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Thursday, April 10, 2008

The making of a market center

Special to The Japan Times

Almost everything was sold before he even arrived at Art Fair Tokyo, but that didn't stop gallerist Peter Nagy from coming to Japan anyway. The impulse to dip his toes into what could become contemporary art's next deep pool was just too strong to resist, so three large canvases by artists Thukral & Tagra from his hot Indian gallery, Nature Morte, made the journey with him.

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By all reports, for those galleries that did make the trip with art to sell, it was well worth their time. The majority of overseas exhibitors at the new international 101TOKYO Contemporary Art Fair — from places such as Hong Kong, New York and South Africa — joined many Japanese counterparts in selling out their artists' works.

With two major fairs, two major auctions and ample additional events such as the Shin Marunouchi Building's New Tokyo Contemporaries exhibit and Art Award Tokyo, the metropolis was teeming with artists, gallerists and collectors from all over the globe. The buzz was palpable at the busy start of Art Fair Tokyo and the theatrical opening of 101TOKYO, with the smell of money, perfume and fresh paint mingling in the air.

But participants in last week's festivities were not only in town for short-term commercial gain. Marketing, networking and researching the market were just as high on many galleries' list of priorities. Fortunately, these three goals dovetailed into success for all. Annette Thomas of Berlin's Galerie Alexandra Saheb simply shrugged when the gallery came up short for the Bacon Prize, 101TOKYO's top award: "We sold our works, we made lots of connections. What more could you want?"

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"To introduce our artists abroad, we have to have exhibitions at other galleries we meet," says Haruka Ito, of Tokyo's magical, ARTROOM gallery. A veteran of fairs such as New York's Scope and Basel's Liste, Ito knows well their value. "Galleries abroad have their own collectors, so it makes it easier to introduce an artist into that market."

Henri Vergon of AFRONOVA, a Johannesburg gallery showing the works of street photographer Nontsikelelo 'Lolo' Veleko, had long-term plans for Tokyo: "I'll be back next year and the year after that," he said on the first day of 101TOKYO. "It's the only way that it's worth it for me — I need to put in the time to investigate the market and create a presence for my gallery."

For many overseas gallerists such as Vergon, the goal is simple: To get their foot in the door of what may well become a significant market. Vergon, like some others at 101TOKYO, was considering the possibility of setting up shop here. Dominique Perregaux of Hong Kong's Art Statements Gallery was pondering the same decision after he sold out of the glossy paintings of characters from the 1980's anime series "G-Force" by the original illustrator, Amano Yoshitaka.

Perregaux originally opened his Hong Kong gallery to gain access to China and its collectors. But he's found that the market there is so speculative that the art takes a back seat to the deals.

"The sophistication of Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese collectors — supporting their own artists and buying art that they really do like from all regions of the world — makes them and their own art market less vulnerable to a global economic downturn," says the former businessman.

Faves from an overdose of art

New Tokyo Contemporaries

Ichiro Tanaka's "Naming Doves" — This simple video installation pauses on specific pigeons in a park, giving them each names — common, everyday Japanese ones such as "Tomoko Watanabe" or "Hiroshi Okada" — that turn an anonymous flock instantly into a collective of individuals.

Lyota Yagi's "Vinyl" — Yagi makes albums out of ice and plays them on a record player, the tones changing as they melt. Possibly the loneliest version of "Moon River" ever heard.

Art Fair Tokyo

Kin Chang Young at Galerie Bhak (Seoul) — Kin's paintings of beach sand look photographic, until you realize they are actually made with from beach sand itself.

Noriko Yamaguchi at MEM gallery (Osaka) — Yamaguchi's photographic series "Mint Girl" transforms sticks of gum into scales or perhaps armor — but are they protecting her pale nude subjects or smothering them?

101TOKYO Contemporary

2 p.m.-4 p.m.: Heiko Blankenstein at Galerie Alexandra Saheb (Berlin) — Blankenstein's style recalls the fantastical etchings of Italian masters. The twist comes via contemporary imagery (guitars, Marshall amps) and the green glow from light boxes in which they are mounted.

Osamu Watanabe at Tagboat.com — Watanabe's mother taught baking, which inspired the artist's latest appropriations — polymer frosting and plastic strawberries adorn copies of masterworks such as Munch's "The Scream." (Jason Jenkins)

Starting last fall, a series of contemporary art auctions by the Japanese houses Shinwa, Est & Ouest and The Market made it apparent that Tokyo had become a destination for Asian collectors. They were coming to take advantage of the inequality in prices, especially in comparison with the present inflation of the China market. Many of the auction houses saw upward of 50 percent of their sales go to overseas Asian buyers in those auctions.

