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WONDER SITE: Strong words in Shibuya fail to bring a crowd

by Monty Dipietro

In 2001, a peculiar contemporary-art space called Tokyo Wonder Site opened in a disused building in Bunkyo Ward in Northeast Tokyo. Supported by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the project attracted a measure of initial interest, but never developed into anything like a hot spot for art. This is probably because the shows were middle of the road and the space was in the middle of nowhere.

But last July a second Wonder Site opened, smack in the center of the planet’s youth-culture Mecca of Shibuya. What’s more, the space signaled early on that it would court participation from the city’s grassroots art community — Roger McDonald and the Art Initiative Tokyo group had a hand in the second show, a Japanese/Korean collaboration titled “Publicly Speaking”; and Masato Nakamura, director of the avant-garde collective Command N, gave a talk at the same exhibition.

Wonder Site Shibuya’s current exhibition, “F*ckin’ Brilliant,” is a group show featuring work in a variety of media from 13 artists, five from Japan and eight from the artist-run Rockwell Gallery in London.

Alas, notwithstanding its 200 sq. meters of space (airy by Tokyo standards), Wonder Site Shibuya has failed to make itself big or vital even after six months of trying. The average daily visitor total is about 20 — roughly the same as the number of teenage commodity fetishists who squeeze in a single elevator at the Parco department store across the street.

“I think people come to Shibuya mainly to shop and eat,” says Reina Ashibe, an administrative assistant at Wonder Site. “We are discussing how to make more people aware of us so we can change the situation.”

One of the main problems with the place is that it shares its home with other city-government departments. The exterior of the building provides little indication of the goodies inside — a tiny sign overwhelmed by the glittering neon of the locale.

Further, upon entering by way of some gray tile stairs, the visitor is met by a sterile counter. In front of that are two brown leatherette stools; behind it, a middle-aged civil servant in a blue uniform. The building looks like somewhere you’d go to register for one of those license stickers that dog owners must display on their front doors. Because it is.

Hanging a bunch of bold banners outside would surely attract more attention, but TMG regulations prohibit Wonder Site from doing so.

Secondly, Wonder Site charges an admission fee of 500 yen — a sum too piffling to make any difference in the budget of the world’s largest city, but just enough to cause some who might wander into the building to turn round and wander right back out again.

Finally, unlike the Rockwell Gallery in London, which is run by an autonomous group of on-site artists, Wonder Site is directed by a bureaucrat — Yusaku Imamura, Counselor on Special Issues to Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.

Having a director is not in itself a bad thing — when I visited the new Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art in Toronto last summer, I found director Davis Liss a dynamic fellow. About all he talked about through our hazy afternoon was the nighttime events at the museum. A couple of days later, I went back to experience one firsthand. People were smoking outside and drinking inside; a noise band was playing on a low stage; and a couple of lesbians were necking in a corner. Round midnight, someone told me the then-Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson would be dropping in. I don’t remember if she did.

At Wonder Site, meanwhile, expect formalized artists’ talks. And there are flute recitals. No Wonder.

The current exhibition, “F*ckin’ Brilliant,” is somewhat edgy though. It takes its name (sans asterisk) from the reaction of a Rockwell artist upon seeing “How Far to Utopia?” That show featuring three of the Japanese artists here — Kazuhito Sahara, Chikara Matsumoto and Daisuke Nagaoka — was at the Rockwell in October 2004.

“F*ckin’ Brilliant” is uneven, and looks like an amateur art fair at times, but it is not without some good and even exceptional moments.

Of the 31 works, I was impressed by Matsumoto’s crawl-in installation and its 20-minute loop video of charcoal on paper animations; a set of small Hugh Mendes paintings based on newspaper clippings sent to the artist from Japan; and particularly by the rich and weird oil-on-canvas landscapes of Christopher Ward, who, as it happens, was born in Japan.

Another high point is Yuka Nakamura’s “Forest Theatre” series, which brings a quietly unsettling, David Lynch-like atmosphere to a nook at the back of the gallery’s second room.

To end on a positive note — for budding artists in Tokyo, Wonder Site Shibuya’s upcoming exhibition will probably be of interest.

“Wonder Seeds,” opening Feb. 18, is open to all. “What we want for this exhibition,” says another administrative assistant, Naoko Kishimoto, “is to help emerging artists show their work. So please, if you are interested, come and fill out an application and show us your work!” Some 100 pieces will be selected, and based on last year’s call at the Bunkyo Ward Wonder Site, about 1,000 submissions are expected.

The application forms are in Japanese only, but Kishimoto, who speaks English well, promises to do her best to help any kanji-challenged would-be exhibitors apply. Applications can be made through January 27.