Vivienne Sato at the Gallery So

by Monty DiPietro

By day, Takaki Sato constructs architectural models at the Isozaki Atelier in Tokyo’s trendy Nogizaki. The office is headquarters for one of this country’s best-known architects, Arata Isozaki - the man who designed Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and put the pizzazz into the Art Tower Mito by erecting the art center’s 100 meter high serpentining tower, a structure that totally dominates the Ibaragi capital’s skyline. In his 1985 essay, "Architecture With or Without Irony," Isozaki argued that "architecture could...admire the vulgar against the noble, the secular against the sacred, without shame," and achieve "a style of wit, a sense of humor."

Young disciple Sato must have been listening, because by night Isozaki’s 28 year-old model-maker loses his grey trousers and white shirt, retires his first name, and slips into a purple fish-net body stocking. He then fards his face, dons a Marge Simpson-like double bee-hive florescent green wig, and becomes "Vivienne," arguably Tokyo’s best-looking drag queen and definitely one of the city’s most interesting visual artists.

A selection of Sato’s recent drawings and objet join works by Alexandre Imai and Gin Johannes in "Three Man Show," a mixed-media installation now on at Shimokitazawa’s ambitious and avant-garde Gallery So.

A dozen garlic-basted chickens turning slowly in a glass rotisserie breathe a thick, homey aroma into the air as 150 invitation-only guests crowd the "One Hundred People Party" that celebrates the exhibition’s premiere. Painter Pierre-Leon Tetreault (now showing at the Canadian Embassy Gallery), performance artist David Divisio, impresario Johnnie Walker, and a who’s who of the city’s beautiful people, collectors and sycophants are here. Opera, African music, and live piano and poetry entertain as the succulent chicken is washed down by hearty Chianti in the four-storey, postmodern concrete A-frame restaurant/bar/gallery space. Smiles all around suggest that this is how the art scene is supposed to be.

And somewhere in the New York style party, the question lurks: Why don’t more Tokyo art exhibitions feel this good?

To begin with, there are two kinds of galleries in this city - rental and commercial. Rental spaces extort up to 500,000 yen per week from artists desperate enough to pay to show, and commercial spaces tend to exhibit only well-connected, popular and saleable artists.

As Arturo Silva would contend - where is the fun in that?

Thankfully, a few spaces in Tokyo have found a creative solution to the very real dilemma that contemporary art faces here. Like Asiz in Aoyama and Ebisu’s P-House, So Gallery operates a bar as well as an art space. So, rather than drinking in a typical izakaya, people who want to help build an art scene can choose to patronize an establishment that supports artists. Heck, in New York, bars actually pay artists to hang work on the walls. While Tokyo has a way to go to reach that level, the above-mentioned spaces will mount an exhibition for less than 50,000 yen a week - or about one-tenth the typical rental gallery rate. More importantly, since low rental fees attract more submissions and this results in a selection criteria that weeds out weaker work, Tokyo’s new-breed galleries are being taken seriously by the people that matter.

This show, for example, is comprised of solid seedwork. "Treblinka," a large-scale oil-on-particle board series by Imai, brings the viewer into an acute confrontation with religion, personal values, death and salvation. The architecture-based "Jonen Folding House" drawings and models by Johannes study both human expectations and adaptability, while Sato’s brass and leather bolt and nut objet address the chasm between the Western conceptualism of time as a linear phenomena and an Eastern interpretation that sees time as cyclical. While none of the artists have delivered the final word on their subject matter, they have begun a process that exhibiting will allow them to further develop.

The "Three Man Show" artists are all in their late 20s or early 30s, decades away from the time when the art establishment in this country would regard what they are creating as worthy of serious consideration. Thank goodness that new-breed spaces like Gallery So are presenting the raw visions of a new generation of local artists - that they may take root and grow in the healthy soil of public scrutiny, and not be choked in the darkness by old-guard censure.


notes: Until Apr 1, 1998 (3413-5565). See more of Sato's drawings here.
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