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Friday, April 2, 2010

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Art mart: Mana Konishi's 2009 contemporary oil-on-canvas painting "virginia" (top) will be for sale at the booth of Tokyo gallery Arataniurano. IKUHIRO WATANABE; MUNETOSHI IWASHITA, © ART FAIR TOKYO; EDAN CORKILL


Old meets new at Art Fair Tokyo

Staff writer

So you like art? That's great — but I'm afraid you're going to have to be a little more specific. That's because — in Japan — you can't just like art. You have to like a certain type of art: old art, for instance, or contemporary art, yoga (Western-style) or nihonga (Japanese-style) painting. There are plenty of categories to choose from.

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Roll up: This 14th-century "Sakyamuni Triad and Sixteen Guardian Gods of Buddhism" scroll will be for sale at Shouun Oriental Art's booth at Art Fair Tokyo.

And in case you were wondering, choosing to enjoy them all is not an option — not all at once, anyway. Unless, that is, you plan to visit the massive and eclectic Art Fair Tokyo being held April 2, 3 and 4 at Tokyo International Forum near Yurakucho Station. Or unless you happen to go by the name of Yuji Yamashita.

First-time visitors to Art Fair Tokyo, where you can both peruse and purchase the art on show, will likely leave convinced that it suffers from a multiple-personality disorder. Walk down one aisle and you'll be confronted with booths displaying scrolls and wooden sculptures on Buddhist or Chinese themes dating back several centuries. Walk down another and you'll encounter colorful landscapes in the tradition of the Impressionists; yet another and you'll find yourself facing giant photographs or stylish video pieces.

The annual Art Fair Tokyo — which this year boasts 138 galleries — is one of the only events on the Japanese calendar at which all the categories of the nation's multifaceted art world come together.

And if the Japanese art world — and hence Art Fair Tokyo — suffers from split personalities, then its psychiatrist — the man who has devoted his career to reconciling all of these divergent strains into a coherent national visual culture — is the aforementioned Yuji Yamashita, an art historian, Meiji Gakuin University professor and Art Fair Tokyo regular.

"As I walk through the fair looking at the various booths, I can tell immediately which category they each belong to," Yamashita told The Japan Times during an interview at his office in the city's Nakano Ward.

"Each category is a self-contained system, with its own historians, its own artist-stars, its own museums, galleries and audience," he explained. "They are all separate, and there is very little exchange between them."

Although international museums such as London's Tate and New York's Museum of Modern Art have lately been experimenting by replacing chronological displays of their collections with thematic groupings, rest assured that no such thing has happened in Japan. Here, the division between "old art" (kobijutsu) — generally regarded as art from before the Meiji Restoration (1868) — and its antithesis, "contemporary art" — applied to works from the 1960s to the present — remains intact. Indeed, there are very few museums in Japan that even possess both.

You might notice that in the "old art" / "contemporary art" dichotomy just mentioned, the period from 1868 to the 1960s is missing. That's where things get really complicated. What's called "modern art" (kindai bijutsu) in Japan usually refers to Modernist art by Western artists (in other words, everything from Impressionism till Minimalism). Then there's those genres of (Western-style) yoga and (Japanese-style) nihonga paintings made by Japanese artists at any time since that Meiji Restoration of 1868, which rang the changes on centuries of feudalism. Yoga tends to resemble Western pre-Modernist or Modernist art, while nihonga takes its cue from old Japanese works.

Yamashita explained the reason behind the complexity of this modern period: It was the fork in the road where things started going askew.

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Visitors browse last year's Art Fair Tokyo, an annual event hailed by art historian Yuji Yamashita (below) as being unique in Japan as it features art from right across the spectrum.
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"After the Meiji Restoration, when the Western concept of art came in, all of a sudden art became something to be put in a frame and viewed in a museum," he said. "It became remote from the lives of the people. Until then, in the 18th century in particular, art was a part of life — the merchant classes in Kyoto, for example, all had scrolls or things hanging in the tokonoma (alcoves) in their living rooms."

