Art-It magazina

Page 1

ART-iT MAGAZINE [www.art-it.asia] “adrian’s blog” [ARCHIVE] Reviews and reflections on the Japanese contemporary art world Adrian Favell

Current pages and monthly archives of the blog can be accessed at:

http://www.art-it.asia/u/rhqiun


Index Blogs 1-45 : July-December 2009 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41. 42. 43. 44. 45.

A Week in Tokyo (1): Intro A Week in Tokyo (2): Winter Garden by Midori Matsui A Week in Tokyo (3): Takahashi Collections Teppei Kanneuji @ Cocolab, Akita Seven Days in the Art World [BOOK REVIEW] French Theory and Art Criticism What are Museums of Contemporary Art in Japan Really For? Kohei Nawa @ Hermes Kusamarama! Yayoi Kusama in LA Stitch by Stitch @ Metropolitan Teien Museum Echigo-Tsumari: The Fram Kitagawa Philosophy Mami Kataoka’s New Show in London, Walking in My Mind Lucky Kunst: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art [BOOK REVIEW] Japanese Design Milieu China Mania Kumi Machida So you want to be the next Jeff Koons? Being a Queen: Korean Art Now Cool cities, cretive economies, global hubs? Taro Izumi Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial Visualising Asian Modernity A Thousand Galleries Bloom Gokon Anomaly Komazawa or Tokorozawa? Koganecho Bazaar Cute Ambassador: Takashi Murakami MOTTAINAI WEIWEI! Broken China at Mori Museum Life: Real Art in a Material World After the Gold Rush Geisai vrs Design Festa Gutai is Back! Giappone @ Venezia (1) Powerless Japan Gutai in New York Mika Ninagawa Yoshihiro Suda in New York Tomoo Gokita in LA Ryoji Ikeda in Birmingham Miwa Yanagi: Giappone @ Venezia (2) 2010 Year of Nara? Jio Shimizu Motoi Yamamoto à Paris Min Nishihara and Yutaka Sone: LA Story Erina Matsui Rubicon Crossing 2010


1. A Week in Tokyo (1)

A week in Tokyo in June is precious time if, like me, you live in some obscure part of Northern Europe. I am not in LA this year, so Japan is that much further away. Last week’s mad dash around T-town was just what I needed to get me moving on the book(s) I am promising to write this summer. I caught openings at SCAI, Tomio Koyama, and Yamamoto Gendai; did talks at Sophia University, Akita COCOLAB, and GEIDAI; a couple of interviews, including the redoubtable Fram Kitagawa at ARTFRONT; and saw a host of other things, including a stunning new installation by Chiharu Shiota at Kenji Taki,

Kohei Nawa at Hermes, and Kosuke Ichikawa’s sold out insense works at PLSMIS. Oh, and ate some fugu for the first time (in Kita Senju). Best of all was the chance to catch up a little with friends and artworld folks around town, however brief. Its a good job people are tolerant of my coming and going: trying to convince everyone you are around (at least in spirit), and following what’s going on, even if you can only manage to be there a few days a year. I know I’m on a quixotic mission: to tell the world from afar how and why artworld Tokyo is the most interesting place on the planet, even while everyone there is dreaming of such overrated places as Venice, Basel, London, New York etc etc. I had to take in the two big ‘sampler’ shows, of course: Midori Matsui’s ‘Winter Garden’ at Hara; and the Takahashi collection ‘Neoteny’ at Ueno Royal. My reviews to follow... ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/07/05

3


2. A Week in Tokyo (2): Winter Garden

Midori Matsui’s micropop movement is an important statement about the post-Murakami scene in Japan, as well as one of the few examples of recent Japanese curation that has been noticed internationally in recent years. The trouble is, as was clear at the original Mito show in 2007, Matsui is a much better thinker/writer than she is curator. The first micropop show was a series of smart ideas attached to an indifferent selection of artists and artworks. Now, she is back, at Hara Museum, with Micropop 2.0, ‘Winter Garden’, that will be a touring as a Japan Foundation show in Europe and perhaps further afield. ‘Winter Garden’ is a lovely metaphor for the economic ice age we seem to be moving into. It evokes attempts by these young artists to make low-key, fragile, understated art, that can survive and sustain us through harsh times. It shifts the micropop ethos from the quiet political alienation the artists at Mito were said to be expressing against the excesses and decadence of a consumerist age, to one in which they are visionaries of a more sustainable art in an era stripped of resources. The accent, though, is still on very home made, evanescent, almost throwaway works, art as artlessness: fragmentary videos, tiny drawings in pencil or crayon, everyday materials, small things easy to overlook. Hara is a beautiful museum, and these warm and often charming works offer quite a bit more than the last show I saw here by Jim Lambie in December. But is this really all there is to contemporary Japanese art, or the new generation after Murakami? Matsui persists loyally with her KaiKai Kiki choices from Mita. Yet the world surely does not need more opportunity to see Aya Takano cartoons, or Mahomi Kunikata’s queasy adolescent angst. There are lots more subGEISAI doodlings from Ryoko Aoki, Hiroshi Sugito and Makiko Kudo, alongside pretty but also quite vacant paintings by Tam Ochiai and Daisuke Yamamoto. So far, so micropop. It is clearly the videos, mostly new to this show, that are meant to carry the 2.0 version. Taro Izumi, the most memorable artist introduced at Mito, is fun as ever, and his mensroom bathroom sink a nice reprise of what Pipilotti Rist did with the building last year. But both he and Koki Tanaka need a lot more room and space to convince. And the firestarter video by Chim Pom is the bad boy/girl group at their most anodyne. Their inclusion was surely only opportunistic, due to their current infamy. There was, of course, nothing micro or pop about their blowing up of Vuitton bags in Cambodia, or upsetting the good folk of Hiroshima with airplane trails in the sky. I do love Lyota Yagi’s iceblock gramophone, a frankly hilarious work, which unfortunately is presented by the Hara staff with stiff seriousness, as if they were explaining features on the new Sony Vaio to customers. The last room is the messiest. Two artists whose work I like – Masanori Handa and Hiroe Saeki – look terribly incongruous next to each other. Saeki’s delicate pencil work, that do look like unworldy vegetation in some wintry glasshouse, are certainly a good choice for the show’s title and posters; but her work shows too much craft and technique for a micropop artist. And open the door in the corner and we get an unfortunate reminder of how derivative all the other callow bedroom art is: with the obvious godfather of micropop, Yoshitomo’s Nara’s delightful German studio permanent room installation. It’s so much better than anything else in Matsui’s show.

4


An artist friend of mine described ‘Winter Garden’ as ‘depressing’. He means it’s depressing that this touring show is what Europe is going to see as Japan contemporary art now. For sure, German and Spanish viewers will like a show that offers more ‘eye candy’ in the vein of the very successful kawaii/otaku style shows put on by Murakami. But these are eminently forgettable sweeties. Recent shows in Tokyo by obviously post-Bubble, postMurakami artists – I think of those by Aoyama, Ohba, Murayama, or Nawa – have shown that there are a number of ambitious, elaborate, conceptually rich, technically brilliant, and aesthetically memorable artists making art in Japan now. Micropop is a limited and limiting take on the scene. I would describe ‘Winter Garden’ as ‘underwhelming’ rather than ‘depressing’. That is maybe Matsui’s intention here: this is a show that foregrounds the curator’s ideas much more than those of the artists selected. On that score, at least, I am looking forward to reading the catalogue. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/07/05 01:13

3. A Week in Tokyo (3): Takahashi Collections

Psychologist Ryu Takahashi’s professed reason for collecting so much contemporary Japanese art is to save it from the fate that befell the golden era of ukiyo-e paintings. Scorned at home, they mostly fell into the hands of western collectors, so that nowadays you have to go to the British Museum, Paris or Boston to see the best of this rich seam of Japanese culture. Whether anybody will be marvelling over Takashi Murakami’s goofy flower paintings in two centuries time is anyone’s guess, but Takahashi has certainly amassed a wonderful ‘sampler’ of young Japanese artists (YJAs?) since the early 1990s. It’s a fascinating collection, particular if you share as I do a J-centric interest in contemporary art that links it to particularities of Japanese society, culture and economy and the dramatic social and generational changes that have taken place since the end of the Bubble. The current show at Ueno Royal museum is therefore a must see, if only to check on how these currents have been pieced together and represented. I caught the touring show’s first stop in Sapporo in December. My main problem with the show is the framing: the concept ‘neoteny’, which according to Wikipedia refers to the biological notion of ‘juvenilisation, or the retention by adults of traits previously seen in juveniles’. Stretched to cover the art on show here, I presume Takahashi (if indeed it was he who reached for the medical dictionary) is referring to the abiding themes of infantillisation, juvenile sexuality and undercurrents of sexual deviance, that has long been cultivated thematically as the dark side of Murakami and Nara’s at-first-glance happy, cute and childish imaginary. In Sapporo, I visited the show as part of a tour around the city with an academic friend and his young daughter, and – after I’d pestered him to help with the untranslated Japanese texts explaining the show – he questioned why it was Japanese contemporary art was always being presented in these uncomfortable and disturbing terms. Not least, it seems to

5


confirm many of the prejudiced ideas westerners have about the weirder sides of Japanese culture. The point was that the concept in fact misrepresented a large chunk of this show, especially work by much of the younger, emerging thirtysomething generation. In Sapporo, it was bookended by Motohiko Odani and Konoike Koide’s strange visions, which certainly sets the theme, and one cannot argue with its appropriateness for Aida, Nara or Izumi, or even the work of Mika Kato or Kumi Machida. But Takahashi has shown interest in other kinds of works, as well as younger artists, who are bored with the fixation on psychological undercurrents, and exploring very different issues – mostly to do with technique, perception and craft – in their work. A good case in point is Ruriko Murayama’s stunning floral mannequins, that get a prominent role in Ueno as in Sapporo, but which need relating to themes of colour, techniques of production, and the transgression of lines between fashion and art, not any queasy kimo-kawaii obsessions. Her response to that, she always says, is just to ignore it and get back to dyeing and sewing. Or Tabaimo. Her brilliant narrative work is certainly grim and grotesque, but why should it be referred back to terms that make us think only of adult manga rather than a much broader reflection on the seismic ruptures of contemporary Japanese urban life? We are stuck, in other words, in the sorry otaku universe of KaiKai Kiki’s Mr. if we are to take the curation seriously. The show as a whole is a lot better than that, although in Ueno the ordering was unclear, many of the rooms look cluttered, with several artists lost in corridor passages. I immediately screwed up by trying to ‘interact’ directly – as instructed in English on the box – with one of Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s famous ‘milk box’ galleries, a camera by Miran Fukada. Oops. For my shame, I then spent the rest of my rapid visit being shadowed by walky-talky toting gallery assistants, who seem to have been recruited en masse from a Tokyu department store elevator girl training scheme. Still, I managed to pick out a few highlights. Kumi Machida’s multiple 101 Days of Sodom images is a brilliant piece of book illustration, surely one of Takahashi’s smartest acquisitions. There were some early Murakami, including a cartoon of Nakamura vs. Murakami that whisks us back to the days in the early days of the 1990s when he was just one of the likely lads of neo-pop. I have a fondness for some of his frankly lousy conceptual pieces from that era, before he got the nihonga+otaku+branding equation right. There is of course one certain masterpiece in the show – Aida’s downright nasty Air Raid on New York – and plenty of other things to fulfil an introductory taste of Japanese contemporary. Unfortunately, however, they have still not bothered to translate anything about the show or even catalogues, to make it more accessible to the foreign visitors who would learn and see a lot in this exhibition. I’m not sure what Ueno Royal’s policy logic is here, but it’s a surefire way of shooting yourself and the artists representing ‘Japan now’ in the foot. It was pelting down Sunday afternoon, but I just managed to make it to the new Takahashi space in Hibiya for the show of his Yayoi Kusama collection. Now, we have all seem a thousand Kusamas, but I was deeply impressed and won-over for this stalwart of Japanese contemporary by this small, but essential collection. Juxtaposing works from all of the last five decades, you get a strong sense of the continuity, and obsessive vision of Kusama, that mark her out as an original. We don’t know whether they are silver penises, bananas or knitted gloves, but her sofa and wall installations are still gloriously bizarre tactile objects externalising some vertiginous internal consciousness. There is a miniature of one of her fabulous mirror room installations, and even the pumpkins, dot paintings, and cheaper pop art moves come alive in the grouping of works here. There seems little doubt here that Takahashi’s investments have saved and archived something very important for Japan. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/07/05 20:44

6


4. Teppei Kaneuji at COCOLAB, Akita

Akita is at first sight a depressed and depressing place. With its population declining by 20% in a few years, it’s a place that few creative people might choose to live and work in. But some of the best things come from the margins, as I discover when I am invited to give a talk in the city about my research. In an abandoned factory workshop by the river in the old entertainment district, designer Chigusa Sasao runs an art space for exhibitions and talks, as well as a base for her design enterprises. She shares the building with a number of friends and colleagues running an art bookstore, a kissaten, and an exquisite couturier workshop (designer Rui Takagi) that itself looks like a gallery. In fact, I spy a strange installation inside—a small gothic looking mannequin with a deer’s head hanging from the ceiling, by local artist Ruriko Murayama, who is something of a celebrity around here. My talk is part two of a series called ‘The Great Escape’ following up a recent double header talk show by two of Tokyo’s top young rising artists, Teppei Kaneuji and Lyota Yagi. Kaneuji had some six months or more previously created an installation with a number of works for sale in the small gallery upstairs, and it is my first live encounter with his work. I missed the much talked about Yokohama show – a brave move by museum director Taro Amano to invest in a still relatively unknown young artist – and I had heard mixed reactions. The catalogue looks beautiful, but is there something too easy, too throwaway (too ‘micropop’ maybe?) about numerous works taking everyday objects and dripping them with the tell tale white plaster discharge, or disfiguring them with other noxious liquids? The Akita show convinced me that there is something quite special about Kaneuji’s methods and materials. He tends to work in situ, bringing his materials and producing a plenitude of works for the space at hand. Most of what I saw at Akita seemed to have been amassed originally at a local DIY store, and it is perhaps most impressive how he manages to steal some beauty out of some of the most banal, mass produced and functional objects in today’s banal modern civilisation. I have spent far too long at too many Home Depots in the US to ever have thought that plastic buckets, household tools and building materials might reveal an aesthetic side. Yet there is something quite sinister and panic inducing about all that plaster filling the empty spaces of the installation, and holes of the buckets. The white solidity is quite deathly alongside the childish plastic colours; it’s an impressive effect. I’m less convinced by his disfigured footballers – which I feel like I’ve seen some place before – but I do like the white discharged vandalised guitar, where the plaster seems transfixed in movement, as it moves through the strings, like through some wind tunnel. Kaneuji, I think, shares something of the scientific, exploratory methodologies of Kohei Nawa or Motohiko Odani, and I see them as part of a whole current of significant new sculptors in Japan. My talk in the evening goes well. It’s an absorbed and talkative crowd, and the bilingual arrangement seems to work fine. Most of the audience are young women, as are all the entrepreneurs of the various shops/companies in the building. I don’t know whether this says something about the demographics of Akita, or the fact that many of the most dynamic people in the Japanese art world today – such as younger gallerists, curators and organisers – are women making things happen.

7


ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/07/08 03:15

5. Seven Days In The Art World [BOOK REVIEW]

Seven Days in the Art World is a book by Sarah Thornton, recently published in Japanese by Random House about the global art world. She is also a sociologist! I also discuss Don Thompson’s not so good book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art and Auction Houses. WITH TATE LONDON the most visited tourist site in the capital, and the likes of Damian Hirst getting regular front page news and magazine coverage, contemporary art has never been more visible or more discussed. Perhaps no other form of cultural production and consumption better expressed the spirit and hubris of the high rolling 1990s, which rolled on with the good times while they lasted into the 2000s—an apparently boundless aesthetic playground for the global elite, rich and beautiful. The contemporary art world offers a distinction-packed culture beyond language and borders, thriving in an ever more visual age, and booming with new finance sources, technological innovations and lifestyle reverberations. These two attractive books, written by former or sometime academics, but pitched for a best seller market, take us inside this lurid and seductive world. Sarah Thornton offers us a ‘stray cat’ participant observation of her adventures wandering through seven dimensions of the global art world today, talking to all the protagonists at an auction, at an art fair, at an art school, at a museum prize, in the corridors of an art magazine, in an artist’s studio, and at a biennale. Don Thompson, meanwhile, sets out to explain the inflated sales dynamics achieved by the branding operations of superstar artists, art dealers, and auctioneers: a pop economics aimed at readers surprised or scandalised by kind of price tag achieved in recent years in auctions for rotting sharks in formaldehyde tanks or horses with their heads stuck through white gallery walls. For Thornton, art is the new religion for an über-cultivated, rootless class of global atheists. More obviously and profanely, though, her stories portray the contemporary art world as the new rock-and-roll for a seemingly vast and growing cosmopolitan elite of rich, ageing hipsters, all in search of their mojo at a rotating parade of glam locations, from Venice and Basel, to London, LA and New York. Seven Days is a quite special book, not only because it stands a chance of reaching a rather less fast lane mainstream airport bookstore audience, but also because it will be received and cherished by the personalities and wannabes of that world itself. Her achievement is to pull off this lightness of effect while retaining the integrity of a rather old school sociological ethnography, combining research techniques from American ‘grounded theory’ – particularly the legacy of Howard Becker’s classic study, Artworlds – with a very effective naturalisation of a Pierre Bourdieu-style structural analysis of art as a competitive field of distinction, identity and value. Such references and academic signposts are elided in the text, although a guide to further reading is provided; the author and her trade publishers clearly do not want to upset non-academic readers. Yet, given the theory and jargon-obsessed predilections of contemporary anglo8


american cultural studies, social anthropology or art theory, her book might easily get overlooked as nothing more than sparkling, atheoretical reportage. This would be unfortunate. Seven Days, rather, should be welcomed as a breakthrough contribution to the ethnography of contemporary culture: a close to definitive glimpse, through brilliant polished windows, at one of the most revealing examples of a genuinely global social milieu. With rigour and subtlety, Thornton displays what qualitative sociology can do at its best: listen, observe and learn, while paying meticulous attention to the life-worlds of research subjects themselves. The author’s strategy is to treat the contemporary art world as a precious game of interaction and trust: a web of interwoven, mutually supportive roles, filled by artists, curators, auctioneers, writers, struggling art students, and (vitally) the collectors who buy the work, and held together by a shared belief that takes everything going on in this often bizarre and crazed world with deadly seriousness. Thornton takes a flat approach to the ethnography, treating everyone and everything she observes with equal importance, and casting herself as the neophyte: ‘a baby’, as she describes it, learning how to walk and talk her way into and up the art world. Along the way, she really has talked to everyone. Spectacularly famous names are dropped casually on every page, and the extraordinary access she is rewarded with allows her to describe each of her types casually in situ, analysing their thoughts and self-understandings, usually through their own words. The book is a masterpiece of composition. Several years of patient fieldwork, and a no doubt uneven and unwieldy databank of interviews, telephone calls, and snatched conversations, are reconstructed with literary flair as seven flowing days in seven beautiful locations. The material she gathers is almost uniformly good, well edited, well written, with eye for sharp quotations, character and place. And the neophyte asks the right naïve questions: What is an artist? How do dealers sell works? What gives a work value? The answers are complex and inconclusive, but always very entertaining—and Thornton is brave enough to leave the work as a series of open artistic impressions rather than definitive academic conclusions. It is a warm, affectionate portrait. Thornton nearly always treats her characters with the seriousness they themselves assume, eschewing the obvious temptation for satire. Whatever critical sociology edge she might have brought to the work is thus mostly smoothed off. Thornton does (rightly) complain about the gendered exclusion of frequently undervalued women artists, or the brute dollars-and-cents machismo of the financial side of art, but much more insight is generated as she relaxes into her own self-appointed role: showing that being a curious and attractive young woman, ready to ask an impertinent question, can get you fabulous ethnographic access—and at least a good quote or two. A famous womanising septuagenarian collector whisks her off her feet at the Basel Art fair, getting her precious insights as she shadows his purchases. Then, in one of the funniest moments, she tries her luck with the famous collector couple, the Rubells, asking if she can shadow them too—to be told, ‘certainly not!’. That would be like asking to have access to their bedroom, they tell her. Later, an off the cuff greeting to an agent in a corridor away from the action, reveals to her the secret purchaser of a new million dollar work by the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami… And so on. All this access was surely not as smooth and unproblematic as she narrates it, but the book is a genuinely reflexive ethnography—that lets the reader see how it has been constructed, and which has allowed all those portrayed to read and give feedback on the portrait. This scrupulously fair methodology again captures the spirit of ethnography at its best. The key to this working is not to pass aesthetic judgement on any of the art works in the book: their value is a hermetic product of the milieu itself, a wonder stuff in which everyone believes. Still, her warmest words are reserved for the artists themselves: the pioneers of American conceptual art, such as John Baldessari, and glimpses of genius – or at least geniality – from the Turner Prize runner up Phil Collins, or the young Italian Francesco Vezzoli at Venice. For sure, the trust and beliefs of this social world are a fragile ecosystem. A more cynical or critical reductive reading could easily burst the art bubble that everyone is living in. Thornton, though, is not interested in spoiling the party. Grayson Perry worries in his blurb that too much of this world has been demystified in the book, but in truth it is a mostly a romantic portrait. The compelling power of Seven Days in fact lies in the degree to which Thornton clearly yearns to be part of the world she observes. Her great expectations are, for the main part, warmly received, so the transaction stays sympathetic and mutual. Critical identity as an analytic scholar is maintained through uncaptioned observations and delicate asides, a balance mostly pulled off as long as she is still fresh faced enough in the new world. Only perhaps in the closing chapter in Venice does the tone get selfcongratulatory. Thornton goes for a dip in the pool at the Hotel Cipriani, and gads around by water taxi to a lot of pre-opening parties, transcribing a lot of pompous declarations by famous curators. They hail her now as a friend and co-conspirator in the great art game. Thornton has made it—and she knows it. In the book’s closing image we are implicitly invited to applaud her, just as was the novice superstar artist Anish Kapoor, as she describes him entering a restaurant in Venice after his first breakthrough biennale show. It is perhaps this socially mobile dynamic in the book, that accounts for the fact that Thornton mostly dwells on

9


success and fame in the art world, not its obverse—despite, in fact, the truth that this world is driven not by the stars who made it, but the also rans, in vast numbers, who get smashed trying. Only once do we get a glimpse of this other side of art: in a light and sensitive portrait of a day amongst slacker students at a California art school. The lockjaw of theory and conceptualism on contemporary art is graphically illustrated in the scorn these struggling and mostly hopeless young artists pour on notions that art has anything to do with ‘beauty’ or ‘affect’. Everyone in the art world today talks this talk today, but it has to be noted how much a role these desperately old fashioned notions still play in motivating the big auction sales—something well observed by Don Thompson. But apart from the students, Thornton has much less to say about the lives and work of the legions of those who are always hopefully (or euphemistically) referred to ‘emerging’ artists, trying to make the leap across the chasm from art school to Turner prize nomination. The book analyses the anxieties of the Turner prize nominees, but these are already ‘successful’ artists; the everyday action in the art system is generally going on well below this, at a more intermediate level, in the mundane actions of dealers and artists to scratch out a career and living against its brute statistics of failure. In his book, Don Thompson offers some guestimates of the numbers of such artists in cities in London or New York: it’s a numbing thought. Behind the couple of dozen or so big earners, and the few hundred who make a decent middle class living, there are thousands more – Thompson thinks about 40,000 in each city – devoting their lives at cost to a lost artistic cause. How breakthrough success is produced – and whether talent, creativity, or originality really has anything to do with it – is not really addressed by Thornton. The most salient fact we learn about the surprise winner of the 2005 Turner Prize, Tomma Abts – who is, unusually, an abstract painter – is that she was once Chris Ofili’s girlfriend. Thornton follows art world convention in sidelining the ‘unschooled’ work of ‘outsider artists’ – as would any insider – as worthless, if exuberant, forms of creativity that have by definition no place in contemporary art theory. But on any consistent sociological account, ‘Art’ with a capital A can only be creativity that has been sanctioned by a self-sustaining social system. As her book vividly illustrates, there is precious little dividing these universes of value bar the talk, the social networks, the mutual recognition and the market hype of the self appointed art insiders. In recent years, these fine lines have been very unstable. The dynamics of contemporary art are in fact all about how objects can and do get moved and actively reclassified from valueless junk to priceless art in very short order—a good case in point being the rapid move lately of street and graffiti art from brick walls to white cube walls. This is a symptom of the circularity of modern art theory and history: as Thornton puts it, how making art history is all about ‘changing the way we look at art’. Hence, the players of this game spend all their time trying to capitalise and commodify anything they can find in the margins that might one day sell, but it is a process of valuation that can only happen once, and leaves the art world racing in circles that have been emptied of any intrinsic aesthetic value. Joe Public’s contempt for the stuffed shark or headless horses on walls is a part of this game; a source of bankable media scandal that the Young British Artists used to great effect for over a decade in their one-off ascent to fame. But to build a career on one off stunts is a limiting strategy. A similar problem might be pointed to in the work of an ethnographer. Thornton’s material is so rich and seductive precisely because this was a virgin field to which she got to first. The ethnographer living out their material as an observer participant can never step in the same river twice; just as another ethnographer cannot truly re-tread in Thornton’s footsteps or – in scientific terms – replicate and validate her findings. Research such as this depends entirely on the personalised sense of authority and insight the writer herself can generate from their own account. Thornton largely convinces us of her interpretation on most points. Only once or twice does she go too native. One example is the way she misses the chance to challenge the uncomfortable fiction of classlessness that pervades the contemporary art world, despite (paradoxically) its inherent dependence on all kinds of complex stratifications of status, hierarchy and value. A handful of rich kid art students slumming it in thrift shop clothes, cannot mask the massive prop of class and wealth privilege that holds up the gallery, auction and art media systems, debarring access for most. The classlessness that art world insiders feel about their world, is as much as an illusion (or collective delusion) as the $12 million allegedly paid for the famous stuffed shark (that was in fact not stuffed but pickled, and was actually sold for $8 million). The art world’s most famous proletariat acts – Hirst’s foul mouthed PR routines, or Tracey Emin’s drunken mad-for-it provocations on prime time TV – are the exceptions that prove the rule. Class, in fact, is coded in only one way in Thornton’s analysis: through her tart observations en passant about the clothes her various art world characters are wearing. While the auction directors are observed wearing this year’s catwalk fashion, the talkative dealers she meets wear Hugo Boss off-the-rail pin-stripes, and the sad academics she encounters with obvious disdain when wandering briefly back into one of her old haunts – an academic congress – are stuck in their shabby and worn out conference suits. You feel Thornton is wearing Prada by the time she swans into Venice. Given the timing of the study, one thing that is curiously absent is the Chinese art boom, surely the big art story

