Today, in case you didn’t know it, is Thank You Art Day, a day to celebrate contemporary art made by anyone anywhere. Artist Yoshiaki Kaihatsu, a Tama Art University graduate, began the annual event in 2001 with an eye to, as he says, “vitalizing the Japanese art scene, because the Japanese art market is very weak.”
Kaihatsu chose March 9 for this purpose because the date is pronounced san-kyu in Japanese (literally, three nine, or the ninth day of the third month), which, when speaking without the “th” sound, approximates to the English expression of gratitude.
A seemingly thin concept. But Thank You Art Day (or 39Art as it is written on posters and the official Web site) has developed quite nicely. In the early days there were but a handful of people involved, but by last year more than 100 artists, galleries, museums, and others had joined the celebration.
Today, in Japan mainly but also in North America, Europe and elsewhere in Asia, Kaihatsu is expecting about 150 participants. And you can push that number even higher: If you draw, paint, take photographs or make art of any sort, put your best pieces up in your window at home or at work for passersby to see. Afterward, you can e-mail Kaihatsu with details of your ad hoc exhibition and be added to the official list of participants. You could also head out to an art space and even buy some art.
Many galleries and museums are offering discounts or serving refreshments to mark 39Art Day, and some will continue to do so through next week. At Kaihatsu’s urging, many have adopted the German Rundgang system and extended their opening hours today (Rundgang means “tour” in German, and one day each month galleries stay open late so people can make their way round them after work.)
I like the concept of 39Art Day because it has a simple but important goal — to swing open the doors, make a little noise, and get more “ordinary people,” into galleries. And that is something the Japanese art scene desperately needs. There are many opinions as to why contemporary art is undersupported in Japan. Actually, that perception depends on perspective — compared to South Korea, Thailand or other Asian countries, Japan has terrific number of good galleries where a lot of money is changing hands. But due to the economic strength and apparent modernity of Japan, we tend to compare its art scene to that of Western countries, in which case it stacks up unfavorably — perhaps because many Japanese don’t have sufficient space to hang art on the walls of their smaller homes.
By way of comparison, I remember visiting a gallery in New York City’s West Chelsea some years back. The owner excused herself to answer some questions from a middle-aged man who had walked in. Presently she returned to our coffee and chat, even as an assistant came out to take down a painting and pack it into a box for the man. Somebody had bought a piece of art, just like that! I was fairly shocked — in the more than 10 years I’ve been calling on Tokyo galleries I never witnessed such a casual sale. Buying art, which should be fun, can be exceedingly formalized in Japan.
Participation in 39Art Day is wide open and entirely without rules, and this has made for some quirkiness. Fabric artist Kadowaki Atsushi is accepting spools of yarn from anyone; she will make these into an artwork and send back a photograph. FADs Art Space in Kunitachi is lending out bicycles for neighborhood sightseeing tours. Gallery Gen in Ginza is giving editioned calendars to anyone who says “Give me a calendar.” New York artist Rhonda Schaller is serving tea in her Franklin Street studio.
I spoke by telephone to Kaihatsu, who spawned the 39Art Day idea, and as it happens will turn 39 this year. A self- described “media artist,” Kaihatsu may be best known for street performances such as his wage-slave-mocking “Brains Have Already Stopped” series, in which he appeared as a baby in a salaryman suit, as a commentary on “how Japanese companies create people who are adults physically but still children mentally,” as he said to me.
Kaihatsu will spend today giving out photographs in New York City, where he currently lives and works. “I wish that 39Art Day could be like Christmas Day or Valentine’s Day. My aim is for a special day to express thanks to someone through art, or to send a present to yourself.”
More power to 39Art Day for attempting to demystify contemporary art and inject some vitality into the often stuffy scene in Japan (and around the world). At present there is no worldwide contemporary art day, but if this rate of growth continues, 39Art Day might become something like that.
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