Changes in the creative landscape of Tokyo

COURTESY OF ReBITA

With the fears in Japan that its 20th century manufacturing strength is facing serious competition from China and other rapidly developing Asian countries, contemporary art and the creative industries are becoming the buzz in Tokyo. To help the transition from “software” to “hardware,” movers and shakers are looking to creative industries to not only lead the way, but even help people reconsider the work/life balance that has been accepted in the modern urban world of Tokyo.

Three new spaces are represent this new way of thinking: 3331 Arts Chiyoda, an artist-led initiative done in collaboration with the Chiyoda Ward government to turn an abandoned high school — with the birthrate declining, more schools around Japan are becoming redundant — into a profitable rental space for art-related businesses and NPOs; SOHO in Odaiba is a newly constructed building meant to provide a community-oriented office center for young design-related businesses; and Tabloid, the most recently opened project, features a renovated warehouse that once housed printing presses for the Sankei Shimbun newspaper and has now been repurposed by the real estate management company ReBITA as another space meant to foster cross-discipline interactions between young creatives. (You can see my full story on Tabloid in The Japan Times here.)

What is interesting about all these buildings is that while they align themselves with the excitement that has gradually been building about contemporary art in Japan, for the most part, they don’t appear to be engaging with the major players in the commercial art world — the galleries of Kiyosumi (Taka Ishii, Hiromi Yoshii, Tomio Koyama, etc.), as well as other big names like Scai, Wako, Mizuma, Radium — or with the new generation of young galleries such as the New Tokyo Contemporaries (at the opening for Tabloid, there were few of the usual Tokyo art crowd prowling around). Instead, 3331 is about community outreach and SOHO and Tabloid are more about design and business; which is fine, but does nothing to address some of the major issues facing the art world in Japan: that the local collecting market sucks; and that contemporary art in Tokyo often feels segregated from other creative fields, to its detriment. Hopefully in the future we will see interactions not only between those who occupy these buildings, but also with the galleries that are doing the best to promote great contemporary art, Japanese and Western, both here and abroad. (I can’t say anything specific, but it looks like this might be on its way to happening with one location.)

In a related note, Hiromi Yoshii announced last night during the press conference for Tokyo Photo art fair (to be held again this September), that he will be taking over the gallery T&G on Roppongi’s Imo-arai-zaka street. He plans to use the second space — with two floors and a bar (now that’s what I call a gallery) — for exhibitions that feature architecture, design, fashion and more, so there is the possibility that some unusual cross-genre projects could arise there.

Roppongi Crossing 2010

Video still of contact Gonzo from the 2008 performance “We're Gonna Go Dancing!! Vol. 9” at Beppu City Center, Oita; Toda Yoichi Photo/Courtesy of Mori Art Museum

I look forward to the triennial “Roppongi Crossing” exhibitions as a chance to see what the leading curators and critics in Japan are doing to present Japanese contemporary art in an international context. This year the show was not only drastically reduced in number, but contained a number of puzzling choices that made for a disjointed experience.

Include rabble rousers Chim | Pom in the show but seal them off behind glass as if they were dangerous to encounter in person? I thought that was their point — that art should get in you face. The six should have been given a whole room to desecrate so that viewers would have to stumble through the mess they left behind.

Rogue Gallery’s powerful sound and video installation of performances produced through recording night cruises in their Citroen is shut off behind sound-proofed doors you could easily walk past? How many people missed the chance to be mesmerized by flashing tailights and a throbbing motor? I think I would have greated people at the front door with this aural onslaught to let them know things were different around here.

contact Gonzo squeezed in next to Ujino so that it was hard to tell where one started and the other ended?

One last thought — the Japanese art market continues to struggle despite the great level of creativity here. I love installation art that creates immersive experiences, but the reality is in an underdeveloped market, 2D will still be king among the collectors that exist. At the yearly survey of 2D art held at the Ueno Royal Museum, “Visions of Contemporary Art,” it is always entertaining to see the breadth of taste among the 40 some curators, critics and professors who each pick one artist to join. But the result is inevitably disjointed and kind of a let down. What if the Mori had used its curatorial muscle to taken on 2D art in “Roppongi Crossing” — creating a “Best of painting/photography/new media in 2D” exhibition? What better way to find a way to seriously engage with the kind of work that you find in the best of Japanese galleries?

