Eyesaw unites artists’ scene

by Tony Skevington

“It was an accident. All I wanted to do was meet people.” With these words, Julia Barnes explains the origin of Eyesaw, a rapidly expanding organization now becoming a focus for up-and-coming contemporary artists in Japan.

Julia, a young video artist from New Zealand, arrived in Tokyo four years ago and found that her major problem was meeting other multimedia practitioners with whom to exchange ideas and information. She thought of reaching out through a magazine advert: “At first, I met five people, then 10, then 20. When it got to 50, I decided to organize some kind of structure to channel all this energy and talent.”

That was in April 1999, and since then Eyesaw, the forum she founded, has gone from strength to strength. One of its main aims is to give contemporary artists here, especially those not yet established, a chance to exhibit to as wide an audience as possible at an affordable price. At solo two-week exhibitions throughout the year, and at two large annual exhibitions, artists can show their work in central Tokyo at a fraction of the normal cost.

Another part of Eyesaw’s mission is aimed not at artists but at the “arty.” Roberta Jenkins, the group’s director of exhibitions, said those in Eyesaw hoped to demystify art and the exhibition scene. “People go and see a film and talk about it afterward. However, many people think they can’t do that with art, that what they have to say is not valid or valued. Eyesaw wants to change that and give people the confidence to criticize a work of art, both positively and negatively.”

The two major exhibitions are held at the five-floor Galerie Le Deco in Shibuya. The next, from Jan. 15-20, has work in a variety of media — video, oil and acrylic paintings, costume and photography — by artists from Japan, Canada, Ireland, Libya, the United States and Britain, both resident here and abroad.

Among those exhibiting will be New York-based Tom Sanford with his Byzantine-icon influenced portraits of American rap artists such as Snoop Dog and Dr Dre; British artist Lois Rowe who will display and model her ginko-leaf clothes; and Satoshi Oshige and Shinpei Nagatomo who will work with plastic, leaves and fluorescent chemicals to create a large installation, as yet untitled. Watercolors, oil and acrylic works will be shown by Permanent Mark, a Libyan whose inspiration (and name) comes from his previous incarnation as a tattooist.

During the show, a one-off evening, The Event (Jan. 19) gives visitors a chance to view the pieces to the live sounds of Freeda’s Cafe while availing themselves of bars on two floors; more than 600 people attended the last Event.

Since its inception, Eyesaw has held monthly salons at which artists and others interested in contemporary art meet for discussions and networking. In future, however, these will be replaced by what Julia calls, “Live Art.” To be held bimonthly, these events will see Eyesaw provide materials such as paint, canvas and brushes and then invite artists to come and create work while guests listen to music, become involved in the creation and — of course — refresh themselves at the bar. The fortnightly solo exhibitions will continue to be held at radio:on:studio in Gaienmae.

For contemporary artists, or those just wanting to keep up with the Japanese scene, Eyesaw offers a good opportunity to meet like-minded people and get involved in Tokyo’s thriving scene. As for Julia, she plans to stay for at least another five years to see Eyesaw firmly established — and, hopefully, branching out overseas: “I don’t want to leave until I am sure Eyesaw will continue working for contemporary art in Japan long after I’m gone.”