Tokyo art space battles against the current

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

Koichiro Osaka, the founder of an eclectic art project space in Asakusa, and I meet at a cafe in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Station. From where we are sitting we have a bird’s-eye view of a briskly moving, and interminable stream of dark-suited salarymen and women rushing to catch their trains after work.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” I ask.

“I’m not sure if it’s good or not, though,” replies Osaka, drily.

I don’t realize until after the interview, when he has told me about the meandering path in life he’s taken since dropping out of Waseda University, what he means by this. Hearing complaints about uniformity from Westerners in Japan is par for the course, but it’s not something you hear often from Japanese people.

At the time of writing, Osaka was moonlighting at L’institut Francais du Japon in Kagurazaka, helping with its program of events commemorating the civil unrest of May 1968, when students and workers clashed violently with the apparatus of the French state and came up with inspired graffiti, such as “Under the paving stones, the beach!” and “You will all finish up by dying from comfort.”

Last year, his gallery, a converted Showa Era (1926-89) house in Asakusa, hosted a beautiful exhibition of archive documents and images on French philosopher Guy Debord, author of “The Society of the Spectacle” and creator of the concept “psychogeography.”

In the domestically scaled confines of the two room building, Debord’s work came alive in a way that a major museum, or more conventional white cube-type space, may have trouble achieving. There are a few reasons for this, but one is that Osaka clearly places as much, if not more, emphasis on the social context of art production than on showing if off as eye candy.

Repurposing old buildings to show art is becoming increasingly mainstream in Japan, but the route by which Osaka ended up creating the Asakusa gallery has been circuitous, and an odd mix of chance and determination.

As Osaka tells it, the gallery started with him trying to write a novel while he was at Waseda University as an undergraduate majoring in human sciences. His interest in literature, and a sense of dissatisfaction, led him to drop out and move back to his native Hokkaido. From there he intended to visit Vietnam, after being intrigued by the tonality of the language, but ended up in Thailand (“the ticket was cheaper,” he says). First teaching Japanese in Bangkok, Osaka later met, and started working with, another Japanese ex-pat who was running a small enterprise selling air purifiers and “washlets” (toilet seats with built-in bidets). Osaka eventually spent a total of three years in Thailand.

His experience in Southeast Asia prompted him to move to Bath in England to study economics and social policy. Though he was fired up at the time about the possibility of changing society and studying something that could have concrete results in the real world, Osaka didn’t get to the end of this degree either.

“I was very sure about what I was doing at any given point, but it didn’t last that long. It’s like a relationship, you fall in love but then it just doesn’t work out,” he says of moving around and trying different things.

Realizing that he didn’t have the right aptitude for economics, Osaka next moved to London. He started thinking about the visual arts, going to galleries and meeting artists for whom social and political issues were important. This led to another stab at university, this time a four-year BA in art criticism and curation at Central Saint Martins. This discipline he stuck with until the end and, after moving to Berlin, Osaka had an interview with the owner of the established Tokyo contemporary art gallery SCAI The Bathhouse.

Their taste in artists differed, and it was first suggested that the newly graduated Osaka may be better off working as a museum curator. When he was quizzed as to whether he’d ever sold anything “because that’s the business,” however, he was able to talk about what he’d done in Thailand. This went down well with his interviewer and a month later Osaka was invited to work at the gallery in Tokyo.

The regular income of working at SCAI The Bathhouse enabled Osaka to turn a run-down house in Asakusa he found into the gallery space he runs today.

“This took more than a year because I didn’t have a network of friends and I didn’t know how to use power tools or build a wall, nothing. It was DIY every weekend, asking people how to do things. I was also living there at the same time,” he says. “That was miserable. I was taking out the ceiling, taking out walls, and it was very dusty. I was sleeping in a sleeping bag for the first phase of this gallery project.

“I was also working at SCAI The Bathhouse Monday to Friday, so I didn’t have much of a life. You can say it’s a realistic portrait of working life in Tokyo,” he says, as a steady stream of people flowed below us during Tokyo rush hour. Opening the gallery in 2015, Osaka spent the first year living there, while holding exhibitions. He would roll up his futon, and stash it out of sight with his other personal belongings when necessary.

Recently he set up house in a low-rise office building, but, it turns out, he is creating another project space there too.

“I’m trying to invite artists to stay, and I thought that while they’re there (at the project space) I can stay at the gallery. It’s not because I want to live there, but I have to make financial ends meet somehow,” he says.

I ask Osaka if he is any less dissatisfied with life now. He hasn’t written a novel, as he once set out to do, but he has created a very unique space that holds shows with a rare critical edge for the generally genteel and conservative Tokyo art scene.

“The main thing is that I get to work with people I like and respect, that’s the top priority. I want to feel good and alive,” he says. “The money comes afterwards, hopefully.”

For more information on Asakusa, visit asakusa-o.com.