My publicly sanctioned account is here: “‘Roppongi Crossing’ may be better when crowded”

“Koh-Jutsu” exhibition charts a different course

The latest Roppongi Crossing exhibition, the Mori Art Museum’s triennial survey of Japanese contemporary art, opened on March 26. The Mori has positioned itself as an international venue from the start, when they assembled a very professionally managed English language PR department and made sure that their new existence was document abroad as well as at home. Thus the Roppongi Crossing surveys are a fantastic way to broadcast the art practices in Japan that are not always apparent to observers abroad.

The first two, held in 2004 and 2007, were comprehensive affairs that made the variety of trends in contemporary art here clear. Featuring 57 and 36 artists respectively, they had a lot to work from. The latest, unfortunately, suffers from too few artists on show — only 20 in 2010 — and a lack of an engaging curatorial vision. Looking back to the influential 1990s performance group Dumb Type, the exhibition tries to present socially conscious art, but the results feel dated rather than fresh and forward looking.

I discuss this at length in The Japan Times this coming Friday, but I wanted to mention here an alternative vision of what contemporary art in Japan looks like: The “Koh-Jutsu” exhibition at Spiral in Tokyo’s Minami-Aoyama. Arranged by Tsutomu Ikeuchi of Roentgen Werke gallery, “Koh-Jutsu” focuses on skill and technique, “the unique discipline of Japanese art”: “Koh” captures the meanings of adept, masterful, eloquent, while “Jutsu” — the second character in “bijutsu,” the catch-all term for fine arts — is an art or science.

Ikeuchi has selected 12 artists (Katsuyo AokiSeiji ArugaSatoshi UchiumiSakan Kan-noHideki KuwajimaYoshihiko SatoYoshihiro SudaAtsushi SuwaAkiko & Masako TakadaTetsuya NakamuraHaruo MitsuyaTakato Yamamoto) to demonstrate this quality of Japanese art,  resulting in a fantastic display of work. Kanno’s glossy globes in green, red and orange great visitors, revealing the intricate organic patterns that he paints in white across their bulging surfaces. Opposite these works is what appears to be the skeleton of some species from an unknown future stage of evolution by Tetsuya Nakamura. Both sets of works aptly show a care for craftsmanship and a perfectionism in execution.

Delicately cut  paper works by Akiko & Masako Takada and Seiji Aruga, fascinating x-rays by Hideki Kuwajima, and realistic wood-carvings by Yoshihiro Suda complete Ikeuchi’s argument.  (There is a good selection of images here.) Most importantly, while these works are intricate and celebrate craft, they all feel as if they are in the camp of contemporary art rather than being purely decorative. They are in conversation with the past of Japanese art while trying to find new ways forward.

While the exhibition is not comprehensive concerning the trends in contemporary art in Japan — which is not its intention — it could easily have been a gallery or two of Roppongi Crossing’s selection.

I put forward in Friday’s Japan Times that Japanese art is at a cross roads, shaking off the manga/anime influenced work of the ’90s and the MicroPop trends of the 2000s and moving into new territory. Ikeuchi-san has done an excellent job at Spiral of pointing out one of the new directions we can expect to see contemporary art in Japan thrive in. (Unfortunately the show is only for four days, so not enough will see it — but hopefully its influence will be felt in future surveys in Tokyo. )

Christo Interview

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "Wrapped Reichstag"in Berlin (1971-95) * courtesy of the artist and design sight 21_21

I recently wrote “The world’s most eclectic renter,” a story for the Japan Times about the exhibition “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Life=Works=Projects” at 21_21 Design Sight.” Christo had kindly given me an hour and a half of his time to talk about his and Jeanne-Claude’s life work. In a lively conversation that hardly needed my prompting, Christo revealed the complex paths that led to iconic artworks such as the “Wrapped Reichstag” (1971-1995) and “Surrounded Islands, Miami, Florida” (1980-83). If the JT wasn’t a newspaper, there would hardly have been a need for my input as Christo told the story clearly enough on his own. Therefore, here is the first half of the interview, with few of my interruptions to get in the way.

