Art Fair Tokyo, the city’s premier art showcase, is always a pleasure to experience, and I’m sure this year’s event, to be held March 20-22 at the Tokyo International Forum, will have much to offer. But part of the fun of following Art Fair Tokyo is observing the constant struggle the event has to get into its groove.

Although it has been around, in one form or another, since 1992, when it launched as the Nippon International Contemporary Art Fair (NICAF), it has never truly found its rhythm. Every few years seems to see plenty of chopping and changing. For example, in 2010 there was G-Tokyo, a breakaway event for contemporary art galleries, which led to Art Fair Tokyo offering concessions to lure them back. Despite its long history, there is still something tentative and unsettled about Art Fair Tokyo, but this adds to its appeal.

This element of drama and uncertainty is encoded in Art Fair Tokyo’s DNA; at least, according to Misa Shin, executive director of the fair during the period from 2005 to 2010.

“Usually an art fair is based on an art market, but when NICAF started, it was the other way round,” she tells The Japan Times. “The fair was intended as a tool to help create the market. In those days, because of the bubble economy, there was lots of confidence, and people thought anything was possible.”

As the economic picture darkened, this all changed and the art institutions that had sprung up during the boom years started to cut their spending, leading to a collapse in the art market.

“They had spent a lot,” Shin says, “but in the wrong way. They did not support young artists or make the art scene sustainable.”

The turbulence this caused also undermined the confidence of individual art collectors, many of whom were “burned” in those years by the boom-and-bust cycle. To survive the difficult aftermath, Art Fair Tokyo took on the role — unusual among major contemporary art fairs — of bringing the more stable markets of antiques and traditional Japanese art into its tent. Over the years this has led to problems, such as dissatisfaction with the lighting levels that led to the G-tokyo breakaway.

But while it is easy to focus on things that went wrong or decisions that could have been made differently, Shin’s comments point to a larger issue, and something that will probably remain a perennial problem for Art Fair Tokyo: The fact that it is trying to be something it is not — namely, a Western-style art fair in a country that has its own unique art-cultural business environment. As long as this inherent clash is not directly addressed, Art Fair Tokyo is bound to continue its erratic progress.

The run-up to the 2020 Olympics may have some influence, as this is already starting to have an impact on other parts of Japanese society. Masami Shiraishi, the chairman of this year’s event and the president of the distinctive Scai the Bathhouse art gallery in Tokyo’s Yanaka district, thinks that there is likely to be something of a knock-on effect like there was in London.

“When the Olympics were held in London there were many cultural events and projects,” he writes in an email. “This initiative was called the ‘Cultural Olympiad.’ I expect that these kinds of activities will also increase in Tokyo, and I want to be able to appeal to audiences overseas. If Japan invests in an ‘art Olympics,’ then there are plenty of talented artists.”

Shin, however, is highly sceptical that the Japanese government will do the right thing, because government ministers or officials seldom take an interest in international art events such as the Venice Biennale or Art Basel, which holds major art fairs in America, Europe and Hong Kong every year.

“I don’t expect anything from the Olympic Games in 2020, because I am so disappointed in Japanese politicians,” she says. “They never go to the Venice Biennale or Art Basel. They never know what’s going on outside Japan. They keep talking about ‘Cool Japan.’ Cool Japan? They’re not cool at all! As long as the politicians are stupid and dumb, there is no future in the Japanese art market. They don’t know what ‘cool’ is.”

It is significant that although Art Fair Tokyo and its NICAF predecessor have been up and running for more than two decades, it is Art Basel Hong Kong that is now the premier show for contemporary art in Asia — even though it was only launched two years ago. This reflects the strength of the Chinese contemporary art market, but it is also connected to a particular weakness of the Japanese art market, according to Shin: a peculiarly Japanese inability to explain art.

“I think it’s because of English,” she says. “Japanese artists are not very good at speaking about what they are thinking. Japanese art education focuses too much on technique, and they are not educated to talk about their work or the concepts behind their work.”

This seems a valid insight. Japanese artists who achieve international fame, such as Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, tend to be more reticent about their work than successful Chinese artists, such as Ai Weiwei, who frequently communicates with the world through various forms of social media.

But this is still not enough to explain why Japan, despite the incredible talent of its artists, lags behind. A more significant reason is the social structure, with most Japanese seeing art as something you enjoy in museums rather than something you collect.

Most Western or international art markets rely on rich people buying art as a form of social signalling, in addition to its other attractions. A country like Japan, where most people see themselves as middle class, therefore has a disadvantage in developing a healthy art market. Recent economic trends may be helping, according to Shiraishi, but there is still a lag in general artistic awareness.

“I think the rich will increase, though we don’t really know what will happen,” Shiraishi says. “The affluent class in Japan may not have the same consumption patterns as the ones overseas. Even if the affluent class increases and there are more people buying art, what then happens to our awareness of art? The art market and the art scene are integrated, so if the affluent class is interested in the scene, how far will they penetrate it? This is when the strengths of those of us involved with art are tested.”

Shin, during her time as executive director, definitely had her strength tested. She explains that she did a lot of work educating people about the price of art.

“I tried to explain why this work was worth ¥100,000 but another work was more,” she says. “For example, this artist is a new artist, but that one has a career and has already exhibited at these shows.”

With Japanese collectors remaining timid, it is important to attract rich collectors from overseas, especially from China. This year’s event is timed to come three days after Art Basel Hong Kong, so that busy collectors can visit both events consecutively.

Luckily, despite diplomatic tensions between Japan and its neighbors, the art market seems to be immune to any negative effects, according to Shiraishi.

“In the art world, there is absolutely no sense of this kind of antagonism. Rather, in the art market, collectors and curators interact with each other in a way that is almost completely unrelated to the political situation with China and Korea,” he says.

This is good to know, because much of the contemporary art at this year’s event has a strongly Japanese flavor. Maybe artists and galleries are already anticipating a “Japan boom,” or perhaps contemporary art tastes have been modified by their close proximity to nihonga (Japanese-style painting) and antiques at Art Fair Tokyo. For example, the Arataniurano Gallery will be showing “reflection models” by Takahiro Iwasaki — suspended sculptures that reference historic Japanese landmarks — while many of the paintings, such as Tomoyoshi Sakamoto’s “Three Wise Girls: See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil (She dress up),” at the Art Lab Tokyo booth also tie in to a contemporary art aesthetic that has strong resonances with antiques and nihonga.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Shiraishi is keen to boost Japan’s artistic credibility by reminding the world of Japan’s important legacy in modern and contemporary art.

“I want people to be aware of this going forward,” he explains. “The reputations of postwar Japanese art movements like Mono-ha, Gutai and Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop) continue to rise, and this history is our asset. We can be proud of possessing a land that produced such arts.”

But while the past can generate pride and inspiration, it can also stifle the greener shoots of youth. No country seems a better example of this right now than Japan. A contemporary art fair that also includes antiques and nihonga should perhaps be a little wary about emphasizing Japan’s rich artistic past too much — in case it gets in the way of its future.

Art Fair Tokyo runs March 20-22 at the Tokyo International Forum in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. The fair is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. on March 20, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. on March 21 and 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. on March 22. A one-day pass costs ¥1,500 and a three-day pass costs ¥3,000 in advance (until March 19). Prices for passes go up by ¥500 on the day of the event. For more information, visit www.artfairtokyo.com.

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