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ART FAIR TOKYO

Something for everyone

by Monty Dipietro

Fine art collecting being widely regarded as a pursuit of the privileged, one can appreciate the trepidation of the everyman regarding the auction and gallery scene.

These almost sacrosanct environments, of hushed tones, thin goatees and Ermenegildo Zegna, moderated by the arcane ruminations of the art press, can do more to intimidate than engage. Simply stated, they are not a lot of fun.

The art fair, on the other hand, with its aisles of booths, complementary plastic cups of cheap wine, and most of all its short run and demystifying price tags, plays a welcome role as a sort of outreach program. For a few days, elitism is all but banished, replaced by an inclusive, “art for all” atmosphere.

The second staging of Art Fair Tokyo follows on from its seminal but unsuccessful incarnation as Nippon International Contemporary Art Fair (NICAF) in the 1990s. In 2005, the fair’s format was widened to include modern and traditional art and crafts. This time round, increased gallery interest also enabled organizers to be more selective — 120 applications were received, only 90 were approved. The culling has made a significant difference in terms of quality of product, and there is no doubt that this year’s fair looks a lot better than it ever has.

Divergent approaches are in evidence: some participants presenting an overview of their stable, others showcasing a single artist; some offering affordable, starter pieces that will appeal to casual buyers and first-time collectors, others going with blue-chip product.

What was impressive at the fair’s opening reception Monday was the tremendous variety of media — new and older paintings, prints and photographs, of course, but also antique ceramics and kimono. Probably two thirds or more of the art on display is contemporary, and this seems a well-reasoned ratio — enough to satisfy collectors whose primary interest is contemporary art, while also accommodating more conservative visitors, who might want to take home something traditional or decorative.

And so while contemporary collectors considered the prices for Tomoko Sawada’s identity-morphing school photographs at MEM or Yang Xiomen’s brooding cityscape paintings at Kouzome, Japan Times’ ceramics maven Robert Yellin ogled a 17th-century stoneware jug over at Tannaka.

Again, a satisfying visual smorgasbord — European masters such as Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso hanging not far from midcareer Japanese artists such as Chiharu Nishizawa, Kyoko Murase and Ken Matsuyama, who supplied the gormless-young-girl-in-bra-and-panties paintings essential for any survey of Japanese art.

On the subject of panties and pandering, Takashi Murakami’s KaiKai Kiki booth, one of the largest in the fair, is hosting an ambitious live painting performance by Akane Koide. The youngest artist in the fair at just 15, Koide appeared perfectly comfortable with the media attention garnered by her pubescent females, some spreading their legs to reveal white panties, others collared, leashed and chained. Sigh, what to say?

Surprisingly, Japan’s best-known contemporary artists — Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, Makoto Aida and the like — are underrepresented here, reflecting perhaps . . . waning international interest in their work?

While Tokyo’s top contemporary spaces — the galleries frequently featured in this column — are all represented, what will be of special interest to local art scene regulars is the participation of new or lesser-known spaces, as well as the good representation of Osaka, Nagoya and other non-Tokyo spaces. I have never been to touristy Nara and had no idea it hosted an excellent vintage photography gallery, Yoshinori Nomura’s appropriately named “Out of Place.”

Final attendance and sales figures are not yet available, but I’d call the Art Fair Tokyo 2007 an unqualified success. Executive Director Misa Shin is certainly on the right track, having created an accessible, marketlike environment that makes buying art simple and fun. A visitor with as little as 20,000 yen to spend is likely to find something of interest, and those with a bigger budget will be enticed by a variety of high-quality art, and might even start to think “investment” — although the first rule of collecting should always be “buy what you love.”