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Tokyo Gallery: Liu Zheng shows ‘Gaudy Art’ embroidery

by Monty Dipietro

Several of my recent columns have dealt with new art spaces and centers in Tokyo. Today I want to wrap that up with a look at a gallery that has shunned the relocation trend by remaining in the city’s original contemporary art district — Ginza.

Twelve years ago, Ginza was the start and finish point for any Tokyo gallery tour — almost all the best spaces were there. But back then the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo and the Mori Art Museum didn’t exist. Now, galleries in Kiyosumi and Roppongi cluster round those big spaces. It makes sense, as they can harvest the bling of a major exhibition by showing and selling a participating artist.

But Ginza is still very much on the art map. It has some of the only worthwhile rental spaces for exhibitions, such as Gallery K, a respected corporate gallery in Shiseido, and everal smallish but excellent commercial spaces, such as the Koyanagi and the Nakamura — and the one with the name that makes it clear it was there first: the Tokyo Gallery.

Established in 1950, the Tokyo combines a family-run atmosphere and a proud history of avant-garde activities. This is exemplified in their interest in performance art, their support of groups such as Mono-ha, and their presention of emerging Korean artists at a time when Pan-Asian had yet to become trendy. Last year, the gallery moved down the street to a new space that is almost exactly the same size, at about 50 sq. meters.

Says the gallery’s Yukihito Tabata, “For us, Ginza is an area in which new and old can cross over, a place that can combine the trends and traditions. We believe philosophy and action correspond here; Ginza just feels like home.”

The current show at the Tokyo features new and recent selections from Liu Zheng, a 33-year-old Beijing-based artist best known for a series, spanning almost a decade now, of images built by stringing together acrylic beads. This is his first solo show in Japan.

The theme is money — eight of the 10 works are large representations of currency notes. Some are fairly accurate replicas of Chinese and American bills, except for the subtle substitution of the artist’s name for the treasurer’s and the changing of serial numbers to the date of the work. Other bills are outright fabrications, the design made up by the artist. One has been rather cleverly treated — an American $100 bill features a portrait of Mao Zedong in place of Benjamin Franklin, and, under the seal of the Federal Reserve, the words “Made in China.”

The works show a brash and bold use of color, composition and materials — appropriate for Zheng’s so-called “Gaudy Art” movement. The beads are stitched onto traditional Chinese fabric, and while these are obviously not the product of a master embroiderer, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As far as capitalism-lampooning contemporary Chinese art is concerned, Zheng is top of the class with a playful style that resonates well.

The appeal of the works is best evidenced in the prices — the pieces here (all one-offs) are set at $8,000 to $30,000.

The Tokyo Gallery says that some 70 percent of its sales are international, and the gallery has intensified its activities in Asia with its Beijing Tokyo Art Project (BTAP), a 300-sq.-meter space that opened two years ago in central Beijing. Business has been good — most buyers are Westerners, while most artists shown are Chinese or Korean. The gallery has had no problems with censorship and has become a favorite drop-in spot for art students.

And so, even as the Tokyo Gallery sticks with a small space in Ginza, it is expanding internationally in ways that few Japanese galleries would dare attempt.

However, with an eye on completing the circle between artists, gallerists and collectors, Tokyo Gallery is currently looking into opening a space in New York to promote Chinese artists. It’s ambitious, especially as some critics have suggested that interest in Chinese contemporary may have played out. But the Tokyo remains upbeat.

“Without the influence of China and Korea, Japanese culture would never have developed as it did, and we initially went into China to connect with our origins,” says Tabata. “History is very important, but so is the future. Soon, Beijing will be the center of Asia, both culturally and economically. We are also there because we have a desire to find, develop and introduce quality artists.”