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Artists' Debut at Rice Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

For a few wine-toasted moments, it almost felt like a New York City art night. Sure, Tokyo is half a world away, but there were three new shows up in a big old warehouse, and there were critics and collectors floating about, and there were photographers snapping the smiles on the faces of the beautiful people, and most of all the art was untamed and good shades of West Chelsea in an otherwise dismal little Koto Ward neighborhood called Saga.

Saga's Shokuryo building, a three-story brownstone that used to be a rice market, is home to a trio of Tokyo's best contemporary art spaces: Tomio Koyama; Taro Nasu; and the largest, the just-opened Rice Gallery. There was some concern that the Rice gallery would not be able to fill the gap left by its pervious tenant, Kazuko Koike's Sagacho Exhibit Space. I stayed away from the Rice's first show, held earlier this year, because it promised nothing more exciting than selections from the collections of a couple of long-established Ginza gallerists, Shugo Satani and Atsuko Koyanagi, and this ran counter to the spirit of experimentation fostered by Koike during the 17 Sagacho years.

But the Rice has come back with a second show that, thankfully, focuses on emerging talent. "Artists' Debut" was co-curated by Satani and Koyanagi and features some 20 works in various media from nine artists and artists' groups drawn from the stable of the Center for Contemporary Art (CAA) in Kita Kyushu. A self-described "world center for study and research in contemporary art," CAA is supported by the local city government, which is in itself an exceedingly rare and wonderful thing in Japan. CAA brings in lecturers, has built a library, and offers research programs to young artists. Judging by the work at Rice, CAA has been doing something right in the three years since its inception.

The first thing one encounters upon entering the 300 square meter Rice is Takayuki Yuki's little traffic circle, asphalt and tile around one of those sad fake flower beds. Ambitious, and your feet actually sink into the asphalt. There is also an overhead road sign directing visitors to the work of other participating artists.

We have a fledgling conceptualist here in Tomoko Yaneda, whose portraits of Rudolf Hess's son and Hideki Tojo's granddaughter are paired with pictures of a plaque celebrating Hess' parachuting into Scotland, and of the cigarette Tojo smoked before he was hanged.

Keitaro Hamakado has brought some of my favorite work. From the pages of an encyclopedia, Hamakado cuts out figures and bends them out the opposite side of the page, such that a woman in a street market comes to be hovering among the rings of Saturn. Great fun.

Also light but effective is Hideki Okamoto's two minute video piece, which sees the artist running a Honshu to Kyushu undersea pedestrian tunnel, and has a trick ending.

The sense of youthful adventure in much of the work here is what makes this show so refreshingly different, so, well, New York.

The illusion that Tokyo has a vibrant contemporary art district vanishes, of course, when one exits the Shokuryo building and encounters not scores of other warehouses replete with art, wine, and schmoozing, but instead a stretch of light industrial enterprises lining the fifteen minute walk to the closest train station.

Anyway, you still have to love what Koyanagi and Satani have done with the Rice Gallery. It is especially encouraging that Satani (who briefly ran his own space in this building in the early 1990s) has finally stepped out from the shadow of his father Kazuhiko, who founded the now-defunct Satani Gallery way back in 1978 and continues to deal privately in the city. The younger Satani was every bit the confident gallerist at the opening of "Artists' Debut," and seems to have developed his eye and found his own style.

The bad news is that Rice and the two other Shokuryo building galleries may not be long for this world insiders whisper that the contract Satani and Koyanagi signed with the building's landlord runs only to early 2003, at which time Tokyo's little slice of the Big Apple is said to have a date with the wrecking ball. So enjoy it while you can.

Notes: The exhibition "Artists' Debut" runs to April 7 2001 at the Rice Gallery (Shokuryo Bldg., 1-8-13 Saga, Koto Ward, 03-5245-5522).
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