10


of the last few years. Instead of letting him theorise pretentiously, Thornton might have asked superstar curator Hans Ulrich Obrist how and why he has spent so much time in China lately, as he has played a central role in the blowing up of a new East Asian art bubble. As this point suggests, the complacent Euro-American domination of ‘world’ art needed decentring, a shift Thornton mostly misses, although does gesture towards by making the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami her central case study of the superstar artist in action. Unfortunately, Murakami and his acolytes are in many ways a misrepresentation of Japanese and Asian art today, so comprehensively has he seduced the western art world with his distorting, superflat vision of Japanese contemporary art. It is easy to get lost in translation here. Again, Thornton builds on extraordinary insider access, getting whisked across Tokyo to meet the great man by his Los Angeles dealers, Tim Blum and Jeff Poe, and eventually flying up with them all to a foundry in provincial Toyama where Murakami’s new sculptural work is to be unveiled. This chapter is certainly the funniest, with great quotes from the entire cast. Blum and Poe become Coen brother characters, Thornton scoring cheap laughs off these two self styled, hard drinking, west coast money men who have done more than any other western art world figures to make Murakami famous. We wince along with the curatorial assistant, Mika Yoshitake, as she contemplates compromising her hard won academic credentials for work in Murakami’s brash and trashy world. And the laughs get even louder as we follow the effusive Paul Schimmel, chief curator of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, as he offers his measured art historical judgement on Murakami’s new work, a giant Oval Buddha sculpture in platinum leaf: ‘unfuckingbelievable!’, he gasps. While everyone else seems to be forgetting there is a stray cat with sharp ears and eyes in the room, Murakami himself cannily shows Thornton only his western face: the chubby, cheerful, workaholic, hippy artist, codphilosophising about his ‘much complicated brain’ in comical Japanenglish. Murakami as always knows what he is doing. His other, Japanese face, familiar to his fans and foes alike back home, is an arrogant, aggressive, cunning and often ruthless entrepreneur on a mission to smash the traditional Japanese art system, and fool the imperialist West (especially Americans) with a flat and purposefully bland neo-japonist brand. No surprise then that controversies about the value of his plastic, mass-produced art swirl around his work, as much as they do for Maurizio Cattelan (the horse-in-gallery artist), whose ambiguous stature is openly discussed in the book. Murakami wins the PR battle here, symptomatically perhaps, since his Kaikai Kiki organisation is also the most controlled and oppressive space Thornton encounters in the book. The ethnographer pussy foots around the organisation, trying to get a view unmasked by Murakami’s ever present PR minders, and substantiate allegations about exploitation and maltreatment of employees in the company. We get glimpses of the rather miserable lives of his assistants, and the dubious quality of Murakami’s roster of adolescent bedroom girl artist—who are all mass producing western orientalist fantasies of Japan for the corporation. Thornton does well enough to smuggle out her notes here, but she struggles to avoid reducing the strangeness she observes to clichés about Japanese organisations. And so she describes, as a matter of fact, Murakami drilling his hip young employees through a morning session of traditional corporate callisthenics, neglecting to comment on how completely weird this, in fact, is, or why this ageing otaku artist appears to run his company like the doomsday Aum cult. The qualities of Thornton’s work, though, are illustrated quite vividly in comparison to Don Thompson’s far less enjoyable or authoritative account of the $12 million shark—and all that. While Thornton shows quite deftly in the space of a 30 page chapter how the game of trust, distinction, theatre and personality conflict can put value on work at an auction or art fair, Thompson struggles to really pin down an explanation in over a couple of hundred pages of anecdotes, as he walks us through a year of poking around auction houses and dealerships in London. He covers much of the same ground, and along the way we get useful lists of the top ten dealers or collectors at work today, as well extensive reports of the business stunts of Damian Hirst or the private life of Francis Bacon. The book falls quite short, though, of delivering an ‘economics’ of this world, largely because of the effort to simplify the analysis for the publisher and general reader. The economics is purely descriptive not theoretical, and short of any citations or references, we are never quite sure about Thompson’s sources, or how he might ground his often subjective take on the relative value and importance of various artists. None of the subjects he portrays are given a voice; he is frequently sarcastic or dismissive when it would have been better to let the art world characters speak for themselves. The observations accumulate in strictly linear chapters, without any attempt to structure the material into a systematic account or capture a gestalt. As it is, his central thesis is obvious, if not trite. Successful contemporary artists are a brand—and to be successful as a brand you need to get branded. Auction houses and successful dealers are also a brand, he says. Thompson describes in some detail how powerful figures such as Charles Saatchi can make or break the careers of rising or falling artists, or the next-to-illegal means by which auctions houses out manoeuvre each other or push

11


up prices. But despite the barrage of anecdotes, we are no nearer at the end to understanding just how or why Damien Hirst gets away with it, other than being sure that he most certainly does. The strong sense of the book in comparison to Thornton’s is that Thompson never really got allowed in. So he is left sneering at nose ringed gallery assistants who won’t tell him the price of a work for sale, or reminiscing about nearly meeting famous curators who didn’t give him an interview. Thornton and Thompson’s books will now of course stand as time capsules of the boom years in global art: in the literal sense that with the collapse of the bubble economy, the good times too in art are going to stop. All that money spent on over-hyped, big plastic post-Koons art is going look quite foolish if an art ethnographer goes back to Christie’s or Sotheby’s in a year or two’s time. The authors’ timing is good, and coupled with the privileged access she secured, Thornton’s may prove quite exquisite. Seven Days captures the art boom at its peak: from Christie’s scoring new records in 2004, the magazine Art Forum cruising at the height of its powers, and the media circus of the Turner Prize in 2005, to the melée of Art Basel and the party life at Venice in June 2007, when the boom hit its peak. It should, of course, be remembered that some of art’s financial success during these heady global years was conjunctural. The hedge fund managers and Russian tycoons may have started buying art in the late 1990s and early 2000s because their empty rich lives craved meaning, but it was also, more tangibly, because returns on stocks and shares had become sluggish compared to the boom in oil on canvas and plastic installations with weird video accoutrements. Wide boy characters, such as the breathless buyer agent, Philippe Segalot, have emerged as the true brokers of this world. It is no accident that he appears on several occasions in both books, oiling deals and talking up the art superstars, while trying to sneak into art fairs by the back door to get an unfair advantage. That new characters such as this were becoming so central, is a sign that the old art world roles and routines were indeed being warped by the new money. It remains to be seen who will be left standing after the latest gold rush has subsided. Buying the latest Jeff Koons has become the equivalent of buying football teams; it was trophy art for massive egos, suitably gargantuan in scale, and just as subtle and empty in its charms. We learn a lot about the glorious global world of yesterday from these books. But only when the bubble purchases have been reassessed will we know which of these contemporary artists are likely to be etched in art history and which will be filling the dumpster trucks outside, to be rifled by the next generation for recyclable parts. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/07/09 02:09

6. French theory and art criticism

Well, hello Gilles. This fine looking chappie has a lot to answer for. Monsieur Deleuze (and his pal Felix Guattari) have of course for decades been great names to drop in art theory. They crop up a bit in Midori Matsui’s idea of ‘Micropop’ for example, and they are all over the very à la mode debates on nomadism that I hear everywhere— although a lot it, for my taste, is way too redolent of the postmodern theory I first read in the 1980s. One of the

12


most obvious ways in which the Japanese cultural milieu follows trends globally, is in excessive respect for western theory and philosophy - and the fact that stuff still gets discussed here way after its sell-by date elsewhere. For far too long this meant a worshipful importation of (especially) French theory and French theorists as master thinkers. More to the point is what is Japan exporting in terms of critical theory/ideas? A conference this weekend at Sophia University poses exactly this question, observing how, while debates about ‘cool Japan’ and all that in English are still driven by Anglo-American cultural studies theories (which were themselves based on imports and mistranslations of French theory originally), very little attention has been paid to the specifically Japanese postBubble (ie. post 1990s) critical theory that has developed a very original take on Japanese (post)modernity and its post-development crisis. This conference gives an international voice to two of the most important figures in Japan, Shinji Miyadai and Hiroki Azuma, so hopefully things will begin to flow a bit in the other direction. http://www.fla.sophia.ac.jp/icc/2009/Studies_of_Japanese_Popular_Culture_1.htm The art world should be taking notice. Japan ought to be thinking more about the significance and impact of its post-Bubble art, just as it has had great influence globally with its post-Bubble architecture (SANAA, Atelier Bow Wow, etc). But are ideas taken seriously enough in the Japanese art world? With print publications disappearing, and the world going online, critical debate about ideas in art is getting lost. It is frequently been observed how there is much less intellectual content in discussions about culture since the 80s or 90s. There’s a lot more communication, maybe, a lot more information, certainly, but is there more discussion—or thought? Its all of a question of ‘content’ of course – which is where the bloggers must come in. Art-It’s site should be a great place for this – for some serious debates, reviews and reflections —alongside all the twittering. Let’s some put critical content back into art debates and discussions. To borrow a phrase beloved of the black crow of death baiting Governor of Tokyo, ‘Gambarimashyo’ (I won’t attempt the clenched fist).

And hello Sarah (Thornton). I’ve just moved to the official AB pages, so you might have missed my blog review of her rather wonderful new book, Seven Days in The Art World, which has just been published in Japanese. Have a look. Dig back and there also reviews of the Takahashi collection and the new Micropop shows in Tokyo among other things. Forthcoming here on this blog will be thoughts on my recent trip to Kanazawa 21st Century Museum, on the Fram Kitagawa philosophy (with Echigo Tsumari 4.0 opening soon), and the upcoming Stitch-by-Stitch show. Mata ne.

13


ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/07/11 00:53

7. What are museums of contemporary art in Japan really for?

Kanazawa, somewhere in the 21st century. On my way to the famous historical city, I get caught in a mad scramble for train seats by day tripping Japanese pensioners at Echigo Yuzawa station. Nothing is going to stop this lot getting their entitlement, so its only after surviving a barrage of very un-J-like barging and elbowing, that I settle to enjoy the passing north coast countryside. I bet none of these anxious pensioners are headed where I am going—to Kanazawa’s showpiece contemporary art museum, which says something about the importance of contemporary art in everyday life, as well as its cultural priorities, in contemporary Japan. Still, Kanazawa’s quite breathtaking art space is a people’s museum if nothing else. The radical flat low rise circular design, with semi-public boulevards running through the museum, and see through glass or white rooms divided up by patio gardens, open spaces and glimpses of office space, transcends a series of typical architectural lines between inside/outline, nature/artifice, public/private, etc. A piece of truly cutting edge architecture, it is deservedly famous and celebrated internationally. Kanazawa’s problem as a museum, not to say its potential as a showcase for contemporary art in Japan, is the single blunt fact that the architecture by SANAA is so much better and more worth seeing than any of the art inside. It’s a common problem in Japan, which is stuffed with stunning museums designed by recognised Japanese architects, worth paying astronomic shinkansen fares to go see, whereas there is only a slim roster of contemporary artists who share the same kind of public recognition. Museums like Chichu or Towada exacerbate this by their curatorial policies: architectural jems used to display the trophy acquisitions of foreign artists, and usually second tier pieces at that. Towada is particularly depressing once you get inside: I can’t remember any of it apart from the Yoko Ono peace tree. Nothing is more certain to cement Japanese contemporary art in the global second (or third) division, than the unwillingness of these museums to take some chances and say that there are some Japanese artists (or artists from Japan, if you prefer) worth paying attention to. Maybe these museums only get a few foreign visitors a year, but those that do go are likely to be there with a purpose, and should see some Japanese contemporary works alongside the beginner’s guides to world art elsewhere else. Other museums like Hara, often opt for commercial shows by hip foreign names, but they have also profiled rising J-stars (Tabaimo and Yanagi, for instance) and the museum does contain spectacular installations – that are a quick sampler ‘best of’ Japanese contemporary – in this case, brilliant pieces by Nara, Morimura, Miyajima and Suda. (It’s a pity the next one they’ve commissioned is an Eliasson—the Turrell/Lin problem below...)

14


Kanazawa has struggled over this issue since its opening, and tussles over its policy and mission between curators and the city government have scarred its history. For the main part, under the influence of its prominent first director, Yuko Hasegawa, it tended towards the first version of internationalisation: i.e., showcasing foreign art for Japanese in Japan. Hasegawa used her formidable influence and connections to bring high profile artists to work with the construction of the building, and a series of high profile shows, most famously the Matthew Barney collaboration on one of his Drawing Restraint works (the one where he gets to cut up whales and Björk). It’s nice to know that Kanazawa’s curators are up to date with the latest in world curatorial trends. But I’m not so sure it has worked to make this a truly ‘world class’ museum. For sure, the Japanese public needs to be exposed to some great world art, and the Japanese art world probably needs to feel it is part of some great world art networks and curatorial debates. But did all the effort with Barney get much further than securing a footnote in one of his elaborate productions? Do more shows of second or third hand conceptual Brit art, that was vapid first time round, really advance global art curation, especially when they are being shown several years after those who follow these things first read about it in Frieze or Art Forum? Mori’s Turner Prize show last year was surely a nadir in this tendency: where the astronomical price of insuring some of Hirst’s rotting carcasses on the 52nd floor, ensured there was practically nothing else of interest on show to hipsters in Tokyo getting their first live glimpse of YBAs. Or the latest round of Martin Creeds or whoever... And, really. how many more museums do we need in Japan with Michael Lin wallpaper, or a hole in the roof by James Turrell?? (OK, OK, I agree Turrell is probably one of the few greats of the last fifty years, I’ve just seen too many by now; Lin’s wallpaper, however, will always just be wallpaper). Senior curator, Hiromi Kurasawa, kindly shows me around the museum, and explains some of the history and current direction of the museum. It is making more effort now to work with Japanese artists, connect locally and regionally, and to acquire more contemporary Japanese works for posterity—as is Hasegawa now at MOT. They are also aiming to do more combined Japanese/international themed shows that showcase major new Japanese works at the forefront (rather than rearguard) of ideas in art, as Hasegawa also did in her 2007 Space for Your Future show. The current show at Kanazawa, One Hundred Stories About Love does this, and is a breezy eclectic mix, perfect for random wandering around these lovely rooms. It’s a fairly empty curatorial frame, unless the many single performances and events you can’t see on a day visit are factored in. Some of these – by Chelfitsch, or Ono’s old New York partner Toshi Ichiyanagi – looked good. In the galleries I see a handful of interesting new names: Hiraku Suzuki’s earth paintings and graffiti motifs take over one huge hall; Taiyo Kimura’s amusing installations would have looked good at Micropop. The highlights – the Shiota, the Shimabuka, the Morimura — I’ve seen before. The best two rooms are the public art installations, works in progress by locally based, established artists. The public can join in the making of the big colourful knitting installation by Mitsuhara Hirose and Minako Nishiyama, that looks like a cheesy, soft wedding chapel; Motoi Yamamoto’s enormous, intricate white salt maze is another exceptionally original work by this very interesting artist. How nice to see something spectacular in a big room that didn’t involve ten tons of plastic or toxic junk (I dread to think how much was used in Towada). Besides these, though, it’s the building and the architecture that dominates everything else. This museum, like others, will have to come up with some money for some big domestic acquisitions and some visions of where Japanese contemporary fits in to global trends, before we start remembering the art before the architecture. Or before any of those pensioners wander in for a look. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/07/14 04:09

15


8. Kohei Nawa @ Hermes

I met Kohei Nawa early on in my research stay in Tokyo—at the SCAI booth at the 2007 Art Fair, where one of his characteristic ‘catalyst’ drawings was evolving in tiny strokes across the white walls. I was struck immediately by the intensity and commitment of this then 32 year old artist, brought up in the Kyoto art school environment with international polish from residencies in Germany and England. I was lucky then to visit his studio/factory in Kyoto, just before his breakthrough showing and sales at Art Basel that year. His hard working team of college assistants were setting up one of the now famous pixcell deer sculptures for photographing and then crating for Europe. It was spectacular to see it for the first time. Nawa impresses immediately with his systematicity, the distinct methodology he employs to arrange his various art experiments, which involve a random acquisition of objects and the consistent transformation of them through ‘neutralisation’ into a kind of physically imagined digitalisation. I was worried initially about the whiff of Damian Hirst about the whole operation; but the commitment to serious exploration rather than cheap shot conceptual ideas, and the consistently beautiful, unearthly objects he made remove it clearly from that kind of classification. The white glass cube of the upstairs gallery space in Renzo Piano’s still breathtaking Hermes building in Ginza ought to be the perfect place for Nawa’s work. Nawa mentions to me that he has had some problems with the light in the building, but the pieces work perfectly in the space. Nawa plays it minimal – three works, each illustrating a stage in the transformation process, from liquid to beads to scum. Two white illuminated boxes of silicon bubble precisely like a mathematical illustration in one darkened room; in the other, more temple like space, there is another large animal sculpture transformed into glass pixcells, and a third composition of everyday objects – toys, consumer junk, other everyday bits and pieces – covered in a strange fur like coating. This last parade of neutralised objects bears some relation to Teppei Kaneuji’s recent white discharge pieces, but the arrangement is much more classical – the effect almost like putting an altar in the space. I still have some reservations about Nawa’s immensely ambitious program. How wasteful are the production processes behind some of these immaculate finished objects ? How expensive is all this to make? The moment may be drifting away from art as pricey object towards a more economical style of art and craft. And is this work too cool, too serious for an international art market that is mostly obsessed with gimmicks, glamour and throwaway concepts? I’m not too worried. Nawa’s current work leans towards contemporary architecture and design, and there is a rich crossover line here to pursue. Nawa is one of the few contemporaries coming out of art who you feel can be shown seriously in the context of contemporary design; most young artists attempts to keep up with technology are much less convincing, much less elegant. Nawa’s references are older and sounder: to abstraction and minimalism that will age a lot better than the recent waves of monstrous plastic art that have been filling gallery spaces globally. His next international steps will be interesting to watch; this Hermes showing for sure will be widely noticed. Until Sept 23rd. For a series of good images of the show see: http://www.designboom.com/weblog/cat/10/view/6962/kohei-nawa-l-b-s-at-maison-hermes-ginza-tokyo.html

16


ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/07/17 04:12

9. Kusamarama! Yayoi Kusama in LA

Yayoi Kusama is everywhere right now -- check my upcoming review of the Hayward Gallery show ‘Walking in My Mind’ in London -- but she was surely made for LA’s sunshine noir. Or to be precise, the mini-city of Beverly Hills, where her flower and polka dot obsessions are currently planted as installations in the BHills Park and nearby Gagossian Gallery. http://losangeles.foryourart.com/?s=know&item=177 The local blog/art list For Your Art are organising walking tours and events. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/07/20 23:54

17


10. Stitch by Stitch @ Metropolitan Teien Museum

If there is one show that makes me wish I was I was sweating it out in Tokyo this summer, it is the ‘Stitch by Stitch: Traces I Made With Needle and Thread’ group show of needlework-inspired fine art that has opened this weekend art has been seen at this famous art deco museum. The crossover of fine art and textile or clothes design is an area we should at the Metropolitan Teien Museum in Meguro. It’s a rare occasion that contemporary be seeing much more of from Japan. Its avant garde clothes designers, of course, are already massively famous internationally—ever since the so-called ‘Japanese revolution’ in Parisian catwalk fashion back in the late 80s and early 90s, where Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, and others pioneered totally new shapes, lines, materials, textures and forms of drama on the catwalk. They practically invented the notion of ‘fashion show as art’ that has come to dominate this world in the 1990s and after. Yet fine art in Japan has never really connected much with this opening to the world. And, despite the high end cool of Japanese fashion design, or the image of Shibuya and Omotesando as global trendsetters, the fashion market in Japan remains overwhelmingly driven by foreign imports, not Japanese exports. Where it has had commercial success internationally, is in the high priced, specialist, craftwork end of designer fashion—a good example being the phenomenal global success of the Evisu jeans brand, which has made a name for itself by its dedication to piece-by-piece, individualised, rough, handstitched production methods and use of natural indigo dye processes, combined with the impeccable aura of Japanese design. It is this combination that gives a clue to how some characteristic forms of Japanese contemporary art could have more impact, if the same key elements could be forged and presented as a pointer to where Japanese fine arts are at their most original and outstanding. This is my principle interest in the exhibition at Teien Museum, which showcases artists with whom I am familiar alongside others with whom I am not. All of them cross the dividing line between art and textile or fashion design, but in a way that does not attribute everything new and exciting to the technological design side—unlike, say, the vision promoted by Issey Miyake’s 21:21 Museum in Roppongi, where cutting edge designers experimenting with technology have been presented as if they were just artists in a gallery context. But there is an alternative creative relationship being pioneered by artists, such as those on show here, who were trained to think and work in a contemporary fine art context, but whose methods and conceptual goals incorporate particular, needleworkbased forms of craft or production. I take some of these cues from the artist Satoru Aoyama who has recently been picking up some noteworthy attention in these pages and elsewhere (see the interview currently on the home page of ART-iT). What kind of fine art is appropriate in age where art is increasingly submitted to the hegemony of more advanced design practices and innovation driven by new technological possibilities (an example being Murakami’s whole notion of ‘superflat’: of art as no more than mass producible commercial branding exercises designed on computers)? In Aoyama’s reading of the socialist utopian writing of 19th century British author William Morris – whose famous works reflected on the meaning of art and culture in a society being transformed by industrial revolution – Aoyama seems to suggest that fine art might want to position itself, not like contemporary design and those that chase after it, at the cutting edge of technology, but rather in a sometimes nostalgic, sometimes utopian place where art can do something with possibilities that might otherwise be lost in the relentless march of progress and development. Aoyama makes abstract and figurative art from older, now defunct technology – using an industrial post-war sewing machine that imposes a method, discipline and enforced slowness, but which also opens up a new reworking of the representational development of art through a kind of physically reinvented form of ‘digitalisation’—with stitches as pixels. Aoyama is not included in this show, but these ideas resonate well in this context. Kei Takemura, for example, was like Aoyama part of the Yokohama show, THE ECHO, last year. For Takemura, the creative step backwards is in terms of memory and renovation: fine silk binding and reinventing everyday objects that might otherwise be 18


junk; or her spectacular, translucent tapestries on to which objects and memorabilia are stitched, often as a back drop to some remembered performance. The art is a pause out of time—and space, since it stitches together memories gathered in Japan, and across Europe and Asia, The second stand out artist for me, is Ruriko Murayama, who has been highly profiled to a wide audience through the Neoteny show recently, as well as a solo show in May at her gallery Yamamoto Gendai. http://www.yamamotogendai.org/japanese/artist/murayama.html Here, she has startling new work that is beginning to combine even more directly fashion and stitchwork as an artistic medium: with gothic cloaks, shoes and other items stuffed full of her characteristic multicoloured beads, flowers and frills. It all might be misunderstood as a kind of happy and easy kitsch, until the intensity of the colour and textures starts to be seen and felt again, with the haberdashery spilling out of the clothes like exposed animals’ innards. It is above all consistent method and the enormity of the task taken on by the artist in making these items, piece by painful piece, which in turn provide the conceptual base. The extraordinary investment in hand stitching and hand dyeing all these meticulously collected and matched items couldn’t be further than the mass produced Koons’ style art factories that were supposed to be the future of global art until recently. The physical processes and the infinite care put in to the work are small gestures of resistance and individuality against commercial hegemony; the intensity and perfectionism of production techniques that could – superficially, flatly, blandly – be executed on computer, by automated processes, or by many hands—but weren’t. There is for sure something of the traditional values of Japanese textile arts and design about all this – but the work looks like nothing like traditional, full of tactile and visual surprises. Above all, too, the work is very beautiful, something that seeing it in this museum will emphasise. http://www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp/exhibition/stitchi/e_index.html ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/07/23 01:52

11. Echigo-Tsumari: The Fram Kitagawa Philosophy

Talk of Echigo-Tsumari tends to immediately polarise art world folk in Tokyo. Or, rather, it tends to lead to an avalanche of support in favour of director Fram Kitagawa’s idealistic philosophy of public art promoted by ETAT (Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial) over the axis of political/corporate interests that dominates art in the big city – most readily identified with the Mori Development corporation, and led by Fumio Nanjo, director of the Mori Museum at Roppongi Hills. I’ve heard of this in terms of the ‘namboku senso’ (‘civil war’) of the North and South, to describe the titanic struggles of Kitagawa and Nanjo to court corporate and government sponsorship, and impose their visions over major public art initiatives in Japan. What is perhaps interesting to observers is not so much whose philosophy is right and wrong, but the fact that so much of what goes on in the Japanese art world is both controlled or directed by these two men—and that so much politics and money is involved. Moreover, that all this power and influence is being fought over in the name of something we might naively think as essentially benevolent: Art (with a capital ‘A’), that thing we all so ‘love’. I was lucky to get an interview with the redoubtable Mr. Kitagawa in the weeks running up to ETAT 4.0, which

19


opens this weekend in the mountainous region of Niigata way north of Tokyo. I was summoned to his operations base at Hillside Terrace, Daikanyama, for a late evening interview. Young assistants were still running around, there were coffee cups and ash trays everywhere, and Kitagawa himself was clearly exhausted at the end of another long day working the desk and the phones. I feared I wouldn’t get much more than a stiff formally translated PR presentation – the kind most American journalists get when they are whisked around Japan by their local minders – but the discussion quickly got animated, and his PA Rei Maeda conveyed the director’s earnest opinions frankly and without too much editing. Kitagawa’s philosophy as it is stated officially is, of course, a very seductive one. The 20th century was an age of cities that led to a dark if not self-destructive art and culture, and a quite insidiously unhealthy alliance between art, urbanism and commercial interests. Cities have gone on developing, and art and culture have been co-opted as part of the economic drive. Japan has suffered more than anywhere the drama of modernisation and massive scale urbanisation, losing touch with nature, with community, and with ancient aesthetic sense, as its population has packed into cities and foregone its rural roots. Art, says Kitagawa, should not be a an index of this modern development, or a monument to consumerism, but rather be used to measure and appreciate what has been lost. ‘The contemporary age puts the highest value on approaching information in the shortest way – the most rapid way. I want art to be contrary to that, to be slow. Contrary to the idea that art that should sit on top of consumerism, I want to revive art in a different way. The original purpose of art is, I think, to help us measure the distance between humans and the nature or civilisation they have left behind. I think it might be possible to see this if art can be done in the severest of places.’ Hence, art comes to ‘satoyama’, the village and the mountainside. Echigo-Tsumari is bigger than the 23 wards of Tokyo put together, yet it is nevertheless a decimated part of Japan, with now fewer than 75,000 residents. Despite its thrilling landscape – including terraced paddy fields, and ancient innovations in landscape and water management – its agricultural base has been abandoned, and many of its town and inhabitations laid to waste. Export industries were once imposed over self-sustaining traditional agriculture, but now the industry has gone, the youth have left, societal links have broken, and the population is chronically ageing. Echigo-Tsumari was instigated as a pause in this decline; both a spur for tourism and reinvestment, but also a means to bring artists in connection with fragmented communities, and communities in connection with art and creativity. The art works are thus scattered ‘inefficiently’ around the landscape, in villages, fields, mountains and forests; there is an emphasis on non-commercial avant garde artists, as well as a commitment to internationalism; the whole is dedicated to conservation, rediscovering the landscape, and (perhaps) an inner calm related to something harmonious that was once lost. Behind this vision, that Kitagawa has developed during a 40 year career promoting and financing art and architecture in collaboration with cities, corporations and regions, there are clear targets. One is the alternate philosophy espoused by Minoru Mori for whom art lies at the centre of his reinvention through building of the metropolis, the attendant transformation (for this read: wiping out ) of popular neighbourhoods and their decadent social problems, and the re-education of urban populations through exposure to high art and culture in sublime locations. For Kitagawa, this is tantamount to saying that Art has replaced God. A museum on the 52nd floor becomes ‘a Parthenon for the contemporary world’, as he puts it; art here is always a commercial accessory to urban living, and ever more urban development plans. Behind this, is a longer standing target that goes back to his student days at GEIDAI studying Buddhist art. ‘When I started my career and decided to be committed to art, I thought I should destroy the Japanese art system and its hierarchy. But to do this, you would have to destroy the system it followed – the American art market – because the Japanese system is just a local variant of that’. The two in tandem led to the disastrous bubble market of the 1980s, when Japan was living in an illusory ‘air pocket’ between East and West, that has left it exposed and bereft once the Cold War ended. It now can do little more than follow global trends, while failing to address the negative consequences of its own over-development in the past. Slow art, contrary art, placed in paddy fields or a battered, empty building, can revive art, but also perhaps revive a society unable to think itself back out of the urban/development mould—largely, Kitagawa argues, because Japan otherwise lacks the kind of rich civil society that would be needed to rebuild community and heal the damage development has done. Echigo-Tsumari this year seems to be putting more emphasis on renewal and renovation in it choice of art and locations. Images I have seen of previous Triennials have been less than appetising in the apparent encouragement of some of the usual big (and toxic) plastic installations, familiar from the global art world everywhere, dotting the countryside. The commercial market also is not left out of the party. Many of the major Tokyo galleries seem to be represented and present. The dance with corporate interests also goes on, played out

20


with now with the full partnership of Benesse corporation’s director, Soichiro Fukutake, a major benefactor of the project and someone with his own philosophy of renewal, and ways of squaring development and conservation. If Naoshima is the model, I imagine Echigo-Tsumari might inspire the same mixed feelings I had on that unreal art island, indeed the same feeling I get with many of the most benevolent museum and art developments in Japan: that there is something unholy about the way top down top down money and political power always get mixed with such exquisite aesthetic sensibilities. In Naoshima you could see how the project had transformed for the better some of the most ravaged, industry spoiled parts of the inner sea, and certainly delight in how art and architecture had been brought to decaying villages by the likes of Tatsuo Miyajima and Hiroshi Sugimoto. But at the same time, when you ventured up to the museums, you still had the feeling you were visiting the headquarters of Blofeld’s SMERSH (the baddies in James Bond movies). The question in Echigo-Tsumari will be: How much of the vision is imposed and how much organic? Large amounts of contemporary art I can think of will have little to say to the good folk of Niigata – who might still prefer American baseball, pachinko parlours, or Macdonalds to the culture that is being laid on for them. Kitagawa speaks of the largely resistant local powers to many of his initiatives, and the long process of winning people over. The logistics as well as the financing involved is daunting: a budget of 900 million yen, over half of which must come from paying visitors. (A little maths can tell you that this means he needs between 150,000 and 200,000 paying entrants – at 3500 Yen a pop – to break even.) That’s a lot of city folk trampling over the countryside. Hard to believe it could all be coordinated from this small, overflowing office or be the vision of one man. It is certainly a grand, spectacular, breathtaking vision. I just wonder whether there is time time or space for small, quiet things or tiny gestures in this drama. But I guess public art will always be a macho business in Japan. ETAT flaunts its international connections and roster of artists, as well as the universality of its message. I don’t know how much the message gets out, or indeed how international the public is that visits. Not so much I suspect, but it is a key concern for Kitagawa as he thinks of his legacy. He has certainly tried to take the message out on the road – to Europe, China, some day to America – but its not clear that audiences are responding. The creative city ideology, which has hooked art to big business corporate development in either the Mori development mould or to inner city renewal (as has been tried in Yokohama), is an inherently city-centred, heavily urbanised vision of the future. American cities are still, relatively speaking, quite disastrous places in terms of conservation and the dominance of city life over nature and rural alternatives; they will remain so, it seems, as long as there are fresh fields and deserts to build new housing tracks on, and still more oil to put in the tank. China may need the message even more, when it starts to sober up from the frenzy of over-development of the past two decades. Relative to this, given its rather shocking urban/rural divide, and the urgency of the problem it now faces in managing its decline and the social divisions it heralds, Japan today is in fact everyone’s future tomorrow. But it’s a grim prospect, a million miles from the vision Japan gave to the world at the Osaka expo in 1971, and which continues to be given to tourists in Roppongi Hills on a clear night in neo-Tokyo. In these matters, Kitagawa is surely right. We should not be erecting yet more monuments to art and money in unsustainable urban agglomerations, but considering what we are doing with this fragile planet as it spins on silently through the empty void. It’s certainly about time someone heard that message. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/07/24 01:32

21


12. Mami Kataoka’s new show in London

‘Walking in My Mind’, the current group show co-curated by Mori Museum’s Mami Kataoka with Stephanie Rosenthal at the Hayward Gallery, London, sets up a smart ‘inner visions’ psychological frame for a strong selection of contemporary installation artists. Three big Japanese names are included: Yoshitomo Nara, Yayoi Kusama, and Chiharu Shiota. Kataoka, whose has just returned to Tokyo with a new show of Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei opening at Mori, strikes a sensible balance between modish globalisms/universalisms in her curation, and the desire/need to present some background ‘Japanese’ context on the artists selected. It’s a debate that splits curators, but I tend to side with those like Kataoka – or, someone else I’ve also talked to recently, Reiko Tomii in New York – who insist this aspect is often crucially relevant to the work artists do. Where artists have come from – where they have been ‘socialized’ to put it sociological terms – as well as the intellectual/aesthetic influence of specific artistic milieux (such as Japan’s particular art system) – is an unavoidable dimension of our understanding. Of course, this all gets even more complicated, when, as all three of these Japanese artists have, their careers have also included bouts of sustained or even permanent residence abroad. You have to factor Germany into Shiota and Nara; or New York into Kusama – but the fact remains that, even after travel and international experience, there is always a need to talk about Japan in relation to their work. Post-nationalism, cosmopolitanism, a world without borders are all beautiful ideas; they are certainly ideals that motivate and move me around the world. But we all carry our nationality (culture, language, ethnicity…) around with us like battered old suitcases—and whether we like it or not. On the other hand, the trick is, as Kataoka explains to me, ‘to contextualise Japanese modernity into a global understanding—not just flag up stereotypes, clichés or formalities’. Otherwise – and we have seen plenty of this over the years – the ‘Japanese’ art people in the West see will be like feeding them ‘salmon sushi’ every time to the customers, and never anything else. J-art is diverse; like it is everywhere. The show at the Hayward Gallery sees curators and artists fighting against the constraints of London’s notorious South Bank architecture. The spectacularly ugly brutalist buildings, opened in 1968, are an unavoidably grim backdrop to the glimpses of internal states and inner worlds that the artists wish to portray. It is very difficult to forget that we are standing inside what is basically a rotting 1960s concrete car park. How is it possible to follow the curators into these visions of the human mind, when you can’t help noticing the scuffed tile floors, broken plastic air conditioning, and dry rot on the walls? This kind of ‘post-industrial’ setting can work – say, if you a bunch of Goldsmiths undergraduates putting on a show in an empty docklands warehouse in 1988 – but not in a top British public gallery, where punters have just paid nine pounds to get in (about ¥1500). Pristine white cube conditions would have made this show look a lot better, and the Hayward severely detracts from some of the works. When artists are basically installing works made of junk, you don’t want the room to look like, well, junk.

