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Rooms for art

Agnes Hotel hosts 31 galleries this weekend

by Monty Dipietro

The hotel, be it flophouse or five-star, is what distinguishes cosmopolitan man from the nomad. Yes, it may be a humdrum need for shelter and food that brings us to hotels. But when we slip into that unfamiliar room, and for one night make it our own, we can also find ourselves transported to a different state of consciousness — a stimulating world of new possibilities. This weekend, the Tokyo art scene takes a break from its white cube galleries and checks into a Shinjuku hotel for an intimate two-day affair known as “Art@Agnes”.

Like many hotel stories, this one is about people. “Art@Agnes” got its start in 2004, when a businessman named Toru Senga took over a hotel located in the old-style shitamachi neighborhood of Kagurazaka. The Agnes Hotel and Apartments is a midsize operation that prides itself on personal service. Almost half the guests are foreign, a good number hailing from France, drawn by French cuisine on the hotel’s menu and a French school in the neighborhood.

Back to the story. Senga saw a television report about a hotel with rooms designed by artists from Art Basel Miami Beach, a major international art fair held in Florida each winter. Keen to foster a similar atmosphere of cultural appreciation at his new property, Senga turned to his old elementary school friend Atsuko Koyanagi — who happens to be one of the most respected contemporary art gallerists in Tokyo.

In just one day the pair had hatched plans to invite Tokyo’s leading contemporary art dealers to show at the hotel, and the inaugural “Art@Agnes” event in August 2004 attracted 11 galleries. Art was displayed in the lobby, hallways and other common areas of the hotel — with visitors kindly requested not to disturb the guests. The second incarnation showcased artists from 19 galleries and took place in January 2006.

This coming weekend the hotel will be fully booked by “Art@Agnes” part three. There will be 31 galleries in on the action, each occupying a single room for two days.

“It is very exciting and a good opportunity for both the hotel and the galleries,” says Koyanagi. “The hotel is very much satisfied with the results from the past two fairs, so this year the entire building will be open to the public for the first time. I believe that showing art in the rooms could provide people with a new point of view, and suggest ways they might enjoy artworks in their daily lives.”

Most of the city’s best and most exciting contemporary art galleries will be in attendance. The Kiyosumi-Shirakawa and Roppongi spaces are all represented, and there will also be a number of emerging and smaller players stepping up to strut their stuff.

One of those is Yukari Mitsuma, who represents a circle of young Japanese artists.

“Commercially successful Japanese artists today are all at least 40 years old, but I feel a new wave is finally coming,” says Mitsuma, who will be showing work by the performance-documentary group Yodogawa Technique and painter Shintaro Ohata. “The generation of artists born after the mid-1970s is unique because Japan was economically successful and culturally Westernized — for better or worse — from the day they were born, so they don’t feel inferior to Westerners. I hope I can show viewers and collectors that Japan has great artists other than Kusama, Nara, Sugimoto and so on.”

This is shaping up to be a spirited weekend, with the possibility that the fantastic food and wine at the opening will compete with the art itself. Unfortunately, I missed the “Art@Agnes” event last January, but reports were positive. Visitors can expect a wide variety of works — and yes, they are for sale. Last year, prices ranged from 3,000 yen to over 3 million yen.

If nothing else, the format of “Art@Agnes” promises a uniquely relaxed viewing experience — art removed from the bright halogen spotlights and white walls of upright gallery environments, free now to repose on hotel room beds and chairs. Pictures on vacation — how genteel!