*****

Donald Eubank: What is the origin of your working methods?

Christo: The most important part in my early works is that fabric has a long tradition in the history of art, thousands of years. Artists used fabrics in their works art – of course not real fabric, it was done in bronze marble, wood. Actually, you can even recognize historical styles. For example in medieval sculpture, you have much more angular folds, whereas in Renaissance sculpture of Bernini and Michaelangelo, you have much more rounded folds. The fabric is a huge part of the work of art.

The greatest example of what fabric does in a work of art, is by French sculptor Rodin. Rodin did a version of a figure of Balzac the French novelist. The first version Balzac was totally naked, big belly, skinny legs and many of details. Seeing that figure, Rodin took the fabric cape of Balzac, put it in liquid plaster and shrouded the figure of Balzac that we have now in the Museum of Modern Art in Europe. Basically, he hides the details and highlights the principle proportion of the figure.

Now the wrapping projects, if you are familiar with the Reichstag, it is a typical Victorian building, we have ornaments, decoration, all kinds of decorative parts of the structure. All that was hidden by 100,000 sq.-meters of fabric, so when you see the “Wrapped Reichstag,” you see the principle elements of the building: towers, the proportions of the building. It is like classical sculpture. All the still photos you see, it is not the real thing.

All our projects are like living objects, moving with the wind, as the fabric is a very dynamic material that is extremely forceful in translating the wind or the movement of the water and all that. With the gates and the umbrellas, another important part is that the fabric reveals the nomadic nature of the projects. The transformation in the sites is very immediate because we prepare the project off the site, but the final installation, for example with “The Gates” in New York’s Central Park, took only two hours; the Vatican was under 15 minutes. It is very fresh, not brick by brick, or stone by stone.

The projects live in this nomadic dimension; because of their fragility, they will be gone, never to be seen again, meaning that we will never surround other islands, there will build another gates, never wrap another bridge. They are unique images, unrepeatable. Of course, all our projects create a special public who would like to be present at something that is once-in-a-lifetime, or “Once upon a time.” In the late 20th century and early 21st century, we are continuously surrounded by banal things, repetitious things. Humans like to be present at something that they can say to their grandchildren, “I saw it.”

*****

DE: How do your works differ from the installations that we see in museums and galleries now?

Christo: Traditional sculptural space is entirely decided by artists. Like the sculptures of Calder, they are very large, but all the shapes, Calder decided them; when you walk inside them, the way how you walk, Calder decided: All these forms and how they change. Even contemporary artists who use television and light, and they position one thing there and one thing there, this is the limit of traditional three-dimensional space of graphical sculpture or material sculpture.

The moment you go out on the street and walk on the sidewalk, though, someone else decided where the sidewalk is. You take your car and drive the car, someone decided the roadway: you have a red light and a green light. Actually, we are funneled 24-hours around the clock through highly regulated space designed by urban planners with meetings and jurisdictions. We are not even thinking about how we are controlled by these spaces.

What we do, Jeanne-Claude and myself, we borrow that space and create gentle disturbances for a few days. By borrowing that space, we inherit everything that is inherent in that space and make it part of the art. We didn’t invent the politics of the Reichstag, it was already Die Reichstag; we didn’t invent the ecology of Biscayne Bay, it was Biscayne Bay. Now the difference is that for 14 days in 1995, it was the “Reichstag Wrapped.” My sketches and drawings are about the “Wrapped Reichstag”; the still photos are about the “Wrapped Reichstag”; the films are about the “Wrapped Reichstag.”

I compare it to watching films about Vietnam. There is no blood, and no one is killed in the movie theater. You see images of people dying, but that is only about the Vietnam war. But all our projects have this reality with the real things – not illustrations, the real things: the real wind, the real sun, the real waves, the real surf. That is why these projects are bigger than our own imaginations.

This is also a very important thing: We don’t do commissions. We start the projects with a very simple idea, and during the permitting process, the projects develop their own identity and grandeur because they are so complex that we don’t know what will happen.

