The fab four of Japan's art scene

By focusing on local needs, 0000's curatorial creativity is impressing art-world insiders

by Edan Corkill

Yutaro Midorikawa looks like what in Japan is known as a soshoku-kei danshi — a herbivorous male. The carefully sculpted goatee, Clark Kent glasses (lensless, of course) and tight-fitting suit seem to advertise membership of that bracket of young men who have few goals in life other than to preen and play video games. Then he opens his mouth, and in an instant the stereotype is overturned. “I like to think of myself as a hunter,” he says.

That self-characterization is even more surprising when you consider that Midorikawa is in fact a curator, or a gallerist/curator — a profession that is rarely compared to blood sport. And yet there he was, in a Roppongi cafe earlier this week, 27 years old and cheerfully explaining that his ancestors were whale hunters in northern Japan, and that he, too, is involved in the pursuit of the “big game” that lurk beneath the “surface.”

And as the confidence, ambition and fearlessness suggested by that hunting analogy sink in, the events of the last few months, too, start to make sense. It makes sense, for example, how 0000, the gallery Midorikawa established in Kyoto in February this year with three other like-minded twentysomethings, has already produced some of the most creative art events seen in Japan in years; and it makes sense that a superstar like Takashi Murakami would have become so enamored of the group that he would entrust them with one of his galleries — Hidari Zingaro, in Tokyo’s Nakano district — for a month of exhibitions that started on December 16.

0000 first appeared on art radars in early April, when its enticingly labeled Art Fair Free almost upstaged the nation’s foremost commercial fair, Art Fair Tokyo. The new event, which was held at Vacant, a multipurpose space in Harajuku, was based on the concept that you should be able to barter, as opposed to just pay, for art. Over three days, visitors could “bid” for the exhibits by making written proposals for exchanges. The artists then selected which, if any, of the propositions they would accept.

With the real economy still in the doldrums, Art Fair Free’s alternative model was not only attractive on a superficial level, but it also held out the possibility of deeper change too — that the public would be forced to think about the value they placed on art.

Always on the look out for something new, art-world insiders made their way to Art Fair Free, and Midorikawa and his cohorts were there to greet them — armed with business cards indicating they were all Chief Executive Officers of 0000, a gallery in Kyoto. Of course no one had heard of “oh-four,” as they were told “0000” is pronounced, because it had only opened two months earlier.

Art Fair Free represented a dream start for a group that had germinated a year or so previously in, of all places, the northern city of Iwaki.

“I was running a small gallery up there,” Midorikawa explains. A graduate of Waseda University’s arts faculty, Midorikawa had drifted back to his northern hometown to run a gallery in a space owned by an acquaintance.

“I had met Nam HyoJun a few years earlier. We held this event in Iwaki together called ‘Super Art Party’ — four days of talking about the future of art,” he says, mentioning the first of his current three partners. Nam, a Japanese of Korean heritage who is four years Midorikawa’s junior, introduced him to Kim Okko, who is of similar heritage, and later they were joined by Soh Taniguchi.

All four were interested in “filling the gaps in the Japanese art world,” Midorikawa says. As a base for their activities, they set up the gallery in Kyoto — “Most of us were from the country, so it was hard to get a grip on a big city like Tokyo,” says Midorikawa — and promptly set about organizing events.

Art Fair Free sought to fill a “gap” that they sensed — that of a real understanding of art’s value on the part of the public — and later events continued in a similar vein. “Just a Party @ 0000 Gallery,” which was held in May, was just as its title claimed — a party they saw as an antidote to the art world’s staidness. “¥2010 Exhibition,” also held in May, offered several hundred artworks each priced at ¥2010.

“We felt that a lot of people would buy artworks if they were brought down to that price,” Midorikawa explains. A subsequent ¥2010 show was held at the Daimaru Osaka Shinsaibashi Department Store. “We had over 500 artworks dotted throughout the store,” Midorikawa says, half of which were sold.

The show represented a subtle — if not triumphant — return of the department store as an art venue. The large-scale retailers were once a bastion of the local scene, hosting exhibitions in dedicated spaces. 0000’s pairing with Daimaru suggests an important aspect of their activities. Sure, they are trying to “fill gaps in the local art scene,” but they are not doing so by aping the West. “The idea is to find new ways to enjoy art; ways that are suited to Japan,” Midorikawa says.

The four weeklong exhibitions that 0000 are organizing at Hidari Zingaro are indicative of this approach. The first, which is titled “We are 0000!” presents viewers with a gallery space whose walls are covered with the names of corporate sponsors — like the walls erected behind sports stars at press conferences.

“Usually, artworks go on white walls,” Midorikawa says, “but we wanted to see what would happen if you put them on walls that at the same time display the financial system supporting the show.” A total of 200 advertising packages were sold for ¥1,000 each.

The second show will feature oil-painters under the age of 20. “We had the idea for the title first,” Midorikawa admits, “and we liked it so much we made an exhibition to fit around it.” The show is called “Oil Shock!”

The third show will feature 26 artists from Kyoto and the fourth will be “0000! OH, HOT! — 0000 BL Anthology” — the explanation of which is best left to Midorikawa: “A manga-artist friend of ours, Maelie Makuno, came to the gallery one day out of the blue, and said, ‘I made this manga about you guys.’ “

It turned out that Makuno had used the handsome men of 0000, who happen to live together (“it’s cheaper that way,” says Midorikawa), as inspiration for a “BL” manga. “BL,” or “boy’s love,” is a delicately homo-erotic genre that has sprung up in recent years — in a similar vein to the soshoku-kei danshi concept.

“There are pictures of us sort of holding each other in all sorts of poses,” Midorikawa says. “We were like, yeah, let’s do a show of this!”

Bankrolling all four of these shows is Kaikai Kiki, the management company operated by the world-renowned artist Murakami. Having seen Midorikawa give a talk via an Internet live stream earlier this year, Murakami was so impressed that he sought out the group and later offered them the use of his space.

“I think (Murakami) just liked the idea of a bunch of energetic young guys doing new things with art,” Midorikawa says.

He’s not the only one.

“0000 Fest @ Hidari Zingaro,” which consists of four exhibitions, continues through Jan. 18. For details see