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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cat paws and art charms — NADiff returns

Staff writer

It was a house-warming party to which the whole Tokyo art scene was invited. And, like overzealous house guests, the several thousand artists, gallerists, curators, museum directors, critics and journalists who turned up to see the new four-story NADiff A/P/A/R/T building in Ebisu this past Monday night spent the evening exploring and swapping stories about the facility's book shop, cafe and five galleries.

NADiff under construction
New digs: NADiff under construction

One of the biggest talking points of the evening were the paw prints embedded in the cement floor. It appeared as if a small creature had been coaxed into walking from one side of the NADiff bookshop to the other during construction.

If you believe NADiff president Kimiaki Ashino — the man who built this new building, primarily for his own bookshop, but also to rent out the remaining floors to other galleries — it was an accident.

"We had mixed this black pigment in with a glaze to seal the concrete, and it happened to pool in hollows," he told The Japan Times a few days prior to the opening.

As the concrete had been left to dry, a cat stole inside leaving the neat paw prints, which the glaze immortalized when the heavier black pigment flowed down into them.

Another hot topic was the size of the NADiff gallery. The store, which used to be located in Omotesando — until it had to make way for large development project early last year — was never just a bookshop. As well as having a very small cafe, it also sold "artist goods" and artist multiples and had a funny little gallery partitioned off at its core. The gallery was only about three meters by four.

Revellers at Monday's opening party for the new NADiff
Charm believers: Revellers at Monday's opening party for the new NADiff A/P/A/R/T building in Ebisu. EDAN CORKILL PHOTO

Now, as Ashino had made his own building from scratch — and worked closely with the architects ("They're not famous," was the explanation I got when I asked who they were) — expectations were high that NADiff would finally get a decent-size gallery space.

"Our gallery has ceilings that are just 2.1 meters high. And it's really small," Ashino explained during our interview.

"Because we rented out the other floors to proper art galleries (magical, ARTROOM; G/P gallery; and Art Jam Contemporary), I decided we had to go in the other direction — small. I want us to be more minor than those spaces, in size and in what we do," he continued.

Thus the choice of the artist unit Chim ↑ Pom for the opening exhibition. The six twenty- and thirtysomething artists, who are fast gaining a reputation for their combination of slacker humor and biting sarcasm, were perfect for Ashino's low-key approach.

"I don't think any of them actually make a living from their art," he said. "So it's like, 'You're starting a new gallery with a bunch of amateurs?' Yes! I'm very pleased with that."

NADiff president Kimiaki Ashino
Signs of the cat: NADiff president Kimiaki Ashino points to the paw prints at his new Ebisu Store. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Of course, for all his love of things "minor" and "amateurish," Ashino himself is anything but. He began working at the now defunct Seibu Museum of Art in Ikebukuro in 1975, kicked off its popular Art Vivant shop and then, with some other Sezon staff, started a spinoff operation called NADiff, or New Art Diffusion.

"The idea was to make a museum shop (the kind you see at New York's MoMA) in Tokyo, and then to sell the concept to public museums throughout Japan," he said.

It worked. NADiff's Omotesando store, which opened in 1997 with a dazzling array of foreign art books and magazines, and other art-related paraphernalia was enough to win over four museums in Tokyo (including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography) and several outside of Tokyo, all of which currently have NADiff-operated museum stores.

Even when the Omotesando store was still open, New Art Diffusion Co., Ltd. generated 90 percent of its profits from these outlets.

"What we do — whether it is at the museum outlets or in the new shop in Ebisu — is like the little stalls selling charms or fortune papers at a shrine," Ashino said. "Unless you believe in the god, the bit of paper that you buy from the temple has no value whatsoever."

Fortunately for Ashino, there are currently sufficient Tokyoites who believe in the god of art to sustain his business.

And they were out in force on Monday night. The glass-fronted building resembled an overflowing jelly-bean jar, with people crammed on to balconies and spewing out into the surrounding alleyways. Concerned neighbors were peering through curtains to see what all the fuss was about. Some young guy — an art student, no doubt — got a bit too excited and started yelling incomprehensibly behind a rainbow-colored van parked outside with "To the future" painted down the side. Confronted by a broom-wielding janitor from the next-door office building, he promptly apologized and ran off.

"Come tomorrow and there'll be no one here," quipped Ashino as he scurried through the fracas. And, considering he's built Tokyo's newest art home in an alley off a lane off a backstreet in eastern Ebisu, he is probably right. Then again, with this many people having this much fun, his plan to "go minor, go amateur" looks as if it has struck a chord. As this old-timer no doubt knew it would.

Five floors of creative fun at NADiff A/P/A/R/T in Tokyo's Ebisu

4F — MAGIC ROOM?? (Cafe/snack bar)

Aiming to fill the gap left when art bar Traumaris closed down in Roppongi last year, MAGIC ROOM?? will no doubt be the new place where museum staff take visiting foreign artists when, after a long day installing an exhibition, they (invariably) plead, "Take me drinking where the Japanese artists hang out!"

MAGIC ROOM?? is open 11:30 a.m.-12 midnight weekdays and till 4 a.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and days before holidays; www.magicroom-tokyo.com

3F — magical, ARTROOM (art gallery)

There were too many people Monday night to see the art on the walls, and it looks like that might be a sign of things to come. Relocated from the Roppongi venue it used to share with Traumaris, magical, ARTROOM has the largest space in the building, and the organizers are planning to hold events and lectures as well as exhibitions by young artists from Asia and Japan, including Fumiaki Akahane and Hitoshi Kuriyama.


2F — G/P gallery (photography gallery)

Directed by well-known editor and creative director Shigeo Goto, this specialist photography gallery will quickly become one of the medium's most important venues in Tokyo. Goto says, "The old categories in photography — documentary, news, portrait, art — are no longer valid. I want to bring them all together, bring together work by young people and masters, in order to rethink the meaning of photography."


2F — Art Jam Contemporary (art gallery)

Since 2002, entertainment conglomerate Amuse Inc. has held a competition for young visual artists in Kyoto — the Amuse Art Jam. With this new venue, Amuse is branching into commercial gallery operations. Judging from the first exhibition, "Girls' Zone," it seems young female artists will be the staple.


B1F+1F NADiff A/P/A/R/T (bookshop, art gallery)

Tokyo's legendary art bookstore-cum- gallery was in Omotesando for 10 years until May last year, when they had to leave to make way for a new development. It picks up in Ebisu where it left off with hundreds of art and design books from around the world, limited edition artist goods and exhibitions by young Japanese artists; the Chim 596 Pom show, called "Japanese art is 10 years behind" continues until July 27.

NADiff A/P/A/R/T is at 1-18-4 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; open 12 noon-8 p.m.; www.nadiff.com

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