22


A museum badly in need of an upgrade—if not a bulldozer, ball and chain. The Japanese artists come off well in the selection. I assume they reflect Kataoka’s contribution, since she focuses on them in her catalogue notes. Nara’s little artist studio/bedroom, a mixed memory of student days in Japan and Germany (perhaps), is one of his and collaborators graf’s most winsome installations yet. It sits right at the entrance to the show, and everyone will love it. It also looks good up against the monumental collection of psychological poster art by Keith Tyson in the same room. Londoners can peer into Nara’s little room, at all the usual dolls, posters and artist’s memorabilia, and then practice their best ‘kawaiiiiiiii’ cries… Upstairs in the last room, Chiharu Shiota’s After the Dream (2009) is perhaps her first viewing in the UK: a dark room of white dresses trapped in her signature black wool cocoons. Shiota clearly is a perfect fit for the curator’s theme here. I hadn’t thought of her technique before as ‘drawing in the air’, an idea she is said to have had when she was a student in Kyoto. This captures what she is doing perfectly; I just wonder why she sometimes doesn’t use it in more varied ways. Still, I am delighted to see her star still rising – although it is ever more clear how much the German art context has impacted on her work, which still takes its themes from childhood fears and memories of Japan. Unfortunately, the mysterious room, one of the best in the show, is ruined somewhat by the plastic white window that was left unshaded at the back. We needed to be immersed entirely in her inner world and fears; not reminded (again) of the car park... Yayoi Kusama, meanwhile, is everywhere: on the posters, on the catalogue cover, inside and on the roof top terrace, out on the trees on the riverside esplanade in front of the museum, and all over the souvenir shop. Selecting Kusama for this show was, of course, a no-brainer. She has been ‘walking in her mind’ ever since she first came up with dots and infinity nets in the 1950s, and she is an artist whose one idea has – brilliantly – never really changed. Here we get a mirror room with floating balloons, then more red blobby things for the kids to climb on outside. It’s very sweet and devastatingly charming. They are the one thing that looks spectacular against the brutalist concrete and grey London skyline. Kusama keeps winning fans everywhere she is seen. The rest of the show? The only other artist that really gives us a convincing total immersion is Thomas Hirschhorn, with his very claustrophobic brain-like cave, made up of caverns of brown sticky tape filled with academic books. He looks like he just raided the office of a social science professor, and I have to say he is putting many of these books to better use dumping them in here. Elsewhere, the Jason Rhoades and Bo Christian Larsson installations are big piles of stuff evoking the crazy logics and baroque constructions of the mind (or just piles of junk, if you look at it that way). There’s some ugly art by a Dutch artist, Mark Manders, which you’ll like if you enjoy blocks of wood shoved through torsos, glass boxes with dead cats inside, and other charming mud-coloured constructions (I heard one Dutch tourist exclaim sarcastically ‘Oh, trust the Dutch artist to be the biggest creep in the show!’). Charles Avery’s antiquarian collection, meanwhile, gives up many hints of an imaginary island, and all look nice and oddball, but seems to be missing the kind of explanation needed to really help us start working imaginatively on his peculiar, understated sketches. Strewn over three sites, including a staircase and a ramp, it’s impossible to engage much in his world here. And then, to round off, there’s a Pipilotti Rist video in a dark room before we are spat out into an overcrowded souvenir shop, where half of the busy public seem to be crowded. The commercial overload is repeated outside, where Kusamarama has taken hold in several more souvenir shops around the South Bank. We are used to seeing this kind of thing regularly at Roppongi Hills; I wonder what the commercial tie-in deal with Mori Museum is this time? Anyway, you can load up on your polka dots to your heart’s content and your wallet’s capacity. I was pleased to see at least that the public had treated the polka dot wrapped trees by the river – which had the lovely title ‘Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees’ (2009) – as free ‘public art’: many of the white dots were signed or graffitied by couples and passing fans. Interestingly, the whole show looks a lot better in the catalogue pages that up against the concrete. The ugly building is removed, and we get some sense through the photos and additional material of how the inner states of each of the artists were intended to be seen, alongside intelligent essays and reflections. It’s not unusual for curation to look better on the pages of a book that on the walls of a gallery – but this is perhaps only the case when something is wrong with the show. At the Hayward, it looked like an almighty struggle for the curators and artists to install something that looked good. I am sure Mami Kataoka has been looking forward to getting back to the elegant glass, steel and white walls of the 53rd Floor. Until 6 September 2009

23


ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/07/28 22:51

13. Lucky Kunst [BOOK REVIEW]

There are plenty of reasons why readers in the Japanese art world might want to read Gregor Muir’s Lucky Kunst: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art (Aurum 2009), a lurid, fast paced, charming, and often fascinating story of the Young British Artists (YBAs). The mighty rise of Hirst, Emin and co, the emergence of the Turner Prize, and the return of London as a global cool cultural capital, is a constant reference point in Japan. Artists, writers and policy makers alike are constantly thinking about it as a guide to what goes on here. From the clear echoes of Freeze and the YBAs in the glorious Roentgen era in Oomori (Ikeuchi, Anomaly and all that), through the rise of Takashi Murakami – who, as we see in this book, took so many of his best moves from Damien Hirst – to the constant reference to ‘Cool Britannia’ in the attempts to use culture and the arts as a way of reviving Tokyo as a global city, it’s a story that everyone has bought, swallowed and believed wholesale in Japan. Now they can read all about it from Gregor Muir, a writer and curator who was on the inside of all the social networks and events that drove a bunch a poverty stricken but hard-drinking Goldsmiths college art students to global fame and fortune – carrying the London economy and housing market (it says here) along with it for the ride. The rise of the YBAs achieved two basic things that the global art world has since taken to heart. Firstly, it showed it was OK to be blatantly provincial. YBAs were marketed as British, and celebrated a loutish, in your face, determinedly ignorant British street culture that was anti-elitist, anti-American, and wrapped itself in a Union Jack flag. No matter that as the movement attracted foreign artists back to London, they too could become branded ‘British’. It was a provincial celebration, every bit as located in one place as the Showa 40 nen kai guys refusing to speak English in Tokyo; it is also why ‘China’, ‘India’ or ‘Young Japanese art’ shows still live on so powerfully as a way to present international art. Second, it cemented the idea that art was the new rock and roll, and that to be successful as artist, you just have to party hard. Hanging out with pop stars, playing social networks, sleeping with your classmates, and above all drinking as much as possible whenever possible, was the way to make an art scene, crack the media, and lift everyone up to fame. I saw this thinking going on, for example, at the opening party for Tokyo 101 Art Fair in 2008. YJA hope and excitement was in the air. The YBAs are the dominant art myth for the current younger generation in Japan.

24


The difference with London in the late 80s/early 90s was that it really worked. London was a depressing, backwater kind of place in the late 70s and 80s, off the world art map. The YBAs came out of nowhere, and made contemporary art sexy, provocative and ultimately dead cool. In doing so, they did their bit to rescue London from its doldrums, and put it back on the global radar. Gregor Muir tells the story as his own picaresque adventure: lurching from bar to private club to art fair, as he drinks his way into a career in the art world alongside the plotting of Damien Hirst, the random violence of the Chapman Brothers, the sweet homemade shop aesthetics of Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin, the smooth commercial moves of Jay Jopling, the self destruction of Joshua Compston. The book is narrated as a coming of age story: a wide eyed, nostalgic look at a London you will wish you were part of, even while wondering if half the myths it is setting up were really true. There are plenty of good stories along the way. How Damien Hirst came up with the idea for his spin paintings while dressed as a clown an art fete in the East End, selling the paintings with Angus Fairhurst for £1 (and an extra 50p for a look at the pink spots painted on their balls); how Muir, Jake Chapman and assorted others trashed the opening of some American ‘friends’ in London while in search of more booze at the gallery; how Mark Quinn’s self portrait in blood nearly melted in the car while being delivered to its first showing. You get a sense of how their ideas and their success were rooted in constantly pumping their social networks, as much as individual self-belief. How also Damien Hirst was moving away from the pack at an early stage with his business strategies, while Tracey Emin quickly became consumed by the fame game. The story ends appropriately enough with much of Charles Saatchi’s collection of YBAs going up in smoke at the big East End fire in 2004 at the warehouse where he stored their works. It also ends with most of the lucky kunst in question becoming rich and internationally famous. (You’ll need to ask a Brit to explain this street smart word play about the title; it’s another one of the books many provincialisms). Meanwhile, Gregor Muir, who has just been a poverty stricken hanger on and drinking friend for most of his more famous buddies, becomes a famous international curator and gallerist (he today runs the London gallery of Hauser and Wirth, who represent Martin Creed among others). Muir was a failure as an artist, and – on the evidence of this book – not much better as a writer, even though his career ascended through the pages of Frieze and smart YBA catalogues. The book has an uncertain tone: veering from boorish pub talk, to a rather wistful lyricism, jumping from one chapter to the next with abrupt nonsequiturs that suggest the kind of attention deficit disorder that usually goes along with all the alcohol and (eventually) drugs being consumed. This may be the fault of the editors, pitching the book to a trashy, airport lounge audience. Still, it’s a good read if you are on the move and not looking for any serious explanation of how and why YBAs really became successful, or whether the art they made will really endure. Muir did have a good eye for key works: I am with him as he captures the feeling upon seeing Hirst’s ‘A Thousand Years’, or Sarah Lucas’s ‘Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab’ for the first time in a pristine white cube space. And he was a great sponge: not only living off the artists (as he freely admits) for much of the 90s, but also in the other sense, as a personality who absorbed everyone and everything that was going on around with good natured openness and faithful recall. Much better analyses of the YBAs have been written. Julian Stallabrass’s High Art Lite, for instance, is a much more enlightening explanation of how and why the YBAs succeeded in hijacking commercial strategies and the dynamics of the media to their own ends, transforming the art world into what it became in the late 1990s: a lurid, money and sensation obsessed playground for vapid, cynical, egomaniac artists, the line that goes WarholKoons-Hirst-Murakami... But to read their story as a naïve celebration from the inside is still a unique experience. It is so much more fun to think that it was the sex, drugs and rock and roll that made the YBAs rather than cunning, ruthlessness or (dare we mention it?) intelligence. Since it explains very little about where the ideas came from or how they worked, it also helps further mythologise the artists and their ‘genius’ in ways they are doubtlessly delighted by. The real key to their success though was ‘performance’: that great British art of bullshitting. No matter how little there is behind the ‘front’ you put up, ‘larging’ it will get you where you want to be. It is this self-belief, this total conviction that they were the ‘in’ crowd and they had to be at the epicentre of something important, that lay behind the YBAs success. It is also the one thing that is most lacking in the Japanese art world today: where a miserable lack of self-belief, painful modesty, and an exaggerated perception that something much cooler is, of course, going on in London, New York, Beijing or wherever, continues to relegate the Japanese art scene to the second division. In the meantime, Muir’s sure fire smash hit book will keep the myths about ‘cool Britannia’ and London in the 1990s rolling for quite a while longer. How he or any of the YBAs got away with their dumbed down antics and fake proletariat moves will continue to mystify, though. The London of the 90s they helped create was the London where everyone was having a good time, pop band Blur were cockneys, Tony Blair was a socialist, and all a bunch of nice middle class art students had to do to be the next David Hockney was ‘smoke some fags, play some pool,

25


and pretend they never went to school’. Jarvis Cocker – who also appears partying hard throughout the book – already wrote these words and the essential story of the YBAs in 1995 with his song ‘Common People’. Muir might himself have gone to a comprehensive school, but he helped pave the way for the return of Eton schoolboys and Roedean schoolgirls to every position of cultural, social and political power in Britain. Lucky for some. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/08/05 06:43

14. Japanese Design Milieu

I’m no expert on design in Japan, but you can count the experts on Japanese contemporary art and design in Denmark on one hand, so I was recently asked to write an essay about the subject for the catalogue of a new exhibition in Copenhagen on Danish and Japanese design that is opening today. Both Japanese officials and European enthusiasts like to present Japanese design in terms of a classical ‘nihonjinron’ of aesthetic virtues, such as minimalism and craft, as well as a ‘genius’ for the harmony of ‘ancient/modern’, ‘nature/artifice’, ‘emotion/reason’ and so on. But being a sociologist, I think some of the extraordinary originality of Japanese contemporary design, fashion, and architecture lies in the specific economic and social conditions of the pre- and post-bubble periods in Japan. Anyway, that’s what I argue in my essay, which you can find here: http://www.second-nature.dk/index.php?id=1720&L=1 There is also lots of information about the exhibition here, which features some key art/design figures such as Yuichi Higashionna (above), whose work has been seen recently at Roppongi Crossing 2 (2007) and also at the Comme des Garcons boutique on Omotesando. For insights on the Japanese design scene, I generally rely on the two most well-known ‘gaijin’ bloggers, Jean Snow and W.David Marx (neojaponisme), who have been following the scene for years and do brilliant work. http://jeansnow.net/ http://neojaponisme.com/ ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/08/07 02:09

26


15. China Mania

If my interest in the Asian art scene was more motivated by following money, second guessing the art market or seeking out scandal, I would have done well to pass straight over the Japanese art scene and write about China instead. I remember this was more or less what the major Tokyo gallerist Atsuko Koyanagi said to me the first time I was introduced to her: that China was where all the action was, why on Earth was I studying Japan? One good reason is that no-one needs another book about China art, or another Western writer/curator wandering in and making China their new overnight specialism. Nevertheless I did take the message to heart, and have felt it necessary to at least keep an eye on the international presentation of Chinese art as a reference point for my thinking on Japan. So, although I’ve never been particularly gripped by the work, or the historical Mao to post-communist to crazy capitalist development narrative that has given the art its commercial and conceptual drive, I have been to what seems like dozens of identikit group shows of China art in the last couple of years, as they spring up with regularity across all of Europe and North America. There’s been China Gold, China Now, China Avant Garde, China Power Station, and now there is China Mania, a selection of painters at Copenhagen’s impressive Arken museum, which I went to check out this past weekend. Every museum has got to have a China show of their own, it seems, as part of a forced effort to ‘go global’. There’s not much to say about the art at Arken. The show was full of the simple, colourful surrealist style work that has turned a handful of Chinese artists into an instantly reproducible canon, with the famous expensive names such as Yue Minjun (above), Wang Guangyi and Fang Lijun, mixed with others no-one’s ever going to remember. As always the phenomenon going on here – the China bubble – is more interesting than the art itself. Apparently, I read in the catalogue, most of the works were made especially for the exhibition. Hmmm... Immediately I begin to wonder what exactly is going on here? Denmark already played a dubious role in the global Chinese art trade circuit a couple of years ago when Louisiana, the country’s premier modern art museum, was used to provide window dressing for an investment fund scam built on new Chinese works. Out of the blue, curators at the museum were offered the chance to show a mysterious, hitherto unknown collection of 200 major Chinese works called the ‘Estella collection’. The museum accepted, preparing a lavish show and accompanying catalogues in 2007, that garnered a lot of attention and was planned for a major international tour. The prestigious ‘collection’ was in fact the cover for an investment fund snapping up Chinese works, headed by a New York dealer Michael Goedhuis, and involving various corporate investors. He used the lure of a major European museum and international touring show to persuade ten of the top Chinese artists to sell him new works at knock down direct sale prices, with the assurance that many of the works would later be donated to a major museum and that they would be kept together. In fact, the collection only travelled to Israel, before being sold (for $25 million), then rapidly ‘flipped’ onto the market, the first half of 108 works appearing for sale in a great fanfare at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April 2008 (netting $18 million), the rest later in the year in New York. The duped artists and curators involved were understandably upset, having been used to inflate the prices and make money for others. The office dealing with the original negotiations had used a fake address and numbers, and artists reluctant to participate had been pressurised or offered bribes, such as mansions in Venice during the Biennale. This kind of thing is all in a day’s work for the Western gallerists and dealers out in China who, along with the superstar curators flying in and out, have been piloting the business behind the China bubble. For some reason, a

27


lot of them seem to be Swiss, slick guys in suits and expensive watches who blend in perfectly to the colonial expat business scene in Shanghai and Beijing. When I visited Moganshan Lu art district in Shanghai – which is itself only a fraction of the size of the more famous Beijing art villages – I was stunned by the dozens of galleries mass producing Asian and Western style modern art, in every style you could think of from impressionism to superflat. There was nothing much here until figures like the Swiss gallerist Lorenz Helbling at ShangArt came along in the mid 90s and, together with the curators who started to select out and validate unknown (cheap) artists – the show by Harald Szeemann in 1999 at Venice Biennale being the key tipping point – eventually blowing up the art world bubble that made everyone rich. For sure, there have been some real discoveries. I’ve also seen Yang Fudong and Qiu Anxiong recently in Denmark; these are both remarkable video/installation artists, every bit worth the attention lavished on them. But my abiding memory of the huge new ShangArt gallery space, primed for sales to eager visitors, was when I took a peek behind a wall and saw dozens of copies of works by their artists stacked up like cornflakes packets. Then there was the gang of Chinese workers – rounded up off the streets for a pittance wage – stuffing thousands of envelopes with publicity that were going out to every known art gallery, curator, agent, museum, scholar or magazine in the West. How to make an art market out of nothing; this is how you do it. Some galleries have been known to invite up to 200 guests from the West on expenses paid visits to openings of major names being promoted; thousands fly to attend some events. At most a handful of gaijin will ever be seen in any comparable Tokyo opening. So was Koyanagi right? It was quite a depressing remark given that she is one of the most influential art world figures in Tokyo. Should I just be writing about China? I still don’t think so. As I’ve argued elsewhere in my talk for The Echo show last year, the Japanese art world is interesting precisely because it has operated largely outside of the global art game, and has thus been insulated from some of the trends—even as the Asian art bubble has taken off. That bubble has now burst, and we should be looking for something else to talk about. Japanese artists are interesting, I think, because they have been living and working in a post-bubble, postdevelopment condition longer than anywhere. It’s a very different trajectory to the change and development obsessed Chinese scenario, but something that everyone is going to have to deal with in the future. After the goldrush – the ‘cao-jin’ as it is called in Chinese – there might be something to learn from the Japanese experience again. But Koyanagi was, of course, right on where the smart money was going. I picked up a copy recently of the Sotheby’s New York Asian Contemporary Art sale from March 2008 – this is now of course a ‘historical’ document – and the glossy pages say it all about where and how much Japanese art and artists figure in the global art scene. There were 290 or so lots listed in this thick, fat, expensive catalogue. Some for big money, all the big Chinese figures, but only four Japanese names: a couple of Kusamas, one of Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki girls, a Sugito, a Shiraga Gutai piece—and that was it. There were two Korean artists listed, but the rest was pure China Mania all the way. Explaining this massive discrepancy in Asian art on the global stage is certainly an interesting question. As all the scams and bubble blowing suggest, it obviously has little to do with the intrinsic quality or interest of the art works themselves. Further reading: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/faculty/favell/Echo%20-%20After%20the%20Goldrush.pdf ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/08/11 22:12

28


16. Kumi Machida

Letter (2009) Kumi Machida is having a good year. With a group show coming at the Osaka National Museum in January, and at least one other major international show in the offing, her name continues to be prominent among emergent artists identified in the mid 2000s by BT and ART-iT (see their feature on her in no 21) as key leaders of the postSuperflat generation. Her 101 Days of Sodom was one of the highlight works at the Takahashi Neoteny show in Ueno, as well as being right at the core of that collection. Of the three Japanese artists featured at the recent Manga show at Louisiana museum in Denmark, alongside Tabaimo and Kenji Yanobe, hers was the room that had the most impact. It felt like a complete set of her eerie, minimalist cream and black spherical figures, executed as always in ink on traditional kumohada mashi linen paper. Her works sell well, not only to Takahashi who has quite a collection, but on the Asian market especially, as well as in Germany where she first had her first commercial breakthrough. All this is happening right now far away from her home studio/apartment way out on the Chuo line West of Tokyo. For nearly a year now, she has been living and working as a visiting artist in Copenhagen, with a Japanese national scholarship in hand, and a desire to get away from the hustle of the Tokyo art scene. Copenhagen offers peace and relative isolation. It’s like Germany, only quieter and smaller from an artistic point of view. She was one of the many young and emerging Japanese artists still thinking about getting out of Japan for a while. In Germany and Denmark, facilities for artists are good, they live comfortable lives, and art is taken seriously by public foundations. They are willing to pay for young foreign Asian artists to come and live on the support of European public funds: there would have been no Yoshitomo Nara, no Tabaimo, no Chiharu Shiota, without this kind of thing. In Denmark, about the most dangerous thing that can happen to you is to get run over by a bicycle. Even the Japanese consulate is a small, friendly office, making things happen for the expat community. Machida was always a traveller. After university she travelled heavily in Asia, making strong connections with India and Tibet. Europe though, is new for her, and it’s the old cities and cultures – the idea of Paris, or London, or Venice – that most appeals. Of course, it is not always easy as an itinerant artist. You wonder in some way why so many young Japanese creators think it is the solution to their frustrations. Isolation can also be a rather desolate condition and the Danes, while friendly, are quite slow to invite you in anywhere. Machida admits she has not been as productive this year as she might have been. It is complicated to get the specialist materials she needs: special paper and brushes from Japan, one kind of pencil from German (Stabilo brand). There have been hassles with having to move apartments serially, losing things, finding her way around an unfamiliar city and culture. The benefits of moving your entire operation to another country are always going to be mixed.

29


There is great appreciation for ‘Asian’ art in Denmark, but also very high degree of ignorance. You get great facilities and much respect, but the work often gets perceived on the shallowest terms. That was certainly the case at the Manga show, where both Tabaimo and Machida were upset to be lumped in with the crude pop culture category – insisting that their work had, obviously, nothing to do with manga – but to no avail. Kawaiiiiii is still the be all and end all of Japanese contemporary art appreciation in Europe, especially if you are a woman artist. The two were positioned by the Danish curators half way in the middle of a very dubious historical connection between Osamu Tezuka comics and Hokusai sketches, and presented as more evidence of Japan’s ubiquitous pop culture genius. Yet Machida’s work is more than a little disturbing, not at all pop or easily consumed, and best appreciated in live drawing/painting sessions where you can see the craft, detail and precision that goes into every tiny stroke. There is nothing ‘flat’ about this work. The materials also count immeasurably: the pigments, the tiny scraps of metal leaf, the spare use of colour, the solid block like canvasses she makes with the high tension of the paper stretched across. They look like artworks that could at any moment with the wrong move or clumsy approach shatter like fine blown glass, or be ruined by a splatter of ink. A lot of pop art looks quite crude alongside this finesse. Machida is not in Denmark for the inspiration. Her figures if anything come out of blank dream worlds, with little or no context, although she does say that she has experimented using Caucasian models rather than Asian ones for the new figures she is painting. Her gallery in Tokyo is Nishimura, a venerable senior gallerist, out of the mainstream of contemporary art, who has been in solid business for 35 years. He cares deeply about the work, but it keeps her somewhat isolated from the main circuits in Tokyo. Her breakthrough show was the Neo-Nihonga inspired selection at MOT in 2006, No Border. Fuyuko Matsui and Hisashi Tenmouya got a lot of the attention there. In my copy of the catalogue, which I thought I’d cleverly picked up cheap, I was dismayed to find that the pages for these two artists had been selectively removed by the previous owner. Yet, their’s is a quite obviously illustrator’s type of work, at the borders of pop/design. Machida bristles at the connection with Nihonga, and the connection with these other artists. There is nothing much traditionalist about what she is doing, and she broke with the Tama School training she received a long time ago. No Border showed perhaps that a series of younger artists in Japan were doing something with the notion of ‘Japan returns’ that didn’t have to delve into the nation’s political or military past, but could explore different psychic spaces. It’s difficult to place to Machida in these terms. She will herself return to Japan in September, but is hoping to secure further funding for a prolonged second stay back in Europe. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/08/15 02:32

30


17. So you want to be the next Jeff Koons?

September is here again. I’ll get back to the serious stuff, but my holiday email backlog is getting in the way. I keep getting junk mail offering me online art services. I pass this one on, with the kind thought that – if there is anyone out there who still wants to be the next Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, or Takashi Murakami – this might be the next logical step in the production line factory model, if not the next chapter in art history. Maybe they have a similar service for art writers? Dear Sir and madam Allow me to introduce ourselves: We are the Oil Painting Studio. We would like to offer our painting and giclee prints services to you. In our studio we have 30 highly skilled professional artists with over 12 years ofexperience creating paintings for our international clientele. We have worked creatively worldwide with a large number of commercial enterprises, professional artists and galleries in Europe and America. They all praise our professional high quality of production and artistic workmanship. Many of our clients use our works for their business and art displays...We safely and professionally pack and ship your paintings through FedEx or DHL. Please send us an email today describing what is your desired topic to be painted, and some indication of the approximate size. In return we will send you a pricelist. The Shipping cost is based on your location and the size and dimensions of the painting or paintings required. I hope that we will have a chance to cooperation and be good friends! We are Looking forward to hearing from you. Best Regards The Oil Painting Studio Jeff K., meanwhile, is everywhere. He is like the Walt Disney of contemporary art. The king of one size fits all 1980s postmodern kitsch is still getting away with it, still wildly popular with nouveau riche Russian oligarchs and French luxury goods moguls who fancy themselves as Louis Quartorze. Amazing. I caught his much discussed Versailles show in Paris last summer, and I suppose the funniest thing was how, amidst all the priceless 17th century art and rococo home decoration, it was Koons’ daft sculptures that were being protected behind thick plastic boxing and laser censors (actually, it ruined the works). I would have thought that they were totally nonstick and untouchable, no matter how much critical vomit or bile someone might want to throw at them. He is now at the Serpentine in London, and there’s loads more to come in a big show about art and branding (‘Pop Life’) this autumn at the Tate Modern, with Murakami too, of course, as well. I had Koons’ ear to ear grin all over my Financial Times last weekend, talking the same inane drivel about his happy, shiny art, and why inflatable lobsters are so good for the soul. The quote ‘most expensive living artist’™ unquote was in a good mood, as always. Wow. It’s all so now and cutting edge, I’m surprised it hasn’t been booked for Roppongi Hills in 2015 or 16. That’s one place where steel inflatables, puppy dog flowers and well pressed stockbroker suits will always look good, no matter how long the bubble has been burst.