Tokyo has become an appealing venue for buying art for several reasons: It contains a lively, growing art scene that has been relatively hidden since the bursting of the economic bubble in the 1990s, if not even reaching further back; the city, with all this activity, has the potential to support the infrastructure for a new market; and, for both Westerners and other Asians, Tokyo is a desirable metropolitan destination, regardless of any art found here.

Popular online art-listing site Tokyoartbeat.com says that it posts nearly 400 events a month, a remarkable number for any urban center. That includes museums, galleries, department stores, luxury brands' vanity exhibition spaces and cafes and restaurants — a whole host of locations that don't even capture the one-off events and the weekend hobbyists in the park flogging their homemade postcards.

The one notable absence during the week's events were museums. The Mori Art Museum was just closing down an exhibition based on the UBS collection and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo was finishing off a retrospective of Tadashi Kawamata and a survey of young Japanese artists. Their lack of participation in this explosion of art in the city points to the grassroots nature of what has started to happen here.

Given that the metropolitan government has cut back on public museums' budgets for collecting new works, galleries have had to find other sources of income. Art fairs are a natural fit with their commercial slant. Plus, corporations such as Mitsubishi have picked up the slack, as it did in funding New Tokyo Contemporaries and Art Award Tokyo. Perhaps if the Tokyo government recognizes what it has on its hands — Tokyo Design Week, Tokyo Fashion Week . . . Tokyo Art Week anyone? — it will give these events the support they deserve, and Tokyo's museums can step up and enjoy the fun.

Could Art Fair Tokyo, 101TOKYO and the others be the start of the next Art Basel Miami Beach or London's Frieze? It's too early to tell, but the potential for larger-scale events is in the air.

One indicator will be how the two fairs deal with each other in upcoming years. Art Fair Tokyo is the 800-lb gorilla, occupying Yurakucho's International Forum with 108 booths that feature all sorts of media — from hip-hop graffiti art to European Impressionists to traditional Japanese ceramics. Set in a former junior-high school near the Akihabara district, 101TOKYO's upstart status may change as news of its success this year spreads.

Conversations comparing the two could be overheard wherever you went. Some preferred 101TOKYO's intimate setting and specialized focus on contemporary works, while others commented on the quantity and variety on display at Art Fair Tokyo. One exception to the debate was Workplace Gallery's Miles Thurlow, who had no strong opinions about one or the other. Flush with the glow of winning 101TOKYO's first Bacon Prize (see sidebar), he scoffed at the idea of placing the two side-by-side. "Why does everyone feel the need to rank the two?" he asked with a laugh. "They are both good for different reasons. There's no 'better' or 'worse' here."

Their goals, however, are the same: To promote their galleries, sell artists' work, and create the right environment for Japan's many creators. If they follow the examples of cooperation seen in other major cities' fairs, Tokyo's time in the art world just may finally come.

An art work at war with itself


Miles Thurlow's first week in Japan didn't start well: The new Heathrow terminal lost his luggage, forcing him to make time to buy a suit when he could have been sightseeing, meeting other gallerists or preparing for his gallery's Japan debut at the new 101TOKYO Contemporary Art fair.

By the end of the week, however, his fortunes had changed. Newcastle, England's Workplace Gallery, which he and partner Paul Moss founded in 2002, picked up 101TOKYO's first-ever Bacon Prize for "Enough Rope," an installation by Jo Coupe.

"Enough Rope" has rotting fruit lying on a wooden table, their skins pierced by wires leading to small engines powering cutting tools that are slowly carving away at the table legs that hold it all together. Coupe's work toys with destruction, as well as preconceptions of science: Does the citric acid in fruit have enough power to saw through table legs? I found myself returning periodically to check on their progress.

"Actually, there's a wire running under there, powering it" Thurlow told me in mock confidentiality, "That's Coupe's final twist — it's just feasible enough to make you wonder if a pears and pineapples can destroy a table."

Coupe's works often use scientific elements to make a point. In "Give and Take," roses hang in a copper-sulfate solution that seals the flowers' beauty in copper sediment while gradually tearing them apart under the additional weight of the metal.

Thurlow believes that art fairs like 101TOKYO are an ideal venue for works by Coupe and other artists from northeast England, on which Workplace Gallery focuses most of its attention on. "We're in a fairly provincial setting, so the local people 'get it' less than I'd care for them to. But if we have to go abroad for recognition, that's OK too," he says with a smile, saying that international art fairs are a better venue as there's less cultural baggage to contend with. "At art fairs, no one cares where you're from — it's all about the art." (Jason Jenkins)

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