Only representations of the real thing


Something recurring — a style, a mood or a tendency that threads its way through the previous 12 months and, in doing so, traces a theme — that’s what I look for when it comes once again to appraising another year-in-art. This time round the resonating word is “representation.”

For appearance sake

While friendly champagne-and-cheese opening-party chats with an enthusiastic emerging artists is a delightful way to make a living, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The Tokyo art scene, from the black-clad comely gallery assistant, to the shiny white Apple laptop at the reception desk, remains something of a simulacrum, an attempt to re-create, as if on a movie set, the atmosphere of New York City’s West Chelsea or London’s Hoxton Square. The difference — and this is not a small difference but a fundamental one — is that there is almost no contemporary art market in Tokyo.

The relative social and economic uniformity of Japan from the postwar to the present did not engender a class of wealthy sophisticates with rarefied sensibilities, people who take pleasure in hanging the next big art thing on their wall to impress all their friends at dinner parties. Most Tokyoites, even affluent ones, do not have homes with expansive dining rooms, a temperature and humidity regulated basement and an attic storage space. Heck, most people in Tokyo don’t even have wall space. And so the successful Japanese artists continue to be those who can sell their work overseas.

Working the West

Japanese arts superstar Takashi Murakami knows this all too well. His book “Geijutsu Kigyoron” (perhaps best translated as the “The Artist’s Entrepreneurial Primer”) was a best-seller last year. In it, Murakami proudly, like a master thief boasting about “how I did it,” maps out the formula he has used to seduce the Western collector.

The crux of the book is that it’s not what you do but the way that you do it, and that this involves complementing lightweight computer-generated artworks with a heaping portion of meaty conceptualism. The book, published only in Japanese, provides insight into the tireless self promoter who is, in one respect at least, the Andy Warhol of our times.

Notwithstanding whispers of a scandal surrounding his high-profile involvement with the French fashion brand Louis Vuitton, Murakami’s work continued to do well at auction this year. His painting “Nirvana” went for $1,136,000 at Sotheby’s in May — a boom month that saw no fewer than 45 artists establish new records of over $1 million. Willem de Kooning, meanwhile, raised the bar for the most expensive postwar canvas ever sold, when his 1977 abstract “Untitled XXV” fetched $27.1 million at Sotheby’s in November.

The real thing

Back in Tokyo, the show of the year was “Africa Remix” at the Mori Art Museum. This was a cornucopia of color and energy, a terrifically designed, once-in-a-lifetime exhibition that crowned David Elliott’s tenure as director of the museum. More whispers were heard when Elliott abruptly exited the formal reception for incoming director Fumio Nanjo.

Impermanent art

Not far from the Mori, and scheduled to open in a few weeks, is the new National Art Center, Tokyo. That’s the good news. What’s disheartening is that the center, taking a cue perhaps from the Mori, will be yet another major Tokyo art institution without art.

Dovetailing back to the theme of “representation” — the prestigious new National Art Center, Tokyo, which, with 14,000 sq. meters of exhibition space will be the largest of Japan’s five nationally supported art institutions. It will surely look and act like a museum, but one without a permanent collection — the center plans to borrow all its art from other, real museums; renting out touring shows and that sort of thing.

One could say that a government’s real commitment to the arts is represented by it’s National Arts Center. This one is empty.

A dubious display

Honorable mention for dubious achievements goes to “Hard Gay,” whose entry in this year’s Geisei 10 art fair was a lifesize statue of himself bent over, his distended, pink-veined rectum spread to a diameter of some 20 cm. For those who don’t know, Hard Gay is as gay as Al Jolson was black.

A great artist?

The ultimate achievement in “representation” for 2006 has to go to painter Yoshihiko Wada, winner of the prestigious Education, Science and Technology Minister’s Art Encouragement Prize, awarded by the Agency for Cultural Affairs this March. Wada won the prize for a series of emotive oil on canvas works titled “Drama and Poesie.” But soon afterward, an anonymous tip to a couple of government agencies revealed that up to 72 of Wada’s paintings were direct copies of works that dated back to the 1970s by the Italian painter Alberto Sughi.

It was reported that Wada used photographs and an overhead projector to copy the paintings. He continues to maintain his innocence, variously claiming that he worked in collaboration with or as an homage to Sughi, a suggestion the Italian painter dismisses in his blog at AbsoluteArts, (http://blog.absolutearts.com/blogs/archives/00000272.html).

Finally, in June, a trio of functionaries at the Agency for Cultural Affairs came to the stupefying conclusion that, while it could not be directly said that Wada had plagiarized Sughi’s paintings, there was “not enough evidence to suggest that he did not plagiarize the paintings.” The prize was revoked, the first time that has happened.

Fond farewells

And so we wrap up the year of representation; a year when we lost dear old Nam June Paik and American Abstract Expressionist Larry Zox — and said goodbye to that crazy diamond, Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett. Thank you for reading my column over the past year, warm wishes to one and all for a happy and prosperous 2007.

And let’s try to keep it real.