All the time with a project, we always try to find out who owns a place. There is not one square meter of the world that is not owned by someone — state, private, all kinds of things. In a very pragmatic way, we need to rent the space. We paid $3 million rent to the city of the New York to unwrap the gates in Central Park for three months. We paid $250,000 to the German nation to rent the Reichstag, not only the Reichstag but 1 km around it. All these spaces, they are extremely complex, with regulations, insurance, security, all kinds of things, because when we rent the place, it becomes our property for that time.

In the case of the Reichstag, when we tried to find out who owns the building, we discovered that the building is owned by 80 million Germans. Fortunately these 80 million Germans are represented by the 670 deputies of the German parliament. And we understand then that the only way to get permission is to have a majority of the parliamentarians supporting the project.

Jeanne-Claude and myself, we spend days and days talking for half an hour to one hour to the deputies of the parliament, and some say “No,” some say “Yes,” some say “I should say ‘Yes,’ but come talk to my constituents to convince the constituents why I should say ‘Yes.’ ”

The principal opponent to the project was the prime minister of the parliament at the time, the chancellor Helmut Kohl. Helmut Kohl did everything possible to defeat the project, changing the approval of the process from the simple signing of a piece of paper to a 70-minute debate in the parliament of the nation televised to 220 million spectators in the European Union. By this resistance to the project, Mr. Kohl elevated the importance of work of art to an unbelievable dimension. We were very gratified, and we defeated Kohl, and 70 members of the conservative party voted for the project.

All that, we didn’t know about back in 1971 when we started the project. This is why we do not do commissions. We like the work of art to build this power that is impossible to predict.

The same thing with the “Over the River” project, which is the first work of art ever to ever have an environmental impact statement. That is a federal law only required for building highways, bridges, airports. $2.3 million. Who paid? We paid. To prepare a study of how the “Over the River” project would affect the area. This is done only for the biggest human endeavors, and this is something that no work of art has ever had. That review is over 2,000 pages.

And this is the soul of our projects, this is the enormous power of our projects.

*****

DE: Is going through this permitting process and discovering what is necessary to take over a piece of property part of the pleasure of doing your projects?

Christo: All our projects have two distinct periods: The software and hardware periods. The software period when the work only exists in drawings, sketches, scale models and the minds of thousands of people who try to help us and minds of the thousand people who try to stop us. Do you know how many people try to stop us? For the “Surrounded Islands” project, petitioners sued us to the federal court. We had 70 lawyers.

For the “Over the River” project, there are people who think the project should not happen. It is a 40-mile project through valleys and towns, and there are people who think that the project will attract too many people and that it will be inconvenient and cause traffic jams. They think that Highway 50 will be so busy that if someone has a heart attack, they won’t be able to get to the hospital. So we say, “OK, we will hire a helicopter for sick people at our own expense.” That is called mitigation.

The software period is before the project is realized, and it is part of the work of art; and the hardware period is when we physically build the work of art; and all that combined is the work of art.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "The Umbrellas, Japan - USA" (1984-91) * courtesy of the artist and design sight 21_21

Jeanne-Claude, she’s not with us anymore, but she was always saying that it is like an expedition, like a discovery, like an incredible way to see and marvel in new places and people. For example, with “The Umbrellas, Japan-U.S.A.,” in Ibaraki, we talked to 469 rice farmers who owned the land over 12 miles. The youngest was 60, the oldest was 92. Myeslf and Jeanne-Claude, we drank probably 6,000 cups of green tea talking to them all with our devoted translators over six years.”

*****

DE: How important are the preparatory works?

Christo: They have independent value, you know. First, they are very import to translate what we want to do in the permitting process. When I use collage and photomontage, it is a lot like when an architect uses photographs for backgrounds and incorporating real materials. We often bring these works to all these meetings to explain to the surpervisors and landowners what it is that we would like to do.

Also, they reveal the evolution of these projects which develop over many years. They are unique images as we never do the same thing again. In the sketches, in the early studies, they are much more clumsy – not less precise – but the later ones are much closer to the reality.

These works we sell to museums, collectors, and dealers around the world so we can pay for our own projects with our own money. All the original works are done with my own hand. I don’t have an assistant, every single drawing sketch or scale model is done by myself.

Japan Times Backlog

A list of all the stories previously written for the Japan Times