Tokyo art blossoms in spring

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

It seems that this year everything is coming together for the Tokyo art world, literally.

Ever since Art Fair Tokyo moved from its regular autumn timing to spring, various other art events have bloomed around the same cherry-blossom-touched season — with rival art fair G-Tokyo and outdoor art celebration Roppongi Art Night being the most prominent. But through lack of coordination on the part of the organizers, these three events had never actually all fallen on the same weekend, meaning that their potential for a synergetic stimulation of the city’s artistic sensibilities had never been explored. Thankfully, things have changed.

As the cherry blossoms spring to life this weekend, Tokyoites will not only have the choice of taking in the nation’s largest commercial art extravaganza with Art Fair Tokyo at Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho, but they can also head over to Roppongi to enjoy both G-Tokyo and, on Saturday night, Roppongi Art Night (see related coverage on pages 2 and 4). If this doesn’t get Tokyo in the mood for art, what else could?

Art Fair Tokyo, the largest and most diverse of the events, remains the core attraction. So what is on offer this year?

As always, the fair will consist of booths rented out by commercial galleries from around Japan and the world. A total of 142 galleries will participate, representing 28 cities as far flung as Moscow and Tel Aviv.

One of the characteristics of Art Fair Tokyo that sets it apart from its rivals is that it is not limited to contemporary art, or even fine art. Galleries specializing in anything — from antiques to crafts — can also participate, meaning that the fair caters to a wide range of interests.

This diversity also means that it is possible to trace trends within the local market. Fair Executive Director Takahiro Kaneshima explained to The Japan Times that this year it is the galleries specializing in pre-modern art that are most numerous — a fact that he put down to “the solidity of the market for such work in this country.”

Indeed, some of the largest booths will be occupied by such galleries as Uragami Sokyudo, Mayuyama & Co., Ltd. and Eiji Nishikawa Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, all of which specialize in ancient ceramics, historical Japanese prints, paintings and other artifacts.

The Nihonbashi-based Uragami Sokyudo will bring to the fair Chinese bronze and ceramic jars dating from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) along with 19th-centuy prints by Hokusai. Mayuyama & Co., Ltd. will display Chinese blue-and-white silver-mounted vessels from the Kangxi Period (1662-1722), and Eiji Nishikawa Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art will display a selection of Chinese porcelains from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

While such exhibits suggest that Chinese artifacts are popular with the Japanese, when it comes to the reverse, there is evidence to suggest the popularity of Japanese artifacts among the Chinese is on the decline — at least for the moment.

Last year, Kaneshima explained, special tours were organized for Chinese collectors to travel to Tokyo to attend the fair.

“With the deterioration in relations with China occurring last year, it has become more difficult to attract such tours,” he said, noting that he knew only of individuals and not any organized groups of Chinese collectors who were intending to make the journey.

He also pointed out that many Chinese collectors appear to have opted to skip Art Fair Tokyo in favor of Art Dubai, which is being held March 20-23. “Unfortunately, our dates have aligned with theirs,” he said.

Still, Kaneshima has reason to believe that the 2013 edition of his fair could be a good one for dealers. Noting that the monetary easing measures of the current Shinzo Abe government are boosting the Japanese stock exchange, he said: “When you speak to people in the financial industries, they always say that the art market is similar to their business.”

That is to say, when the mood is looking up, people are willing to spend.

Another consideration that will work in dealers’ favor is that the first of two planned increases to Japan’s sales tax levies will be kicking in from 2014. Keen to avoid the 8 percent rate that will start from April 2014 — the current rate is 5 percent — collectors “might be motivated to make their purchases now,” Kaneshima explained.

Rocky relations with China have also figured in another aspect of the fair’s planning. In addition to the regular roster of commercial gallery booths, Art Fair Tokyo also features some specially curated exhibit spaces, one of which is called Discover Asia.

Intended originally to bolster ties between the fair and the other nations of East Asia, the display last year featured exhibits organized in collaboration with hand-picked galleries from Shanghai, Seoul and elsewhere. Such a narrow focus wasn’t possible this year, so Kaneshima and his staff decided instead to take this opportunity to expand the focus to include works from Southeast Asia, too, and they drew on the networks of several established Japanese galleries to make that possible. Video artists Apichatpong Weerasethakul from Thailand and Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba from Vietnam will be among the participants there.

There are many other special programs besides Discover Asia, some of them rather intriguing in nature. Almost as though to offer an olive branch to China and the Korean Peninsula (where relations are also strained), Art Fair Tokyo has organized a special exhibition of ceramics and calligraphy by former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who during his 10-month government in the early 1990s became the first Japanese head of government to apologize for the nation’s wartime aggression. The display will be held in a re-creation of his countryside arbor and tea-ceremony room, where, since retiring from politics, he has pursued beauty in the simplicity of everyday life.

Another self-styled seeker of everyday beauty is the artist Tatsu Nishino, who is known for constructing bed- or living-rooms around well-known statues so that the monuments appear to be inside a house. In a departure for the artist, he has for the last few months been holding performances in which he appears in a full body suit that is covered in small mirrors. Mirrorball Man, as the character is called, has a habit of disappearing into his environs as his entire body reflects what surrounds it. Mirrorball Man has said that he will make appearances at the Art Fair Tokyo venue. Be careful not to bump into him.

Elsewhere, “Tokyo Limited” is a special program designed for galleries working at what might be called the peripheries of art. Last year this section focused on art jewelry, and it proved to be popular — partly because jewelry tends to have price tags more conducive to whim-purchases than art.

“And the objects themselves are very artistic. Even if you look at them in an art context, they are very attractive,” Kaneshima said of the jewelry that 12 months ago was exhibited by galleries such as Exhibition Space APJ, gallery C.A.J and gallery deux poissions.

This year, those same galleries will be back, and they will be joined by dealers in fashion, historic photographs and crafts.

The fashion exhibit, which is by local label writtenafterwords, is in fact part of a larger collaboration with Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, which in another unprecedented feat of coordinated cultural organization, is also being held simultaneously with the art fair (see our March 31 edition for a full fashion-week wrap-up).

Art Fair Tokyo, G-Tokyo, Roppongi Art Night, Mercedes Benz Fashion Week — and there’s also the Tokyo International Anime Fair, too: Why is it that after so many years of near-misses, the organizers of these events have cottoned on to synchronizing their dates?

Kaneshima gave a knowing smile and said only that “We managed this time to coordinate the dates. Several times in the past it has been pointed out to us that we should do this.”

He added, though, that differences in venues and organizers have made it impossible to offer combined ticketing or co-hosted parties and such.

Oh well, there’s always next year.

Art Fair Tokyo runs March 22-24 at Tokyo International Forum. Admission is ¥2,000 (free for children below elementary school age). For precise times and more information, visit www.artfairtokyo.com.