Fans of GEISAI enjoy the opportunities

by Andrew Maerkle

Held on Sunday, March 8, at the Tokyo Big Sight exhibition center, GEISAI #12 marked the latest installment of the ongoing series of open-application, competitive one-day festivals organized since 2001 by pop artist and cultural promoter Takashi Murakami. Part exhibition, flea market and spectacle, punctuated by live music acts and special-effects smoke, GEISAI has helped launch the careers of a number of artists — particularly those who have gone on to join Murakami’s own stable of artists, Kaikai Kiki — and provides recognition for winners of prizes selected by a celebrity jury panel.

At GEISAI #12, booth fees starting as low as ¥25,000 attracted a wide range of artistic sensibilities. Many participants brought paintings echoing Murakami’s trademark Superflat aesthetic, with colorful renderings of erotic or cute cartoon-inspired characters. Other works on display ranged from handmade jewelry to conceptual installations, while a contingent of eight Taiwanese artists — sponsored by the Fubon Art Foundation, one of Taiwan’s leading art philanthropies — reflected GEISAI’s growing international appeal.

The accessibility of GEISAI contrasts sharply with the substantial fees charged by weekly rental galleries, long a mainstay of the Japanese art scene, and the exclusiveness of a limited number of private commercial galleries. For this reason, GEISAI has attracted a faithful following of return participants.

A graduate of Tokyo Zokei University’s oil-painting department, Takahiro Ogihara presented an installation at GEISAI #12 entitled Visual Echo, comprising a tarp with picnic treats spread on the ground before a Plexiglas sculpture of the Chinese character for the word mountain and set against a three-panel mirrored backdrop.

Ogihara, who was participating for the third time at GEISAI, explained, “When I graduated from university five years ago, I wasn’t able to survive as an artist. I didn’t have money to pay for exhibition space and my work didn’t suit other venues. Once I found that I could exhibit relatively cheaply and without restrictions at GEISAI, I was really excited.

“My university classmates frequently disparaged GEISAI, but after I finally participated I found it was worthwhile.”

Across the cavernous exhibition hall, the artist YuKyusai, adorned in a black-and-purple sequined headdress representing a giant ox head and perched upon a makeshift green dais surrounded by oversize hand-stitched animal figures, discussed her experience at GEISAI.

“I’ve exhibited here at least seven times,” she said. “At first I wanted to become an illustrator, but when I came into contact with contemporary art through GEISAI, I realized that what I actually wanted to do was express myself through art.”

YuKyusai left Osaka Art University without completing her degree in literature and has no formal art training. However, through an appearance at GEISAI, she caught the eye of a Tokyo gallery, CASHI (Contemporary Art Shima), and held her first solo show there in December 2008. She described the gallery exhibition as a dream opportunity, noting that until the offer came from CASHI, she had only received solicitations from rental galleries.

As an unregulated forum for creative expression, GEISAI can also confront visitors with disturbing material, as with the booth of the three-member sketch comedy group MiracleIPassions. Presenting what they termed a “history revival performance,” two of the group members were covered in blackface makeup and wore overalls, while the third, dressed as an animal trainer, was carrying a riding crop.

The scenario of the Japanese-language sketch, which the group performed repeatedly throughout the day, revolved around a pair of black men who had just been released from an animal preserve. Props used by the blackface performers included a straw hat used to collect ¥100 coins from the audience and a bottle of whiskey. On several different instances, viewers responded with laughter as the sketch unfolded and willingly handed over coins when asked to do so.

It was unclear from speaking with the performers to what extent the sketch was intended to critique the dehumanization of black Americans during the slavery period and its aftermath in the United States. Group member Sohei Wakusaka said, “We wanted to revisualize the liberation of blacks through as Pop a lens as possible.” Pressed as to why the group chose the topic, Wakusaka replied that he felt it was timely, citing the election of U.S. President Barack Obama, and that, “We knew doing blackface could be offensive, but anyway, it’s comedy. We anticipated that there would be varying reactions, from people who might laugh to those who might get angry, but that’s what we’re interested in seeing.”

The emergence of President Obama has sparked a number of comic blackface impersonations on Japanese variety TV shows, but Wakusaka seemed unaware of the potentially incendiary nature of blackface representations outside of Japan. Asked whether the group would consider performing the sketch in the United States, he replied, “We plan on doing it in New York (in the near future), but we don’t understand the comic nuances there, so we have to fine- tune it.” He expressed surprise when informed the sketch would generally be unthinkable there.

Representatives for Kaikai Kiki, the art-management firm run by Murakami that oversees all of his projects, declined to comment on the appropriateness of the MiracleIPassions sketch or whether any visitors had complained about its content.

Regardless of whether they were nominated for prizes, the majority of participants who spoke with The Japan Times were enthusiastic about the opportunities the event provides. Yet as GEISAI #12 drew to a close, the continuation of the event — usually held twice annually — was by no means a foregone conclusion. GEISAI, which was discontinued for all of 2007, will not be held again this year.

In two introductory texts in the exhibition pamphlet, Murakami made reference to the challenges of both the current global financial crisis and the crash of Japan’s bubble economy in the early 1990s. Offering perhaps the only encouragement possible at a time when people the world over are re-evaluating their desires and ambitions, he counseled that “for those who are young and without name or money but have the will to succeed, this recession offers a frontier full of possibilities.”