31


ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/09/01 23:24

18. Being a Queen: Korean Art Now

One of the many geo-political oddities about Japan in Asia is how little social and economic interaction there is with close neighbours – relative, say, to the quite extraordinary regional integration going on elsewhere on the planet, such as in Europe. Given how close they are, it is amazing that Koreans and Japanese are not more integrated – in terms of social connections, migration, economic trade, business cooperation, or cross-border culture. Parallel societies, with similar post-war development trajectories, as well as similarly problematic relations with the US and China, you’d think they’d find a lot more in common. Of course, there are deep and sensitive historical reasons for this, and things are slowly changing: the ‘K-wave’ of soap operas and pop stars in Japan, for example, has put a new face on the otherwise marginalised presence of Koreans in the society. Art connections could be much better too, although there have been recent examples of successful collaborative ventures. Yoshitomo Nara had a massively successful solo show in Seoul, and there was also a very interesting group show of young Japanese artists in May-June this year, ‘Re: Membering: Next of Japan’, curated by Fumihiko Sumitomo and others, that was showing in Seoul. Japan Foundation keeps trying to put money behind these connections. Korean artists share a similar seriousness to their Japanese cousins: as in Japan, it is a less money dominated scene, but the Korans are more connected than Japan with global conceptual developments in art. There is less hesitancy in Korea to involve the art in political themes, protest, questions of national identity or gender, as well as different historical traditions to draw on. Koreans like young Japanese are also highly mobile in the West, following similar trails of fellowship and residencies to the US and Europe. I caught the show ‘Being a Queen’ this week in Aarhus, Denmark, by the video and photographic artist Kyungwoo Chun. He is best known for his very humanistic video work, where he films people interacting in confined spaces or under rule based situations. There is always a time dimension and often physical contact involved. It’s somewhat similar to the work of British artist Gillian Wearing, only gentler and more sympathetic to its participants. For the current show, he had the idea of seeking out by newspaper advertisement Danes who would like to dress up and personify for the camera their beloved queen, Margrethe II. Dressing the part, they were then asked to sit in character for a length of time corresponding to their age, while their portrait is taken as a blurred photo that suggests the royal iconography of this popular monarch. Kyungwoo also took backstage photos, of people dressing or waiting, such as the one above, and also made interviews with each of the 17 final participants (out of about 35 who applied). It’s a quite delicate and insightful meditation on identities and identification. Queen Margrethe is hugely beloved in Denmark. She is like a Japanese Emperor in her aura, only beloved because she is so normal – for a Queen. She cycles around her realm, often goes out to meet people in everyday life, and does not overdo it with ostentatious wealth. The interviews, though, revealed quite telling psychoses behind the identification on camera: participants wanted to be like her because she was a tall, large woman, or because she also suffered exclusion

32


from normal society, being a Queen. Of course, the interesting other thing about the show, was that while Kyungwoo was playing with nationalism and culture for one set of audience – Danish people who care deeply about their royal family – he was presenting something quite different for people like me, who have no idea who the Queen of Denmark is, and would not even recognise her if they saw her in the street. Any of the blurry characters in pretty blue dresses could have been the queen as far as I was concerned. And, of course, all the photos for me just looked like a bunch of random people dressed up in drag. One of the queens was indeed a fifty something Danish man. Kyungwoo himself was open to all kinds of engagements with the work: it is bound to look quite different when it is shown in Seoul. The show was completed with an open workshop area where parents were invited to bring their children to make tiaras, choose a dress, and put together a favourite queen’s costume for the camera. This being Denmark, both little girls and little boys were equally allowed to join in the fun. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/09/04 01:23

19.Cool cities, creative economies, global hubs?

In my day job as an academic sociologist, I am very interested in the relation of culture to economy: that is, how far investment in the arts can help lead or revive the economic fortunes of big cities in the global economy. As I discussed in my review of the book Lucky Kunst a few weeks ago, it certainly did London no harm in the 1990s, with the YBAs being one part of the London boom caused by ‘cool Britannia’. This chap, Shintaro Ishihara, is also interested in culture and economy, at least in so far as supporting the arts or sports – we will know if the Olympics is coming to Tokyo on October 2nd – might help spark a new development boom in the city. Yusaku Imamura, Director of Tokyo Wonder Site, has already been nominated to lead a special arts committee to explore possibilities. So will Tokyo get the Olympics? And if it does, will there be benefits for the creative communities of Tokyo, alongside the inevitable orgy of destruction and rebuilding? I will discuss the London/Tokyo ‘creative city’ parallels in talk at 630pm this Wednesday at the German Institute for Japanese Studies (DIJ) near Nagatacho, Tokyo. The well known ‘Neo-japonisme’ blogger, W.David Marx will join me as a discussant, and it should be a good debate. It is open to anyone, but first please send an email to the organiser, Barbara Holthus, if you would like to come along. Details and the registration link can be found here: http://www.dijtokyo.org/?page=event_detail.php&p_id=575 This is W.David Marx’s website, which covers fashion, music, arts, design and street culture in Tokyo and Japan: http://www.neojaponisme.com ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/09/07 20:30

33


20. Taro Izumi

The only country whose fast trains get close to Japan’s is Germany, so when I heard that Midori Matsui’s Micropop 2.0 show ‘Winter Garden’ was going to open its world tour in Cologne, with a reasonable ICE train connection via Hamburg from Denmark, I was quite tempted to go. What sealed the deal, though, was hearing that one of its central selections, Taro Izumi, was going to be there for the opening. I remembered his hilarious people-fly zapping video ‘Lime at the Bottom of the Lake’ (2006) from Micropop at Mito, but I had missed his shows at Hiromi Yoshii in Tokyo. I always sensed there was something here to take more notice of, but had not yet really got clear what it was. So I boarded the train, and met up with Izumi in the urban heart of the German Rhineland. Izumi was pacing around outside, frantically talking on his mobile phone, when I arrived at the big Japanese cultural institute in the city early evening. Our lack of much common language (English/Japanese) didn’t promise too much, but we got along just fine in the end. Going over his portfolio with him, and discussing small elements of the various shows he had put on, it became clear to me that Matsui’s placement of him within the overarching theory she has advanced for this show, while a great selection, actually mischaracterises why his work is so interesting and so charming to viewers. Matsui puts his video work upfront in her argument that ‘Winter Garden’ is taking her Micropop idea deep down into the unconscious of young Japanese art. This is the argument she made to Donald Eubank in his review of the show for Japan Times, and Eubank makes a good case for her there (see link below, I will review Matsui’s essay for the new catalogue in a forthcoming blog). The argument is that since the original Micropop, the artists Matsui has selected have shown a tendency to go beyond the quiet, ‘micro-political’ expressions of freedom and resistance to the contemporary Japanese condition shown at Mito, and are now tapping directly in to an unconscious level of interaction with the everyday, the small scale, and the banal, that represents a triumph over the restrictions and frustrations of the society they live in. It’s a reading that invests Izumi’s incredibly simple and absurd little exercises in on-screen automatic drawing and noise making with a heavy infrastructure of philosophical meaning. When I ask Izumi what he thinks, rather than what this curator has read into his work, he shrugs and explains that the reason he devised ‘Curos cave’ – the much seen video where he tries to draw TV personality faces on a television screen as they are moving and changing – was just a method of improving his bad drawing. The TV controls him, as he controls the TV. It is, in other words, like ‘action painting’ (as Matsui says), only done as a kind of simplified Matthew Barney style ‘drawing restraint’. Barney strings himself up in all kinds of weird positions, whereas Izumi just shrugs and uses a felt tip on a TV screen. Now, I know that Japanese artists are famous for shrugging and saying not very much about their works, and that they often leave the big talk to others. But in fact it is precisely the simplicity of Izumi’s work that makes it so special. What the restrained drawing video achieves is exactly what Izumi says it does. With no talent for drawing, and nothing but a stopstart video controller, he creates a very funny, striking and totally hypnotic work of art – that exists in and only in the video, independently of any other meaning or ideas that might be read into the work. The politicians and famous faces that flash up for the felt tip treatment on screen are all a ‘red herring’, in this respect, or, if you prefer, a cheap joke. There isn’t meant to be anything much to say about the drawing other than it is (just) drawing. This is what a pure ‘phenomenology’ of art making might be, not any kind of work pointing at deeper meanings. If we start interpreting Izumi’s squiggles as revealing some kind of inner unconsciousness, it is our

34


own unconscious that we impose, not the artist’s. He named the work after a brand of snack food, after all. The same goes for ‘White Bear’ where we watch over and over silly black and white drawings he has made be smudged when a stone is thrown into a pool of water. At Hara, this was shown in a toilet sink – and this made it even better, even funnier. Here it is just a video on the wall. Are we supposed to watch the drawings smudge and start looking for inner meanings as the ink bleeds? Psychoanalytic truths about Japan? The meaning of life? No. We are supposed to laugh. Izumi turns pathetic little doodle drawings into a funny video, with just water and a stone added. High art out of nothing. Brilliant. For Matsui, though, it’s the high road to the Japanese social unconscious. But I really don’t think that Izumi wants us to care about ‘what is on his mind’, or that the video is some kind of Rorschach test to see what we can say about Japanese society or the ‘contemporary condition’. Izumi’s art, in other words, has a quite ‘punk rock’ aesthetic about it. What kind of noise can I make out of piece of plastic, zero technique and (almost) zero technology? It does not surprise me when tells me he didn’t learn much at Tama University, that he has no-one he thinks of as his ‘sensei’, or that he doesn’t even talk to Hiromi Yoshii much about what he is doing. I do think Matsui’s earlier linking of Izumi with the kind of video art ‘gentle interventions’ of artists like Shimabuka or London based Saki Satom was a better approach. The fly zapper video has that kind of feel to it, and there is something quaintly Monty Python about the way all these artists make a serious laugh out of life’s little ironies. But even here, the connection can be misleading. Shimabuka’s works are ideas, often set in specific contexts, with a performance attached. The video merely displays the idea. In Izumi, there is no external idea to the work, the work and action that we see is the idea: it is the elementary combination of a video machine, and the single piece of action, that constitutes the work. It is laughably simple, and simply a laugh. Art out of nothing, remember? This even might cut to some kind of core, the kind of brilliance that Monty Python occasionally flashed. Izumi as the art equivalent of the Parrot Sketch, or Ministry of Funny Walks. In Cologne, the shy and shambling Izumi offers his own ‘live performance’ for a delighted German crowd. It’s hit and miss, as might be expected. He sits a woman down, grabs a romance photo magazine, and starts drawing her portrait using the face of a man in a couple as his drawing guide. The crowd love it, but its just a daft bit of graffiti. He switches to a second idea: drawing a four or five line cartoon animal mask on an acetate sheet that he then holds in front of the person while taking a mobile phone photo. The person becomes a cartoon pig, cat or rabbit. Great results. He gets the person to sign their name and approval on the sheet, and within fifteen minutes he has generated ten new works for his gallery, mostly portraits of women, a couple of babies. There is no doubt in my mind that Matsui discovered a new star in the making, when she first stumbled upon his work at Hiromi Yoshii at the former Complex building in Roppongi five or so years ago. Here was indeed somebody ‘younger than Jesus’ (another international book selection in which Matsui presented him)—although he laughs that this particular recommendation no longer applies, as he is now 33. Global art collector François Pinault also thought the same, when he snapped up the ‘Lime...’ fly-zapper video in Paris after he saw it recently. Japanese museums are also in the hunt, and there’s new public art works appearing now in Yokohama, curated by Fumihiko Sumitomo. Izumi is quiet and seems quite casual, but he is prolific and totally disciplined. His work should not be loaded with the overbearing philosophy that Matsui imposes, but she is right that Izumi is a kind of pure ‘micropop’ art – the real thing, perhaps, no more, no less. The same alas could not quite be said about the authentic ‘Japanese’ dinner in a local sushi restaurant that the nice folks at the cultural institute treated us to once the opening was over, but the local German ‘Kölsch’ beer tasted good. Donald Eubank’s review of ‘Winter Garden’ can be found here: http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fa20090703a1.html ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/09/14 11:02

35


21. Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial

It is still surprising to me how much of the international presentation of art in Japanese museums and art events so tamely follows Western trends. Some might argue these are now better spoken of as ‘global’ trends, but for ‘global’ you can also basically read ‘Western’—with the last Yokohama Triennial a good case in point. Fukuoka Asian Art Museum has always been an exception in Japan, but it is striking how it is still doing something quite different to other places. This is a very self-styled Asian city, and a lot of the attitude can be linked to the open policies of the city to Asian networking. Fukuoka is a long way from Tokyo, and a long way from the sometimes insular mentality of the capital, enfolding itself in the new ‘Sakoku’ that commentators such as Roger McDonald have discussed. Fukuoka, in contrast, is a city turned emphatically Westwards—with ‘the West’ meaning here Seoul and Shanghai, and Busan just a short trip across the water. The same point was made to me the first time I visited Fukuoka, in an interview with Yoshi Kawasaki, one of the pioneers of putting pop-art on T-shirts with his company 2-K. Kawasaki has a family base here, while networking continually with California and Europe. As he showed me around this stylish and affluent city, he told me that when he flies international, it is a lot easier to just get a connection from Fukuoka via Korea or China, than it is to fly with JAL through Tokyo… The fourth Asian Art Triennial, which opened recently, sees the Museum staying well abreast of the currents that it has grown with, as one of the very few institutions in Japan that has actually played a part in shaping the new Asian art trends. Past catalogues, which are substantial but a little dull to look at, left me wondering how good the show would be. I need not have worried: the current selection, brilliantly sequenced through the museum and a second site in a renovated building a few minutes walk away, was one of the best group shows I’ve seen in a good while. On paper, the selection of 43 artists seems like it might be playing safe, with the repeat return of Cai

36


Guo Qiang, Xu Bing, Tsuyoshi Ozawa, Subodh Gupta, Michael Lin, He Yunchang, and Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, all obvious and familiar choices in this kind of context. Several have been included in previous Triennials, and all have a stable international status. Ostensibly they are back as part of a review within the Triennial of the last ten years in Asian art, as the museum celebrates its tenth anniversary. But if all of the works of these artists were good (except Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s rather boring running man videos), they sat alongside and were even bettered by other selections that mixed new discoveries with emerging names since 2005, working in all kinds of media, including performance, electronica, urban design, and large scale installation. There was a strong presence of traditional styles, methods or crafts filtered through a modern technological lens, a focus on urban development and social change, and a refreshing lack of reference to western theoretical currents. I didn’t make much of the stated theme of the show – ‘Live and Let Live’ (‘Kyo-sai-sei’ in the original) – that was argued to point towards the possibility of different conflictual groups, classes and nations living harmoniously together in the new Asia. More interesting for me was how much of the work was so emphatically post-post-colonial, in the sense that the West in fact was a quite irrelevant reference point for the work shown. Highlights for me included: the printed wall hangings of Yee I-Lann (Malaysia), combining ancient stitchwork with modern print media images; the vivid political tapestries of Qiu Zhijie (China) and Shahzia Sikander (Pakistan), Angki Purbandono’s bizarre scanned toy animals with their heads jammed in fruits and vegetables (Indonesia); Dinh Q. Lee’s elegiac CGI rendering of American military helicopters falling in the sea of China; the brilliant fur covered street scooters by Sajana Joshi (Nepal, working in Pakistan, b.1984); the strange larvae like foetus sculptures of Davaa Dorjderem (Mongolia, b.1981); the grotesque family life paintings of Lampu Kansanoh (Thailand, b.1983); the Islamic fashion installations by Seema Nusrat (Pakistan, b.1980); and the paper cut outs and prints of Wu Jian’an (China, b.1980). The last five are all unknowns under 30, confounding the idea that famous ‘explorer’ Western curators have already got these new territories mapped out for world art. Best of all, perhaps, were the two videos by Korean artist, An Jungyu, also young (born 1979) and not seen before. In one, school children sang, one-by-one, out of tune notes of the music scale (do-re-mi-fa-so etc), one at a time when you played the keyboard of a piano in front of the video. It was great fun. In another, the artist filmed through several cameras, the death and destruction by bulldozers and workmen of an old high school, cutting and splicing the images and soundtrack of industrial noise, bangs and metallic grinding, to emphasise the rhythm and syncopation of the whole operation. It was by turns funny, danceable, and ultimately very sad, as the building eventually crashes to the floor like a slaughtered buffalo. Over at Reizensou Renovation Museum, an alternative art space in a renovated listed building, some of the video rooms didn’t seem to be working, but one room featured an extensive presentation of Tsuyoshi Ozawa and friends, the Xijing Men, and their very funny didactic presentation of a constitution, economy and bizarre national history of an Asian utopia. It is a work, of course, that ties together the whole ethos of the Triennial in a sunnily charming, always humorous way. Their ‘western city’ of Asia must surely be the place of which post-post-colonial Asian artists dream. The only disappointment of the show, perhaps, was the slightly muted Japanese selection, that had been handled by Mizuki Endo of the ARCUS project. I sympathise with his aggressive critique of mainstream pop art in Japan in the catalogue, but the selection fell short of the rhetoric. He was determined to go for documentary and performance style work, and had apparently been under some pressure to include a painter. This role was eventually taken by 28 year old rising star Asai Yusuke. His massive wall mural in the museum café was another excellent example of this very promising young artist’s work (I saw him at Akasaka Flower last year) who does very pop style work but always in a street context. But the musical video of Makoto Nomura splashing around in a sento fell flat, and the street life documentary work by AHA! (Archive for Human Activities) was worthy but dull. The overall quality of the show clearly owes much to the influence of chief curator Raiji Kuroda, whose intensity and commitment when you meet him is immediately apparent. He has a thirty year involvement with Asian art in Fukuoka, as well as a rasping critique of much of what goes on in the Japanese art world. Explaining the history of the event, and the open curatorial network based methods of selecting works, he underlines how Fukuoka has always tried to present something different from Asian art market boom artists, while still linking new discoveries with names that have broken through internationally. Thus, we might get Cai Guo Qiang, but it will be a retrospective of his key ‘Chinese’ fireworks based works that link to his time in Japan, and we are spared his more bombastic western oriented installations. Works in the show are juxtaposed across national distinctions, so we are sometimes looking at works that seem similar or to be speaking to each other, while coming from vastly different parts of the region. There is a strong presence of art that evokes the present Asian political/economic situation, as well as artists who have been internationally mobile within and across Asia, rather than educated in the West. There is also still a search for the connection of art and community, quite separate from art and economy, that Kuroda himself has specialised in, with his long standing curation of political Korean art. Artists in

37


Korea have always been so much more obviously activist that anyone typically is in Japan. Despite worsening financial problems, the museum is able to acquire a good number of the works on show here, as it has in previous years, thus functioning as a key archive of emerging Asian art trends. The results are still as diverse, multi-vocal and as vividly colourful and sensory as Asian art might be imagined to be. Yet the strength of the Triennial lies elsewhere: in the fact that the networking efforts it is built on, lead to discoveries and new synergies, both for the curators who have had to learn to transcend national cultural boundaries, and for artists who can participate in the residency program and get a new angle on their creative motivations. The final impression is how well this show fits together and works as a quote-unquote ‘Asian’ show. Many people in the art world are rightly critical of always presenting national work in a national frame: the obsession with group shows and pavilions of new ‘Japanese’ or ‘Chinese’ artists, and so on. The ‘national’ might well not be a viable category in a post- or trans-national, globalising world for presenting art, but the category of ‘region’ most certainly is. Asian art, as a collective regional experience, can and should be quite distinctive to European or American art. To pretend otherwise is just to fall back into another kind colonialism, equating the ‘global’ with opinions and valuations coming our of the same old centres of power in New York, London or Switzerland, still ordering things for the natives as the West (or Western educated) see it. I’m left thinking about Hardt and Negri’s word ‘multitude’, and what it might mean. There are many clichés circulating around the work of their abstract postmodern Marxism, but if the concept does have any practical meaning in global art, it must point towards art that speaks from and for its own locality—and not (just) the western/global art market or western/global art theory. The fourth Fukuoka Art Triennial is a triumphant assertion of just how good some of that art is. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/09/20 08:22

22. Visualising Asian Modernity

In the Spring this year, I co-organised a series of art talks and debates raising questions about the representation of contemporary art from East Asia in Europe. This was particularly with the context of contemporary art museums in Denmark in mind, where there is great deal of interest in contemporary art but often not a great deal of specialist understanding. The seminars took as their theme the rise of Japanese visual

38


culture in parallel with its dramatic development in the post-war period up to the bubble in 1990/91, and then compared this with the recent of rise of China as an economic power and source of visual arts. Academic specialists in art history, cultural studies and sociology were joined by practicing curators and writers to debate the issues. The website documentation has just been finalised, and contains full information about our themes, presentations, speakers, and venues, as well as a final report that sums up the two weekends. Under the link to ‘archive’, you will also find downloadable audio files (podcasts) to accompany the speakers talks. These include very interesting talks by: Koichi Iwabuchi (Waseda University) on the export and circulation of Japanese pop culture in Asia; Yoshitaka Mori (Tokyo University of the Arts) on contemporary art in Japan and the ideology of creativity (‘kurieita’): Reiko Tomii (New York based curator and art writer) on Genpei Akasegawa and radical art in the 60s; and Sharon Kinsella (Manchester University) on the imagery of Kaikai Kiki girl artists. See http://www.vam.ku.dk for more. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/09/23 04:16

23. A Thousand Galleries Bloom

Despite the gloom of the economic depression, numerous young gallerists in Tokyo are braving the storm and opening a variety of new spaces showing works by new and upcoming young artists on the scene. I talked this week to one of this new breed, Ei Kibukawa who, with his wife and partner Eiko Iwasaka, opens tomorrow (Saturday 26th September) a lovely little gallery in Kagurazaka called eitoeiko (their icon is above). This is at the other end of the village from the famous industrial building that for years housed the Takahashi Collection, and is currently home to Yuka Sasahara. Eitoeiko is in a more residential area, on a hill that looks over rooftops to Ikebukuro and Shinjuku. The gallery is opening in a house their family is building, alongside a neighbour’s house that will be a café. It promises to be an exquisite cultural oasis in this beautiful little residential pocket of Tokyo. Ei has been working for several years as a copywriter for a major art auction house, and has a quite acute analysis of commercial trends in the Asian market; Eiko is a successful jewellery designer. They are part of what is now a fourth generation of gallerists coming into the contemporary scene in Tokyo since the early 1990s. Simplifying a lot, if the likes of Ikeuchi, Shiraishi, Mizuma or Koyanagi were the first generation, and Koyama, Shugo Satani, or Hiromi Yoshii the second, the third would be the generation of younger, mainly women gallerists who first worked for the older male pioneers (Yamamoto Gendai, ArataniUrano, Mujinto Productions). The fourth are different in that they are now coming into art from a variety of other backgrounds in the creative industries, drawn in by the social vibrancy of the Tokyo art world, perhaps more than its economic viability. 101 Tokyo was one of the key inspirations for this, a valuable attempt led by foreigners and young Japanese with foreign commercial experience, that aimed at diversifying and shaking up the far too comfortable and inward looking Tokyo scene. 101 Tokyo struggles on, despite the rank attempts by the mainstream Tokyo Art Fair

39


organization to snuff it out. After the excitement of the opening year in 2007, Tokyo Art Fair immediately try to steal the idea, copying the format, persuading Tokyo contemporaries who had strayed back to their fold, and even appropriating the Bacon Prize that had been set up by famous dealer/collector Johnnie Walker to launch the upstart art fair. This was a typically defensive and short sighted reaction from the men and women in suits. The vibrancy of the major art fairs in London or Basel in part depends on the buzz of smaller, satellite shows that are excluded from or cannot afford the main event. 101 Tokyo organizers have been much more aware of contemporary trends in the international art fair circuit, and prioritize innovative younger styles. Moreover, they did something Tokyo Art Fair has completely failed to do, and that was attract foreign gallerists to Tokyo. I for one hope that this young wolf will survive and flourish. Ei too hopes that 101 Tokyo will again play host to his gallery in future: they opened eitoeiko for business there in 2008. They have also recently been in Seoul at the Top Asia Hotel Art Fair. There were not too many sales, but they were encouraged by how ‘hot’ Japanese art seems to be among young Koreans, and also the new networks that they have established with artists and gallerists in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul or Taipei. He knows that commercially to open a gallery now is a tough proposition. Still, it is their dream, and they and others like them are the people that really make the Tokyo art scene happen. Two other galleries are also opening locally, Oshima Fine Arts and Yuka Contemporary, the latter by a former assistant of ArataniUrano. Let a thousand galleries bloom. Ei is reflective: ‘Whether it is good or bad for the art scene in Tokyo I don’t know. Some collectors say it becomes much more difficult to go around the galleries. It’s like the big tree has broken down, and a mass of mushrooms grow up.’ The idea for the gallery was to focus on new young artists who share some indirect affinity with traditional materials, techniques or styles, while presenting very contemporary or pop themes. As a starter, they attracted one of the stars of MOT’s ‘No Border’ show of neo-nihonga art in 2006, Yuki Yoshida. Other artists signed up include Nipporini (Takehiro Wada) and his Fellini-esque photo stories from Nishi Nippori, Masaru Aikawa’s populist renderings of famous LP covers, and the surreal doodling of ex-St Martin’s student, Dan Hards. There is real finesse and quality running through their artists, who all work on a small, pointillist scale. I visited the gallery which is just being finished in time for the opening, and caught glimpses of the installation for the upcoming show. Shintaro Hidaka’s city scape etchings manage to combine an antique look with a pop doodle feel, and I was struck by the delicacy of the face sculptures by Megumi Takasugi. They are also presenting one of the gallery’s English artists, part of their ongoing discovery of hidden affinities between underground art from London and the contemporary Tokyo scene. On a recent scouting trip to off-piste galleries in Hoxton and Hackney in the East End of London, they met and signed Alex Ball, a painter who executes small scale work with odd objects and figures that show more than a hint of traditional Japanese influences. The smallness throughout might be a commercial key in Japan where domestic art often has to be small to fit on people’s walls. Eitoeiko show what you can do with a good eye and the enthusiasm to break new artists. Established gallerists will see the newcomers as competition. But what Tokyo contemporary scene needs is more not less diversity, more outlets for younger artists coming through. As Ei and Eiko show me around the beautiful building that combines cutting edge Japanese domestic architectural design with old brown wooden doors recycled from an Ibaraki farmhouse, they tell me how the plot was acquired in the immediate aftermath of the war by their grandfather, and how when you dig in the soil you can sometimes find pieces of crockery from the Edo period. Tokyo as always is a shaky place to construct anything, but this seems like good soil on which to build something new. Eitoeiko gallery’s opening show, ‘Ever Bright Moonlight’, featuring works by Alex Ball, Megumi Takasugi and Shintaro Hidaka, opens Saturday 26th September. Vernissage, 1500-1700, followed by jazz performance on guitar by Junzo Iwami and Yayoi on vocals at 1900. Eitoeiko, 32-2 Yaraicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-0805 http://eitoeiko.com ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/09/25 18:58

