sculptures of people — who seemed to be emerging from the walls and the bed. It was the most striking room in the hotel, and one of the more expensive — with prices going up to ¥1.5 million.

The gallery Shugoarts also had a well-received display of glass sculpture (in room 504) that was capable of beautifully reflecting and refracting the most uneven of bedside lamplight. Even there, where the price tags swept upward of ¥900,000, there were near-instantaneous purchases. "Kaitai (I want to buy this)," said one collector in broken Japanese after a mere two-minute swoop of the room. Even the gallery staff member was startled — for about a nanosecond. The Japanese collectors, meanwhile, seemed to relish the privacy of the hotel rooms and would just say, "Send me the invoice," after selecting their purchases.

Those interested in starting their own collections — the lazy way — will have another chance in early April, when most of these (and other) galleries will participate in Art Fair Tokyo at the International Forum in Yurakucho.

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