Ginza’s Satani Gallery closes doors with clearance sale of collection

by Monty Dipietro

It was immediately evident that something was very different.

Owner Kazuhiko and his son Shugo were at their Satani Gallery, making last-minute preparations for the opening of yet another exhibition. As usual, a few insiders were milling around as staff members set the sculpture, hung the paintings and drawings and laid out the catalogs.

But there were way too many catalogs crowding the oversized table — a mini-library that included scores of the artists the Satani had shown in its 22-year history.

And there were way too many paintings and drawings — about 80, stacked close atop each other from floor to ceiling. The room looked more like a shopping mall print shop than one of Tokyo’s longest-running and most respected art spaces.

Sadly, a clearance sale is exactly what it is: A pair of back-to-back shows featuring the gallery collection will close out the exhibition schedule of one of Ginza’s, and Japan’s, most important art spaces. In late February, after a closing party, the Satani will lock its doors for the last time.

“The Satani Collection” is a bittersweet show. There are some vivid Tokei Tatsuno abstracts here, several representative horizontal line paintings from Maasaki Yamada, along with recent works from Thai sensation Navin Rawanchaikul and Russian conceptualist Ilya Kabakov. It is an excellent showcase of fine art from the varied collection of one of Japan’s most progressive galleries. It is also the swan song of an art space that will be sadly missed.

Shugo Satani, 40, was a Keio University political science student when his father Kazuhiko opened a small Kyobashi art gallery in 1978. Initially, Shugo shunned the scene, preferring rock and roll music and his Gibson Les Paul electric guitar to paint brushes and the weird world of Maasaki Yamada, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp that swirled around his artstruck dad’s circle of friends and associates.

Satani the elder kept dragging Satani the younger out to openings, though, introducing him to artists, and eventually the son began to develop interest.

“I didn’t have an art education from university,” explains Shugo, “but I learned from meeting artists. They were my teachers.”

By the time the Satani Gallery had moved to its present location in the early 1980s, Shugo was in for good.

Among the many high points in the Satani’s history, including a Paul Klee show that attracted an astounding 10,000 people to the 40-sq.-meter gallery over its two-month run, one of the things Shugo remembers most dearly is his first overseas trip representing the gallery, which took him to the Venice Biennale in 1988. At the time, contemporary Japanese art was not moving particularly well on the international market, and so Shugo was delighted when he made a ground-breaking sale of a Shigeo Toya sculpture to the Ludwig Museum in Germany.

The problem was that the Japan Foundation, which had assisted with the transportation of art works to the world’s most important art fair, was totally unprepared for the contingency of an actual sale. The well-meaning bureaucrats had prearranged for the return of all the art to Japan, and in order to avoid any paperwork problems at Narita, begged Shugo to first bring the Toya sculpture back to Japan, then send it to Germany.

“We had to go to the head of the Japan Foundation,” laughs Shugo, “to appeal for special permission to sell the piece.”

Twelve years later, the closing of the Satani does not portend well for the future of the Japanese contemporary art market. While Kazuhiko will continue to deal by appointment from his home, Shugo plans to open a new space, hopefully sometime this autumn. He hasn’t decided on a location yet, but he is sure it won’t be in Ginza, which has seen a number of galleries (such as the Humanite, the Te, and the Kamakura) move out over the last 12 months.

“I want to do something not only limited to the Japanese art market,” he says. “I don’t think I will have a large space like what we have here now, which is big by Japanese standards but small by international standards. I’ll have to operate in a new way, including focusing on art fairs and setting up a Web site.”

For the time being, the Satanis are focused on the task of shutting down. Shugo hopes to bring Navin Rawanchaikul to the Basel International Art Fair in June, and after that, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.