Expat artists 'making a home' in NYC have little in common

by Manami Okazaki

For many Japanese artists who want to make it in the art world, New York City has yet to shake its image of being an art utopia where anyone can succeed: You’ll find representation by a hip gallery! Share cerebral discourses with art star Jeff Koons! And work in a loft of immense dimensions in the Lower East! Though this is an exaggeration, many Japanese continue to believe that New York is the place to solidify their dreams and secure a place on the international art circuit, away from the supposedly rigid social restrictions of Japanese society. No wonder, as the city is a cosmopolitan art-world hub that vanguard Japanese artists such as Go Sugimoto, Yoko Ono and Mariko Mori have already made their home.

The reality, of course, is different. For most artists, it’s probably more advisable to make it in Japan first. In the States, the aspiring creator has to face the obstacles of language and immigration formalities, all the while being a proverbial “struggling artist” beset by a level of competition that is exponentially high. Japanese artists, after all, aren’t the only ones who are — if they are going to make it anywhere — going to make it there.

New York’s Japan Society, in celebration of its centennial anniversary, is exploring this tendency in its current exhibition in New York, “Making a Home.” Put together by independent curator Eric Shiner, the show displays the works of 33 artists in disciplines such as painting, photography, fashion and sound art, by creators who all share the experience of “taking the initiative to leave Japan.”

“I wanted to look at their work as a diaspora community, the idea of migration, coming to a new place,” Shiner said during a recent interview in Tokyo. “Everyone had to fit the theme of making a home somehow, whether it was very transcendental and philosophical, or very direct. Somehow their work had to fit either emotionally or physically into that structure.”

The show features the works of notables such as Ono, Sugimoto, Yasunao Tone and Oshio Shinohara, and introduces a plethora of younger, emerging artists as well. For visitors, this should help them to see that there is a vibrant art scene beyond the established repertoire of Takashi Murakami, Kusama Yayoi and Yoshitomo Nara.

The ‘Japan’ factor

“Obviously Murakami is a very good artist, and technically amazing, but he has come to represent Japanese contemporary art across the board,” Shiner says. “And that is a problem, because there is so much going on. When people think of contemporary Japanese art now, they think of him, they think Louis Vuitton bags, they think little cherries and cute flowers. This has helped push Japanese and Asian art in general into the conversation, which is a great thing. But there is so much more going on than that.”

To judge from “Making a Home,” this is more than true. Besides their greater or lesser adherence to Shiner’s theme of displacement, there is little that is consistent in the works of these artists. They aren’t connected with each other, and they aren’t connected with the Japanese art world either.

In some cases, the works’ connections to the title is direct, as in Noriko Ambe’s “Flat Globe: Above NY” (2006), a photo book of cutout Manhattan skylines; Sugimoto’s heavily textured nightscapes, “Walk in the Night” (2003/2004); or Satoru Eguchi’s re-creation of a typical New York apartment, “Model for STUDIO” (2007). In others, the link is so tenuous as to make the reasons for their inclusion be indecipherable, as in Ayakoh Furukawa’s drawings of her deceased hamster in various morbid scenarios, “100 Ways to Torture the Innocent (Part of My/Your Mind” (2006).

With this diversity, the show is most successful in simply giving a cataloglike introduction to a group of Japanese artists who happen to be active in New York. But perhaps that is good enough in that it should wipe away the misconceptions that Shiner thinks Westerners have about Japanese art.

“There’s a surface understanding right now of what Japanese contemporary art is,” Shiner says. “The New York audience definitely has preconceived ideas. They’re on two levels: There’s the traditional one, cherry blossoms and tea ceremonies. But on the next — Japanese contemporary art specifically — maybe 90 percent of people, when I tell them what I do, they say, ‘Oh! Murakami!’ because he really has become a household name even in the West.”

For someone such as Hiroki Otsuka, who started as a manga artist before moving onto sumi ink and acrylic paint on wooden panels and paper, this is an actual advantage.

