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Thursday, March 27, 2008
Tokyo's tidal wave of art
By EDAN CORKILL
L ike a tsunami moving through deep water, the boom in Japan's contemporary art world has been approaching, little detected, for several years. Now, as it readies to peak in a proliferation of events next week — many of them brand new — we can see for the first time just how big it was, and who was behind it.
If you include all the peripherals, close to 30 events will flood Tokyo around the weekend of April 5-6. To keep track of them all, it's best to keep two things in mind: two — as in the number — and money — as in the stuff that makes the world go round.
So many of next month's events come in pairs you'd think it was Noah who was calling the shots. There will be two art fairs — Art Fair Tokyo and 101TOKYO Contemporary Art Fair; two art auctions — by Shinwa Art Auction and Est-Ouest Art Auctions; two art awards — Art Award Tokyo and The Bacon Prize; and two sets of exhibitions by commercial galleries.
Still, the biblical similarities end there: The god worshipped at this festival is that of the yen.
Around the world it is now an accepted fact that commercial galleries and private collectors — rather than sluggish and underfunded art museums — are the new arbiters of artistic tastes and artists' fates. Japan, with few big art spenders of its own, has been behind this trend so far, but things are changing. Almost all of the events planned for the next two weeks are commercial in nature, and aimed squarely at selling Japanese art to what is perceived to be a growing domestic and overseas market.
The larger of the two art fairs is Art Fair Tokyo (AFT). Held in Tokyo International Forum, Marunouchi, from April 4 to 6, Tokyo's original fair will bring together 108 galleries.
AFT's massively improved sales last year provided an early indication that things were on the up in the local art market. The total on-site sales were ¥1 billion — bettering the previous fair (held in 2005) by almost 500 percent.
Fair director Misa Shin expects further improvement this year.
"Last year, AFT was held during the week," says Shin. "This year, it will be over a weekend, so we should get more people and more sales."
She believes the increases reflect a shift in thinking in the Japanese public.
"People used to think of art as something you looked at in museums — now it's something to buy and hang up at home," she explains.
One unusual thing about AFT is that it combines contemporary art galleries — such as Tomio Koyama Gallery, which introduced renowned creator Yoshitomo Nara, to the world — with galleries dealing in old Japanese art and even European and Asian antiques.
"Japanese collectors tend not to limit themselves to one genre," says Shin. "Many are happy to collect both."
Encouraged by AFT's improved sales last year, many galleries were keen to secure a booth at this year's fair. Shin and her advisers had to cut the 200 applications they received down to the 108 that the venue could fit.
The second art fair, 101TOKYO, will be held in the Rensei School Building, near Akihabara, April 3-6. Brand new, it is the brainchild of two foreign residents: 27-year-old American Agatha Wara and 32-year-old New Zealander Julia Barnes.
"We wanted to keep the focus on contemporary art and also to invite more international galleries," says Wara, differentiating 101TOKYO from AFT.
With the backing of gallerist Tomio Koyama — who agreed to support the project as an adviser — 101TOKYO benefited from the overbooking of AFT and 101TOKYO's comparably lower entry costs. Megumi Ogita, who opened his eponymous gallery mid-last year, and who will participate in 101TOKYO, says, "When they closed off applications for Art Fair Tokyo, I still didn't have a place organized, so I couldn't apply."
Now the former employee of Tokyo's Nishimura Gallery has his own space in Ginza and is looking forward to networking with the 27 other galleries — half foreign — scheduled to show at 101TOKYO. "It's important for my artists that I form networks overseas," he says, echoing other gallerists' sentiments.
Also circling to make the most of the expected frenzy are two auction houses. Est-Ouest Auctions will sell 213 pieces of Japanese postwar and contemporary art at their salesroom in Gotanda on April 4, while Shinwa Art Auction will put 354 lots of contemporary art under the hammer during afternoon and evening sessions on Saturday, April 5. The Shinwa event will be held at Tokyo International Forum, right next door to Art Fair Tokyo.
"We wanted to make it easy for art collectors to attend," explains Shinwa president Yoichiro Kurata. Ease of access is important because Kurata expects many of his buyers to come from overseas. "At our contemporary art auction last autumn," he says, "over half of our sales were to buyers from Korea, Taiwan and other Asian countries."
Many of those collectors believe Japanese art is undervalued and that bargains can be had — particularly with the general consensus that prices for Chinese contemporary art are now inflated way beyond their real value.
Still, Kurata's expectations of a big foreign presence have added an element of uncertainty to the mix. He is unsure whether the current economic downturn in the United States will slow them down.
Shin, with her sights set on nurturing the domestic market, isn't so worried. "Japanese collectors tend to be private, and their activities are not likely to be linked to investment in the stock market," she says.
And, as with the auctions, the art awards come marching two by two.
Art Award Tokyo launched last year in an underground walkway in the Marunouchi area immediately west of Tokyo Station that links to the Tokyo International Forum. The award for young contemporary artists is judged by a collective of critics, curators and gallerists — but its backers are very much art-world outsiders.
The project is an initiative of Mitsubishi Estate, the developer that owns a staggering 40 percent of the land in the Marunouchi area, and it falls into their grand plan to transform what has traditionally been a business district.
Kenichi Hirono, from the company's Area Brand Management Department, says, "We've been working with government and industry to make Marunouchi a multiuse zone."
Part of the plan to increase the diversity of the area has been to include hundreds of shops in two recent building projects in the area — the Maru Building and the Shin-Maru Building — and improve the streetscape with more trees. The decade-long project will be completed in 2010 when the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum opens in the same area with a permanent display of posters by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
The second art award on offer is brand new and has a decidedly foreign flavor. Expat art personality Johnnie Walker has established The Bacon Award — named after his Irish wolfhound — to be presented to one artist presented by a gallery at 101TOKYO.
And that brings us to the last pair in this art march in April: two sets of commercial gallery shows.
Under the banner of New Tokyo Contemporaries, seven recently established commercial outfits will join forces to hold a new kind of exhibition from March 28 till April 6 at the Shin-Maru Building (thanks to Mitsubishi Estate). It will look like a normal museum show, but the exhibits will be for sale.
Meanwhile, the seven well-established commercial galleries in eastern Tokyo's Kiyosumi-Shirakawa — which will also all be participating in one or both of the fairs — are holding a "joint" exhibition opening that should serve as an after-party to the week's events.
Come to think of it, that means we're finishing with a pair of sevens. Let's hope it's a lucky few weeks for the art industry, and that its luck doesn't end after this one big splash.