40


24. Gokon Anomaly

Call me a cynic, but doesn’t the recent transformation of some of Tokyo’s leading contemporary art galleries into matchmaking love parlours for rich Tokyo art fanciers smack of desperation? http://www.civicart.jp/gokon/ Times must be hard, if serious galleries are cheapening their hard won reputations this way. The third heavily publicised evening art ‘gokon’ entitled ‘I Love Art: Love And Capitalism vols 1-4’ – I wish I could believe this were ironic – recently took place at Tomio Koyama, after swinging sexily through Yamamoto Gendai and Nanzuka Underground in August and July. With numbers of wannabe art lovers expanding every time, it looks like a big new Tokyo social hit. I’m sure it looked like a good idea on paper. A bit of proverbial fun. Art openings have always been an excuse for a good party, and as the art world has become the new rock and roll increasing numbers of beautiful people in search of their mojo have used gallery openings as their hunting ground. Maybe it was always naïve to think that people were there for the art rather than the chance to hook up. Art galleries of course can function as a social filter in the same way that college educated people hang out evenings at Barnes and Nobles in the US in the hope of finding an acceptably intelligent and high earning mate. But an organised gokon takes this logic in a commercial and elitist direction, with gallerists becoming hosts and hostesses for business professionals whose art credentials or interest need not stretch further than the ability to fork out 5000 yen for a ticket. The price alone excludes the starving students and undiscovered artists who generally make these events swing: 5000 yen adds up to quite a lot of conbini instant noodle dinners or cans of Asahi. Instead, the ‘busy, successful but missing true love’ Tokyoite can put aside the internet dating, dress up smart in a jacket if they are man, or put on a dress --’a stylish and pretty thing’-- if they are a women, and follow the party rules to their dream romance. At Yamamoto Gendai, the women’s tickets were cheaper, and they sold out faster. Eager single females had taken all the slots, leaving the mathematics of coupling distinctly weighted towards the men. After peanuts, champagne and art chat, they were on their own at 10pm, with certainly more options for a nijikai or karaoke if they were in Shirokane than in Kiyosumi. Art and love in Tokyo clearly mix quite often. Yuko Yamamoto is, herself, one half of Tokyo contemporary arts’ second most famous couple with Noi Sawaragi (after Hiroshi Sugimoto and Atsuko Koyanagi, of course), and it is an alliance that dates back to that most famous swinging social scene of all, the Roentgen Kunst Institut of the early 1990s. But schmoozing along with young smart professionals who have an interest in painting seems a long way from the punk rock party nights of the early 90s in Omori, when Sawaragi’s shock tactics included, in one notorious Anomaly show, a sperm bank installation with partner Tsutomo Ikeuchi and artist Yamatsuka Nemoto. Or maybe there is a strange continuity between these youthful follies and smart middle age business moves. The new style Armani jacket and Vuitton bag gokon of Tokyo contemporary might well be a situationist stunt too. A new work entitled ‘Sixty beautiful people standing in a gallery talking about art’. Get them to all read Tomio Koyama’s latest shinsho on how to price a work of art, and speculate on the value and meaning of some new erotic works by Satoshi Ono. Add salt, shake or stir. Observe. Then try it again somewhere else. The fourth volume sees the lonely hearts party head to Magical Art Room, in Ebisu. At least they have a decent bar there. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/09/30 23:59

41


25. Komazawa or Tokorozawa?

In my last blog, I wrote about the questionable idea of using contemporary art galleries as locations for ‘gokon’ parties. But it was not the most depressing example of the current commercial scramble that I saw in my last visit to Tokyo. That honour has to go to the surreal art ‘show’ put on in a number of ‘model houses’ for sale in the upscale residential suburb of Komazawa. Several of Tokyo’s leading contemporary art galleries signed up for this commercial opportunity to have their best artists shown alongside the latest in kitchen gadgetry, interior design, and bedroom décor. It was a beating hot day, and by the time I’d found the subdivision of Komazawa somewhere behind the old 1960s Olympic village, I thought it must be a mirage when the first monster size fake Mediterranean mansion – the kind of thing that sprawls wantonly all over the landscape in suburban Southern California – loomed up over the hill. No, the eclectic bunch of fake European castles, oversized glass modernist boxes and horrible American retro style family homes were real enough, apparently the state-of-the-art lifestyle choice for rich Tokyoites fleeing their cramped apartments in the central city. Some friendly sales girls were giving out information about the ‘Kawakawa Museum’ exhibition, in which one gallery and artist was allotted to each model. In every dream home an art ache, as Bryan Ferry might say. Again, I’m sure someone thought it was a great idea to hang works of art for sale in these houses, in the hope that some of the buyers with such terrible architectural taste might also turn out to be equally discerning contemporary art lovers as well. The result however was mostly nothing short of disastrous for the artists on show, their work blending in like cheap IKEA accessories with the cream and pink carpeting, or glass and chrome decors of the houses. The prices looked ridiculous, the hanging was amateur, and the sales teams in each of the houses became completely indifferent once they had worked out you had no interest in buying a new home. The two artists I was most interested in seeing – Midori Mitamura and Shinro Ohtake – were both locked up in show homes where the staff had apparently just given up and gone home for the day. The whole site was deserted in terms of customers. Apparently, the show was organised by a former associate of Roentgen, one of the galleries on show, in two houses. What a long way from Omori 1992 we have come. The only feeling you were left with was horror at the thought anyone sane would want to live in such a creepy place – and the art sale just made it creepier. I headed back to the real Tokyo, salvaging a couple of tourist snaps of the Kenzo Tange monuments to an older dream of Japanese modernity in the nearby Olympic park. Much closer in spirit to the old Roentgen, in fact, was the artist organised biennial going on way across the city in 42


Tokorozawa. http://www.tokorozawa-biennial.com/ I’d given up my plans to go there the day of the long trudge out to Komazawa, so I was very glad when I was able to find time to see this show before leaving Japan. The thirty minute Seibu ride out from Ikebukuro, north west into Saitama, is quite a different suburban experience to other trips out of Tokyo, in that instead of endless packed amorphous urban sprawl, you get the sense of space as Tokyo breaks up into old towns and villages. Tokorozawa is an old Seibu headquarters, and the biennial has taken over some massive but now empty train warehouses and workshop spaces, that give off a rusty atmosphere of former industrial glory gone rotten. The city centre is run down and scruffy, there is a cheap and nasty looking department store, and you are a thousand miles from the chic of Omotesando. This is the face of real Japan today, dealing with urban decline with a brave face, and it was good to see the artists and art students using the spaces so creatively. Above all, I liked the atmosphere: the sense of hope, fun and renewal amidst the abandoned metal, concrete and wires. It wasn’t always immediately obvious what was an installation, and what just a pile of old industrial leftovers, and that suited the show. There were a surprising number of visitors making the trip there – and great enthusiasm from everyone involved. Back in the town, the main shopping strip was a depressing mix of cheap American trainer shops and burger chains, but it was my lucky day, and just off the beaten track there was a gem of a local ramen store: the only place around that was full of people coming and going. Takashi Murakami apparently is also bringing his reformed upcoming GEISAI 13 – now billed as more of a alternative university rather than a talent show – to Tokorozawa. Coming home to Saitama. He has slashed participation prices, with Design Festa rather than Ginza Kaisha Garu style rates, in search of some credibility, perhaps, after the dreadfully exploitative prices of the past two GEISAIs. At those, penniless art students were paying up to 100,000 Yen a space to subsidise all the massive video screens, maid café fantasies, and TV show razzamatazz—as well as flying in a bunch of western curators to validate the whole thing. Instead, he is bringing in a lot of professors to give lectures, which I am sure will be a lot cheaper. Hopefully the Tokorozawa show has given him a few new sensible ideas about the future of art in Tokyo. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/10/05 17:47

43


26. Koganecho Bazaar

As a footnote to my recent talk at DIJ in Tokyo about Tokyo as a creative city (see my blog of 2009-09-07), we will have to see what difference Tokyo’s ultimate failure in its Olympic bid on October 2nd will make to Governor Ishihara’s commitment to art in the city that was a prominent feature of the bid. As others have suggested, it may mean the beginning of the end for the Governor, and hence pet projects such as the Tokyo Wonder Site, which however controversial it has been, has certainly provided many new outlets for emerging artists and art students. Tokyo in many ways has been a long way behind the city of Yokohama in the linkage of art, creativity and urban development. The commitment to these themes was a central part of former mayor Hiroshi Nakada’s vision for the city, and while the most spectacular aspects of the policy concerned big money spinning events like the Triennial or the transformation of the waterfront, there was also appreciable investment in poor neighbourhoods such as Koganecho and Kotobukicho in Yokohama, which often used art as a tool for redevelopment and social work. I was down in these parts of Yokohama recently to meet with curator Fumihiko Sumitomo, and by chance wandered into the offices of the Koganecho Bazaar that has just closed up shop after several lively weeks of events, shows and performances in and around the former (or more accurately) still-in-transition red light zone under the rail tracks. http://www.koganecho.net/ Again, what is interesting is the conscious linkage of art in an urban Japanese context with the public response to economic decline and decay, here visible in parts of Yokohama in some of the most obvious post-industrial forms. A slum area gets turned over to unemployed young artists, former prostitutes’ nomiya become studios, and a café selling lattes and cake opens where once was a busy police koban. It is idealistic, a little naïve maybe – for sure economies need a lot more than happily creative young folks making art to get a turn around in fortunes. But it indicates again why art is such an interesting social and economic phenomenon in Japan today – why there is so much more than just the art market or art theory to consider in evaluating its relevance to the world. There is still a long way to go in the creative city. The streets around the studios and exhibition spaces were quiet, but just up the road in Miyagawacho, the pachinko parlours were completely packed and rocking hard with the deafening noise of desperation. And the word is that new mayor Fumiko Hayashi, an old style business oriented 44


politician, may not be so interested in the creative themes and ideas that were Nakada’s calling card. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/10/08 00:18

27. Cute Ambassador: Takashi Murakami

Fresh on the high heels and stripy socks of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ silly attempt to promote Japan’s image abroad with three teenage girl ‘Ambassadors of Cute’ dressed as Harajuku lolikon street kids, comes superstar Japanese artist™ Takashi Murakami’s attempt to upstage Koons’ notorious ‘Dirty Jeff’ sculptures at Tate Modern’s new ‘Pop Life: Art in a Material World’ show... by appearing dressed up as a cosplay flower in green tights. Sugoi! His selection at the survey of branding and commercialism in contemporary art at London’s top museum concludes with a four minute video made with Hollywood producer McG. They apparently have the same manager. It stars Hollywood actress Kirsten Dunst dancing with a bunch of anime characters through the seedy otaku sex paradise of Akihabara, and singing a version of the Vapors’ pop song ‘Turning Japanese’. Her long legged character also appears as a giant girl astride the railway tracks in a J-pop street scene mural that looks like a straight rip off of Yuki Oshima’s plastic model Shinyokohama Arina in Akihabara, that was first made famous by the infamous ‘Otaku’ show in Venice in 2003. Murakami argues that his latest brainwave fusing Hollywood pop values with Kaikai kiki products is the future of contemporary art. Another piece of pop-tastic ambassordorship for Japan’s extraordinary ‘Superflat’ culture? Maybe. But lest we forget: this kind of thing is the ONLY thing that most people in America and Europe currently think of or have heard about when they think of Japanese contemporary culture or Japanese contemporary art, and it’s the ONLY thing they’ve seen coming out of Japan since ‘Superflat’ started doing the international rounds in 2001. I read about this first in LA’s For Your Art weblog, and the full story and images can be found in the Wall Street Journal at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471504574445603670923492.html ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/10/12 23:11

45


28. MOTTAINAI WEIWEI ! Broken China at Mori Museum

Is it just me, or did anyone else else feel a bit uncomfortable gliding around Ai Weiwei’s smooth and impressive retrospective at Mori Museum? Does anybody else feel like that this blockbuster exhibition – blocks of tea, blocks of ebony, bowls of pearls, mountains of expensive carved wood – was all a bit wasteful and extravagent, postSeptember 2008? While the economy is collapsing, ice caps are melting, jungles disappearing, and most of the world (and especially China) is disappearing under rivers of concrete, steel and glass? That someone needs to say: Mottainai! Of course, I know this is the point. Ai’s signature pieces are the grubby black and white photographs in which he smashes some priceless Han dynasty vase and – hey presto – creates a new value on the contemporary art market. Or when he dips neolithic age jars in some gaudy industrial paint, or sprays them with a Coca-Cola logo. Yes, it’s a good idea, it is clever cerebrally satisyfying iconoclastic art conscious of its postioning in art theory. But as we know now, these ‘new’ values are subject to the massive fluctuations of a capricious art market, as no doubt will Ai’s current reputation once this work truly starts to be evaluated according to different, globally responsible criteria, rather than the still dominant notions of ‘globalisation’ that brought us the wild enthusiasm of ‘China mania’ and its limitless development and economic growth. That is, once art is held accountable to the fragile, expendable world we are all now sharing post-Lehmann brothers, post the Hirst-at-Sothebys bubble of September 2008. Unlike the superstar curators and architects who apparently were able to generate a marathon 8 hours of talk with Ai at a Mori conference about his work, I don’t really have much to say here. At its best there is an extraordinary simplicity of relation between the idea and the exquisitely crafted execution, and I like that. The works in wood, particularly, are breathtaking, although I baulk at the exploitative economics of production – all that easily available cheap Chinese labour and skill – that must also be required to build some of it. The massive snake ceiling made of school ruck sacks also looks seamless and grand – in the manner of Murakami’s Randoseru school bags, or a Koons’ balloon dog – but for this very reason might be seen as a commercial exploitation of the tragedy rather than a ‘political’ commentary on the memory of the Sichuan earhquake. Ai, to me, seems like the consummate postmodern New York artist of the 1980s – locked in a Duchamp -> Warhol -> Koons groove, just with ‘CHINA POWER’ stamped all over it, in the same way that Murakami is 46


Duchamp + Warhol + Koons + ‘COOL JAPAN’. This lineage, as we know, has dominated art theory in the expansive global 1990s and 2000s, and it has certainly opened the door to placing ‘Asian art’ (mainly Chinese) on the Western art collector’s shelf. But someday, when people look back, they will marvel at the intellectual brittleness of attitude and tasteless excess of production that characterised the dominant art debates and exhibitions of that ‘global’ era, especially when translated into self-consciously intellectualised ‘post-colonial’ practice, fuelled by Western curatorial art theories. In his notes on the show, Fumio Nanjo says it is time to stop having ‘China’ group shows, and that we now must start considering the new global stars of Chinese art individually, according to global standards. There are several Chinese artists who merit this kind of attention, and Ai Weiwei is certainly one of them. It helps that he looks like some kind of cult figure, and that he positions himself as a dissident to the dominant regime. Yet, for now, his work could only be made in China, under the kinds of extraordinary economic conditions and opportunities it provides, and his work is only getting discussed in the context of a global art debate transfixed with its Western conception (that is, mixing fear and fascination) of this ‘emergent’ Chinese power and development. Take this away and what exactly is left? Would we find a block of wood (as in the photo above) with a map of, say, Switzerland carved through the center just as fascinating? Would we be so transfixed by a video of someone driving along a road in, say, Belgium, or think that a room full of photos of anonymous industrial sites in Antwerp and Brussels is such a remarkable analysis of the modern urban condition? In these works, ‘CHINA’ just becomes an empty signifier for our naïve fascination, and our willingness to forget that, even in China, the notion of limitless development or undepletable labour and natural resources are a dangerous illusion. Ai has manipulated this into a body of work that says a lot about the shortsightedness of global art trends today. Mori Museum, Tokyo, until 8 November 2009 ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/10/14 20:50

47


29. Low Life: Real Art in a Material World

At London’s Tate Modern in London, today, you can go marvel at Takashi Murakami’s latest meditations on the convergence of branding and contemporary art in plastic and acrylic. At the Mori Museum in Tokyo, you can go see Ai Weiwei’s lavish and wasteful transformation of ancient artefacts and priceless materials into art objects made to measure for contemporary global curatorial discourse. Both are forms of contemporary art obsessed with the question of the artificial construction of value in the white cube gallery space as the meaning of art today. But elsewhere in Japan, you can see quite different, alternative takes on what it might be to do ‘art in a material world’. It is one much more in tune with environmental and social issues that artists working under intense spatial and financial constraints – unlike Murakami and Ai – have to increasingly encounter in their everyday practice. I wrote extensively about Echigo-Tsumari in a previous blog interview with Fram Kitagawa (2009-7-24), and I still hope to revisit this discussion after seeing some of the outdoors Triennial in September. When people ask me why is contemporary Japanese art is so interesting, I say it is because Japan today is so interesting. It is a guide to all our futures: the most dramatic example we have today of an urbanised society of immense leisure and affluence having to come to terms with economic and population decline and a shocked realisation that the illusions of ‘bubble’ development and growth offer no future at all. This brought forth a lot of decadent ‘otaku’ art, and it now calls for a more hopeful ‘sustainable art’, which is happening in abundance (although not always convincingly) at Echigo, and in numerous other community art projects around the country. And ‘sustainable art’ is also happening in the big city, such as the latest instalment under this title (‘Threshold: Sustainable Art’) at Ueno Town Art Museum of Geidai students’ outside-the-gallery works that opens today in the streets in and around Ueno. My contact at this event is James Jack, an artist and writer from New York, who is staying on longer than planned in his current PhD work to further soak up and participate in various inspiring art projects linked to his stay at Geidai. He talks enthusiastically about getting involved in projects that are firmly ‘outside the white box’ and that are ‘very linked with local people, social architecture and slowness’ – and how it’s good to be away from New York City for a while on all these counts. Go see what they are up to: http://u-t-m.jp/modules/sustainable/index.php?content_id=1 48


http://jamesjack.org/blog/category/upcomingexhibitions/ When I lived in Tokyo, I used to live in Omotesando (a long story!), but my heart has always been in the northern parts of the city – Arakawa, Machiya, Sumida, Senju, Yanasen, or the scruffy streets of Yushima, where I sometimes stay on short visits to the city. It’s the feel of ‘real Tokyo’ these places have, that has something to do with the worn out buildings, the wires, the lights, the sense of everyday life far from the glamour spots of the city. This is, of course, the romance of the ‘shitamachi’ – the ‘low’ or ‘under’ city, rather than ‘downtown’ as its often wrongly translated – with its old style kissaten and wooden sento disappearing one by one, the retro dining bars being forced out of business, glimpses of the lives of ordinary Tokyo folk preserving some of the better bits of an older Tokyo against the bitter noise of crashing pachinko parlours, seedy entertainment districts, and faceless developer’s change. These places are the left over of Japan’s era of unbroken post-war urban development, now looking tired and worn-out, with their quintessential atmosphere of polite and inevitable decline. I guess they are also good places for poor and wannabe young artists trying to survive on little income: a good place to live and work. It’s the very opposite of the gleaming ‘neo-Tokyo’ of Roppongi Hills, in the same way that Echigo ideal is the opposite of the Mori Building philosophy. There is a long time art connection going on here, and the connection is of course Masato Nakamura, who has been using the less glamorous parts of Ueno, Akihabara and Kanda as locations for his productions since the late 1990s – both for public art ‘interventions’ and experimental ‘sustainable art’ linked to his Geidai teaching or activities of the Command N group. Public art has now become synonymous with expensive corporate sculptures in front of shiny buildings, but there was a time when this was something fresh in the Tokyo art scene, when Nakamura and others first started proposing to using the ‘cracks’ of city development, in between new buildings, empty factories or dilapidated housing to make a different kind of art – all very much parallel to the counterurban tactics of Echigo Tsumari patching up empty school buildings, or renovating abandoned wooden housing in depopulated villages. For the latest versions of ‘sustainable art’, then, you should head to the northern quarters of the city, or perhaps out to rural Gunma, where Jack is currently participating in another collective project with the same spirit. http://www.kiryusaien.com/ I am always curious about the parallel but very different trajectories that Nakamura and Murakami have taken since their days as an art alliance in the early 1990s. They were, of course the pivotal ‘glimmer twins’ of those heady Gimburart and Omori days, the two most ‘likely’ of the ‘likely lads’ that came out of the extraordinary creative nexus of the period. Whatever happened to them, then, these old pals? Not much in common these days, it seems. Nakamura’s newest and biggest venture to date will to be take over as director of the art centre being opened early next year in the renovated Rensei Junior High School, which you can find hidden away in the same streets south of Ueno that I sometimes call home. The former Junior High School will be familiar because it hosted the 101 Tokyo launch in 2008 (as in the photo above), and which, although battered and stuck with its cheap 1960s public architecture, offers a spectacular new and large space for re-imagining, re-novating and reinventing sustainable art – and maybe even commercial sustainable art! – in the future. Surely befitting for a building that was once intended to nurture city children who are no longer being born. As some of these projects suggest, not all great art has to be big, plastic and worth a million dollars. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/10/19 00:55

49


30. After the Gold Rush

To complete a ‘trilogy’ of blogs on Mottainai!/Sustainable Art themes, I’d like post again below my essay ‘After the Gold Rush’, which was written for the opening week of the show THE ECHO: JAPAN NEXT at Yokohama ZAIM in Sept/Oct 2008. It is just over a year since the show closed, and I’m still hoping to see the essay in a catalogue for the event which, in true Japanese style, may be published long after many people might have forgotten the show. It would be a pity, though, not to historically document this remarkable artist-organised show, which featured many of Japan’s most interesting young, emerging artists in very striking installations. The artists included Kohei Nawa, Kei Takemura, Taro Izumi, Daisuke Ohba, Satoru Aoyama, Satoshi Ono and Kengo Kito among others, and it is the closest I have seen to a coherent new ‘Young Japanese Artists’ style show in Japan these last few years. The website with info and images can still be consulted at: http://www.the-echo.jp Thanks again to Chisato Yamashita for her translation work with me on the text and various presentations, and to Haruka Ito for involving me in the event. The text is published in Japanese on the Japanese pages of ART-iT After the Gold Rush: Japan’s new post-bubble art and why it matters AS FAR as the Western public is concerned, Japanese contemporary art still stands for all things ‘kawaiiii!’. Recent shows in Barcelona, Los Angeles, and Copenhagen, following others in Paris and New York, have offered further samplings of new young Japanese art under this perennial heading.[1] Japanese contemporary art is seen as part of a globally successful Japanese pop culture of anime, manga, toys, video games and street fashion, fitting comfortably with governmental policies promoting this same touristic image of Japan to foreigners. It was, in fact, Japan’s former prime minister Taro Aso who as foreign minister first trumpeted these policies about ‘cool Japan’ and ‘soft power’, holding out a friendly hand to the otaku of Akihabara as a ‘national wonder’[2]. This image of Japan is not at all the impression given by The Echo, a fresh sampling of some of the best young Japanese artists now emerging on the scene.[3] In discussing contemporary art from Japan, there is a chronic need to get beyond kawaii, anime, manga, otaku—and all that. For in many ways what the West perceives as ‘Japan Now’ is more accurately a reflection of the heady days of the breakthrough in the 1990s of the otaku generation—i.e., a vision of Japan ten years out of date. ‘Japan Next’ – the subtitle of The Echo – reveals an Japanese artistic sensibility and vision that has completely broken with many of the characteristics of that older generation, and which also finds itself on a very different developmental arc to the one that has drawn such enormous western economic capital in recent years. Japan’s new art needs to be read and understood in a different context.[4]

50


What you will not see in The Echo is anything much that resembles the kind of art that made some Japanese artists such a hot item on the world market since the late 1990s. The most famous of these – Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, Mariko Mori, for example – made their names by a winning combination of commercialism and national branding, all tailored to appeal to the orientalist conceptions of Japan prevalent in the West. Much of this strategy is laid bare in Murakami’s angry and unrepentant The Art Entrepreneurship Theory (2006), where he guides the young wannabe cu-ri-ei-ta – who now pay up to 100,000 yen each to show their works as hopefuls at his twice yearly independent artfair Geisai – through the game of selling Japaneseness to the West as contemporary art. The success of Murakami, Nara and Mori also lies in how well they fitted into the wider global trends of the 1990s. It is all post-Warhol, and post-Sherman art: big installations, overwhelming videos, selfobsessed projections, all surface and irony. For sure, the visibility of these artists has given Japan a new and original tourist appeal, and the neo-Tokyo dreamland it reflects does not disappoint the not inconsiderable number of those first drawn to the city by the images of Mori or Murakami as archetypal Japan. But there is a stark contrast between this representation and the work and sensibility of the next generation, ten years or so younger. The Echo artists were children of the 70s and 80s, and only still students in the 1990s—they might have been no more than 15 to 18 years old when the Japanese economic bubble burst in 1992-3. As artists, then, they have matured in a very different world. Their art is born of a Japan that has had to come to terms with relative decline and grave doubts about its sustainable future—in often painful social and political terms these past 15 or so years. Murakami and company, rather, grew up in a different Japan, on a dramatic development arc which saw it ascend to the ranks of global economic power. Japan was becoming a new source of modernity; an alternative Asian modernity, no less—their art above all reflects these more confident years. Japan’s anxiety today lies in large part because this development arc is now over, while its neighbours are all on the rise. Japan was the archetype for Asian modernity, but now people are looking elsewhere. If (non-western) art is driven by development – the argument goes – with Japan’s development finished the future was Chinese. Chinese artists have in the last few years abundantly shown that they can now do it bigger, better and bolder than the Japanese. The Murakami philosophy indeed works better in China with its vastly more favourably economics of space, production and exhibition; a limitless national vernacular tradition, as well as the whole question of post-communism, to draw on for imagery; and much more governmental investment in the art infrastructure than ever there was in Japan. An overwhelmingly larger wave of new Chinese artists, has left Japan depressed in the shadow of its resurgent neighbour. Japan of course was the forerunner to the present Asian art boom. But should it only be read in those terms? This leaves Japanese contemporary art with no role to play, save as a handmaiden or go-between for the Chinese century. But if art is only interesting on a developmental arc, the problem is: you only develop once. This is not where Japan is today. There is, therefore, a strong case to read Japanese contemporary art and society as being on a very different, even opposed trajectory to China and the rest of developing Asia. Unlike these nations Japan is definitively post-development, post bubble; it has finished absorbing the lessons of American and European modernity, and now sits more as an alternative to both Western and Asian (Chinese) modernity; it has more in common with the declining, decadent welfare states of Europe, than the growth and power obsessed US. Its crisis of confidence, therefore, may offer a much better guide to the uncertainties and fragilities of the 21st century than the rampant, unsustainable visions of globalisation that drove the 1980s and 1990s. And, since September 2008, a structural economic crisis of deflationary property values and credit crunched finance is no longer only Japan’s to suffer; the whole world is now experiencing the same kind of economic conditions. In this respect, the 60s generation of Murakami and company – stuck in a bubble mentality – look very dated. Several distinct trends are clear among the more recent generation of younger artists featured at The Echo.[5] They have clearly broken with the dominant otaku/superflat stylings of the previous generation, absorbing, reflecting and transforming global influences in very new ways. Moreover, they point to a Japan coming to terms with its post-development, post-bubble crisis—a position that might now guide future post-national currents rather than just follow global trends. What unites these artists is an emphasis on the quieter virtues of method, craft and technique, and an aesthetic commitment to depth and beauty rather than pop art’s celebration of trash, money, size and surface. There is a rejection of the bubble’s big, brash, plastic art, as well as the branding logics of egotistic self promotion and corporate sponsorship. Moreover, these artists revel in an unfashionable emphasis on labour—with work the individualised production of intense effort and detail, rather than factory production lines. Japanese art is often criticised for its lack of ‘theory’. But methods and technique can be just as articulate, and offers perhaps a more authentic route to capitalise on Japanese aesthetics, without the need to brand the work ‘Japanese’ or invoke national archetypes.

