Tokyo's Art Scene - For Good or Bad

by Satoru Nagoya

Getting an insight into what's going on in Tokyo's art scene may be, especially for foreigners, as difficult as finding someone's house in Japan without a proper map. I therefore start this column with a rough and partial outline of the current state of contemporary art in Tokyo. Good news first:
1. Center of Asian art. Many art institutions, from pompous museums to modest town galleries, feature Asian contemporary art so often that you can see Asian art almost anytime.
2. Specialized galleries. While there are galleries that rent space to virtually anybody, there are others that sponsor shows by promising artists only.
3. Cooperative artists. Young artists here are keen to join their forces for the sake of publicizing art; e.g., a young artists' group in suburban Tokyo held parties and organized open studio events, attracting many fans.
4. Flourishing public art. Examples can be seen near railroad terminals
such as Tachikawa and Shinjuku.
5. Thriving tourism. Art people from Tokyo like to visit major international art exhibitions, such as Italy's Venice Biennale and Germany's Documenta, and are therefore informed about world art trends.
6. Lively arguments. Arguments over such issues as whether national museums should be privatized have been heating up in one vernacular art publication.
7. Art fair comes back. Japan's only large-scale international contemporary art fair, the NICAF, is scheduled to be continued in autumn next year.
8. Ambitious promoters. Some art promoters are reportedly planning to host an international triennale of contemporary art, possibly near Tokyo, within three years.
9. Generous hyoronka. Most of the socalled "hyoronka," although often introduced as "critics," are rather spokespeople for artists who are committed to praise their works.
10. Devoted foreign writers. Their articles on art in English-language publications are generally frank and oriented to ordinary art fans.
And now the bad news:
I. Asian perversion pervading. In most cases, the act of holding an Asian art show is more important to exhibition organizers than Asian art itself.
II. Inharmonious galleries. Sponsor galleries condemn pay galleries for charging artists rent, but many of them just prey on the popularity their artists have gained abroad.
III. Grouping artists. They know working in a group is an effective way to be exposed to the media. Eventually, attempts to draw media attention become their principal work.
IV. Public art pollution. Only the artists and coordinators know whether the showy objects are works of art.
V. Expensive tourism. Some people bring back nice travel gifts from overseas art shows renowned artists or curators to do work in Japan, but then they reward the guests too amply with an indulgent Japanese audience.
VI. Lively domestic arguments. Discussions on important issues on art are open exclusively to those who can understand Japanese.
VII. Precarious fair. Although planned to be revived, few people believe a new NICAF will attract many overseas galleries, since participation costs will stay exorbitantly high.
VIII. Ambivalent promoters. Some art promoters think putting up an international art show in Japan will cover up their inferiority complex toward the Western art world.
IX. Noncritic hyoronka. Naturally, they have no critical eye. (It's a queer phenomenon that from the end of September a major international art critics' conference takes place in Tokyo, where art criticism barely exists.)
X. Difficult environment for foreign writers: Exhibitions to be covered by foreign writers usually take place at just a handful of museums and galleries which they know how to get to and which have an English-speaking staff.

Satoru Nagoya is a free-lance art journalist living in Tokyo.