Virtual museums, an underground city, Galle glass and gangsters …
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Virtual museums, an underground city, Galle glass and gangsters …

by Georgina Adam

THE TEMPTATION is always strong in Japan to replace reality with the virtual, or at least appear to do so. You can keep a nice clean virtual pet, such a Tamagochi or Sony’s robot dog, and be soothed by the virtual aquariums which bubble away in airports and shops. The holidaymaker can go abroad without even leaving Japan -  for instance to a 390-acre Dutch town, complete with dykes, canals and windmills, in Kyushu. Tokyo’s hippest new shopping mall, “VenusFort” is an exact reproduction of a baroque Italian city, with statues, fountains and programmed “days” - the painted ceiling goes from dawn to dusk to night and back again every hour.

And now thanks to digital technology, virtual museums are coming to every corner of the land. Spearheading this initiative is Dai Nippon Printing, which has been buying up the rights to digitize and exploit museum images. Dai Nippon has already signed with the French Reunion des Musees Nationaux and is currently negotiating with the Chinese Cultural Relics Bureau.

The digitized images - initially Japanese favorites such as Monet and Van Gogh - will be displayed on TV screens on giant easels with a “hand made frame”. They will be installed in hospitals, city halls, banks, post offices and so on. “Without visiting museums, you can enjoy watching, studying and experiencing the art…” gushes Dai Nippon.

Fortunately, there are still real museums with real visitors, notably in Tokyo’s famed Ueno Park. This spacious area boasts temples, a concert hall, boating pond and a prestigious cluster of museums including the massive Tokyo National, but lacks good visitor, restaurant and shopping facilities.  Now Shuji Takashina, the forward-looking director of the Museum of Western Art, is promoting a massive project to turn the whole park into a vast cultural zone. Inspired by the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris, an “underground city” tunneled under the park would link the major museums, and provide sorely-needed parking as well as space for restaurants and shops. A working party is pondering the multi-billion yen project and expected to produce a first report this Spring.

Japan’s love affair with art nouveau and art deco glass reached a paroxysm in the late 1980s when Japanese collectors (and speculators) bid like creatures demented for the opulent creations of Emile Galle, Daum and Lalique.  However prices have tumbled since those heady days, in some cases by as much as four-fifths; collectors are scarcer and according to Auction Japan Company, art nouveau glass’s greatest fans are now to be found among yakusa, gangsters, and media stars.

Strange as it may seem, a prized piece of Western glass sometimes forms the centrepiece for that quintessential Japanese art form, the tea ceremony. Used as a mizusashi, waterpot, the vase would have its own wooden box made in Japan and signed by the tea-master to show his approval. The juxtaposition of roughly hewn, rustic tea ceramics with an ultra-refined, perfectly etched piece of  Gallic glass may surprise, but the Japanese just see it as a continuation of the tradition whereby an precious import - be it Korean, Chinese or French - enhances the strict ritual of the ceremony.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s have long had offices in Japan, although (with the exception of a yearly wine sale at Christie’s) they do not conduct auctions. Now Phillips is plunging in as well with the appointment of Jonathan Stone. Previously the head of the Musical Instruments Department at Christies, London, Jonathan arrives with a brief to carve out an niche here for what was Britain’s number 3 saleroom.

A fluent Japanese speaker (his wife is Japanese), Jonathan is busy knocking on doors and distributing catalogues. “Yes, it’s a big challenge and will not happen overnight,” he admits, “but I am emphasising the international aspect of what we do.  We feel that the middle market is a bit neglected and this is where we can intervene.” He singles out contemporary art, prints and modern ceramics (this department having been massively boosted in London by the arrival of Cyril Frankel and Ben Williams) as the most promising areas for him to explore.

Tokyo’s brash new Governor, Shintaro Ishihara, was a welcome guest at NICAF, held in November last year. Japan’s premier contemporary art fair was staging a comeback after the plummeting Asian economies forced its cancellation in 1998, and had found a new home in the futuristic surroundings of Tokyo International Forum, a smart and highly convenient location close to Ginza. Commercially, results were patchy but Ishihara did much to boost morale by turning up; he even bought some artworks, notably a Korean artist’s hyperrealistic painting of a battered old shoe. With the Tokyo municipality mired in a quite stupendous 6 trillion yen (over #36 billion) of debt, one hopes his choice was purely artistic and in no way symbolic.

Georgina Adam is a Tokyo-based freelance art writer and correspondent for The Art Newspaper and The Asian Art Newspaper.
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