Japanese collectors take a conceptual turn

by Cameron Allan Mckean

Special To The Japan Times

Echoing the choice of Koki Tanaka — a conceptual artist — for the Japanese pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale this year, “Why Not Live For Art? II: 9 collectors reveal their treasures” at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery suggests that art collecting in Japan has taken a conceptual turn.

Curated by Hori Motoaki, the show features artworks from nine Japanese collectors, identified only by their initials. They might be the same age as the collectors from the first “Why Not live for art?” show in 2004, but they have somewhat different tastes. Motoaki describes this year’s works as reflective of the “second generation of commercial art galleries in Tokyo” — galleries such as Taro Nasu, Misako & Rosen, Aoyama Meguro and Aritaniurano, who have encouraged Japanese collectors to engage with wider conversations about the state of contemporary art outside the archipelago.

As with the show in 2004, individual spaces have been constructed for each collection, housing a total of 206 artworks. If our visual cortexes weren’t already accustomed to being completely overloaded (thank you Instagram, Tumblr, and the Internet in general) this shoulder-to-shoulder layout of artworks might have been more frustrating. Teppei Kaneuji’s “Splash and Flake” (2009) and a wall of clock and sushi typologies by Paramodel, are two examples that felt particularly choked, despite being in the largest room.

Unlike the show in 2004, the key players this time are not pop artists Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, but Tanaka, Ryan Gander and other conceptual artists from the past decade. In fact, most works were produced after 2001, making a painting by Jean Fautrier, and classic photographs by Lartigue and Man Ray stand out.

“I chose collectors who love conceptual art,” says Motoaki, but rather than dropping the frog in boiling water, he slowly turns up the conceptual heat as you pass through the nine rooms.

You enter flanked by old friends — traditional craft (a ceramic bowl by Adam Silverman) and anime-inspired pop-art (Nara and Murakami). For Motoaki, Lyota Yagi’s Vinyl (2006) — a latex mould that lets you create a 7-inch record out of ice — is the first key work. Things get a little more conceptual from there with a great series of works by Satoshi Hashimoto, and Tanaka’s painting, installation, photograph and video of a bus carrying a bicycle carrying a picture of a bus carrying a bicycle. The final rooms are hotter still — with Tatzu Nishi’s hotel created around a Merlion, and works by Gander and Simon Fujiwara — but never reach boiling point. If this really does mark a conceptual turn, it’s a wide, slow one.

“Someone’s junk is someone else’s treasure (2011)” by Tanaka is the definitive work for Motoaki, showing the artist trying, unsuccessfully, to sell dried-up palm branches at a Los Angeles flea market. “I think collecting art is the same thing,” says Motoaki, “art is not just one thing, it’s different for everyone.”

“Why not live for Art? II” is worth a visit for its insights into how Japanese tastes in art are changing (and by proxy, an overview of the galleries that are generating such change). Perhaps more interestingly, it also gives you a peek into nine collections of someone else’s dried-up palm branches.

“Why Not Live For Art II: 9 collectors reveal their treasures” at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery runs till Sept. 23; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.operacity.jp/ag/exh154/index_e.html