Visit Tokyo’s ‘Frontline’ for Japan’s contemporary art

by Jae Lee

Shigeo Goto, director of Tokyo Frontline, a new art fair to start in Tokyo this year, calls himself an “outsider,” meaning he considers himself not quite inside Tokyo’s commercial “art scene.”

He may not be an artist or a major curator, but for an “outsider” Goto does have an extremely active role in promoting today’s Japanese culture. He is currently a professor at the Tokyo University of Art and Design, a member of Tokyo Media Art Festival committee, a photography gallery owner, a publisher and writer of numerous arts and photography related books, an event director and the list goes on.

With so much already up his sleeve, why start a new three-day art fair? Considering the current economic climate, investing in an art fair involving just a handful of high-end galleries seems risky — but, Goto points out, Tokyo Frontline, which is planned to run once a year for five years, is designed to be a little different.

“It is not supposed to compete with successful foreign art fairs on an international level,” Goto explains. “The theme is simple. Tokyo Frontline is designed to cover aspects of contemporary art that have been neglected by existing Japanese art fairs.”

Japanese events, such as Tokyo Art Fair, says Goto, have similarities to international art fairs, such as Art Basel Switzerland, Art Basel Miami Beach, the London Frieze Art Fair and New York’s The Armory Show. Their main purpose, he feels, is to serve the art collector by only offering “collectable” pieces by famous artists, such as Yayoi Kusama, or even aesthetically pleasing antique works such as katana swords and scroll paintings.

Tokyo Frontline, however, says Goto, aims to concentrate less on “fine arts” and be more general-public friendly, which is one of the reasons it is taking place inside 3331 Arts Chiyoda, an arts center already known for its focus on community and public participation.

“I think it’s weird that some art fairs make a profit from high admission fees,” he adds, explaining how Tokyo Frontline will take most of its profit from sponsorships and the gallery-participation fees for the Sales section of the show. “I’ve decreased the fees (to lower than other art fairs) on many areas for participants and visitors,” he says.

Running from Feb. 17 through Feb. 20, Tokyo Frontline is divided into three sections. The Frontline A and B first-floor exhibition areas showcase young artists’ works from more than 15 well-known galleries, including some of the participants of the concurrent G-tokyo Art Fair. An Exchange section in the main exhibition area of the first floor brings together presentations from art collectives and institutions such as Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music label, commmons; other cities’ art fairs; and even one of Japan’s newest avant-garde fashion brands, Yoshikazu Yamagata’s writtenafterwards. The third section, in the old school gym on the second floor, is the Sales section where galleries from Japan as well as other Asian cities will be representing their artists just as they would at an art fair.

The lines between these three sections may seem to be blurred, but according to Goto there are reasons for the distinction between exhibition spaces — primarily to allow the fair to stick to its definition of “contemporary” art: that of young and newer artists.

The Frontline section includes works from “high-end” galleries invited by the fair to participate. Such galleries — for example SCAI the Bathhouse, Gallery Koyanagi, Tomio Koyama Gallery and Taka Ishii Gallery — also frequently show their collections in other Japanese and foreign art fairs. However, at Tokyo Frontline, it is free for them to take part.

“We will put trained sales staff on the Frontline floor and the galleries exhibiting there don’t pay to participate. Most art fairs in Japan would charge about ¥300,000,” Goto says. This, he explains, allows the Tokyo Frontline committee to exert more authority to specify the kind of artworks to be shown and even experiment with the system. “The rule for galleries,” he says, “is to submit young contemporary artists.”

Since the booths are also not being manned by individual gallery staff, this arrangement also means that the Frontline galleries will not be exhibiting their most expensive or famous artworks. Instead, they can offer more unusual examples from their collections.

Though there is the Sales section at which other galleries, including those from other Asian countries, can apply and pay to show their collections, the low participating fee again ensures that Tokyo Frontline can exert some influence on the booth’s contents.

H aving to trust Tokyo Frontline’s judgment and allow it to represent their galleries and artists sounds like a tactic that would put off most potential participants. However, Goto’s art experience and connections, as well as his down-to-earth charm, has helped persuade many major galleries to take a part in the event. As an art professor, he also takes note of the students who have made their way into the Japanese contemporary art scene, some of whom are now working with Tokyo Frontline participating galleries.

“As you can see, it’s a small venue and we do not have the same funding as a major art fair, but many of these galleries, sponsors and big names have put their trust in me,” he says. “People say, ‘If it is Goto’s thing, why not?’ ” he adds with a laugh.

According to Goto, it takes 10 to 15 years for a young talented artist to become well known and successful overseas. But now, with more promoters and art events such as Tokyo Frontline, there are more opportunities for such artists to get noticed. For example, Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, he says, have represented Japanese art on an international level at art fairs for about 10 years, while during the 1970s, photographer Moriyama Daido became internationally known once he was discovered by foreign art critics and collectors.

Goto is confident that installation artists Makoto Odani and Kohei Nawa will be in demand for at least the next five years. But to him that means, “This is just the right time to discover and support the artists that will follow the Odani and Nawa generation.” Tokyo Frontline, he hopes, will help find patrons for that new generation of artists. It also aims to provide a community for and encourage new, younger collectors of works by issuing VIP cards that will allow members to participate in various art events and activities scheduled throughout the year.

It’s an ambitious and admirable idea that has taken a lot of thought and organization, so why has Goto planned Tokyo Frontline to run for five years only?

“Society, I think, will change a lot in five years, so a new model plan will be necessary,” he says, showing not only insight into how the relationship between art and its fans is dynamic but also a dedication to his cause.

Tokyo Frontline runs from Feb. 17 through Feb. 20 at 3331 Arts Chiyoda; entrance fee is ¥500 for a day pass, ¥1,800 for a four-day pass. For more information, visit www.tokyofrontline.jp
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