51


A good place to start is the work of Kohei Nawa. The emphasis on methods and technique can certainly be seen in the systematic, experimental art of sculptor Nawa, who is now on the brink of major international recognition. Nawa needs less introduction than others after a busy year in 2008, with important shows in Barcelona, Zurich and China, following on from success at Art Basel in 2007.[6] Frustratingly, though, his work is still being found under the kawaii heading favoured by western curators. They have to yet to find a category for this kind of work, that is light years away from Murakami’s flat plastic world. Nawa makes objects of startling finished elegance and beauty, following an experimental methodology in media and production. His crystal-like ‘pixcell’ sculptures translate the logic of digital technology into physical art, transforming everyday objects acquired on the internet. A similar process of ‘neutralisation’ can be seen in the parallel prism works. Perhaps even more impressive are the unpredictable, unworldly sculptures he has devised using techniques with plaster, silicon or glue. Importantly, the ‘factory’ like methods of his studio resemble more a laboratory dedicated to the discovery of beauty in unique objects, rather than the mass production favoured by his global forerunners. Nawa’s massive ‘Scum’ sculpture – the most impressive piece at the Mori Museum’s retrospective of Japanese contemporary art in 2007 Roppongi Crossing 2 – was selected by influential curator Noi Sawaragi to show alongside a characteristic electric colour work by The Echo’s co-producer Kengo Kito, which was also seen at the Hermes building in Ginza.[7] Their highly visible pairing at the centre of the show, and the nod towards older Japanese influences – such as veteran Enoki Chu – was an important step beyond the ‘neo-pop’ obsessions that Sawaragi and others had established as the dominant idiom of Japanese contemporary art.[8] Both Nawa and Kito will talk about how Murakami’s art entrepreneurship theories have influenced their DIY attitude to art organisation, while clearly rejecting his artistic methods, stylings and themes. This generation has certainly had to learn to make things happen for itself—The Echo was an artist organised show. Secondly, with the absence of much infrastructure for moving from art school to art career, The Echo generation has also been helped by a greater emphasis recently in Japan for nurturing young talent —several of the artists discussed here have been introduced by the small, independent organisation, Magical Art Room, featured as emerging artists at Tokyo Wonder Site, or have been selected as part of reviews of young artists at the National Art Centre (NACT) or Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art (MOT). Thirdly, commercial galleries themselves have taken on the role of museums nurturing talent and financing art where governmental and public assistance has been missing: with the vastly important roles of figures such as Masami Shiraishi, Atsuko Koyanagi, Sueo Mizuma, and Tomio Koyama, now being supplemented by the energetic efforts of a new generation of gallerists, mainly women, who initially worked with the older galleries—for example, Yuko Yamamoto, Rika Fujiki at Mujinto Productions, or ArataniUrano. The point of Kito’s work is, again, to use simple, material objects from the everyday world of consumption, usually working with colour, texture and space to create a new, unique visual moment. He can work can be as both sculpture/installation, as at The Echo and Tokyo Wonder Site in 2006, or in alternate versions of his style in abstract coloured paintings, such as work collected at the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art. At his most effective, the effects are startling, peculiar, and yet elegant and direct—for example, his signature room of coloured hanging plastic hoops, that is part playground, part vision of solidified space. He can also work big, as the waterworks installation for MOT’s ‘Wonderwall’ in 2007 showed.[9] A contrast perhaps can be drawn here with the much discussed aesthetic of ‘micropop’, launched in 2007 in the show curated by Midori Matsui at Mito Art Tower.[10] There are obviously connections and affinities with The Echo. We are talking about the same generation, and indeed one artist seen in Yokohama, Taro Izumi was part of Micropop, with his humourous and surreal reflections on the role of the viewer in the art work. The emphasis on everyday found objects and personal reflection on contemporary realities is a shared feature. But where they differ is in the absence of the kind of psychological trauma, and in the valorisation of private, amateur, throwaway work that Matsui finds so important. Matsui fetichises teenage bedroom art in a very similar way to Murakami in Tokyo Girls Bravo (2002), alighting on some of the very same artists. She also valorises the simple home made aesthetics made famous by Nara—who is the godfather of micropop. Where micropop is casual and easily reproducible in book and t-shirt form, Kito and Nawa, rather, make elaborate, polished and expensive looking art out of materials that might never otherwise be thought of in an art context. The West so far has been happier to consume the former, particularly when laced with a vision of decadent teenage neo-Tokyo delights. For sure, there were echo’s of Micropop in the Yokohama show. A room shared by Tomoko Yamaguchi and Kae Masuda offered versions of Japan’s characteristic figurative girls’ art, and the room featuring Takehiko Hoshino and Takeshi Masada hinted at the kind of psychological inner visions that have haunted much of Micropop. One can even recognise elements of kawaii in the work of Koichi Enomoto and Sumito Sakakibara also shown at ZAIM.

52


Some of these works would not have looked out of place at Mito, and they would fit well with the famous ‘psychological’ collections of Satoshi Okada – the most active figure behind the Magical Art Room – or Ryutaro Takahashi, whose parallel collection of contemporary Japanese artists, Neoteny, went on the road in Japan in the autumn of 2008.[11] But on the whole, The Echo says something different: these are not introverted, troubled teenage visionaries, but confident, connected, well-networked, maturing artists, able to engage in a contemporary Japanese and global context rather than seeking refuge in the private, alienated worlds found by Matsui. Matsui’s essays, alongside Murakami’s curation, have made the obsessions and introversions of Tokyo girls famous worldwide.[12] Yet it is striking how little their formulations, that emphasise social withdrawal and abnormality, relate to the most visible women artists connected to The Echo group. A case in point is the work of two slightly older and more established women artists – Ruriko Murayama and Midori Mitamura – not shown at ZAIM, but closely linked with these artists, and showing at the same time. In Murayama’s work you see the familiar paraphernalia of girls culture – needlework, flowers, fashion models – transformed into striking objects of useless beauty, such as the floral mannequins that steal the show in the last room of the Neoteny exhibition. She points forward towards The Echo’s aesthetic in the way she takes found everyday objects, that might otherwise be junk, and transforms them through craft and composition. Murayama is an artist, based in the northern city of Akita, working far from the clamour of girls consumerism – the dynamo of Tokyo street life in Shibuya or Omotesando – yet there is nothing rustic or provincial about this work. Rather, it is an overwhelming passion of physical craftwork, wielded with an intuitive sense of wonder that translates, for example, into the 700 piece stitched colour tapestry that dominated the Fuchu Biennale show True Colours at the end of 2008.[13] The installation work of Midori Mitamura is another pointer – work that could also be seen during the Yokohama Triennale at Creative Space 9001 in Sakuragicho station.[14] Mitamura creates rooms full of found objects, souvenirs and everyday poetry that aim to create fragile, ephemeral moments of mood and ambience. Some of this work is inspired by travel, some by engagement in place. Her month long ‘knitting’ residency in Sumida, shown at the end of 2007 at the Contemporary Art Factory, made a quiet but eloquent plea for community and neighbourhood preservation at a time when the Tokyo city government is gearing up to wipe away half of the ward in the name of a new, brutal television tower and corporate urban development. Mitamura points the way to how The Echo artists are concerned both with representing a new ease with travel and experience and worldly engagement: there is little of the angst or resentment of western power you see in Murakami’s generation. And, as with Murayama, the everyday and banal, is transformed into moments of beauty, albeit fleeting. The subtle aesthetic touch sounds and feels classically Japanese, but there is nothing nostalgic or backwards looking about the art of The Echo group. You see this particularly in the artists working, as with Nawa, with the translation of new technology into art. The stark black and white video work by Go Watanabe and Kouichi Tabata turns minimalist animation into hypnotic fine art. As with other artists on show, you feel the influence of computer technology – the ever present light from video screens, the digital composition techniques of pixcell art – within the works themselves. Contrast this to Kaikai Kiki. Murakami’s generation, still struggling to master the impact of photoshop, u-tube and scanning technology, in fact gave in to Walter Benjamin’s gloomy predictions about art in the age of mechanical reproduction.[15] If you can’t beat technology – which gives anybody the power to reproduce infinitely, and the ability to make art with no talent – then, they said, you should just use it to mass produce plastic, flat art. But in The Echo the artists have mastered the machinery, once again turning back to the creation of unique, non-reproducible works, which use technology now as its basic medium. Tabata and Daisuke Ohba, with his abstract silver and gold tableaux, join Nawa in turning the techniques of digitalisation into finished art objects reaching for something sublime. There is a new abstraction here at work, which again is showing some of the experimental possibilities of technological art, that is far from the superflat vision of art as media-saturated pop culture. For sure, the question of Japaneseness haunts this show, as it will always haunts group shows of quote-unquote ‘Japanese’ artists. We are Japan, it says, and this is Japan, but the show refuses to indulge in touristic branding. When you talk to these artists they in fact see themselves as unproblematically ‘post-national’. They have travelled widely, East and West; they have experienced London, New York, Beijing or Saigon. But none of it makes them feel like making points about Japanese power in relation to a dominant West, invoking the War, hiding behind anti-colonial slogans, or trading in orientalist archetypes. We are thankfully spared tea ceremonies, zen gardens, ikebana, manga, anime, love hotels, callisthenics, and cosplay in The Echo. Nevertheless – and here is where the haunting can be found – there is a return to the source, after travel and worldly experience, that

53


suggests how these artists are drawing on Japanese resources in the way they work, particularly the emphasis on fine art, craft and refined detail. Satoru Aoyama’s work is an ideal exemplar of this work. An artist educated in the age of the YBAs in London, Aoyama has, like Murayama, embraced the most unfashionable craft of all – needlework – to make work that trades in understatement, uniqueness, and the illustration of a consistent method. Aoyama’s craft is another take on technology and production, only this time with much older industrial echoes, as we are drawn to look once and look again at his minutely textured fabrics, that evoke both industrial age routines and computer age digital reproduction. Sometimes he works in a naturalistic idiom, with digital echoes executed in fabric of photographic cityscapes or portraits – such as his work in the Neoteny collection – and sometimes – as in the striking darkrooms of The Echo, and at Art Flower in the Autumn of 2008[16] – with minimalist abstraction. Also in Akasaka, a dramatic black curtain splashed with gold paint by Aoyama – that, of course turns out to the handiwork of a craftsman with a thousand stitches in thread – currently adorns the entrance of the famous underground art bar, Traumaris, run by the journalist Chie Sumiyoshi. It awaits a curatorial consciousness able to understand the conceptual leap forward, as well as the self-contained economy of the production process. Here, I touch upon the most important lesson from The Echo. The 1990s bubble mentality, heady with globalisation, looked for big art, with a throwaway aesthetic, wrapped up and made in plastic. The Echo generation is rather looking to use what it finds, and especially to renovate and make something beautiful out of sustainable materials. This comes together in the work of Kei Takemura, who joined The Echo group from her studio in Berlin, and had been seen recently also at Tokyo Wonder Site and at NACT in 2008.[17] Again, like Mitamura, hers is installation and performance work reflecting travel, souvenirs, friends and bits and pieces along the way. It is a methodology seen also, in a different way, in the psychoanalytic explorations expressed as the extraordinary overflow of studio work-in-progress at The Echo by Satoshi Ohno. Takemura herself might make art out of an old Ikea bed, some borrowed clothes, old postage packaging, or a memory of some friends’ karaoke that she will sing again to onlookers in the gallery. But it is in her characteristic sketched and translucent tapestries that we see the simple method of stitchwork and drawing coming together, renovating these discarded materials into something new and uncanny. Her premonitions of an earthquake remind her and us of Tokyo and Japan, even while the familiar objects sitting around are global objects and reminiscences of Berlin. Again, this is an economical and sustainable art that avoids the self-indulgence that the bubble mentality so encouraged, while reaching for a transcendent aesthetic affect. Here I think lies the punchline. Andy Warhol taught the world to equate art with mass production, and to think of successful art basically as junk that makes money. Money ever since has been the only evaluation of contemporary art that counts, alongside its ability to finance ever bigger, bolder, brighter objects of distraction. The global art world has become dominated by the big self-statements of a Jeff Koons or a Damian Hirst, and this clearly is how we get to a Murakami today. The power of a single idea, and its execution on a phenomenal scale in plastic, produced 13 million dollars for Murakami’s My Lonesome Cowboy in the summer of 2008. Or think of the Hirst diamond skull from the same year: it takes a massive investment to produce an even more massive result. I am proposing a different aesthetic here. A principle of parsimony. Of course, this might be said to have its own echoes in classically Japanese notions—such as the concept of mottainai. But it has universal resonance too. Aesthetic value and economic value are not the same thing, and a more impressive art might in fact be one that can create value out of next-to-nothing. That is, an art made from the found materials, tools and methods that artists have to hand in their everyday context, rather than big corporate investment and ever more elaborate factory production lines. This might be a more sustainable vision for contemporary art. It is not hard to see why this is an important vision, or one being made at just the right time. Two days after The Echo opened, Damian Hirst sold works at Sotheby’s for record prices that marked the end and apogee of the latest global art bubble. The very next day, the collapse of Lehmann Brothers bank signalled the onset of a disastrous financial crisis that has plunged the global economy into an economic downturn and depression that may last years. All of what is happening today in the global economy is very familiar to Japan, which has been living with a similar economic situation since the early 1990s. The art market was, like property and finance, booming everywhere, but as with these other commodities it is not true they will always go up; there is now a crash, and there will be a re-evaluation of contemporary art. With it, a lot of the big plastic installation art will end up in the rubbish skip. Artists attuned to this new, fragile, uncertain world we are moving into will make a very different kind of art. After the gold rush, we might want to look at the kind of artists shown at The Echo to restore our faith in what can be done in contemporary art.

54


Notes 1. i.e.: ‘Kawaii! Japan now’, programme of five solo shows by emerging Japanese artists, Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, 21 Sep 2007–20 Jul 2008; ‘Just Love Me (Kawaii Kills)’, Royal/T, Culver City, LA, 12 Apr–25 Aug 2008; and ‘Manga! Japanske Billeder’, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humblebæk, Copenhagen, 8 Oct 2008– 8 Feb 2009. The paradigm was undoubtedly set by Takashi Murakami’s influential curated shows, i.e., ‘Kawaii! Vacances d’été’, Fondation Cartier, Paris, 2002, and ‘Little Boy: The Art of Japan’s Exploding Subculture’, Japan Society, New York, 2005. 2. See speech by Foreign Minister, Taro Aso, ‘A new look at cultural diplomacy: a call to Japan’s cultural practitioners’, 28 Apr 2006. The potential for a new policy focus in Japan was first identified by Doug McGray, ‘Japan’s gross national cool’, Foreign Policy, May/June 2002. 3. ‘The Echo: Japan Next’, ZAIM, Yokohama, 13 Sep–5 Oct 2008. 4. An alternative reading of new directions in Japanese contemporary art is offered by former Mori Museum Director, David Elliott, ‘The zombie, the alien, the hybrid and the mask: late Showa anxieties in Heisei art’, essay for opening of ‘Off the Rails’, Mizuma and One Gallery, Beijing, 26 Apr–25 Aug 2008. Elliott is currently planning a new sampling of contemporary Japanese art for Japan Society, New York, scheduled Mar–Jun 2011, entitled ‘Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Japanese Contemporary Art’. 5. Many of these same artists are featured in the Bijutsu Techo special, ‘Japanese Artists File’, vol.60, no.909, July 2008. 6. ‘The Poetry of Bizarre’, Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, 30 May–20 Jul 2008; ‘PixCell: (PRISM)’, Pekin Fine Arts, Beijing, 7 Sep–30 Nov 2008. Nawa also recently curated his own sampling of new young artists from Kyoto in a show in Zurich: ‘Senjiru – Infusion’, Galerie Kashya Hildebrand, 12 Jun–16 Aug 2008. 7. ‘Roppongi Crossing 2007: Future Beats in Japanese Contemporary Art’, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 13 Oct 2007– 14 Jan 2008. 8. Refering back to Noi Sawaragi’s influential articles on ‘Neo-pop’, i.e. Bijitsu Techo, vol.44, no. 651, Mar 1992: pp.86-98, and the show he curated at Mito Tower, ‘Ground Zero Japan’, 1999. 9. ‘Starburst Galaxy’, MOT x Bloomberg, 2 Jun 2007–20 Jan 2008; ‘Kengo Kito+Kouichi Tabata: TWS Emerging Artists 04’, Tokyo Wonder Site, Shibuya, 17 Mar–12 Apr 2006. 10. ‘The Door into Summer: The Age of Micropop’, Mito Tower, 3 Feb–6 May 2007. 11. ‘Neoteny Japan’, Sapporo Museum of Modern Art, 22 Nov 2008–25 Jan 2009, also seen at Kiroshima Open Air Museum, Kagoshima, 18 Jul–15 Sep 2008 and Ueno Royal Museum, Tokyo, 20 May–15 Jul 2009. 12. For example, Midori Matsui, ‘Beyond the pleasure room to the chaotic street: transformation of the cute subculture in the art of the Japanese nineties’, in Little Boy (2005), pp.209-239. 13. ‘True Colours: The 4th Fuchu Biennale’, Fuchu Art Museum, 15 Nov 2008–1 Feb 2009. 14. ‘Midori Mitamura @ Yokohama’, Creative Space 9001, Yokohama, 13 Sep–30 Nov 2008; ‘Mikoujima Art Project’, Contemporary Art Factory, Sumida, Tokyo, 20 Oct–28 Oct 2007. 15. Walter Benjamin, ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ (1935) in Illuminations (1970), pp.219-254. 16. ‘Akasaka Art Flower 08’, Akasaka Sakas, Tokyo, 10 Sep–13 Oct 2008. 17. ‘Apart a Part: TWS Emerging Artists 14’, Tokyo Wonder Site, Shibuya, 28 Jun–31 Aug 2008.

55


ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/10/22 00:41

56


31. Geisai vrs Design Festa

Visitors to Takashi Murakami’s Geisai 13 last weekend were greeted by a sign declaring the near bankruptcy of the organisation, and asking humbly for donations. Having made the long trek out by train and local bus to Kaikai Kiki’s headquarters in Saitama, they might have been surprised to find a fairly ramshackle event, with only 172 booths, no organised competition, and a chilly sense of the impact of the recent economic downturn on the organisation. Quite a contrast from Geisai 11 and 12, when nearly a thousand young exhibitors, some of them paying up to ¥100,000 for the privilege, took part in a huge, glitzy event at Big Sight, Tokyo with multiple stages, star performances, media packages, and a big fake high school entertainment zone full of maid cafés. I bet now they are regretting the $1 million they blew on the huge televisions screens, as well all those expensive VIP invitations for the foreign judges flown in for the event...

The lucky ‘winner’ of Geisai 11, and those expensive TV screens

57


I don’t know how Design Festa is doing financially, but the twice annual event at Big Sight appears to be going strong, with 2,500 participants at this weekend’s event over two days. Unlike Geisai, Design Festa claims and expects no great attention from the ‘serious’ Tokyo art world. Yet Geisai is in many ways a straight copy of the Design Festa idea, which is now in its 20th incarnation, and was founded in 1994 by designer Kunie Usiki. You buy an affordable booth, and show off what you can do, in this case, to the 60,000 or so visitors than come each time. The permanent base in Harajuku provides a year-round venue for self-organised exhibitions, as well as a focal point for curious visitors. Geisai took the formula but added higher prices, Murakami’s personal appearance, a talent show contest, and famous invited curators as judges to give it the aura of a quality art show. I was amazed at Geisai 11 to hear famous art dealer Philippe Segalot speaking to the crowd with the clear belief that he had been invited to see the cream of the Tokyo art scene – a sad illusion, unfortunately, shared by many of the foreigners who visit Geisai. Basically, you see the same home spun amateur art at both events – with occasional glimpses of talent – and I much prefer the honest, democratic, ‘punk rock’, anything goes attitude of Design Festa and its committed organisers. While stars have been made through the show, that is very much not the point, and it becomes a much more genuine celebration of Tokyo creativity as a result. Geisai is apparently heading back to Big Sight, and advertising for participants for version 14. So there must be some money left in the coffers, right? I hope the economic issues surrounding the latest show give pause to the organisation. Geisai has come packaged in revolutionary language about smashing the Japanese art system, and rejecting traditional university education for a do it yourself route to artistic stardom following Murakami’s selfhelp lessons. Yet it does not deliver on the promise of really providing this. With one or two notable exceptions, the event leaves a lot of young artists just having their hopes and dreams exploited, and their pockets emptied. I find it a lot more revolutionary what Murakami’s old rivals Masato Nakamura and Yukinori Yanagi have tried to do within the Japanese art education system. Murakami still enjoys a huge prestige and influence amongst the young and impressionable, and there are many positive things about Geisai’s call to believe in creativity however much it costs. However, it would be lot more believable as an event and a movement if it didn’t cost the price of a rental gallery and if education were really the goal – rather than it being a platform for fan-worship of the artist, an excuse for snatching international media attention away from the real contemporary art scene, or a recruitment scheme for Kaikai Kiki. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/10/24 02:28

58


32. Gutai is Back! Giappone @ Venezia (1)

My interest in Japanese contemporary art has emerged primarily out of my interest in the sociology of Japan, rather than a specialism in contemporary art as such – I am not an art theorist or art historian – so I am still encountering for the first time some of the central institutions and personalities of the global art world today. This was my first time at the Venice Biennale, and I explicitly came here to try to get a sense of ‘global art’ today, so that I can better relativise what I think and feel about art and the art world in Japan in a global context. It is encouraging to see that even in Venice, at the top of the game, among the brightest and the best, you still find the good, the bad, and the indifferent. Daniel Birnbaum, the director of the Visual Arts program at Venice this year, was one of the jet set curators flown in for the Yokohama Triennale last year. Like in Yokohama, the selection in Venice was only sporadically convincing. I was surprised how exhausting it was to trawl through the two sites, how unattractive the space is at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, and also how banal the ‘making worlds’ theme ultimately was: just a nice turn of phrase that allowed the selection to roam over practically anything and everything. The catalogue guide didn’t help, kicking off with a bunch of sociological sounding clichés about globalizing forces, nationalism, and artists emancipating us with their cultural diversity... Perhaps the most interesting part of his direction, though, was the explicit attempt in some selections to re-visit or re-construct famous artistic installations or interventions of the past that have somehow got lost or underappreciated in the sweep of art history. And so, at the heart of the Palazzo, it was quite a treat to find a reconstruction of various old Gutai works – most of which were destroyed – that had once been shown in a 1965 exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam that was one of the first Western exhibitions of this now widely recognised pioneering movement.

59


The sprawling room, full of playful pieces, strange uses of materials, a riot of colour, texture and unlikely forms, felt as contemporary and arresting as anything in the building.

60


Nowadays, artists rely on all kinds of technological possibilities for generating the same kind of surprise effects, and rarely do they display the same degree of subtle humour or cunning interaction with the observer. The young tour guides were giving this room a special emphasis in their commentaries, and the whole thing had been put together with a real respect and care for archiving this nearly forgotten piece of world art history. Bravo, to all concerned. There was, in the end, very little Giappone @ Venezia. Apart from Miwa Yanagi, the main Yoko Ono show closed a while back, with only a small selection of Instructions Pieces to be found at the Palazzo. But the Gutai room was an important reminder that contemporary art in Japan has had its moments of brilliance.

The return of Gutai is a delight to the long time friends of Japanese avant garde art, who have tirelessly worked to make sure some of these hidden classics don’t disappear from the art history narrative. ‘Glad to see Gutai is back on the map’, wrote David Elliott in an email to me recently, when I mentioned to him two new Gutai shows in New York (see links below) that I hope to visit and write about next week. I will also be meeting there with Reiko Tomii and Midori Yoshimoto, who are both involved in these shows, and are key figures in the Japanese art historical effort in the US. In this respect, my only disppointment about the Venice show, was how poorly the Gutai selection was documented in the catalogue, with no detailed guide to the individuals works or artists. In fact, the Biennale catalogue was just bad in general. Two very low quality volumes, way too expensive, not enough information, and the whole thing falling apart in your hands barely minutes after getting it out of the plastic wrapping. It looked like the local printer had simply decided to make a few more Euros on each by leaving the binding unfinished; many of the images were dull and poorly reproduced. In Venice, you always get the best and worst things about Italy. Stunning beauty everywhere, exquisite taste and aesthetics, along with the constant feeling of being ripped off and humiliated as a ‘stupid tourist’. I remember a tale about an Italian world traveller, wise to all the tricks and con-artists, who was impressed one day by how a street vendor in Naples once managed to sell him a fancy box of goods – only to find nothing but a brick inside. It’s just sometimes like that in Italy, even in the most rarefied of places, like the Venice Biennale. Sometimes you come looking for brilliance and the best art in all the world, and they still manage to sell you a brick. ‘Making Worlds’ at the 53rd Venice Biennale until 22 November ‘Kazuo Shiraga: Six Decades’ at McCaffrey Fine Art, New York until 23 January http://www.mccaffreyfineart.com/upcoming.html

61


‘Under Each Other’s Spell: Gutai and New York’, New Jersey City University, until 16 December http://www.njcu.edu/dept/art/galleries/default.asp ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/10/31 02:05

33. Powerless Japan

Art world people love to talk about themselves, and – in this silly hierarchical world of invented distinction and value – nothing is more exciting that working out the rankings of who’s who—and who is the most important. In Art Review’s recently published global top 100 it turns out that it certainly not artists who are the most important people in art. In fact, they only make up about 20% of the list, which is headed by a curator/critic (Hans Ulrich Obrist), and dominated by art dealers and curators. I personally am glad to find out that talking about art is more important than doing it. The other interesting thing about the list is how much it illustrates how scarcely global the ‘global’ art world really is. It is, first and foremost, a small self-appointed Anglocentric network (over half Americans and Brits), with a solidly Eurocentric outer ring. And that’s it. The list, scandalously, manages to mention only three Asians, two Latin Americans, and one (south) African. The global hype for years now has been Asian: the reality is that Asia is just a colonial playground for all these globally networked Westerners to collect frequent flyer miles and make money. And where is the Japanese art world in all this? All those world class museums, and cutting edge artists? Nowhere to be seen, of course, except for one star exception: You Know Who™, nestling at a very impressive number 17 on the list. Just four places behind his hero, Jeff Koons, and way ahead of the other playboys of the Western art world, Damien Hirst and Maurizio Cattelan. This placing surely marks a peak in the career of Takashi Murakami, who was also the only artist nominated in Time magazine’s most influential persons list of 2008. Congratulations, then, but it does raise the question of why Art Review sees Murakami as so powerful. Visible

62


yes; ubiquitous to saturation point, even. But ‘powerful’? What exactly is his influence? It is surely not the ‘soft power’ of his ideas about Superflat and Japanese pop culture, which no-one except ageing otaku bureaucrats in the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs takes seriously as either a geo-political or economic weapon. And it is also surely not his bubbly and oh-so-2007 notions about commercialism and branding in art, which are at best second hand Koons, if not third hand Warhol, and now as dead as a Lehman Brothers associate leaping out of a 67th floor window at Roppongi Hills. Back in Japan, where Murakami craves recognition most of all, his empire lacks a foundation. Only foreigners who know nothing about Japanese contemporary art take his attempts to create a ‘school’ with Geisai or Kaikai Kiki seriously, and younger artists are moving away from his 1990s visions in their art and practice. And when he steps up on stage with the glitzy white toothed folks from Hollywood or the Upper East Side, alongside the likes of Marc Jacobs and Kanye West, he sometimes looks like a little boy lost, with that baseball cap and fake hip hop moves... Or is all just about the money? What about the art? In a recent interview, Paul Schimmel told me that Murakami’s most important legacy will be the ‘stock of images’ that his ventures into anime production as art will produce. Others think his dabbling in Hollywood cartoons may be his financial and aesthetic ruin. In fact, in his recent openings, he seems to have turned back if anything to his most impressive achievements as an artist: the minutely produced, epic nihonga influenced wall paintings, such as the recent work on show at Gagosian in New York, as seen in Mario A’s recent blog on this: http://www.art-it.asia/u/sfztpm/kpEPHt97DS1bUF3roYCv/ There has to be more to power than laughing your way through another New York cocktail party, or raging at your art studio employees when they screw up a happy flower painting. Where do you go from here? Perhaps that was what the great silver Oval Buddha at his 2008-2009 world tour/retrospective was thinking, perched high on its mushroom. Sitting at number 17, there is not so much further up to go. But it is a long way down. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/11/06 01:46

34. Gutai in New York

‘NEW YORK! Just like I pitchered it... Skyscrapers and everythin’!’*... Let’s be honest, though: New Jersey ‘aint much like that, and you’d be forgiven for checking you haven’t taken a wrong turn into the projects when you step off the PATH train into the battered downtown of Jersey City, that lies across the water in the grim and polluted 63


industrial flank of the New York urban sprawl. A few miles further south, New Jersey City University is an old gothic looking looking college in a quiet, more residential part of the town, with well dressed lawns and well dressed security men. It’s a hard edged urban public institution catering to a wide range of less advantaged students in the state. I’m here to visit the first half of New York’s (and New Jersey’s) current showing of works from the Gutai Association, that underline the historical links and flows between the classic Osaka based group and the New York art world in the 1950s and 60s. I meet up with Midori Yoshimoto, gallery director at the college and she talks me through the works in the small but elegant Lemmerman Gallery that include a range of the Gutai group (including Tsuruko Yamazaki, Toshio Nasaka, and Sadamasa Motonaga), some works by American artists linked to them, and enthusiastic correspondence and memorabilia sent between the two countries. The show, ‘Under Each Other’s Spell’, was put together by Ming Taimpo of Carleton University, who is soon to publish a book on Gutai with Chicago University Press, and was also shown at the Krasner-Pollack House and Study Center, East Hampton, New York. Yoshimoto herself is the noted author of Into Performance, a book that documents the lives and works of several of the most well known Japanese contemporary women artists in New York, including Yayoi Kusama and Yoko Ono.

