The term “gaijin artist” can be something of an insult to those who make Japan their home. It is, after all, parochial and old-fashioned to differentiate artists strictly on the basis of what passport they carry.
But with three Western-born artists — all of whom have been living and working in Tokyo for extended periods of time — currently exhibiting in Tokyo, now is an opportunity to explore the phenomenon of gaijin (foreigner) artists in this city.
British-born Jeremy Thorpe has been in Japan for 16 years. For this bon vivant, it was time to get serious about showing his photography publicly. So he went local, arranging a show at the Asagaya “DJ Bar and Art Space,” Gamuso. The exhibition features black-and-white and color pictures shot in Tokyo, many of them complemented by humorous, archaeologically inspired titles.
“I take my camera,” says Thorpe, “clear my mind, and go out looking for bits of urban landscapes, things that we see but don’t really notice.”
Thorpe has a definite knack for composition, his cityscapes recalling the nostalgic mood of old-hand Japanese lensmen such as Daido Moriyama. Also represented here is Thorpe’s studio work, studies of flowers and vegetables, and my favorite — a couple of chu-hai cans. An enjoyable look at everyday life in Tokyo, the prints are on sale for 6,000-8,000 yen yen apiece.
Swedish-German Jarg Geismar is an established artist, based in Tokyo for a couple of years and now showing at Gallery Gen, Ginza. His exhibition, “Private Viewer,” features an installation of eight green polyvinyl aprons, the sort worn by fishmongers. These hang from the gallery ceiling to form a rectangle, demarcating a space, which viewers can enter by ducking between or under the aprons.
Inside are scribbled, gold-colored line drawings loosely depicting various views of a Tokyo commuter train interior. A bare light bulb is the only illumination, while a recording of a talk by Tohru Matsumoto, chief curator of the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art, commenting on the “poetical” nature of the piece, plays from a couple of overhead speakers.
“For 15 or 20 years I was working on communication,” says Geismar, “but in the time I’ve been living in Japan I’ve thought it more interesting to work on noncommunication. For example, cultures and societies living next to each other but not wanting to be a soup — not communicating but respecting one another.”
This “noncommunication” is explored here on two levels — the vaguely discernible solitary figures sitting inside the subway car, and the two dissociated environments created by the installation within the gallery space.
Without an explanation of Geismar’s concept, visitors who encounter this work may well be left scratching their heads in bewilderment. Concerned more with positioning himself than selling work, Geismar is a rare conceptual expat artist — the scarcity of his ilk due both to the high cost of living and relative lack of public or private support for the arts here. Still, in his mind, Tokyo and its disconnectedness represents “a paradise for artists.”
One of the hardest-working artists I’ve met in this city is Kristian Haggblom, who has been here on-and-off for eight years. The Australian photographer curated and will be participating in a three-artist show, “Promiscuous,” opening this Sunday at Galerie Omotesando. The exhibition will include large-scale C-type photographs, five each by Haggblom and Paul Knight, accompanied by a soundscape piece created by another Aussie, Philip Samartzis.
Haggblom’s contributions result from his ongoing field research on Tokyoites in locations where natural and urban elements overlap. Models recreate some of the more curious behavior Haggblom has observed over the last couple of years — such as a young man crouched by a river, stripped nude, photographing himself with his mobile phone; or another savagely hollowing out a watermelon.
Every picture tells a story, and in this case the interpretations are endless — once again Haggblom has created a body of work that both interests and resonates.
Haggblom’s aim is securing gallery representation here, and is selling this work in limited editions — with regard to the collector’s market, a necessary progression from simply hawking prints. It hasn’t been easy to get to this level.
“When I first got to Japan, young and energetic, I took my portfolio around to every gallery I could find, but most refused to even look at it,” says Haggblom. “It seems the only way an artist can get anywhere here is to be personally introduced by someone in the ‘tea-drinking club’ of Japanese art insiders. It’s hard for foreign artists to make that happen.”
Ironically, it is possible that a gaijin artist’s very presence here in Japan works against them. When a Western artist is discovered and brought over by a member of the “tea-drinking club,” they are welcomed as an exotic import. Alas, no such fanfare is visited on the foreign artist who lives and works here. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before the truly cosmopolitan Japanese art insider can come to recognize this talent working right under their noses.