Creativity flourishes in ‘No Man’s Land’

by D.H. Rosen

Known for its quaint cafes and high-end high rises, the upscale neighborhood of Hiroo is home to many of Tokyo’s local and ex-pat illuminati, as well as to several foreign embassies. The area is pristine, even by Tokyo standards, and it is this refined backdrop that makes arriving at the French embassy that much more shocking. What’s that on the outer walls? Could it be . . . graffiti?!

Not to worry, this is not a sign of eroding Franco-Japanese relations, this is a sanctioned effort by the French Embassy in cooperation with dozens of artists and art collectives to transform the compound into an unlikely exhibition space. Scheduled for demolition later this year when the embassy moves to a neighboring property, the site is now home to the exhibition “No Man’s Land,” a title that captures the ephemeral state of a space that has been abandoned, but not yet leveled.

It is in this in-between stage that 70 artists from France, Japan and other countries have gathered to transform the 60-year-old structure into an artistic free-for-all. Given the building’s impending destruction, the typical limitations of a gallery or museum do not apply to “No Man’s Land,” and artists were given carte blanche to do as they would with the rooms and even the grounds of the expansive compound. This means that they not only had the freedom to paint directly on walls, they were practically licensed to knock them down if they were so inclined.

“The idea was to create a very unique project,” explains Helene Kelmachter, the cultural attache for the the French Embassy of Japan and the chief curator for “No Man’s Land.” “To use such a place is quite a challenge. It’s not a gallery, it’s not a museum, its not a place that was used to (show) art. So the only rule for the artists was to adapt their creations to this space, to create something specially for this site.

This “no-rules” rule not only paved the way for spontaneous graffitiesque compositions and aggressive installations, it also made “No Man’s Land” a great place for artists to show work in progress.

Takashi Nakajima began his installation “The Beautiful, the Ugly” with just two paper-cutout seedlings, and over the past two months he has sat at his onsite workbench cutting and adding paper leaves and flowers to what has become an entwined three-dimensional masterpiece.

Musician Benjamin Skepper used this opportunity to turn one of the many former offices on the second floor into a cozy apartmentlike space he calls a “live sound installation.” If you are lucky you might catch Ben doing an impromptu performance there, but even if he is not playing live you can often hear the recorded fruits of his labors on his stereo system.

Upstairs, Romain Erkiletlian may be seen adding brush strokes to his ongoing multiroom painting that frames the works of several other artists.

In addition to the main building, the adjacent office annex has also been surrendered to artistic saboteurs. Designed by celebrated French architect Joseph Belmont when he was just 24 years old, the annex makes for a fitting site to showcase the work of emerging artists. Several university students have shown work throughout the course of the exhibition, but this week the space has been handed over to Tokyo-based artist collective DanDans. Having shown previously in many alternative venues, including model homes in Roppongi that were also scheduled to be razed, DanDans members took to the “No Man’s Land” project with tremendous zeal. Not to overstay their ambassadorial welcome, DanDans will clear the way for the next group of young artists to occupy the annex on Feb. 1.

From stars of the art world to relative unknowns, “No Man’s Land” showcases an impressive and eclectic gamut of contemporary creators. If you take the time to walk the entire exhibition, however, you will undoubtedly find a few rooms that seem like missed opportunities: Some televisions placed directly on the floor looping video and other haphazardly scattered pieces show little thought for the surrounding space and may bring viewers who had been enjoying the otherworldliness of “No Man’s Land” crashing back to reality.

But overall the project is an unmitigated success, not only because it welcomes over 7,000 visitors per week to a space that was previously closed to the public, but because it gives artists and their audience a chance to interact in ways that would be impossible in conventional venues.

Between the main building and the office annex, there literally are hundreds of artworks to see and the journey can be overwhelming at times. Plan to spend the whole day and take a break at the onsite cafe offering simple French fare, or, even better, break up your visit over two or more days. But don’t delay your visit; already appropriated for development by Nomura Real Estate Development. Co., this prime piece of Tokyo property is bound to become the next chic urban abode tout de suite. For now, though, until Feb. 18, it remains an artistic refuge and the land that belongs to no man.

Due to popular demand, “No Man’s Land,” which was originally scheduled to end on Jan. 31, has been extended to Feb. 18; showing at the French Embassy, 4-11-44 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku; open from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. on Jan. 29 and Jan. 30, then from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (closed Mon.-Wed.); free admission but donations are welcomed.