It’s a paradox: while Tokyo is one of the ugliest cities in the world, the Japanese are a naturally artistic race. Not just the artists themselves, but many ordinary Japanese seem to combine a keen aesthetic sense with craftsman-like skills and diligence. So, why hasn’t Tokyo’s contemporary art scene done a better job of establishing itself on the international stage?
Although not attempting to answer big questions like this, "Art Space Tokyo" — a compact, attractively designed book that sets out to serve as a guide to the city’s art galleries and museums — nevertheless manages to throw a lot of light on many of the broader issues surrounding Japan’s contemporary art scene.
Subtitled “An Intimate Guide to the Tokyo Art World,” the book limits itself to the personal preferences of its authors, Ashley Rawlings and Craig Mod, and, through a variety of texts, develops what Rawlings describes as a “narrative web of the Tokyo art world.” Each of the 12 venue vignettes are backed up with interviews with people from the galleries and articles about related aspects of the art world.
This approach gives the book a "magazine" feel that makes it fresh and easy to dip in and out of, but also leaves it a little too trendy and time sensitive. As the art scene continues to morph and mutate, this work is likely to date more quickly than one focused on the recurring themes and wellsprings of Japanese art. The fact that personal preferences and connections were important in this project also gives it a slightly cliquey, art insider tone, but this is mitigated by the clarity of the language, which, for the most part, successfully avoids the jargonism and dog-whistle phrases that normally litter art criticism.
So, what do we learn from this book? Most of the useful information comes from the unguarded comments of Japanese interviewees rather than from the essays, which are mainly written by foreigners. For example, Yukihito Tabata, co-director of Tokyo Gallery and BTAP, Ginza, sheds some light on one of the main issues facing contemporary Japanese art: its eclipse on the international stage by China.
“When artists are poor, then they devote everything they have to selling their work and making more work,” Tabata explains. “When I started to handle Chinese art in 1989, Chinese artists were putting everything they had into their work, and it was really interesting, whereas Japanese artists were producing theirs in the middle of the economic bubble, and it wasn’t of good quality. Now it’s completely the other way round.”
Japan’s relative isolation also handicaps its art scene in a number of ways. Collectors from Asian countries — like the newly affluent China — continue to feel historical antipathy towards Japan.
“I would say that 98% of Chinese collectors don’t buy from Japan,” Tabata reveals. In addition to suffering from “war-lag,” Japanese art also suffers from what Takashi Murakami calls “peace-lag,” the infantilization of a country insulated from serious problems — war, poverty, the racial tensions of multiculturalism, etc — that often feature in contemporary art in other countries. This artistic neoteny is something Murakami has himself hypocritically encouraged through his own rather childish otaku art.
The disconnection of Japanese art from the rest of the art world has made it hard to evaluate and therefore subject to hype. This has, in turn, created price instability and burnt investors. That’s one reason why even domestic collectors continue to be wary of contemporary Japanese art; while for the public in general, it remains something of a turn-off, as the masses continue to flock to almost any exhibition of traditional Western art in town.
Although this book provides many interesting insights into Tokyo’s contemporary art scene, perhaps the most salient is this: in the city that hosted the three best-attended exhibitions in the world last year, most of the twelve venues in this book are so sparsely attended that you can usually hear a pin drop.
This review originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today