Reasons for smiles after the disasters


I participated last Sunday in a thing called the “Dean Martin Memorial Stop Misery Outreach Action.” This is a public happening that goes back some 10 years in Japan, and involves distributing one hundred martinis — shaken on the spot, with uncommonly good gin and vermouth, garnished with pimento-stuffed Spanish olives, and served in crystal cocktail glasses. The nearly surreal event occurs on the day the famous comedian and lounge singer died, Christmas, and manifested itself this year in the middle of a homeless encampment in Chuo Park, across from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Accompanying the martinis was Dean Martin’s music, merriment and crapulence, along with warm bear hugs and wide toothless smiles.

The next morning I awoke to news stories marking the first anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and my mind drifted back to an art exhibition held last October to commemorate the disaster in the southern Thai province of Phuket. Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara’s contribution to the show was one of his cartoonish plastic dog sculptures, and I recalled thinking, when I read Nara’s comments at the time — “I only hope that someone can feel rekindled or relieved to see my dog” — that he had trivialized the suffering the tsunami had wreaked.

Maybe I was wrong about Nara. Maybe it’s about all we can do to try to make people smile for a moment, and maybe that moment matters more than we imagine. I hope that you can be happy in the here and now, and you can then make someone else smile for a moment. Maybe that spirit will spread, and maybe this coming year will be better than the last.

It’s not that 2005 was all bad, but the fact that some are referring to it as the “Year of the Disaster,” does not bode well for its place in history. In contemporary art, there were as usual the ups and downs. I’ll focus on the “ups.”

The funniest moment of the last 12 months happened on Shinjuku Dori on a chilly Sunday last February. Canadian artist Istvan Kantor, in town for the Nippon International Performance Art Festival (NIPAF), had just finished an improvised street performance with fire and megaphone (Shinjuku Dori is closed to vehicular traffic on Sunday afternoons), when a quartet of Tokyo police arrived to investigate.

With flames still dancing from the remains of a rubber cement design Kantor had made on the asphalt, the unamused cops looked round the crowd of a hundred, brusquely demanding the person or persons responsible come forward.

There were young and old alike, Sunday shoppers and families, even — almost all Japanese. And there among them was Kantor — with his shock of erect white hair, wearing dark sunglasses, dressed head to toe in black combat attire save a blood-red armband.

There were giggles all round as Kantor tried to blend in with the crowd. It was an incredible sight as he stood his ground with a “who, me?” look on his face, and such was his pluck that although he was scrutinized for a long time he was never challenged. When police turned their attention to stomping out the flames, Kantor slipped away. NIPAF organizer Seiji Shimoda made apologies, the police withdrew, and Kantor was allowed to finish his string of scheduled Japanese performances through March.

Spring in Tokyo saw the flourishing of a new contemporary art space, the Nakaochiai Gallery ( www.nakaochiaigallery.com ). The storefront space is located on an old shopping street in a typical shi tamachi neighborhood. New Zealand-born owner Julia Barnes emphasizes the gallery’s relationship with the neighborhood, and the evening I visited the doors were wide open so that passersby in the street could see a video screening.

Also noteworthy, last summer, was the opening of avant-garde artists’ collective Command N’s new space, located in an expansive former warehouse space in Kanda, Tokyo, and called Kandada ( www.commandn.net ).

The autumn, of course, saw the relocation of several of Tokyo’s leading contemporary art gallerists (Taka Ishii, Tomio Koyama, Hiromi Yoshii, Shugo Satani) to a shared building in Kiyosumi.

Because my columns last year included a contact address, I frequently received e-mails from artists asking how they might learn more about the Japanese contemporary art scene — where are the good galleries, how to get a show, that sort of thing. There are a couple of excellent resources, both relatively new: The first is Art iT ( www.artit.jp ), a bilingual print magazine which covers the Tokyo contemporary art scene in some depth. The second is Tokyo Art Beat ( www.tokyoartbeat.com ), an excellent interactive gallery and museum listings Web site.

As for showing in Tokyo, the easiest way make connections might be Design Festa ( www.designfesta.com ), a “freestyle international art event” held twice a year. Anyone can participate by simply renting a booth, and attendance runs in excess of 50,000. Much less stressful to start here than to try and crack one of the few (several dozen at most) respected Tokyo galleries that show contemporary art on a straight commission basis.

While the Japanese contemporary art market continues to be weak, it was encouraging to see the debut of the Tokyo Art Fair last August ( www.artfairtokyo.com ). Organizers declared the fair a success, and although the number of booths and visitors was small considering Tokyo’s size, the fair marks a step in the right direction.

Internationally, it was another great year for contemporary art, so good that it prompted pundits to speculate that the bubble may burst in 2006. The most expensive contemporary piece sold at auction was American artist David Smith’s “Cubi XXVIII,” a 1965 metal sculpture bought by dealer Larry Gagosian for $23.8 million at Sotheby’s New York on Nov. 9th.

Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series of Henry VIII wax statue photographs sold for $744,000 last year, setting a record for the artist. His “End of Time” show at the Mori Museum was the most elegant show of the year in Tokyo.

My favorite artist of the year was Tomoko Konoike, whose staggeringly surreal wolf-girl painting series is set for completion in 2006.

The most fun in 2005 was at the Yokohama Triennale. Many friends have told me they thought it might have been a little too fun — with its circus theme, and its exhibits, like a gigantic soccer table, that looked more like amusement park attractions than artworks.

Is there such a thing as too much fun? Perhaps so. But one thing for certain is that smiles can be rare, and are to be treasured. I imagine Nara’s cute plastic dog sculpture brought smiles to the faces of a few children living in the aftermath of a killer tsunami, and I know the Dean Martin cocktail action lit up the faces of some destitute old homeless men last week. That can’t be bad.