Later that afternoon, back in the big city, I catch a drink in the West Village with Reiko Tomii, one of the longstanding key players in the NYC Japanese art scene. She played a crucial translator/contributor roles in Alexandra Monroe’s Scream Again the Sky, Yoko Ono’s Yes retrospective, and Murakami’s Little Boy, and cocurated a show recently (with Eric Shiner) called Making a Home, about Japanese expat artists who live and work in New York. She starts out by talking me through her argument in a column for the current edition of Art Asia Pacific, in which she laments the still low level of international awareness about Gutai, which should be by now old and rather obvious Japanese contemporary classics. It’s about time that Western audiences got beyond the ‘Wow! What’s this!’ reaction when they see Gutai for the first time, she says. It may be ok to react to landmark historically established art like that if you are a twenty year old student, but if a serious critic saw a Pollock and expressed that kind of same naïve wonderment, they would immediately be drummed out of a job. She is tired of having to ‘introduce’ Gutai to people. There has been no accumulation of knowledge and criticism of this famous group, despite its periodical fashionability, and that is highly problematic.

64


Things have not advanced so much, then, since the first showing in New York in 1958 of works by Gutai’s most well known name, Kazuo Shiraga, which was panned for being a derivative version of Pollack’s action paintings. Six decades of Shiraga’s works can currently be seen at the McCaffrey Fine Art Gallery in the Upper East Side, along with an elegant catalogue authored by Tomii. Of course, she says, the silent paintings on the wall are but a ‘tainted’ version of the original action/performance, but Western art museums and buyers had to collect (and talk about) something. Tomii also criticises Daniel Birnbaum’s presentation of Gutai at the recent Venice Biennale (which I wrote about in my blog on 09/10/31), which she says was a static and problematic recreation of a recreation, at two removes from the original, and disconnected from the intense performance and location based point of the original works. My favourite part of both shows in fact were the old videos that they were showing, which document early performances, at a park in Ashiya near Kobe, and on stage in Osaka, and trace the trajectory of these works through to their starkly ambitious show at the Osaka Art Expo in 1971. In its time, Osaka must have looked just like the kind of thing put on at the Beijing Olympics last year, and it is particularly striking how, for example, two staged works by Atsuko Tanaka – the layered undressing of models, and the idea of light dresses – have resurfaced recently in the staged fine art versions of contemporary fashion by Viktor and Rolf and Hussein Chalayan, who are among the hippest and hottest names in fine art/fashion these days. One feels a similar prescience in Shiraga shooting paint arrows into a screen on stage, or Saburo Murakami punching holes of light and darkness through a paper screen. Actually, ‘Wow!’ is what I thought... I wonder if there isn’t a pragmatic alternative to Tomii’s frustration, which might at least hope that the amazed first encounter with Gutai, however late it happens, will lead to further discoveries and new appreciation of overlooked Japanese contemporary art from past decades. These are small showings that will not draw huge numbers of visitors, but Tomii has also ensured a visible institutional focus for the events by organising a talk show/discussion on November 18th at the Guggenheim with curator Monroe, Tiampo, the artist Paul Jenkins and art historian Judith Roedenbeck. It has a nice title: ‘Gutai: A ‘Concrete’ Discussion of Transnationalism’. It was a packed few days in the city. I also met with Miwako Tezuka at the Asia Society, who is organising a major retrospective of Yoshitomo Nara in New York next Autumn, and with Sarah Suzuki, who is part of a major book project on post-war Japanese art at MoMA. One can only admire how tirelessly all these curators and writers are working to re-establish the significance of post-war Japanese art in the face of the usual blank indifference of western art history. 65


* Livin’ For the City, Stevie Wonder Links and images to the two shows and info on the symposium: http://www.njcu.edu/dept/art/galleries/default.asp http://www.mccaffreyfineart.com/current.html http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/calendar-and-events ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/11/13 04:17

35. Mika Ninagawa

There is no better indicator of the disconnect between the Japan art/photography scene and the rest of the world than the career of Mika Ninagawa. In Japan, she is a superstar – correction, a supernova – who dwarfs the likes 66


of Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara in the pop cultural pantheon. In 2008-9, her ever popular shows and best selling books and magazines were given a fine art sheen by several major exhibitions. Her selection for Yuko Hasegawa’s Space For Your Future at MOT made perfect sense, with her recreation of the total enclosed space of a deep red teenage girl’s bedroom. A large retrospective show then has travelled this year from Tokyo Opera City Gallery to various prominent sites around the country. For me, the show ‘Woman’ which I saw at Omotesando Hills in late 2007, is the key. The basement exhibit hall of this rather dull shopping mall was transformed into a fantastic rose strewn boudoir; inside, what we saw was ‘just’ a collection of 100 portraits of iconic women in Japan – but what portraits! With her signature saturated colours, the drama of costume play, and the knowing conspiracy of her subjects, it was a series of unique, masterpiece portrayals (portraits being one of the most under-estimated of contemporary art forms). One after the other. Her definitive captures of her muses Anna Tsuchiya and Kyoko Fukada, or older icons such as Yayoi Kusama, were only topped by Ninagawa’s own self portrait, several months pregnant with a pistol in hand, angry against a red and white flag (see my catalogue/program below). The whole show was a stunning commentary on the meaning of woman today in Japan. I think it underlined more than anything how, in this still deeply chauvinistic, sluggishly masculine society, so much that is actually moving is driven by women. And Ninagawa above all asserts control over her work as a woman. The story of her childbirth and her intimate family relations with her famous theatre director father, Yukio Ninagawa, have played out publicly in the press, yet she is always the very centre of her own world. You see it in the photos: very rarely does she shoot men. This is a woman’s world, with often as not never ever a man in a sight. Ninagawa deserves her fame, then, yet the paradoxical fact is: she is completely unknown outside of Japan. Works that sell fast for a few thousand dollars in Japan are unsellable in the US and Europe (hip Japanese art Tshirts face a similar translation problem – they are all way too expensive). I know, for example, that a few of Ninagawa’s works were consigned to Sue Hancock’s art space Royal/T in LA, and are now a sparkling permanent feature in the gallery/shop – but Americans just don’t know how to evaluate it. A gallerist I met in Copenhagen had, like me, been seduced by her works, only to organise a show that drew little attention from Danish art aficionados. For sure, too, her value as fine art in Japan is also precarious, despite the very strong efforts of Tomio Koyama Gallery to present her in a more serious light. She needs good curation. The Tokyo Opera City show was a mess, with rooms dwarfing the photos, scuffed floors where there should have been pristine, perfect environments, and a botched reworking of the ‘Woman’ show on one wall. I much prefer her portraits and the older travel photography of her greatest inspiration – Mexico – than all the flowers and fishes. Still, the show broke box office records. Her little rooms, though, are gorgeous installations: the basement last year at the new Ebisu NADiff book store, full of precious memorabilia, for example. Her fan base is enormous, she doesn’t need foreign sales. And to the outside eye that has discovered her, there is no-one in Japan who captures the glamour, style and iconography of urban Tokyo at its best – a distinctly women’s Tokyo – better than Ninagawa. This is a genuinely ‘cool Japan’, much more than the cheesy visions of seedy male otaku paradise Akihabara, that are so more well known in the West thanks to Superflat and the like . I published an interview with Ninagawa with Martin Wong, co-editor of the LA based Giant Robot last year, around the time I also organised a small show of her work with related events at UCLA, accompanied by the evocative (and very different) street photography of Mikiko Hara. You can read the interview here: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/faculty/favell/GR%20mika-article.pdf And there is an introduction to the UCLA events (with further links) here: http://www.csw.ucla.edu/Newsletter/May08/May08_favell.pdf My collaborator was the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography curator, Hiromi Nakamura, who delivered a marvellous critical history of ‘girl photography’ since its heyday in the late 1990s in Japan, to a debate with specialists at the Hammer Museum, UCLA. A selection of the images and Nakamura’s full text can be found in the catalogue/program here: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/faculty/favell/jwave6.pdf

67


Still, Mika Ninagawa remains ‘lost in translation’. This is a puzzling issue, that requires some kind of explanation. It gives us a clue to understand the paradoxes of the very occasional successes and much more frequent failures in the internationalisation of Japanese art. The one thing that I thought was really ‘uncool’ at the ‘Woman’ show in Omotesando Hills was the tacky Hollywood PR shot of Paris Hilton amongst all the Japanese stars. In that shot, Ninagawa was ‘just’ another Japanese magazine photographer in an all-American PR machine. In all the others, she was a brilliant window to a whole society, with a coherent vision. I hope she continues to mature with the Japanese women stars that have made her work so indelible as a portrait of modern Japan. ‘Mika Ninagawa: Earthly Flowers, Heavenly Colors’, currently at Otani Memorial Art Museum Nishinomiya City, Hyogo. ‘Flower Addict’, at Tomio Koyama Gallery, Kyoto [until 21 Nov]

ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/11/17 06:06

68


36. Yoshihiro Suda in New York

New York, Fall 2009. In this city of skyscrapers and overblown commercial art, perhaps one of the biggest surprises of my recent trip was to stumble upon a small, fragile flower growing incongruously out of a crack in a white museum wall: the unmistakable work of Yoshihiro Suda, currently on show at the Asia Society museum in the city. I had not expected to find his work on show here (I was here for an interview), so it was a total delight to encounter a small exhibit of flowers in the Big Apple by this brilliant Japanese contemporary artist. ‘Yoshihiro Suda In Focus’ is in fact a one room show at this museum in the Upper East Side, in which a distinctive carved white magnolia is mounted in a plinth, alongside selections made by Suda himself of Asian antiques from the Rockefeller collection. The flower is based on one he found walking across Central Park. Another one ‘unofficially’ has been planted in the wall outside. There is more than a little of the Hiroshi Sugimotos about the official presentation, and it got me thinking again about a very interesting conversation I had with Atsuko Koyanagi when I interviewed her in late 2007. Suda obviously can be linked to traditional and classic forms and aesthetics in his work. The carvings evoke netsuke, small toggles made out of wood in the Edo period, as well of course as the classic tradition of ikebane. Yet, as Koyanagi emphasises, while mentioning Olafur Eliasson and Japanese architect Junya Ishigami, his approach to questioning the white cube and the environmental concerns of his installation are unquestionably at the edge of contemporary art practice. In global terms, his work is, I think, quite unique. Yet again, though, it has been a desperately slow process to see it getting due recognition on the world stage, perhaps because it is just too subtle and intelligent for most gaudy artworld tastes. Still, this is the second show in recent times by Suda in the US, following an important exhibition at the Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii.

69


It is clear that curator Miwako Tezuka’s contribution as a curator at New York’s Asia Society museum has been to start to bring a serious Japanese contemporary focus to a museum limited by space and a tendency to preserve a rather conservative view on the Asian arts. If the bookstore is any indication, there is much to be done as far as Japan is concerned. While the small Japanese shelf is a poorly selected and inadequate range of works mostly on classical Japanese art, the huge Chinese shelf is packed full of the current range of expensive picture books, catalogues and beginners guides on Chinese contemporary art, marshalled by the museum’s director and China specialist Melissa Chiu. The big Yoshitomo Nara show that Tezuka is planning for next Fall in New York City will hopefully bring more of a balance. Suda’s work hasn’t changed fundamentally since his breakthrough in the early 1990s. His output, like much of the best work in Japanese contemporary art, is small scale, intensive work that emphasises craft, labour, time, economy, and sustainability in its production. What once looked like a nostalgic return to some sort of rural Japanese lost past, now looks like a visionary work in touch with a new, fragile age. Suda in fact made his breakthrough as an open air Ginza artist – at the time of the Gimburart movement – renting a parking lot to show off some carved weeds inside a large silver box. Most passers-by didn’t notice what was going on. While most art today is an assault on the senses in a world of perpetual attention deficiency disorder, Suda’s leaves open the possibility that you might not see it all. As he says in an interview with Tezuka for the New York show: ‘What cannot be seen is also part of the spectrum of seeing.’ Very well said. Until 7th February 2010 http://www.asiasociety.org/events-calendar/yoshihiro-suda-focus ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/11/20 01:28

37. Tomoo Gokita in LA

I arrived in New York City on Halloween night. The whole island of Manhattan, it seemed, was populated with gorillas, ghouls, Judy Garlands, sexy witches, and people dressed up as taxi cabs. The subways and streets were 70


packed. Totally surreal. LA, on the other hand, is simply surreal every day and every night of the year, its sprawling sunshine So-Cal noir yawning lazily at the latest music fad, consumer craze, or drive-by killing. Four days in each city is about the perfect combination in a trip to the US. I’m here for an academic conference, but I can devote the Saturday to ART which means a much awaited interview with the key muse of 1990s Japanese pop art – the writer, Min Nishihara (see forthcoming blog) – and an evening of openings in the Culver City/La Cienega art strip. The consolidating of these few blocks near Culver City has done much to give the pulsing, but diffuse LA art life a real focus. A lot of this is down to the pioneer gallerists Tim Blum and Jeff Poe – the most important western figures in the making of Takashi Murakami – and they have now opened a new space that everyone describes as ‘just like a Chelsea gallery’: a huge new building with several large gallery rooms. Their opening show has some works for sales by Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara. These might best be described as ‘derivatives’ – spin off signature works for collectors, including tacky painted cartoon versions of My Lonesome Cowboy and Hiropon (The Other One With Big Breasts) – but I like Murakami’s painted version of the original US Superflat catalogue (the white one with eyes), and Nara provides a lovely clay fired sculpture of one of his famous kids’ heads.

Paraiso, 2009 Across the road, at young British gallerist Honor Fraser’s space, there is a J-opening: Tomoo Gokita. Gokita was known first in Japan as a pop-art illustrator with a strong ‘street’ style , but he is now mining a line of success in the US with works that are extending his own surreal brand of painting. As Honor shows me his back catalogue, I realise that I have seen his work before – at Taka Ishii in Tokyo last year – where there was a show of his black and white chromatic works drawn and painted from budget pornography, that would incongruously mix cut ups from the pictures with abstract forms. I remember a wall full of tiny framed works, a riot of invention, and odd ball visual language. Gokita is there, and it turns out we were introduced at the Taka Ishii show – he has a good head for faces.

71


Installation view, Honor Fraser, 2009 His new works are a departure and advance. At Honor Fraser, he showed two rooms full of large abstract painting, executed in indigo on white acrylics. The paintings swirl and rise mysteriously, with more than a little touch of Dali about them. Gokita is obviously experimenting and looking for something new, and these works have clearly taken him to a new place that suggests, as Fraser writes in her notes, ‘peace in previous unsettled environments’.

Eyesight to the Blind, 2009

72


I am very interested in the crowd. It is a tip top LA hipster crowd, the kind in which everybody in the room looks like the keyboardist or bass player in a famous indie rock band. Not old school LA collectors, then, but that doesn’t mean the work won’t be selling. Gokita clearly has tapped into some good fashion word of mouth about town this weekend, and the show will do his Japanese career no harm at all. As Honor Fraser explains, she took him on after discovering his work by chance at a show in New York. After organising a first show in LA, he was then picked up by a major Tokyo gallerist, who is now establishing his name in fine art in Japan. I spy Sue Hancock, one of the most important collectors of Japanese contemporary art in the US, talking with the pop art star KAWS (also a collector). I have a brief conversation with Sue, whose big concept art space in Culver City Royal/T, that mixes a Japanese maid café with an art branding store, is now a roaring success. http://www.royal-t.org/ The past few weeks there has been a huge exhibition celebrating 35 years of Hello Kitty. This weekend, they open another show selecting from her collection, called In Bed Together. (At that opening, which I miss, she is seen as compere wearing a bright kimono dress with a print of a painting by Marina Kappos, an LA artist now in New York who I first met at Tokyo Wonder Site in Shibuya....). Sue slips into the office to discuss prices. I also chat with Kiki Kudo, a writer from Tokyo, who has recently produced a brilliantly trashy punk-style fanzine about the Japanese art scene called LET DOWN. http://letdownmag.blogspot.com/ We have a lot of fun arguing about what is boring and what is not in Japanese contemporary art. I also catch up with Taka Kawachi, who is an art producer involved closely with Gokita’s work in New York. I had interviewed him earlier in the week about his past work making art and artists move between New York and Tokyo and back. He is the man behind numerous pop art and photography shows in the late 1990s and early 2000s at the legendary Parco Museum in Shibuya. He is now trying to bring some of the classics of 60s/70s Japanese pop art – such as Yokoo and Tanaami – to a show at Jeffrey Deitch that will illustrate how influential they have been on younger American designers and artists. The friend I’m with, John Tain, a curator of Japanese post-war works at the Getty, then suggests that we move on to Venice Beach, where another group of art friends are gathering for a post-opening meal. Over Oaxacan food and Spanish wine, I pick up another series of juicy gallery and publisher stories from art world insiders to the Japanese-US art networks. It’s a great LA evening.

New Human League, 2008

73


Tomoo Gokita, Heaven, until 19 December 2009 ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/11/22 18:51

38. Ryoji Ikeda in Birmingham

Quite by chance I discovered that there was to be a presentation of datamatics (2.0) by Ryoji Ikeda, organised by Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery this week. I was visiting this small but leading gallery in England a couple of weeks ago and came across a listening post with electronic noise by the multi-media Japanese artist. Sounded like cutup samples of Thom Yorke’s ‘The Eraser’ without the tunes – great! I had missed his big recent show at MoT in Tokyo, and this was a chance to catch up. So I got on a train down from Manchester for the evening. Birmingham has not got the best cultural reputation in Britain, but it has established itself as an important centre of contemporary and avant-guard music in recent years. The audio-visual film was to be presented in the cavernous, old industrial style CBSO Centre. What was going to be interesting was the crowd. Who would actually show for this? ‘Hip’ and ‘Birmingham’ are not two words that usually mix, so it was encouraging to see a room full of ageing jazz musos, fancy haircut art students, and intellectual types with scruffy jackets and old school adidas. A cool crowd. The impeccable white/digital packaging of Ikeda’s work, as well as the concert notes that blather on tastefully about mathematics and beauty, had led me to think that this might be a quiet, introspective evening of synthesised bleeps, murmurs, and heartbeats. Polite Japan. Not so. I was totally unprepared for the violent electronic audio assault of datamatics in its full new version, in which sequences of his data generated digital images beat out a hostile and vast mechanical soundtrack. The rhythms are either brutal and machine-gun like, or they give way to massive, impenetrable walls of infinite white noise, all generated through the precise programming and sequencing. Some of it is distant galaxies making their sounds heard across space and time; some of it is earsplitting inner noise right inside your skull. Above all, it is LOUD. It is also not a million miles away from contemporary electro, veering from banging Art of Noise to a thousand beats per minute Drum ‘n’

74


Bass, via occasional respites of Eno like spatial atmospherics. I had left aside the earplugs that were offered, and it was thus a forty five minute noise trip at the limits of bearable sound, building to a series of massive cacaphonous climaxes. Quite brilliant, along with the incessant spatial and/or emergent electronic visualisations filling the screen. I was interested in reactions. Japanese art and culture in the West – especially in a country as close to ignorant about Japan today as the UK – has only a couple of boxes in which it is classified. One is the inevitable obsession with kawaii pop culture, perhaps with a perverse sexualised spin à la Murakami and Nara. The second is the still persisting image of Japan as some kind of unworldly techno-futurist utopia. Ikeda obviously fits into the latter marketing box perfectly, but it was good to see that his most famous work is in fact a piece of aggressive and uncomfortable electronic noise that does indeed try to push all limits of data processing and visualisation. The side-effects are what we hear as sounds: pure and inhuman noises that actually vocalise the other side of that clean technological process. Not ghosts; but quite angry machines. There is a lot of dissonance in Japan, too, apparently. Apart from a couple of clueless Americans who decided to shout in conversation the entire way through the show, the audience seems quite dumbstruck by what they’d saw. It certainly wasn’t Zen, and there wasn’t a koto or bubbling waterfall to be heard all night. The best one line of review I heard after the show was one super keen art student who just kept repeating one word over and over to his friends: ‘Wicked!’. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/11/26 18:22

39. Miwa Yanagi: Giappone @ Venezia (2)

Now that it is over, and Miwa Yanagi has made a welcoming return home to her native Kansai and an appreciative public in Japan, it is worth pondering a bit on the ambivalent reception of her work in western 75


circles. Seeing her transformation of the Takamasa Yoshizaka designed Japanese Pavilion into a temporary black, membrane-like ‘tent’ full of epic oversized photos of her mythical ‘Windswept Women’, was one of my priorities at Venice this year. I was not disappointed. I found the show, curated by Hiroshi Minamishima, an impressive and confident statement of her vision, all the more so that there was nothing like this kind of figurative yet allegorical and highly literary work anywhere else at the Biennale.

Yet, while on the road in the US and Europe, I have been asking around to curators and art writers what they thought of the show, and the almost universal reaction has been bafflement, distaste, and (for some) amused incredulity at what Yanagi presented. Her style is so far out of the mainstream of global art today – with its emphasis on either cynical kitsch, self-reflexive conceptuality, or politically correct social commentary about ‘developing’ countries – that it seems many just wrote off the work. It was, they were suggesting, yet another esoteric, excessively aesthetic, typically apolitical ‘Japanese’ style work, chosen by curators out of touch with the basic narrative of global art. There was nothing to be said ‘theoretically’ or ‘politically’ about this work; it traded in unfashionable references to beauty, ugliness, and emotion. Hence there was no value to it. One or two even seemed quite embarrassed for Japan – at how ‘out of touch’ its curators and artists are.

76


Yanagi, of course, is not unknown internationally. She has in fact had a quite strong international profile for over a decade, and has been successfully marketed in elite circles of global art dealing and the art media. She is not a Japanese ‘unknown’. But you could see that her new work has upset curators and writers who had confidently pigeonholed her work as fitting perfectly their post-feminist discourses about the representation of Asian women, which allow them to raise the usual orientalist political questions about the place of women in Japanese society in the mirror of Western expectations. What suddenly were these wild female forms dancing nakedly in some mythological space, far from the historical material world or socio-economic contexts; these ‘old girls’ with their haggard breasts, crazed eyes, and incomprehensible witches’ rituals? Yanagi’s success in the past lies in the ease in which her work has generated academic discourse. She is a favourite of Japanese cultural studies, and her images are often used to introduce other social and political themes about gender and sexuality in Japan. The artist herself has also been markedly ‘un-Japanese’ in her willingness to provide extensive artistic commentaries and theorisations about her own work, and its relation to femininity, motherhood, gender relations, memory or the inner world of Japanese childhood. Western writes accordingly loved her Elevator Girls: those typical blank and beautiful Japanese mannequins, that played up to every stereotype of Japanese femininity, hooked into fetishism for Asian women, and traded on the Western image of Japan as a gleaming and surreal high tech consumer utopia. These were the very same elements that enabled Jeffrey Deitch to take Mariko Mori’s quite simple visual ideas and transport her to world wide fame in the mid 1990s. Yanagi followed this line, and both she and Mori fell nicely into the slipstream of feminist and identity discourses that was then surrounding the work of Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Anna Gaskell and others, and which was such a massive source of academic debate in the 1990s. There was also the attendant boom in art photography on the commercial market. It made perfect sense that Yanagi was discovered in Kyoto by Yasumasa Morimura, and that he too had ridden to fame on the same trends. Important corporate buyers and museums in Europe stated to buy Yanagi’s work, alongside or as a cheaper alternative to Mori’s. Like Mori, too, the fact that Yanagi was a young, good looking and marketable woman, who had emerged somehow from outside the regular art school and art dealer system, was a great advantage in helping her break through to the global level. Unlike Mori, though, Yanagi has got more interesting as she has matured. The My Grandmothers series was just as academically satisfying for those wishing to project gender theory, but it was also an aesthetic triumph: a clever idea, transformed into stunningly staged photos and moving poetry; another deserved hit. The Fairy Tales series too – which was bizarrely missing from the Venice show, despite it being announced – mixed a winning cocktail of the cute and grotesque. The hint of modern adult darkness in reflected, but warped Victorian fairy tales is, of course, a familiar trope in Japanese contemporary sub-culture, and another great selling point in the West’s selective consumption of contemporary Japan. Had these photos been shown in Venice it would have soothed reactions and made it more popular. But they would certainly have distracted attention from the uncomfortably intimidating Amazonian portraits at the dark heart of the tent. There is a feminist or post-feminist discussion to be had about these bold and brave photographic works. But you can see that the critics and curators have decided to avoid this squeamish terrain, and opted instead to focus elsewhere on much more easily understood representations of ‘third world’ countries, where artists are still doing what they ‘should’ be doing: offering alarming images of ‘resistance’ and ‘freedom’, fit for western narratives about the developing or underdeveloped ‘others’ in the world, and their inherent oppression and suffering. There was no sign at the Japanese pavilion of the current trend at Venice of using national pavilions for ‘postnational’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ shows. The Japan Foundation ought to consider breaking its nationalist mould in future, say, by putting on some non-Japanese artists. There is something interesting nevertheless about the old fashion nation-by-nation expo ideal at Venice, since it is actually more interesting to see a hundred particularist versions of the contemporary and global – coming from different countries around the globe – rather than being stuck with one curator’s limited perspective, falsely sold as a ‘global’ overview. That was the main problem with this year’s director Daniel Birnbaum’s show, and his rather disappointing Making Worlds presentation.

77


The scale of Venice, though, defies any attempt to go round the world in a couple of days. I didn’t make it to many of the pavilions and even missed obvious highlights like Bruce Nauman (USA) or Steve McQueen (UK). I enjoyed the black humoured and sarcastic ‘The Collectors’ show by the Nordic countries, and thought that both China and Turkey delivered strong presentations – although both chose highly conceptual art much more in line with global academic and curatorial discourse. It was also great to see Yoko Ono and Gutai represented (see my blog of 2009/10/31). One of my favourite things at Venice came from an unlikely source. In the secondary Australia show, Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro, who always work with recycled junk, had built a mysterious black plastic block of old discarded VHS video cassettes of 80s movies from bygone era, in the middle of a classic old palazzo. The audience were invited to walk around and ponder its mystery like the Neanderthal men at the start of the film 2001 A Space Odyssey. However, it is not difficult to fit this work into the emerging global debates on environmentally aware, sustainable art. Similarly, the brilliant waterfront installation (above) – which wasn’t listed as part of the Biennale – of a global container crushing an old wooden boat, was a perfect commentary on the damage of globalisation, so much more obvious since the financial collapse last year. Over in the Giardini, though, it seems that nobody knew where to place Miwa Yanagi in their theoretical discourse.

78


ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/11/30 23:12

40. 2010 Year of Nara?

