A dream venue for new artists

Chinzan-so is transformed into an exhibition space for 45 up-and-coming artists

by Lucy Birmingham

“I’m still a housewife so its amazing that an amateur can do something like this,” says DanDans founder and organizer Kazuko Aso, now presenting the contemporary art cooperative’s fifth exhibition titled “A Midsummer Dream” until Aug. 30 at Chinzan-so in Mejiro, Tokyo. “Maybe it’s because I have such enthusiasm for the artists and financially I didn’t want to gain anything for myself. Maybe this is why it’s been successful.”

A longtime art enthusiast, Aso started DanDans with its first exhibition in 2005 after learning about the severe lack of support in Japan for young, emerging artists. A nonprofit, all-volunteer venture, DanDans has helped launch and escalate the careers of about 170 artists. Some, like sculptor Ikki Miyake, who participated in the group’s third exhibition in 2007 at the Chanel flagship store in Ginza, have watched their careers take off. He recently had a work auctioned at Christies for ¥5,000,000.

Painter Yasushi Ebihara has also had success. “I bought one of Ebihara’s works in 2006 for ¥150,000 when he was having a very hard time selling,” says Aso. “Now his works are selling for 10 times that amount.” Ebihara first showed with DanDans in 2006 at the Gallery Concept 21 exhibition in Aoyama and then “graduated” after the 2007 Chanel show.

The DanDans name is derived from the Japanese character “dan” or “group” and the French word “dans,” meaning “in.” There are now over 100 member artists, but Aso’s aim is to quickly “graduate” them from the group. Securing gallery representation is one of the goals and a growing number of artists have been discovered by gallerists visiting the shows.

The artworks are sold by silent auction and artists will receive 70 percent this year. “This is an amazing opportunity for the artists,” says Julia Barnes, one of two curators chosen for this year’s exhibition. “Normally they would have to beg a gallery to get a show, with usually a 50-50 sales split, or pay thousands of dollars to a rental gallery. But at DanDans they don’t have to pay a cent.”

One of the few requirements for artists is that they help out just before and during their show. American ceramicist and Japan Times contributor D.H. Rosen assisted with English name tags, artwork titles and wording. His eye-catching work from his “Spawn” series, titled “A Midsummer Dream 1,” hangs at the exhibition entrance. “I think it’s a great project. Japan really doesn’t have a system in place for emerging artists to show their work,” says Rosen. “There are so many incredible spaces to show art in Tokyo, and all it really takes is someone with passion to make it happen.”

Admittedly, Aso’s influential connections have helped open doors, as evidenced by Chinzan-so’s generous offer to be venue host this year. A member of the powerful Aso family, her brother-in-law is Prime Minister Taro Aso and a sister-in-law has married into the Imperial family. This year’s first DanDans charity dinner will be attended by well-known personalities — art collectors, museum owners, company heads — who snapped up the 160 tickets. (Gifts for the guests will be donated by Givenchy, Bulgari and Baccarat.) “I think being part of the family gives me some good influence,” says Aso. “Sometimes though, the family image is not always positive and the result can be completely the opposite.”

Chinzan-so (“House of Camellia”) is located next to the Four Seasons Hotel in Mejiro. Now Tokyo’s wedding-hall extraordinaire, the property was once the home of a Meiji era prince. The 150-year old pristine garden remains a sanctuary away from the bustle of Tokyo, dotted with a traditional three-story pagoda, teahouse, pond, waterfall and lush winding paths.

Two banquet rooms and the garden are the main exhibition areas for the 45 artists. And like all previous DanDans exhibitions, Aso asked the artists to create works inspired by the location. Here it is marriage, celebration, and happiness — an uplifting palette for the glum economic downturn.

E nter first into the serene Pegasus Room curated by Seiji Shinohara, now senior curator at the Ashikaga Museum of Art. Highlights include Chiho Akama’s playful washi (hand-molded Japanese paper) shoes titled “Carp’s Climb in Waterfall.” While made in celebratory colors of red and white, the work points to resilience and peace with a waterfall subtly imbued with images of consumerism and warfare. Ryota Unno’s colorful, two-paneled screen titled “Hanahimorogi,” depicts a fun, festival-like Chinzan-so garden, parts of which have been used for the exhibition’s flyers.

The bright and lively Galaxy Room down the hall is an effective contrast. Curated by Barnes, owner of Nakaochiai Gallery and art production company NONACA, one is immediately drawn to a dangling display of red balloons shaped like camellia flowers inspired by the venue’s name. Created by installation artist and balloon wizard Jun Kitagawa, the raised tatami-mat center will be used for a traditional tea ceremony on Aug. 23. Nearby are Yuuki Inoe’s pair of giant, shiny salamanders that look ready to strut across the room. Titled “Tsurukame” and “Syochikubai” they are beautifully painted with traditional Japanese symbols of happiness and long life — crane, turtle and branches of bamboo, pine and plum.

Step outdoors onto the garden pathways into a rich cacophony of humming cicada and see Masako Kobayashi’s pretty yellow forms dangling from low tree branches. Titled “The Afterglow of Memory” and made of bandage wrap used for children’s wounds, the shapes include an infant’s gown, a teething ring, and a baby’s hat. To the right, floating in the pond, is a 40-meter long wooden zipper by Kitagawa. Executives from Japan’s No. 1 zipper maker YKK came to see the exhibit and jokingly asked why Kitagawa had the letters “JUN” on the tab instead of “YKK.”

Up the hill in front of the pagoda sit three small pagoda-shaped wooden panels painted with pretty 5-petal flowers in pastel colors. New York City-based installation and performance artist Megumi Akiyoshi created this work titled “Blooming Pagoda” as a reminder of the traditional bright colors used to paint the now faded Japanese temples and shrines.

Back down the pathway at the Kabuki Gate is a Japanese teahouse with a work by Dusseldorf-based artist Mihoko Ogaki titled “Milky Way-Breath 01.” The glass-fiber figure shaped like an old woman creates an enchanting cosmos in the darkened room with an inner light fading in and out, like rhythmic breathing, through thousands of tiny holes.

“It seems the world is now noticing that Japanese young artists’ work is quite interesting,” says Aso.

But the economic meltdown has affected art markets and emerging artists have felt a big pinch. Many have lost their part-time jobs. “One DanDans artist even told me that he asked his local bakery to give him the free, leftover crust from bread slices,” Aso reveals. “I really want to help these artists.”

“A Midsummer Dream,” DanDans Exhibition No. 5 is showing at Chinzan-so Garden (next to the Four Seasons Hotel Chinzan-so) till Aug. 30; admission free; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. For more information call (03) 3943 1111 or visit