Club 21 (Singapore)
By Lucy Birmingham
"The Enigmatic City"
The febrile art boom narrative that blew through London and New York over the past decade — a story of bankers, hot young talents and modern art prices eclipsing Old Masters — never quite reached Tokyo's noughties art scene. Slow but steady, much like Japan's economy after the "lost decade" of the 1990s, the city's contemporary art market remains an enigma.
Local interest is growing though, as a record turnout at April's Art Fair Tokyo showed. But despite 50,000 visitors, sales remained at last year's level, a fraction of the big art fairs abroad. In contrast — and perhaps evidence that boutique trumps bulk in this market — art fair G-tokyo 2010 in January boasted an exclusivity and prime Roppongi Hills location that made for a very successful combination. It was a sell-out for many of the 15 leading galleries involved.
So far, the end game for many Tokyo galleries has been courting foreign collectors at overseas fairs. Art Basel in June went well, but it was the surprise success of the Hong Kong International Art Fair (ARTHK10) in May that provided gallerists with a much-needed shot in the arm. Shinwa Art Auction's move into Hong Kong earlier this year was a blow to many in Tokyo, but it appears that they made a winning bet. At ARTHK10, Tomio Koyama Gallery secured a major sale with Yoshitomo Nara's US$800,000 wooden house installation. Nara is hot property: Tomio Koyama's main gallery in Tokyo's Kiyosumi-shirakawa district featured a mid-year show of the artist's new ceramic sculptures created during his year-long residency learning pottery techniques. Works were snapped up, with prices reaching US$600,000.
Like Nara, Takashi Murakami's superstar status has put a welcome international spotlight on Japanese contemporary artists. His two-month retrospective at Versailles from September follows Jeff Koon's 2008 show at the palace and is testament to his position as one of the art world's most sought-after artists. But at home, Murakami has attracted a mix of envy, criticism and amazement at his Warholesque "factory-style" mass production approach.
Beyond the global big guns, there's a wealth of galleries showing painstakingly crafted work created by hands-on artists schooled in the classical techniques that have influenced the country's contemporary scene. As a result, Tokyo galleries offer pieces by uniquely talented artists at prices independent of the sort of widespread art market hysteria that preceded the credit crunch. It's just a matter of finding them, as navigating a city famous for its lack of conventional street addresses can be more than one bargained for. Unlike New York's Chelsea or Beijing's Dashanzi Art District, Tokyo galleries are scattered across the capital like nomads chasing cheap rents, often one step ahead of the wrecking ball.
The Maruhachi warehouse in Kiyosumi-shirakawa (near the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo) is shared by Tomio Koyama Gallery, Taka Ishii Gallery (with Nobuyoshi Araki's recent snaps of Lady Gaga), ShugoArts (recent wood sculptures by Shigeo Toya), Hiromi Yoshii and Kido Press, and has become one of the most stable and successful of the city's groupings.
Other important clusters include the old downtown Bakuracho district — with gallery Radi-um von Rentengenwerke AG, Cashi, Foil Gallery and Gallery Hashimoto — and Shirokanedai's Shirokane Art Complex housing Kodama Gallery, Yamamoto Gendai and a recently expanded Nanzuka Underground. Interestingly located, dynamic art spaces can be found too — see 3111 Chiyoda Arts opened in March in a former school near the Akihabara electronics district; and SuperDeluxe in Roppongi, famous for starting the PechaKucha Night craze worldwide.
Like the "project room" trend in New York, a growing number of Tokyo galleries are now maintaining a principle space for their established artists and another for young, emerging talent. At Mizuma Art Gallery's impressive new headquarters in Ichigaya, popular shows will include Makoto Aida, Hisashi Tenmyouya and Akira Yamaguchi. Their old space in Nakameguro called Mizuma Action, will continue showing remarkable newcomers like Mikiko Kumazawa, whose June show was a quick sellout. Hiromi Yoshii has recently taken over T&G Arts space in Roppongi for their young artists.
The phenomenal success of the "No Man's land" exhibition earlier this year that was spearheaded by the French embassy's cultural attaché, Hélène Kelmachter, has set the pace for more collaborative art efforts in the city. Will the upcoming Tokyo Photo (Sept 17-20) match the heights of G-tokyo? Probably a long shot in a tough photography market, but like galleries across Tokyo, extraordinary talent will be there for the taking.
THE MARUHACHI ART WAREHOUSE
RADI-UM VON RENTGENWERKE AG
SHIROKANE ART COMPLEX
3111 CHIYODA ARTS
MIZUMA ART GALLERY