Global art world insiders were this weekend able to grab a specially designed Yoshitomo Nara pool towel (pictured) when they visited the flash Standard Hotel and Spa in Miami during Art Basel Miami Beach in Florida. The towels were also on sale around the art fair. This latest product spin off in the seemingly infinite line of Nara collectibles keeps the work of the artist, who recently turned 50, highly visible in the US. He joins a list of artists who have produced such towels that includes Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons. 2009 started badly for Nara in February when he got arrested and charged with criminal damage for graffiti he did for some friends in a New York subway. He spent a miserable night in jail. Charges were dropped in August. I am sure someone is now wishing they had put a frame around the offending doodle, and starting to try to charge passing fans wanting to see it. The last couple of years have seen Nara’s visibility in the US overwhelmed by the constant commercial production of Takashi Murakami, but this is likely to change in 2010, with the upcoming show next autumn at Asia Society curated by Miwako Tezuka. In cooperation with the artist, his construction squad collaborators graf, his gallerists Marianne Boesky, Tim Blum and Jeff Poe, and Tomio Koyama, and American collectors, Tezuka is planning a big show and catalogue that will be as close to a definitive retrospective as the artist has had in the West. There is to be a big, publicly visible construction of a Nara+graf shed installation at the Armory on Park Avenue, and students from the nearby Hunter College will be involved in the production to give it a ‘community feel’ – not easily achieved on the frosty Upper East Side. The show will focus especially on the role that pop and rock music play in Nara’s work, and I noticed too that Viz publishers in the US are finally bringing out an English subtitled version of the cutesy portrait DVD Travelling With Yoshitomo Nara. More A to Z spin off shows in various countries, and the parallel publication next year of the book that is to document all of Nara’s works, including many ‘missing’ and sold off minor works, will also keep his name in lights. 2010 is likely to be a big year for Nara. ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/12/06 06:04

79


41. Jio Shimizu

Denmark might not seem the most obvious place to find important Japanese contemporary artists, but it shares with Germany the attraction of generously funded artist-in-residency programs and educational grants that many mobile Japanese have used to their advantage. It is also a highly artist friendly society: nearly everybody you meet in Copenhagen and Aarhus, the smaller secondary city where I (some of the time) live, seems to be young, beautiful, affluent, have two perfect children, and be doing something ‘creative’ with their lives. Still, it is small, and it took me about five minutes to meet everybody who knows anything about Japan in Denmark, which is how come I was asked to write the introductory essay for the Design exhibition of Danish-Japanese art that I wrote about in my blog on 2009-08-07. The evening of that opening I was introduced to artist-in-residence Jio Shimizu and his family who also came along to meet the Ambassador and designers. We had one specific connection. I had met the artist/curator Takashi Azumaya not long ago after a fun drinking session with the Chim Pom/Yamamoto Gendai crowd in Tokyo. Azumiya is a friend and supporter of Shimizu’s quite extraordinary experimental work in light and sound. After meeting, I made the trek to the Tokorozawa Biennial in September, partly in order to see his work, which was in fact central to that show’s cavernous space. At Tokorozawa, he showed three pieces, including strange black and white negatives he had taken of the moon during daytime in Copenhagen, and a brilliant series of microphone stands where you could listen to street noise cut up in different frequencies. Since then we’d been talking about meeting up again for a while, so I was thrilled when I could finally get over to his spectacular borrowed studio space in Christianshavn, Copenhagen to see some of the work he has been putting together this year. It is a cosy Danish evening. A dinner was prepared, and there were a number of other invitees from the city, all either artists or writers on the art scene here. After Japanese food and beer we eventually sat to watch to two works: ‘Water Surface Tension’ and ‘World Models’. In the first a low laser light fired across the floor created watery patterns on the far wall according to water that was poured onto the floor and moved in waves. In the second, an on-going experiment that was seen at the first Roppongi Crossing for which Shimizu was selected, Shimizu uses sound generating vibration to affect a mirror that then shot red light patterns around the room via a second, spinning mirror. Amazingly, the frenetic and infinitely varied circling patterns (above pictured) became more not less stable as the spinning became more violent, eventually coalescing into a wavy line that looked like a tsunami rising on the Inner Sea or a heart nearing cardiac arrest. The one name that Shimizu cites as a positive reference is Tatsuo Miyajima, who is only slightly older. The catalogue to his break through show at Tokyo Opera City was lying to hand. As to my enthusiasm for Ryoji Ikeda,

80


he told me that his work is sometimes too much ‘theatre’. Shimizu is much more systematic and experimental in the ideas he is working towards; it is a genuine intersection of art and science, where the audience may – like Schrödinger’s cat – not always even be there. The key formative experiences for him lay at Geidai in the late 1980s – a little before the now more famous pop art gang (Murakami and Nakamura) and the Showa 40 nen kai (Aida and Ozawa). He recalls particularly the influence of the late and much missed teacher/artist Koji Enokura, the conceptual photographer. As in Shimizu, one can see the idea at work that a particular technical method registering or playing with time, space or motion can through the art reveal hidden truths, patterns or meanings. Although he trained as a painter, then, it was video and sound work to which Shimizu was attracted. There is still something very painterly about the way Shimizu uses light on walls. He is now looking forward to an early return to Geidai with a show called ‘Brightness and Emptiness’, opening in the New Year at the Tokyo University of the Arts Museum (Jan 6-20), that will feature him, Takamine Tadasu and four others. Everyone at the dinner party had brought their young children too. The walls were quickly filled with Pollack, Basquiat, and late Matisse, thanks to an ample supply of crayons and paintbrushes. The girls also had to be asked nicely not to do Michael Jackson dances through the light show (the green light lit up shoes beautifully as you stepped around the white floors...). It was hard to distract them, though, from the Hayao Miyazaki anime once that was put on to entertain them as the adults talked. The other mystery we were left pondering that evening was why everyone there apparently had only daughters and no sons. Something in the Danish water, maybe? Or just human evolution towards higher forms? ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/12/17 02:33

81


42. Motoi Yamamoto à Paris

Paris and Parisians seem to have a special link with Japan. Japanese culture is everywhere in Paris, as ubiquitous as the stylish Japanese tourists shopping in the chic left bank boutiques. It has the enormous Maison de la Culture du Japon on the river bank, that was bequeathed to the city as one of François Mitterand’s ‘grand projets’ after he visited Japan in 1982. It is by far the biggest market for manga and animé and Europe. It also has the biggest Japan expo of popular culture; Japanese restaurants, futon and Muji stores all over; and a constant flow of classic Japanese movies on screens around the city. So I’m quite surprised when Laetitia Delorme, director of the small L MD galerie in the ultra posh 7th arondissement, tells me that there hasn’t been much going on lately in Paris in terms of Japanese contemporary art. She is trying to change that by planning a number of shows of new or emerging Japanese artists that might take the appreciation of Japanese contemporary art locally beyond all things kawaii or pop. The gallery is currently home to one of Motoi Yamamoto’s elaborate salt labyrinth installations, growing across the floor in the small gallery. The space gives you an intense feeling of fragility, as you try to step carefully around the work. Yamamoto, who lives and works in Kanazawa, has worked exclusively with salt as his material for fifteen years. Salt traditionally evokes death (funerals), purification and memory in Japan, but is also a sign of wealth and a basic natural element. Yamamoto’s painfully intensive work pushes him to physical limits as he bends on the floor composing the intricate, infinitely complicated labyrinth over a number of days. Yet the finished works are refined and harmonious, and fit well with the emerging Japanese aesthetic that I’ve noted in all kinds of younger and mid-career artists: to emphasise naturally made work, craft, physical labour, and sustainable materials in the art they do. Yamamoto has also written about this show in his ART-iT blog on 200911-17. So why so few Japanese contemporary artists on show in Paris? Germany has been a much more receptive location, says Delorme, partly because of the influence of centres like Berlin and Köln, partly because so many young Japanese have followed the Yoshitomo Nara path and studied there on fellowships. L MD put on a show by Kengo Nakamura last year, and Delorme would like to put on a small group show next year. She will also take L MD to Tokyo Art Fair in the Spring, although she thinks it might be best for networking with gallerists more than directly for sales. Delorme lived for four years in Japan, so it has not been difficult making contact with Japanese galleries. But she points to a typical problem that limits the internationalisation of Japanese artists: the unwillingness of Japanese

82


gallerists to collaborate with western galleries by ‘sharing’ their precious roster. Most demand an ‘exclusive’ representation of their own artists, but without collaboration international networks and experience are hard to develop, and they then struggle to expose many works. It’s a self-defeating mechanism: failing to work with western galleries, mean that young Japanese artists get limited exposure outside of expensive art fairs, and their careers get stunted internationally. In Paris, only the Cartier Foundation has shown regular interest in Japan, including a major Murakami show and curation in the early 2000s, and other big shows on popular artists such as Tadanori Yokoo or Tabaimo. They also look for younger artists, for example buying and showing works by Yamamoto Gendai’s Erina Matsui a couple of years ago. But apart from this, there hasn’t been much visibility. Going round the city I also spotted another problem. Some French galleries might just pick up and show some random young Japanese artist – probably in the kawaii or manga style – who might have no recognisable credentials as an artist from Japanese art schools or institutions. Nobody in Paris knows what is really going on in Japan, and most are stuck in the idea that Japanese art is all about superflat, anime characters, and cute, childish things. This why Delorme’s attempt to really research the best in the new, upcoming generations is vitally important. I ask who has impressed her recently. She cites Kohei Nawa, whose studio she is hoping to visit, and Kumi Machida. Both of these artists though are in a sense already too expensive for the kind of introductory show establishing new sales that she would like to run in Paris. Motoi Yamamoto is also selling some spin off works on the walls: salt on aluminium, and drawings on painting wood, all of labyrinths. I think he faces what I think of as the ‘Jim Lambie’ problem: what can you sell to people when your art is primarily environmental, a temporary installation filling a room, and created for the space itself, such that any canvases or objects are at best derivative ‘souvenir’ versions? There is, of course, the Yayoi Kusama solution, an artist with whom Yamamoto clearly shares some affinity. With Kusama the idea itself is branded in every possible way, but I can’t see Yamamoto taking his salt pots and mazes in this direction. Nor is his work only about labyrinths, as the catalogue on show makes clear. In the gallery here it works well – the salt looks like it is seeping in under the walls from the next door building - but he is most impressive in large spaces, as in the permanent installation at Kanazawa. He will also be seen at MOT in Tokyo in the Spring of 2010.

Motoi Yamamoto, Labrinth, L MD Galerie, Paris until Dec 23rd ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/12/19 23:03

83


43. Min Nishihara and Yutaka Sone: LA Story

People who don’t live in LA don’t get it usually. If you arrive with ideas of the city based on New York, or Paris, or Tokyo, or even San Francisco, it is easy to be confused and disappointed. There’s no centre, there’s no single LA, and there’s no tidy tourist package trip to take it all in. One Japanese artist in fact who has captured it – the glory of LA – in white marble set in lush greenery – is Yutaka Sone (see image above, of 10/405, and below installed at MOCA LA, of 10/110 – the numbers of course are the freeway intersections). He lives and works in LA, with his wife Min Nishihara, a writer, who is a bit of a legend from the golden years of Tokyo pop art in the early 1990s. It’s a sunny day and I’m on way to their cute little 1920s bungalow in South Pasadena to interview her.

My old house in LA, no longer there

84


As I pull up in my rented car, I’m thinking: I used to live in a street like this. Friendly little houses, desert trees, a little scruffy and socially mixed up. LA at its suburban/urban best. Min Nishihara is waiting at the door, smiling, and she shows me in. The house is all creative chaos: there are their two teenage boys playing furiously on a video game, a little dog, at least three cats; toy collectibles, books, bits and pieces everywhere; old wooden floors and little painted rooms. Nishihara is in her mid 40s, but still dresses a bit like a Harajuku teenager. I love her gothic skull handbag! I’m taken out back to the garage, which is Sone’s studio. He’s at work on another big floral sculpture that will be cast in marble in China soon. He tells me a story about how a local authority first wanted it, then didn’t want it. There’s one of his monster street plants just round the corner in Pasadena. Sone is a whirlwind of likeable, fidgety energy. A big grin, long black hair in a pony tail, he looks today like a native American, but you can imagine him cross-dressing in Chanel; a huge personality. We immediately start trading Tokyo art world anecdotes. But I’m here to talk with Nishihara, so we head out to a local coffee shop. I want to hear about the late 1980s and early 1990s in Tokyo, student days and Omori nights. So many people – and especially Paul Schimmel who put me in touch – have identified Nishihara as a key – perhaps the key – intellectual figure in the coming together of the golden period of Japanese contemporary art. This was the early 1990s, and it is still playing out – nearly twenty years later – on the walls of prestigious western art institutions, such as the Tate Modern, or in the showrooms of Sothebys. Noi Sawaragi and Midori Matsui – who came onto the scene later – tend to monopolise the art historical word regarding what happened this period. But Min Nishihara, a writer close to all the neo-pop gang, was perhaps as responsible as anyone for the cocktail of big ideas about pop, Japan, nationalism, sexuality, Tokyo, that were eventually packaged as Superflat and Little Boy, touring the world for Westerners hoping to get a taste of ‘neoTokyo’. Now she is bringing up a family, writing still, but not about art, living a quiet life in LA. A long way from Tokyo. They were the class of 1986 at GEIDAI. Takashi Murakami, Min Nishihara, Tomio Koyama, Yuko Hasegawa, Masato Nakamura, among others. Ambitious students all, looking for a concept, a set of ideas, a strategy for Japanese art, although feeling ‘void’. ‘When we met, we spent six months together, driving everywhere, going to openings, talking about plans, strategies, everything’. Art then in Japan, as elsewhere, was mostly P.C., political in a boring way. They were ‘political, sure’ but ‘we didn’t really have anything to protest at’ – except the residual resentment of American domination. They loved Jeff Koons, the empty but impeccable production values of postmodern art. Other Japanese artists such as Morimura, Miyajima, making their breakthrough internationally at the time, somehow didn’t have a concept in comparison – a typical ‘Japanese’ problem in art. They were inspired by some artists, though, a little ahead of them. Taro Chiezo had already shown the way to make New York contacts and sell Japanese pop art. Noburu Tsubaki and Kodai Nakahara were developing great ideas. There was competition from Osaka: Kenji Yanobe. Murakami, still on a political path, had not yet had the cold water bath of New York as a struggling artist, where Nishihara visited him in 1994, He was still working out his new pop vision. Before New York, he rejected the idea of using ‘otaku’ ideas to brand his products. Nishihara spent all her time writing. It was the golden age of Japanese magazines. She wrote manifestos for art, reviews, feature articles, projects for artworks. With Hasegawa and Miyajima, she wrote for the important Atelier magazine. Unlike the boys – who were from Tokyo, but suburban – she came from the shitamachi: Sumida-ku. Her family was steeped in the old urban culture of Tokyo, but she had grown up through the endless transformations of the new city too. She travelled all over, writing about art. She went to the breakthrough Venice Biennale of 1989, witnessed the moment that the world awoke to Japanese contemporary art. She saw Documenta 8. For 3-4 years the gang were preparing their first shows. Tsuyoshi Ozawa and Makoto Aida appeared on the scene, a little younger, but live wires too, full of their own ideas. With Nakamura, Ozawa planned the Gimburart interventions that hailed back to the Hi-Red Center avant garde group of the 1960s. At Gimburart, Nishihara herself was a participating artist, writing poetry on the Ginza streets, running off with them when the police showed to break it up. Murakami was less interested in the Japanese contemporary/avant guard tradition. He was looking for something else. But they all went to Korea in 1992, and Nakamura married a Korean woman who was a close friend of Nishihara’s. Murakami and Nishihara travelled a lot together. They went to Documenta 9 in 1992 and rated everything with a scorecard. They wanted to make their own art magazine, which was to be called Art Sex, at Murakami’s insistence. This was later to morph in to the famous, if short lived, Radium Egg magazine that was to come out of the Roentgen institute with the new artists on its pages, and the ideas of Sawaragi, Hasegawa – and Nishihara – to the fore. They were always looking for spaces to show, always optimistic, but still feeling the ‘void’ of being young and Japanese in the sudden post-bubble moment of the early 1990s. Locked out of the conventional cash-

85


for-space galleries of Ginza, there was the performances at the P-House in Ebisu, one of those infamous ‘underworld’ style locations that are such a feature of Japanese art galleries. Sawaragi, was also around all the time, as well as Tsutomo Ikeuchi, the son of a Ginza art dealer. They persuaded Ikeuchi to open the Roentgen space in Omori. Even more important perhaps was the fact they were the first generation to talk directly to international art figures. Before this role had been monopolised by go-between ‘middle men’ business agents, such as Fumio Nanjo. Tomio Koyama was ambitious and active at getting out and meeting directly other international gallerists. She recalls talking with Jay Jopling – Mr. White Cube and Damian Hirst’s other half – at the 1992 NICAF art fair, that had been organised by the other maverick art dealer on the scene Masami Shiraishi. No, she didn’t think that the young Japanese artists knew already about the ‘Freeze’ scene among Goldsmiths students in the late 1980s. But there was an uncanny family resemblance with the YBAs, and Jopling immediately recognised the parallel. It’s all a long time ago. But you can feel the excitement of this old story. She split from Murakami, and after surviving New York in 1994, he went on to fulfil his wildest ambitions, with D.O.B and all that. Yuko Hasegawa became the most important museum curator in Japan. Tomio Koyama the most important gallerist. Nakamura one of the most influential art educationalists. All are huge names in the post-bubble art history of Japan, and still today. ‘For awhile the group was a tight fit. But we all went our separate ways’. Min Nishihara left it behind. Sone and Nishihara moved to LA in 1999. Their boys had been born in Japan, and Sone was head hunted by Paul Schimmel to work in the famous UCLA art department. They settled down, and Sone in particular had a moment at the turn of century when his huge, immaculate yet playful sculptures were everywhere. Why is she not more involved now? ‘I have been disappointed with so many younger artists’, she says. Murakami and her generation showed that you could make the art world for yourselves, even when everything else was blocking them. ‘We had our own way. We showed you could create a system, make money from art, from curating, or writing’. It was a also golden age for a good reason: it was a thoroughly social phenomenon. They were a group of brilliant individuals, who gelled as a group, and created a new pop phenomenon. Sociologists know a lot more about ‘creativity’ in this sense that art curators writing in catalogues sometimes do. It doesn’t happen alone, and it doesn’t happen because of ‘genius’. I’ve just read a classic of the naïve curatorial genre, by Alison Gingeras – about Murakami at the current Pop Life show at Tate Modern in London. It is a hagiography of his one man global genius. She quotes Roland Barthes writings on Japan profusely, forgetting that he also wrote books about ‘the death of the author’. There is no social history here, no art world background; no sense of the social environment that Murakami grew up in as an artist, the social networks and interactions out of which he came. The argument is further compromised by its lack of any critical distance. Gingeras, in fact, as director of the Pinault collection, is in charge of managing the same high priced acquisitions that she is writing about as a curator – including the possibly foolish $15 million that Pinault splashed in 2008 on My Lonesome Cowboy. Yet Min Nishihara’s story reminds us that ‘it took a village’ – an art school, in fact, a whole group of artists, writers, friends, hangers on – to make one ‘Superflat’. Yutaka Sone joins us in the kitchen when we get back. I’m still drinking my take out coffee. He laughs about the Tokyo art world, his struggles with the always tough Yuko Hasegawa. He has shows coming up in three places at the end of 2010: at MOT, Opera City (curated at Sone’s insistence by ART-iT blogger Mizuki Endo), and the new Hermes space. It’s a bit much having three shows at once, he says, but it will be big news. But he advises me not to focus too much on talking to curators about what is happening in Japan. ‘It’s on the streets – that’s much more interesting.’. They talk about one of their sons, who is apparently already producing commercial manga. It’s time to go.’But you are right to talk to her’, says Sone, still laughing, with big eyes. ‘Back then, she really made the artists, discovered them. She made it all happen’. It’s a great story.

86


ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/12/22 03:56

44. Erina Matsui

The first time I met Erina was at Ueno station Starbucks. It was a fun interview, and even though I was late for an appointment, she dragged me around Ameyoko to find a purikura machine for a souvenir before I could leave. 87


The second time, we also met at Ueno station, this time jumping on a shitamachi train to Machiya, to her studio to see new works in progress and her toy collection. It was Christmas, and getting dark early. The neighbourhood was full of twinkling Y100 stores and pachinko parlours. I counted, approvingly, at least three local sento baths still in operation in the streets nearby. Afterwards, at my insistence this time, we found a cosy brown 60’s kissaten for a coffee and cake set. They were playing the Beatles, and there was a corny Christmas tree with musical toys on it that Erina loved.

MY COSMO show at Yamamoto Gendai 2007 In fact, I’d already seen her talking about her work at the opening of her successful first Yamamoto Gendai solo ‘My Cosmo’ in Autumn 2007, but she was mobbed that day by family friends, well wishers, BT journalists, and anxious collectors scrambling to get on ‘the list’. That was her first big splash on the Tokyo commercial scene. The waiting list and prices have been growing ever since. It’s not easy being successful so young. Fondation Cartier in Paris already acquired and showed works of hers in 2005-6. She had already had a solo show in Europe—at the Fundacio Miro in Barcelona in 2007. When you are young and this successful, as the expression goes, you are only as good as the last great thing you did. Matsui is ‘Erina’, inescapably, of course, because of the way she puts herself – her face in contorted self-portrait – in almost all her work. For me, the essence of Erina was already captured in the brilliant cover photo she used for her art school entrance portfolio (the top image above), that is a cheesy parody of one those ubiquitous J-teen magazines, like Cutie or Kera. It was also one of the things that most caught Yuko Yamamoto’s eye when she signed up Matsui, and the gallery continued using it for her fast expanding portfolio of professional works. What is evident is the ribald streak of humour that runs through all her work—something I see in the Japanese owarai tradition, a kind of ‘gag art’ that in Tokyo is mostly associated with Aida, Ozawa and Mizuma artists. So, mixed in with the cute and infantile (a familiar Tokyo girls idiom) are other things that look grotesque or ugly and play very consciously with a kind of distorted self-obsession. This heady cocktail lifts her clear of the flat illustrations of the Kaikai Kiki girls with whom Matsui often incorrectly gets bracketed because she won Takashi Murakami’s Geisai art fair in 2004. Her works are never flat, but elaborately painted, and play on all the senses; indeed, they sometimes jump off the wall. There is something quite pallid and humourless about the way Kaikai Kiki manipulates overworn teenage girls’ iconography – all fey dreams and teenage trauma – for the western neo-japoniste taste. Erina, by contrast, is irrepressible and unfiltered through male otaku eyes. Nor is it obviously pitched to any market.

88


Matsui describes art as toys for grown ups. She remembers when very young growing up in a bubble world full of toys – of everything you could dream of – and to some extent she is still surrounding herself with this. She is in good company. Its pretty much what Charles Saatchi admits to in his recent I am An Artoholic book, and we are indeed living in a world where boys and girls everywhere continue to collect dolls, old school hip hop gear, or star wars toys well into their 40s. With Erina the collector’s passion is all energy and invention, sometimes messy and excessive. Increasingly her canvasses are spilling out into the room, with music buttons to press or pop up flaps to pull, or surrounded by home made mechanical toys she has made. The obsessions are clear. But the other thing that is obvious talking to Erina is how hard she is thinking about her work, and how much she is concerned with its conceptual development and her next educational step—probably international. It is something not always immediately obvious behind the vaudeville theatre of its presentation. One thing is for sure. Her work has immediate visceral impact, anywhere and everywhere it is seen.

EBICHIRI (2004) Her breakthrough work The Geisai breakthrough, at 20 years old, was obviously important for her. She is the most successful artist to have won that competition. But it is equally significant in her success that unlike other winners, she chose not to get involved with the Kaikai Kiki organisation, although it was offered to her. The main reason was education – she understood very well that winning an amateur art fair, even with Takashi Murakami’s name on it, cannot replace an art school training, or the years of technical and conceptual development you get by being an individual artist out among other artists. She went from Tamabi into the oil paining MA at Geidai to further develop her techniques. She has found other mentors and teachers everywhere she goes – she mentions, in particular, Motohiko Odani’s steady advice, as well as the peer group pressure of classmates. It has been a busy couple of years. There was the ‘How to Cook Docomodake’ group show in 2007, that featured a huge painted Tokyo trash classic by her, with her famous namesake, ‘A Type’ baseball player Hedeki Matsui, peering into the screen. 89


There was her ‘Star Wars’ painting selected for the Tokyo Art Award finalists in 2008. There was the ‘Simple Art of Parody’ show in Taipei, that showed several works, and was also selling Erina toy collectibles. Later in the year she put together a brilliant sketch book, with additional stitching and pull out flaps, for the Moleskin art show that was made for the opening of the ‘Detour Tokyo’ MoMA art store on Omotesando. Here is an interview with her at the opening. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3gL4Aif7KM&NR=1 Right now, you can see work at the ‘NeoNeo girls’ show at the Takahashi collection in Hibiya, and also a room at the spectacular No Man’s Land transformation of the condemned French embassy building in Roppongi, where she opened the work in rococo Franco-Japanese style in a Marie-Antoinette costume (see her art blog on ART-iT). There hardly seems time for it all. The northern shitamachi years are ending, at least as far as her studio location. She is moving to what she says is a ‘beautiful new studio’ in Kokubunji. Becoming a Chuo line artist, in that other great part of Tokyo strung out in a line of esoteric locations all the way from Nakano to Kunitachi. 2010 is a big year for Erina. The pressure is on, to graduate (in a literal sense, from the MA at Geidai), but also to graduate into the adult art world, with her planned second solo show launched during Tokyo Art Week in early April. Yamamoto Gendai are expectant, and Matsui promises a brace of new big scale and surprise works. It is hard to keep moving, of course, when you have established such a signature ‘look’ at such an early age. But with her prodigious technical talent, sharp analytical mind, and wacky off-the-wall imagination – a very rare threeway combination in any artist – I, for one, am sure she will deliver. No-one can be quite sure what Erina will do next. But there are already lots of people watching.

90


PIANO CONCERTO (2008) ADRIAN FAVELL http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/12/25 01:32

91


45. Rubicon Crossing 2010

It’s time to wrap up the year. Roll out the Ox, and roll on the Year of the Tiger. 2009 can’t end soon enough as far as I am concerned. I’m sure a lot of people feel that way. Also in Japan. I read the Financial Times and it is never anything but gloomy news these days about the land of the rising sun. Big businesses are going bust; poverty is growing; the economy is going back into its post-bubble slump; the government can’t seem to do anything about it. Plus everyone is looking elsewhere in Asia – anywhere else but Japan, it seems – for something exciting to happen, and for something profitable to invest in. Japan just seems in terminal decline. All of the doom and gloom applies to art as well, I suppose, if you continue to look at art in terms of the art market, art values, and the ups and downs of art trade. But viewed in other ways, opposed to market forces, what has been going on in art in Japan in 2009 seems to me to point towards some of the most interesting developments going on in art anywhere in the world today. A lot of it is linked to the big problems of social and economic decline that form the backdrop for creativity in this country – not least because abandoned schools, factories, houses, and public buildings provide some of the best locations for making art and being an artist. So, in making my roundup of the year with a selection of blogs that you might have missed, I’d like to restate some of the central messages that I’ve been pushing this year. The big plastic commercial ‘pop-life’ of 1990s art is over; we have seen more than enough manga, anime, cosplay, techno-orientalism, and post-Warhol neo-japonisme to last a lifetime, thanks.

92


see my blog (09/10/12): ‘Cute Ambassador: Takashi Murakami’ http://www.art-it.asia/u/rhqiun/V192WJ6wRYKzsUAvNjQ4/ This tacky vision of touristic ‘neo-Tokyo’ is unfortunately still the only thing most people in the West now think of when they think of Japan – if they think of it at all. What observers outside of Japan have to start recognising now is the very different art coming out of the new and younger generations of artists in Japan today, art and art practices that are aesthetically sensitive, intellectually rich, politically aware, and above all sustainable, with an emphasis on craft, labour, renovation, community, and technique – the kinds of things (ironically) that are only taught nowadays in Japanese art schools, while the rest of world teaches artists how to read critical theory, position themselves in art history, and talk about art more than doing it. Echigo Tsumari for me was one of the big highlights of the year, for its expansive ambitions, its obstinately inefficient natural setting, and the consistently brilliant use of old buildings and rural sites for inspiring new art. It is worth taking Fram Kitagawa’s philosophy seriously... see my blog (09/07/24): ‘Echigo-Tsumari: The Fram Kitagawa Philosophy’ http://www.art-it.asia/u/rhqiun/QXyh6VkHEgdvOMwJi9ce/ This sensibility and use of space has also been seen at events such as Akasaka Art Flower (in late 2008); in a series of events organised over the months in Sumida ku by the Contemporary Art Factory and other groups concerned with the destruction of the area by the new Tokyo Tower; in the current show at the soon to be demolished French embassy building in Roppongi; and at the atmospheric Tokorozawa biennial, one of the most interesting group shows of the year.

93


see my blog (09/10/08): ‘Komazawa or Tokorozawa?’ http://www.art-it.asia/u/rhqiun/kVnhD073vbrsQJHu1pXI/ Its also a sensibility expressed in the hopes invested in the upcoming opening of the innovative Chiyoda Arts Centre.

94


see my blog (09/10/19): ‘Low Life: Real Art in a Material World’ http://www.art-it.asia/u/rhqiun/LKRf38nAmPkvXp2EC1Wu/ 2010 might then be the year when some of these developments start to get recognised internationally. That’s the Rubicon that needs to be crossed, by curators and funders of art exhibitions alike. Signs are good. The ‘Twist and Shout’ show, curated by Kenji Kubota and Yoko Nose in Bangkok – and which has for me one of the strongest selections of recent Japanese art that I have seen in a long time – points towards a new and boldly political reading of Japanese contemporary art. http://www.jfbkk.or.th/2009/art_culture_20090922.php3 Working within a ‘use pop culture to sell Japan’ instruction from the Japan Foundation, they subtly undermine this brief with a ‘twisted’ vision of younger Japanese artists turning away from pop and the market, and using their alienation as ‘soto komori’ to powerful ends (‘Shout!’). This is not, as in Midori Matsui’s dreary ‘Winter Garden’, to withdraw passively into micro-politics and social isolation, but to apply ‘unbounded creativity and imagination to convey sharp feelings on present Japanese society.’ As the environmental mood of current art suggests, the social and the political is back on the agenda, and we should expect a very different, engaged atmosphere at the one big opening I’m waiting for next year, ‘Roppongi Crossing 3: Can There Be Art? The Creative Potential of a New Japan’, which Kubota is again one of the curators, along with Chieko Kinoshita, and Kenichi Kondo. http://www.mori.art.museum/contents/press/RX2010_20091030_e.pdf I’ve heard that this show will bring the critical legacy of Dumb Type right into the heart of Neo Tokyo itself – the dark, gleaming Mori Tower, that rises high over the devastated hills of Roppongi. And, as the other new Television Tower starts to cast a shadow over the rubble of another destroyed shitamachi in the plains to the north, it seems the forces of good and light in Japanese contemporary art will have to amass together (in a bar near Ueno) for one last struggle, in the name of ‘Satoyama’, to preserve what is good, romantic and decent about old Tokyo... Errmmm.... Sorry, folks, I’ve obviously been watching far too many Lord of the Rings repeats this Christmas. Hey,

95


there’s not much else to do in Denmark! Happy New Year to Everyone!

Adrian Favell http://www.adrianfavell.com 2009/12/31 01:20

96