Art

Who will bring home the Bacon this year?

by Lucy Birmingham

Francis Bacon will be participating in Art Fair Tokyo again this year — in spirit. No, not the renowned 16th-century British philosopher, or the famed Irish-born 20th-century figurative painter. But Francis Bacon, the kosher vegetarian, Budapest-born Irish Wolfhound, whose budding career as Tokyo’s most prominent furry art celebrity was sadly short-lived after his passing in 2008. His manager and beloved owner Joni Waka, universally known as “Johnnie Walker,” director of the art foundation A.R.T., created the juried Bacon Prize in the canine’s name to honor and support a specially selected artist.

Walker’s efforts to support artists and Tokyo’s contemporary art scene, over nearly 30 years, have been recognized worldwide.

“I started my nonprofit art institution called A.R.T., meaning Artist Residency Tokyo, a name created by Mori Art Museum Director Fumio Nanjo, to give a free space to avant-garde culture and artists-in-residencies,” he explains. “It’s to counter the prohibitively expensive gallery, theater and residency rental system in Japan.”

The idea for the Bacon Prize was born at the start of 101Tokyo Contemporary Art Fair 2008. At that time, recognized prizes included the Praemium Imperiale for older established artists, and foreign and corporate prizes for established Japanese artists.

“In Japan, up until then, there had never been a truly international young artist’s contemporary prize,” Walker says. “To give 101 a little bit more buzz, we decided to create the first alternative art prize, a satire on the Turner Prize, which is named after a dead artist.

“The Bacon Prize is named after Francis Bacon, the Irish-born artist and my kosher vegetarian Irish Wolfhound who we just called Bacon.”

For the first Bacon Prize in 2008, any artist of any nationality under the age of 50 shown by a gallery at the 101 Contemporary Art Fair was considered. British artist Jo Coupe, a strong conceptual artist represented by Workplace Gallery in Newcastle, England, was the winner.

The famed American artist Joseph Kosuth headed the jury committee and at the award ceremony and party, sponsored by DeLonghi’s restaurant in Daikanyama, he presented Coupe with the Oscar-sized statue of Bacon created by the young artist Shotaro Hokari. Much to everyone’s delight, ¥100,000 in prize money also was collected from among the attendees.

The award was moved to Art Fair Tokyo in 2009 and sponsored by The Peninsula Hotel. Candidates included any artist under 50 represented by a gallery in the Tokia section of the fair. The jury was headed by Nanjo, and included Francesca von Habsburg, the Archduchess of Austria and Chairwoman of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary. Artist Hiroki Tsukuda, with Nanzuka Underground gallery, won the prize and cash award.

Because the Bacon Prize has become so popular, this year Art Fair Tokyo has decided to expand the criteria to any artist under 40 represented by any gallery at the fair. Like last year, it is sponsored by The Peninsula Hotel, in front of which Hokari’s life-size statue of Bacon is now on display. The jury is headed by Helen Kelmachter, the French cultural attache, and includes Misa Shin, director of Art Fair Tokyo, curator Kenji Kubota and Walker himself.

“In doing my nonprofit art institution we’ve always had a dog as a mascot who inevitably gets included in the art world,” says Walker.

The first dog was a Welsh Terrier named Dylan Thomas, after the Welsh poet.

“A video artist, he was the first dog to have his artwork included in an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London,” explains Walker with deadpan sincerity.

One of Dylan’s video works was a satire on Natsume Soseki’s book “I Am a Cat,” which tells the story of the Tokyo neighborhood of Waseda through the eyes of a cat. Wearing little hats with high-tech mini-cameras, Dylan followed photographer Nobuyoshi Araki into Tokyo’s red-light district of Kabukicho, video taping what Araki photographed.

“The second dog was an art and theater critic,” explains Walker, still poker-faced.

An English Bull Terrier, named Sir Elton after rock star Elton John, this feisty fellow was the first dog to have his project shown at the Kunsthalle Wein (Museum of Contemporary Art in Vienna). It was a video titled “Sir Elton The Art Critic,” documenting his reactions to contemporary culture while strutting through Tokyo’s galleries, museums, public art spaces and theaters.

“Francis Bacon, the third dog, was the subject of various artists works,” Walker says with a wisp of nostalgia. “This included portraying himself in the 2007 art film titled ‘Kumiko, Johnnie Walker and the Cute’ by Swedish artist Magnus Bartas.” He was “the Cute,” says Walker about Bacon’s part in the film, which was inspired by Haruki Murakami’s book “Kafka on the Shore.”

A contemporary art award inspired by . . . doggie art stars? Surreal, yes, but satire mixed with the avant-garde can be wan-wan-derful.