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Artists’ lives are seldom easy, but the reality they face in Japan can be particularly daunting.

Government or social support is practically unheard of, and simply finding a space to show work can present a financial nightmare. With Tokyo’s most coveted gallery spaces commanding astronomical weekly rental fees, most artists end up putting in endless hours at part-time jobs just to afford the opportunity to exhibit their work.

Art enthusiast Kazuko Aso thought this situation was absurd, and became determined to do something about it. Born in Tokyo, Aso fondly remembers the weekends she spent exploring the galleries of Ginza with her father, an avid collector of oil paintings.

In 2005, Aso’s son introduced her to Aki Fueda, who had been struggling to continue her craft after graduating from the Tokyo Geidai oil-painting department in 2001. Fueda described how she and her friends rarely had the opportunity to show, and when they did they chose modest venues that they could afford in the suburbs, far from the fierce foot traffic and deep pockets of the midtown crowd.

“Artists everywhere have a hard time (making a living), but this is especially true for Japanese young people because the government support in Japan is very small,” said Aso in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “So I started looking for a space that would offer artists a place to show for free.”

That simple idea sparked the DanDans project, a Tokyo artist collective that has produced three group shows since its inception in 2005. Aso began by asking who might be able to help provide a space. A friend who owned a tailor shop a stone’s throw from some of Ginza’s most famous galleries offered his store.

Never having curated an art show before, Aso enlisted the help of Christine Vendredi-Auzaneau, a fine arts PhD living in Japan as a fellow from the Getty Museum. With a team in place, all they needed was a body of work.

Fueda gathered about 40 artists who transformed the shop into a gallery. This first exhibition was such a hit that when the artists asked Aso to produce another show, she couldn’t refuse. DanDans — a combination of the Japanese character dan, meaning “group,” and the French word dans, meaning “in” — became a long-term project.

“It’s not really a group; it’s more of a loose collective,” says Fueda. “It’s not like we feel the need to do everything together. When opportunities arise, we let everyone know, then members who are interested can participate.”

DanDans currently has some 90 registered members who may apply to join each show. Aso makes the final decisions on participation, and pieces are sold through a silent auction system. As the exhibition spaces are always free, 90 percent of the income goes directly to the artists, while 10 percent is pooled into a fund for future shows. In a city where artists typically pay up to 50 percent commissions on sales (in addition to rental fees), the system is a godsend.

Through a mutual acquaintance, Aso arranged a meeting with Richard Collasse, president of fashion label Chanel in Japan, who invited DanDans into Chanel’s Nexus Hall on the fourth floor of its Ginza store for “Le Monde de Coco,” the group’s third and current exhibition. The theme of the show — which spans a wide range of media and styles — is the life of the fashion label’s founder, Coco Chanel, as seen through the eyes of contemporary artists.

Interpretations of the Chanel theme range from the elegant to the outlandish, the subtle to the self-evident. Architect and painter Kasumasa Noguchi playfully weaves Chanel’s eminent trademark in his acrylic painting “Double C in the Mirror,” while Fueda’s “COCO-u (Stairs)” provides a more subtle reference to Coco, portraying the quiet stairwell in Chanel’s first boutique in Paris at 31 rue Cambon. Ikki Miyake sandwiches one of his trademark Asian female figurines between two cubes in a whimsical play on the Chanel perfume bottle. Titled “No. 19 Susashi-Kotoba ‘Perfume,’ ” the artist insists that the carved piece emits a woody fragrance.

Many artists bring the theme closer to home by including Japanese cultural references in their work. Mai Miyake’s “Chanel Good Luck-Bringing Pitchfork” is a modern-day kumade, a traditional talisman made popular in the Edo Period (1603-1867). But instead of the fake coins and flowers of traditional pieces, this kumade’s trimmings include a perfume bottle and purses, a la Chanel.

Perhaps the most intriguing piece in the show, Shyuhei Ohno’s “Interior,” is a seemingly impossible combination of organic materials and polyester resin. The curious amalgam features delicate bonsai-esque tree branches carefully pruned into the Chanel Double C.

Though some pieces tackle the show’s theme with more creativity than others, overall the selection strikes a nice balance of paying homage to Coco without smacking of commercialism — if shown out of context, many of the pieces would be difficult to link to the brand. By the end of opening night, more than half of the 20 artists had bids placed on their pieces, and it was clear that the Chanel show was going to be another success for DanDans.

As with all success stories, DanDans has had its share of growing pains. With more and more artists wanting to join, the group’s founders are finding it hard to stay true to DanDans’ original free spirit and handle the growing logistic challenges. There is talk of setting some restrictions on membership, but as the person who handles most of the administrative affairs, Fueda is looking at things from a pragmatic perspective.

“There is a lot of work that goes into producing these shows,” says Fueda. “I want to create a system where the artists have a role in the production as well.” Fueda believes that accepting these responsibilities are key steps to becoming a successful artist. “In Japan, the link between artists and society is really weak,” she says. “But to meet supporters like Kazuko Aso, to work for a larger audience, we are taking a step toward becoming members of society, toward independence. I would like DanDans to help enable that transition.”

And what better rite of passage from struggling artist to active member of society than an exhibition at Chanel’s flagship Ginza store? The free-spirited and business-savvy Coco would certainly have approved.

“Le Monde de Coco” runs till Aug. 12 at Chanel Nexus Hall on the 4th floor of the Chanel Ginza building; open 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; entrance free. For more information, call (03) 5447-3079. For inquiries about DanDans, send an e-mail to dandans-2005@yahoo.co.jp D.H. Rosen is a ceramic artist based in Tokyo. He welcomes comments at yakimonos@earthlink.net

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