THE YEAR IN ART

Blockbusters and new momentum

by Donald Eubank

This was another great year for art enthusiasts with breadth, depth and an audience for all kinds exhibitions and events.

Blockbusters, whether of traditional Japanese works, Western classics or Modernism, will always be blockbusters here. To name just a small sample of the excellent shows that brought out Japanese masterpieces and brought in tradition-minded masses, there were:Master painter Kano Eitoku at the Kyoto National Museum; Edo Period eccentric Ito Jakuchu in a Kyoto temple; and “Taisho Chic” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum.

Bringing their cultural agenda from abroad were the Russians (“Masterpieces of the State Russian Museum“), the Italians (“The Annunciation” by Leonardo Da Vinci), the Dutch (“Milkmaid by Vermeer and Dutch Genre Painting”) and the French (“Claude Monet: L’art de Monet et sa Posterite”).

The last two shows, packed to the gills on the weekends (of course you’d love to stop by on Tuesday morning, but who really has the time during the week), were at the new National Art Center, Tokyo in Roppongi. NACT opened in January of this year, with three shows covering architecture, consumer products and art that left no clear impression of where the center would be going in the future. The opening of the new space was one of the first art industry events of a year that saw a lot of additions, development and some art-market momentum.

Lively centers of contemporary art in Japan are asserting themselves, such as the third Art@Agnes art fair, which was held in January at the Agnes Hotel and Apartments in Iidabashi. Within 33 rooms of the hotel, 33 galleries displayed their artists’ works, some in more and some in less inventive ways. Personal favorites were: Koki Tanaka’s offbeat videos of pointless actions he repetitively did with commonly available things — plastic cups thrown in a corner till one lands upright, an inflatable mattress bounced of a wall, water dancing and steaming off an electric burner; and Boice Planning’s performance piece in which 15 or so young artists in nightgowns stared google-eyed at the audience and each other before turning off the only light in the room and collapsing together on the bed. Odd, and effecting. Lines were out the door on the first day last year, so reserve in advance this year for the upcoming Art@Agnes on Jan. 12-13 (www.artatagnes.com/).

The third Art Fair Tokyo followed in April. More conventional than Art@Agnes, AFT brought around 90 galleries into a convention hall at Tokyo International Forum, showing contemporary, Modernist and traditional works. After a fitful start in the 1990s amid the wreckage of the bursting bubble and under a different name, AFT took off in 2007 with 32,000 visitors and total sales by the end of the fair reaching toward $10 million.

The great thing about both Art@Agnes and AFT is that not only do they bring together a bunch of galleries under one roof — more than you could ever see in a weekend of chasing art — and free you from curators’ dogmatic messages, but that if you like what you see, then buy it, there’s no need to just walk away with a catalog. AFT returns in the first week of April in 2008. The same week there will be a new, second fair in Akihabara, called 101 Tokyo, with 30 exclusively contemporary galleries joining, half Japanese, half international.

The Mori Art Museum had another great program in 2007, hitting big — visitor-wise — with “Le Corbusier: Art and Architecture” and — critically — with “Roppongi Crossing 2007.” While the former brought in a young crowd curious about the French Modernist architect — of whom Mori owner Minoru Mori has a substantial collection — the latter provided a great slice of contemporary Japanese work.

While the curators were, correctly, pointing to the crossover between design and art here, this is not an exclusively Japanese trait, as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo would make apparent with its more international “Space for your Future” in October. More appropriately, “Roppongi Crossing 2007” did for Japanese art what the Mori’s “Africa Remix” from 2006 did — make it difficult to say that there was anything especially recognizably the same about a diverse group of artists who happen to be from a single geographic location.

Three painters had smaller exhibitions worth mentioning. Takafumi Tsuchiya at Wada Fine Arts in August presented mysterious, subtly colored works that played between dreams and reality. Takeshi Masada showed at Wada Works of Art in September, with canvases covered in lively, rough brush strokes — if he moves from the Pop subject matter of horror-movie stills to something more personal and unrecognizable, he’ll have something great. And back in January, starting the year was Akira Yamaguchi at Mizuma Art Gallery. While fun, Yamaguchi’s typical mashups of the traditional and sci-fi can lack depth, but at Mizuma he installed in a small alcove what appeared to be a thousands-strong army at your command. This had true impact — cool stuff, let’s see some more.

The final story of the year are its auctions, which started to pay attention to the contemporary market. Works by veterans Lee U Fan and Yayoi Kusama moved briskly throughout the year as did younger artists who have been shown abroad at art fairs. By November, Chinese collectors — perhaps fleeing a potential bubble in their country’s contemporary market and recognizing price inequalities — were in hot pursuit. If the China story starts to cool, and the international art world looks for new destinations after the excesses that you could argue overseas biennials, fairs and auctions have become, Japan should be an interesting place to be next year.