On the Japanese cultural calendar, visual-art events tend to take place in the more pleasant seasons of spring and autumn. Classical music and ballet have winter sewn up, with dozens of performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 or “The Nutcracker” being held over the Christmas-New Year period, and, of course, the only cultural events mad enough to dive headfirst into the heat of summer are outdoor music bashes such as the Fuji Rock Festival, where one of the key objectives — that of letting it all hang out — is obviously encouraged by the weather.
The nation’s largest commercial art fair, Art Fair Tokyo, has always made a point of its spring timing. “Art Fair Tokyo is committed to establishing a firm presence in the international art-fair calendar so that art collectors will make their visit to Japan at cherry-blossom time a regular fixture,” said then-director, Misa Shin, back in 2008.
Unfortunately, however, not even cherry blossoms were enough to make the spring of 2011 viable. The Great East Japan Earthquake hit on March 11 at the peak of preparations for the fair, which was initially planned for April 1-4.
Even as other art events were canceled in the immediate aftermath of the quake — Roppongi Art Night and Tokyo Art Week among them — the director of this year’s art fair, Takahiro Kaneshima, clung valiantly to the hope of going ahead with the event as planned. It was only on March 22 that his hand was forced by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which requested that the venue operator, Tokyo International Forum, clear its schedules so the facility could be used to house evacuees from the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear power accident.
In the end, no refugees came, but, as a consequence of the resulting postponement, Tokyo is about to enjoy a first: a midsummer art fair, held from July 29-31. What should visitors expect?
The first thing to note is that the fair this year will be very much a homegrown affair. As the quote from former director Shin above indicates, a key task of the organizers over the last few years has been to try to encourage the participation of both galleries and visitors from overseas.
That task has never been easy. Compared with other commercial art fairs, such as Hong Kong International Art Fair, which was held in May and attracted galleries from 38 countries, Art Fair Tokyo has only ever brought in about a dozen galleries from abroad. This year looked to be no different, with 10 or so galleries from overseas due to participate — from countries such as China, Spain and Canada.
But, as the fair was rescheduled and the Fukushima nuclear crisis continued, four pulled out.
“You can’t blame them for doing that,” says Hozu Yamamoto, of Tokyo Gallery and a member of the fair’s organizing committee. “With the situation as it was and continues to be, it is natural that foreign galleries would make that choice.”
Interestingly, Kaneshima explains, even before he and his staff made it known that foreign galleries had pulled out, they started to receive concerned enquiries from local gallery operators who, having guessed that the foreign operators may pull out, volunteered to take their place.
“There was this atmosphere that the domestic galleries wanted to band together to support each other and the fair through this,” says Kaneshima.
The four galleries that eventually signed up to fill the places vacated by the foreign galleries were hiromiyoshii, Yokoi Fine Art, Island Atrium and Nap Gallery.
What will it mean to have a predominant number of local galleries at the fair this year? Obviously, the work of more local artists will be on offer — a boon for non-Japanese residents of this country, who tend to be most interested in local talent. It also means that prices are likely to be more in tune with the local market — especially with regards to contemporary art. What often happens with the foreign galleries participating in Art Fair Tokyo is that they bring artists well known abroad and try to sell them at the prices they are accustomed to back home. Japan just doesn’t possess a large class of internationally savvy collectors of contemporary art, and so such sellers often go home disappointed.
Local galleries are likely to bring at least some works valued at as little as ¥100,000 — a price that is often seen as the first stepping stone for new collectors.
The replacement of foreign galleries with local operators could also be a blessing in disguise for the fair operators. Before March 11, there were signs that support for the fair among the local gallery community was hemorrhaging.
In recent years, several prominent galleries of contemporary art had pulled out of the fair, usually citing displeasure at the eclectic nature of an event that includes galleries showing everything from classical art to 20th-century masters to ukiyo-e prints. Last year, Tokyo’s Mizuma Art Gallery was notably absent. This year, Gallery Koyanagi dropped out, too. While neither of those galleries came back after the quake, the fact that four others did suggests an acknowledgement that the fair is a worthy rallying point in the local scene.
In an interview prior to the March 11 quake, Kaneshima said the loss of Mizuma and Koyanagi concerned him, but that he had no intention of changing the fair’s all-inclusive approach to various types of art.
