101 Tokyo

I just returned from Japan, where I traveled to participate in a program of the 101 Tokyo Contemporary Art Fair. It was a short but intense trip, and got a chance to make multiple site visits to galleries and museums in Tokyo, plus do some sightseeing around town. The gallery Take Ninagawa held the first solo exhibition of the young sculptor Yuuki Matsumura, an artist schooled in Kyoto, whose sculptures made of broken, crashed or crumpled materials are simulacrums of minor disasters and common figures. This gallery, which was founded only a year ago, is one of the notable emerging commercial galleries in Tokyo. Other galleries founded in recent years by a young generation of art dealers, and which I sadly didn’t get to visit, are Misako & Rosen and Arataniurano.

The Mori Art Museum was exhibiting an elegantly installed showcase of works from the Thyssen-Bornemisza art collection, and the Museum of Contemporary Arta minimal yet stunning exhibition of media artist Ryoji Ikeda. Also elegant were the museum’s collection galleries—and, to my surprise and great delight, with works that had little if nothing to do with new media art and with just a few examples rubbing off anime or manga. There are big names and big works in the collection, from local and international artists alike. I was more drawn to discrete works by Japanese artists. Collection highlights include an ample set of like color-book drawings by Shinro Ohtake, a series of almost monochromatic landscape photographs by Naoki Ishikawa, and a conceptualist instruction-based work made into a multi-channel video and sound installation by Koki Tanaka.

The Japan Times journalist Donald Eubank was the organizer of the series of public programs for the 101 Tokyo Contemporary Art Fair. The topic of the panel discussion I participated in centered on the discursive support to the arts, or lack thereof, particularly in Tokyo. Issues around the local production (and export) of cultural identity, arts education and scholarly publications and public programming were addressed in what turned out to be a lively discussion. Panelists included Doryun Chong, curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; Mami Kataoka, senior curator at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and international curator at the Hayward Gallery in London; Yichiro Kurata, president of Shinwa Art Auction Company in Japan; Yusaka Imamura, director of Tokyo Wonder Site; and myself. The panel moderator was Tokyo-based art critic Andrew Maerkle, author of the incisive introduction to the Japanese art scene for the 2009 Almanac of ArtAsiaPacific magazine.

In it’s second version, the 101 Tokyo Contemporary Art Fair was quite small, with around 20 Japanese galleries and less than 10 international more as exhibitors. It also had a project space featuring an exhibition of artworks by local artists and from abroad on loan by another group of select galleries. A thoughtfully designed space and with a strong backing of sponsors, the fair has potential. Because it’s specific to contemporary art—even if some galleries included did not display the most qualitative—it competes only minimally with the couple-years-older and more established art fair, Art Fair Tokyo. This other fair, which ran concurrently last weekend, combines modern and contemporary art galleries with businesses of traditional arts and artifacts, such as nihonga. In principle, I find interesting the idea of combining different traditions and historical periods under one roof, but less so if it’s spatially organized in a separatist standard manner. Anyway, on Sunday, in the plaza separating Art Fair Tokyo’s main venue to its hall of younger galleries, there was a great flea market, showcasing primarily twentieth century domestic items and decorations of colonial times, old Western art books, Japanese traditional cloths and clothing, and native religious artifacts. This roving collection of images and things was another engaging viewing and eclectic shopping experience.