As art was hustled into the rarefied halls of newly built galleries, the public simply lost interest, and it turned into a largely academic discipline. Then, sure enough in pigeonhole-friendly Japan, various schools and groups soon emerged catering specifically to the particular categories of art that continue to exist today.

"The reason you don't see collections or exhibitions covering both old and new art here is because the education system doesn't let you study both," Yamashita said.

Of course, Yamashita is the exception. Until the 1990s he was dedicated to "old art," studying under renowned art historian Nobuo Tsuji at the University of Tokyo. Then, in the '90s, Yamashita had a fateful encounter with the work of Taro Okamoto (1911-96), the artist who made one of the earliest attempts to break down Japan's academically contrived art categories by seeking inspiration in artefacts from the Jomon Period (circa 8,000 B.C.-A.D. 300). At around the same time, Yamashita started noticing that contemporary artists such as Makoto Aida and Takashi Murakami were incorporating elements of old art — his specialty — into their works.

"I became interested in those artists and started getting to know them," he said.

As contemporary artists began reaching back into history, the historian began reaching forward through his expertise in the works of such painters as Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800), Soga Shohaku (1730-81) and Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768) to foster interest in them among contemporary artists. Sensing that if artists were starting to see beyond the traditional categories, then audiences would soon follow, Yamashita began creating exhibitions that drew from multiple categories or presented old art in contemporary ways.

In 2003, he assisted in planning the inaugural exhibition of the Mori Art Museum (MAM) in Tokyo's upscale Roppongi Hills development. "Happiness," as the show was titled, was the brainchild of David Elliott, the museum's British director. In line with the international trend at the time to prioritize theme over chronology, the show brought together works from all periods of human history related to the subject indicated by its title.

Charged with overseeing the "old Japanese" component of that exhibition, Yamashita proposed two large panels by Ito Jakuchu — each featuring fanciful menageries. The paintings were the highlight of the show — exuding a dignity and originality unsurpassed by work from any other period.

"With that show, all of a sudden you had an audience that had come to see contemporary art being confronted with a stunning example of art from 250 years ago," Yamashita said. "The Japanese started to realize that their country's old art really is amazing."

That trend has continued and been encouraged, Yamashita believes, by the arrival of the Internet and the immediate access to images it provides — along with the emergence of a generation for whom art categories born out of the 19th and 20th centuries mean little.

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Modern times: The booth of Tokyo gallery Radi-um von Rontgenwerke AG as it was at last year's event. This time, the gallery will be one of 25 at Art Fair Tokyo specializing in contemporary art. MUNETOSHI IWASHITA, © ART FAIR TOKYO

Art Fair Tokyo, which began in 2005 and has always been open to all types of galleries, has also played a role. Misa Shin, its director, said the decision to combine different types of art has been taken in order to cater to the latent potential for the Japanese public to "enjoy art from all periods" — a potential that Yamashita, of course, agrees exists.

"The good thing about the fair is that it allows for a further shuffling of audiences," he said. As happened at MAM's "Happiness," he suspects, visitors drawn to contemporary art may end up discovering the beauty of old art, and vice versa. "The fact is that there is essentially no difference between old art and contemporary art," Yamashita said. "The future of Japanese art lies in transcending those categories, both for artists and curators, so that an original Japanese style can re-emerge."

And with that the historian, who dabbles in collecting himself, reached over to a table behind him and picked up one of his own recent acquisitions.

"This is a fragment of a vessel from the Jomon Period," he said, holding up an oddly knotted piece of earthenware about the size of a fist. Noting proudly that he acquired it for just ¥50,000 — from the very types of old-art dealers who will be present at Art Fair Tokyo — he exclaimed: "Look at the creativity that has gone into that decoration, and this was made 5,000 years ago!"

Art Fair Tokyo runs April 2, 3 and 4 at Tokyo International Forum, near Yurakucho Station. Admission is ¥1,500 (free for children below elementary school age). For precise times and other information, visit www.artfairtokyo.com

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