“I could have continued being a manga artist in Japan, but I like to face new challenges. Living in Japan, there were no more new possibilities, no opportunities to do things such as murals or erotic manga directly on canvases,” says Otsuka. “It’s feasible for me to be an artist in this city because there are spaces that allow me to do large pieces that find an audience because of the curiosity here toward pop culture, toward anime and manga culture.”

Otsuka says that he doesn’t try to pander to his audience though.

“My works in the past have used erotic manga as motifs, so I do feel that people expect to find a certain Japanese character to my work,” he says. “I don’t draw planning to meet expectations, but the things I want to express and the things New York wants to see from me, well, I feel like the timing is well connected.”

What’s in a name?

To the show’s credit, it carries a wide range of talent that doesn’t rely on Japanese themes at all. Many of the artists in the show even found the question of “Are you a Japanese artist?” unimportant. For them, the use of traits specific to Japan — such as well-known traditional motifs or neo-Pop — in their art work was too obvious, or simply not part of their agenda. Conversely, they, if not Shiner, suggest that most of the audience has moved beyond these gimmicks as well.

“The New York audience hasn’t expected any kind of ‘Japanese-ness’ in my works,” says photographer Katsuhiro Saiki. “Of course some people might, but then those kinds of people wouldn’t be interested in my work. I never consciously put anything ‘Japanese’ into it and never thought of doing so. However, maybe because I was born and raised in Japan, in the end, unconsciously it might be there.”

Some even feel more strongly about the question of the Japanese nationality.

“Who even cares about Japanese artists in New York?” photographer Noritoshi Hirakawa, whose works deal with sex, asks passionately. “What New Yorkers care about is what is profitable and fashionable for the moment — Chinese and Indian art are currently the most attractive to collectors because they are investments. In the end, art in New York can only be interpreted in the context of an American point of view by an American audience. When the market value of Japanese art increases, New Yorkers are going to say nice things about Japanese art, perhaps.”

Most Japanese artists who come to New York claim to avoid other Japanese because they want to immerse themselves in American culture, in many cases disconnecting themselves in the process from the Tokyo art scene as well. Mayumi Terada, who creates 3-D architectural interiors that she then photographs to create tranquil monochromatic scenes, finds isolation necessary for her art. Because of this, for her, living outside of Japan is highly beneficial. As a result of such attitudes, there isn’t much of a Japanese expat community among artists, and thus one of the show’s recognized successes is simply bringing these artists together, even if only temporarily.

A sense of discipline

If the grouping of them together reveals one thing, it’s that they all share a certain discipline in their creative process.

“I think they brought with them a fastidiousness, a true, strong dedication to the process of making,” Shiner says. “There is a true process of how they make things.”

Though this may sound trite, many critics have said in the past that the major difference between Japanese and foreign artists is their approach to their creative process. To put it bluntly, Japanese artists are often super-organized where many foreign ones have celebrated being messy. Western artists find this “process over product” philosophy awe-inspiringly “Zen” and ritualistic.

Besides this discipline and typical Japanese “ganbare! (work hard)” ethic, there also appears to be a joy at being an artist in the Big Apple that is obvious among those in “Making a Home.”

“As far as the art scene is concerned, New York is a city that accepts good things as good things,” says Yoshiaki Kaihatsu, who contributed “Happo-En in NY” (2007), a Zen-like polystyrene teahouse, to the show. “When you are living overseas, social skills are equally as important as language skills. I struggled at first because I didn’t know the language, but in the end there were new ways of working that came out of my time there. So adverse circumstances aren’t always a negative thing.”

“There are many dormant possibilities for artists in New York, and it’s not terribly difficult to access them. But it’s really up to the individual,” says Otsuka. “Here I was told, ‘Believe your intuition,’ and instantly my worries disappeared and I thought, ‘It’ll all be fine.’

“After that, if you get some kind of inspiration, ‘Just do it,’ ” he jokes.