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A new art center, in Kiyosumi

by Monty Dipietro

This week brings some good news and some bad news to Tokyo’s contemporary art scene. The good news is that a group of galleries that have been sharing a building in Shinkawa since January 2003 have relocated en masse, and now all boast significantly bigger spaces. The bad news is that the galleries vacated their remote and inconvenient location only to land in an even more obscure place. Their new home is across the Sumida River in east Tokyo, a 10-minute walk from Kiyosumi Shirokawa Station in Koto-ku.

The only saving grace of the Kiyosumi location is its relative proximity to the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art. But while it would be super if the whole area were to evolve into a contemporary art community — as New York’s West Chelsea did in the 1990s — that’s just not going to happen here, given the smaller art market and the social and economic barriers against loft lifestyles.

But let’s look at the upside: We have eight good galleries on three floors of an old warehouse. The ceilings are high, the lighting is good, and most of the go-to gallerists here have international connections and customers. It ain’t West Chelsea to be sure, but it’s the closest thing Tokyo has ever seen.

The lead player in Tokyo’s contemporary art scene is Tomio Koyama, the man responsible for Japan’s hottest art stars of the ’90s, Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara. Not surprisingly, the Tomio Koyama Gallery has the premier space at Kiyosumi, on the seventh floor, with a striking, exposed wood ceiling and several airy rooms of display space. Shintaro Miyake and other gallery artists are in for the inaugural show — Miyake appeared at last Friday’s opening dressed as a bear, and spent the evening drawing on walls.

As that suggests, there was plenty of merriment at the Kiyosumi launch, a night replete with artists, buyers, students, misfits, posers, freeloaders and big wigs. The champagne helped visitors forget the trek to the building, while performances in the “Magic Room ?” space and elsewhere by the likes of the wacky/tacky “Modern Art Daughters” lent an air of spontaneity to the occasion. If the Kiyosumi (there is not yet an official name for the building, nor a central Web site — but both would be a good idea) means to stay vital, it should try to coordinate its openings. This naturally happened on Friday, of course, but the staggered end times for the various shows indicate that it won’t always be the case. Either way, the galleries seem to have mostly set their opening hours at 12 to 7 p.m., and if they are smart they will extend these hours on the evenings when other spaces have opening receptions.

Downstairs from the Koyama we find the Hiromi Yoshi Gallery, Kido Press and Zenshi (along with a second Tomio Koyama space, his “Viewing Room”). On the fifth and last floor of galleries are ShugoArts, which is now showing a wonderfully dreamy selection of new pastel-tinged paintings by Narufumi Maruyama (“Between Morning and Night”); and the Taka Ishii Gallery, hosting new photographs from American artist Slater Bradley’s “Doppelganger,” an ongoing body of work which deals with what he terms “mediated identities.”

After a series dating back to 2000 in which his collaborator Ben Brock portrayed singers Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis, Bradley has turned his attention to the culture of science fiction with “Uncharted Settlements,” which is making its debut at the Taka Ishii. The six large-scale photographs, a video piece and a boxed photo portfolio document Bradley and Brock’s participation in “Celebration III,” a Star Wars convention.

The very amusing project sees fans, dressed as characters from the movies, parading through Indianapolis while Bradley, also in costume, takes pictures. We see a faux-posse posed on the steps of city hall, or catch a lone Stormtrooper ordering a hot dog at a snack bar in a mall — that sort of thing, snapshots of an otaku urban intervention.

“I thought this might work in Japan,” said Bradley. “the juxtaposition of elements of the Star Wars movies and a totally banal American atmosphere. For me, it was a way of purging things from my system. I was totally into those films when I was a kid. Maybe, these days, people relate more to media icons than they do to their own families and friends.”