I would estimate that for every artist sipping champagne at an opening reception — clad in Gaultier and coiffed with contrived insouciance — there are hundreds of other artists sitting alone in cheap apartments eating cold noodles. “Starving artist” may be a cliche, but the truth is that most people making art don’t make much money at all. They do have those noodles, and have about as much social status as an earthworm.

Permit me to stray a little and offer this tidbit of wisdom from the people at Rising Mist Organic Farms: “If it were not for the earthworm, it is entirely possible that civilization as we know it would never have developed at all!” See, the fertility of the Nile Valley, and hence the rise of Egypt, were due to the presence of burrowing earthworms.

Cleopatra herself decreed the earthworm a sacred creature. In the modern era, the starving artist plays a similarly vital role in the development of urban environments. It goes something like this: Neighborhood is derelict for whatever reason, rents fall, and poor artists move in because they can get more space for less money. Soon, cafes, shops and clubs open which, because of their location and artist clientele, tend to be cheap and interesting.

The neighborhood’s bohemian cool attracts trendy non-artists, who come to eat, shop and live, and soon property value rises. Eventually, artists can no longer afford to live there, and so seek out and burrow into some other derelict neighborhood, and the process repeats itself.

Tokyo has its expat communities, its high-fashion strips and its red-light district — but apart from the musicians’ enclave of Koenji, it does not have a real artists’ neighborhood. The producers of “CET” (Central East Tokyo) project want to change that, with an extraordinarily ambitious art exhibition titled “Re-Mapping Tokyo.” A ragtag team of visionary designers, artists, curators and architects, the “CET” organizers initially aligned their project with the Tokyo Designers’ Block. But this year they are going it alone, and have put more than 120 artists into some 50 disused buildings in an area spanning Ochanomizu and Kanda in the west, the Sumida River on the east and Nihonbashi to the south. The shows will be up for 10 days and offers a unique opportunity to see emerging artists showing in unassuming spaces.

The idea has been realized against what must have been tremendous challenges in planning and execution — testimony to the dedication of all involved. Explains Noriyuki Tajima, one of the project’s directors: “This whole area is in decline due to the economic slowdown. Development shifted elsewhere during the bubble years and so now the landowners have empty spaces. Most of them didn’t believe there was a possibility of young people coming into East Tokyo. They didn’t believe in the potential for converting this neighborhood. But we brought many people in here last year; they saw the buildings and it gave them an introduction to this neighborhood. This year we have about double the number of spaces.”

The “CET” Web site ably outlines the project, introduces participating artists and maps out the venues. Finding one’s way round is made easy by the 2-meter-high red “CET” banners flying outside each host space. The ad hoc galleries themselves vary greatly in atmosphere, but artists have generally adapted well to the different environments, most of which did not have, for example, the sort of directional track lighting one usually finds in contemporary art’s many white cube galleries.

Of course, some efforts are better than others, but from what I saw, the quality is surprisingly good. Keiko Tanaka, a recent graduate from Musashino University, is showing two three-minute videos, on a single television sitting on the floor in a closet off a stairwell in the Re-Know Building. One of the few renovated spots on the “CET” map, this is a realization of what some hope may be the future of this neighborhood. Although this is Tanaka’s first exhibition, the playfully surrealist videos are fresher and more interesting than most of what gets put up in established Tokyo galleries.

On the rooftop of the same building is a piece by Jiro Hirano consisting of 30 illuminated balloons. In turns flighty, dreamy and a little scary, suggestive of ghosts, this is a simple but effective installation, best viewed at dusk.

I also enjoyed the acrylic-on-canvas portraits of faces with real human hair by an artist who goes by the name “Shichibujin”; and “Gala Mirror,” an interactive piece by the tech-savvy duo of Asao Tokolo and Ken Imai, which is showing in an old 1930s reinforced concrete building near Bakurocho Station. Elsewhere, Takora Futori has set up a handkerchief shop, making and selling his busy red-on-white “lightning bolt” patterned work.

Down a dirty stairwell in the dank, dark basement of what was once a manufacturing company storeroom, we find Hiroki Tsukuda, Tsuyoshi Hirooka and Tomoki Kurokawa’s haphazard installation of paintings on cardboard and assorted found and treated objects. Here, the absence of electricity is made up for by the flashlights visitors can pick up at the door. This forgotten part of Tokyo lends itself perfectly to a day of discovery, but really (and not only because I’m a bicycle freak) the best way to experience “CET” is to cycle round the different spaces over a couple of days or more.

Many of the artists are on- site with their works, so you will be able to make a wealth of contacts should you wish. If you can only manage a day or are doing the tour on foot, you would do well to head for the congestion of spaces found just west of Kanda Station.

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