“We have tried to make a clearer distinction between the various types of galleries within the fair venue,” he said. “There will be a clearly defined section for galleries specializing in contemporary art, another for galleries of classical art, and so on.”
He also said that lighting settings would be different for each section — so contemporary art galleries would have brighter, more even lighting, while the section for classical art would utilize slightly darker lighting that is considered more suited to it.
With those adjustments, Kaneshima said, he hopes to be able to make a fair that will satisfy all types of galleries and thus eventually lure bolters such as Mizuma and Koyanagi back into the fold.
What else will be new at Art Fair Tokyo 2011? One key change that was already set in motion prior to March 11 is the creation of a special exhibition that seeks to strengthen links with other Asian countries and will be held in addition to the regular booth exhibits put on by each gallery.
Fair director Kaneshima worked for several years at BTAP, the Beijing branch of the well-established Tokyo Gallery, and he is keen to use the network he established at that time to bolster the fair’s Asian ties. The first step in realizing that plan was to bring together what he called the Projects Artistic Committee, consisting of four arts professionals from Seoul, Beijing, Taipei and Tokyo.
That committee decided that in addition to the market-driven booth exhibits provided by each participating gallery, the fair needed an exhibition that could serve to extend debate about Japanese art throughout Asia.
The committee sent out a questionnaire to 100 arts professionals around the world asking them how they would characterize the first decade of contemporary art within Japan and which artist they thought was the unsung hero of Japanese contemporary art during that period.
“One of the most surprising things we found in examining the results of that survey was just how little people knew about Japanese art,” Kaneshima explained. “A lot of people wrote back saying they didn’t know enough to answer.”
Still, buoyed by the chance to fill a vacuum in knowledge, Kaneshima and his staff pressed ahead. Taro Shinoda and Tadasu Takamine were selected from the artists whose names had been raised, and a two-person exhibition of their work will be held at the fair.
That show, too, will obviously serve to focus the fair on the local art scene. Both artists will exhibit work referencing postquake Japan, with Takamine, in particular, moving almost beyond the bounds of art itself by showcasing a real-life device that he believes could greatly enhance electricity efficiency — a storage device known as a “supercapacitator.”
Takamine’s exhibit won’t be the only reminder of the March 11 disaster at the fair: Several charity projects will be held to raise funds for the Japanese Red Cross Society.
In one project, artists from participating galleries will be asked to make drawings on uchiwa (hand-held fans), and then those uchiwa will be sold to visitors for ¥5,000 each. Offering both a very affordable option for purchasing a work of art and, of course, respite from the summer heat, the items are sure to be popular.
The uchiwa project is made possible because of another change in the fair this year. For the first time it has a main sponsor: Deutsche Bank Group.
The German financial behemoth was partly prompted to sign up because this year is being celebrated as the 150th anniversary of relations between Germany and Japan. For Kaneshima and Art Fair Tokyo organizers this was a particularly significant development, because the event receives no public funding at all.
“The fair is really being supported entirely by the strength of the private sector,” Kaneshima said. That of course is something that sets it apart from larger fairs being held in Hong Kong and elsewhere, where governments chip in with various kinds of support including assisting with promotion.
Also significant was the fact that Deutsche Bank remained committed to sponsoring the event despite the March 11 disaster, the ensuing postponement, and the withdrawal of several foreign galleries.
Seiko Adachi, the head of Deutsche Bank’s communications department, explained the decision to maintain funding by recalling an interview with a child from the tsunami-affected areas she had seen on television.
“When asked what he wanted to do now, the child answered that he wanted to draw a picture,” Adachi recalled. “That shows that there really is something that art can do for society — a role it can play.”
That same interview has become a touchstone of sorts in the local art community. While its most diplomatic members have tended to acknowledge that visual art should take a back seat in times of crisis, others have pointed to that interview as evidence that art really can offer solace for the soul in times of distress.
If that’s true then the first major art event to be held since March 11 — a commercial art fair brimming with affordable works by talented local artists — might be just the tonic that this country needs at the moment.
Art Fair Tokyo runs July 29-31 at Tokyo International Forum, near Yurakucho Station. Admission is ¥1,500 (free for children below elementary school age). For times and other information, visit www.artfairtokyo.com.