adrian's blog

Reviews and reflections on the Japanese contemporary art world

Nara as Businessman

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HARMLESS KITTY (1994 / Tomio Koyama Gallery)

Yoshitomo Nara has published in English and Japanese a set of comments about my blog article, published here on this page on 12 July 2012: "Yoshitomo Nara as businessman". It is a chapter from my published book, Before and After Superflat (2012).

Information on Before and After Superflat:

Nara comments in Japanese:

Nara comments in English:

I would like to thank Nara for the extraordinary detail of these notes. I am very sorry for the annoyance the article caused and also any difficulties it has caused for his gallery in Tokyo, Tomio Koyama Gallery. I hope after this open exchange we can move on, as well as forget the anger and dismissive comments that were published on Twitter by Nara and various members of the Tokyo art world.

Nara's comments provide many details that clarify my account. I have noted below on my online corrections page for the book, those points I consider clear factual errors. Any book has mistakes, and I welcome all comments, corrections, suggestions and advice on how the text can be improved.

Corrections to Before and After Superflat can be found here:

As a courtesy to the artist I have agreed to put back up the original version of the blog, with the Japanese translation, to which the artist first read and reacted. I am aware that there are inconsistencies in the translation, and I believe it was a mistake to publish the translation in this form. Some of the misunderstandings involved may be linked to the translation issue.

ORIGINAL BLOG (2012/07/12)


On the occasion of the opening of Yoshitomo Nara's new show at Yokohama Museum of Art -- 11 years after the breakthrough show there.

Still hip, still selling loads. How does he do it? My thoughts below. Takashi Murakami, Blum and Poe, Fumio Nanjo, Midori Matsui, Tomio Koyama, Makoto Aida: Everybody was at the opening. Nara wore a cool orange skull T-shirt. I loaded up on mori girl keyrings and girly mountain postcards. Go see the show: the new bronze sculptures are beautiful.


This is the third extract from my recently published book: BEFORE AND AFTER SUPERFLAT: A SHORT HISTORY OF JAPANESE CONTEMPORARY ART 1990-2011 (2012).

Nara as Businessman

Whatever they think of Murakami, everybody loves Yoshitomo Nara. Nara was the quieter partner in the “New Pop Revolution”, but he scored comparable local and global success while losing none of his credibility or insouciant rock star image in the process. The eternal, ageless dreamer, he even got all the girls. It always rankled with Murakami, who is driven by his “asshole competitiveness”, as he admits.


Nara was never an ideas man; he is not a theorist. He has always had very little interesting to say about his own work. It’s all in the imagery, the craft, and the feeling of the work: old fashioned aesthetics which register less in academia, but which may have much longer lasting impact. There have been few contemporary artists whose work is so apparently guileless and simple, and yet so absolutely, immediately, recognisable. The power of the work lay in just how close it is to the charm of children’s book illustration: a sheer commercialism with its insidious kowa-kawaii (creepy cute) hook, that Murakami never got close to with his brands and characters.


The fact is, after Cool Japan, they now have only each other to talk to. Both have maintained a determinately autonomous and sometimes hostile stance to the mainstream Tokyo art world, guarding their independence as agents from galleries and the media, and displaying the confidence and ego of artists that know that there is no one else locally who can touch them on the international stage. It was their shared American experience, in Los Angeles, and more generally in dealing with the American gallery system and art market, which created this alliance. They were thrown together at UCLA simply because they were both Japanese, but the friendship and mutual respect they developed lies in the depth of their respective ambitions. Murakami still calls Nara to compare strategies, or anxiously discuss his next big – maybe foolish – move.


Nara’s naïve image is a front – as it must be for an artist who has been continually exhibited, internationally famous, and is now well past 50. Nara always was, in many ways, the cooler business head of the two stars. Murakami’s big sales were spectacular, but he didn’t have an extensive in-depth inventory. The suspicion of insider dealing with Gagosian, Arnault and Pinault hung over his landmark sales. The massive leaps in value during the art bubble years also meant his prices were fragile. Nara’s prices rose over the years in a steady, unbroken ascent. His works range from famous paintings that went for over $1 million in the auction house, right the way down to mass produced commercial editions selling for a few dollars on an open air market. But the big money was always in the middle range of collectibles, where his inventory was massive.


I once got caught in the Nara trap myself, trying to pick up a litho print at TKG Editions (Tomio Koyama’s small shop) in Ginza: no 70 in a series of 72, a very sweet but incredibly simple colour drawing of a angry girl exclaiming “Beh!”. The endearment is every bit as important to the sale as the name. It has always been the key to Nara’s failsafe charm – his pictures always remind you of someone. I asked the price… Wow! It seemed like a bargain, until I worked out I’d got my zeros mixed up. Not $300 but san jyuu man en, approximately $3000 at the time. If very minor multiple prints like this run off at $3000 a piece (x 72), and the most expensive for over a $1 million, the mathematics is obvious. Checking in three years later, TKG still had the very last in the series on their books. It was currently hanging in the Mori Art Museum shop, they said, and was now listed at $8000. I looked on longingly, the would-be collector. On paper, I could have made $5000 on it in three years – if I’d emptied my bank account in 2007. There was clearly a solid operation going on here. Nara has works in many major Western collections. He has been avidly collected by Sue Hancock and the Rubell family in the US, Frank Cohen in the UK. But even more significantly, Nara has strength in depth value for Japanese and Asian collectors, who have been more likely to give wide berth to Murakami.


Much of Nara’s inventory in the 2000s was in fact largely undocumented. When fakes were exposed in some Asian auction sales, it pointed to how the real power of Nara’s work lay in its unquantified nature. To satisfy my longing for a print, I could instead go buy a small copy on Spitalfields flea market in London, alongside similar “works” by English graffiti star, Banksy. Nara copies exist alongside all the works he has given away and lost track of. Nara, himself, has an elephant’s memory for people he has given work to, and has been known to fly into a wild rage with anyone who has broken the gift and tried to sell on the work. Individual works were always signed with legal contracts preventing any flipping onto the market. But at the same time, the fakes and copies have guaranteed another level of fame.


As Tomio Koyama’s longest standing and most important artist, the two had a close but difficult relationship. They had a series of arguments about sales strategies. By 2009, Nara was keen to go completely independent of the commercial gallery structure, looking for staff to man his own independent operation. In the meantime, he was always unusually powerful in dictating how Tomio Koyama presented his work. He would tip off Koyama about new artists, and foisted any number of derivative manga style and kawaii artists onto the gallerist, including several who were taught by the same teacher, Nobuya Hitsuda at Aichi City University of Art. Koyama himself always had a kawaii taste, but Nara kept them coming. During Cool Japan, the combination guaranteed a distorting effect on the value of some rather mediocre artists in Tokyo because of Koyama’s big name. And so kawaii art became what Tokyo was known for, and the sole reason why some collectors go there.


The real key to understanding Nara’s success, though, is the fact he was an artist who made his name outside the white cube of the gallery, on the pages of books. Initial reactions to Nara’s shows in the mid 1990s didn’t know whether to treat him as anything more than a character illustrator. He had been around since the late 1980s commercial design/illustration boom, and had tried unsuccessfully to present himself in this context. Some early commentaries, such as one by the influential curator Eriko Osaka, associated him with the notion of heta uma (intentionally clumsy or badly skilled art). This had been developed by conceptualists such as Hideki Nakazawa as a kind of levelling anti-art strategy in avant garde circles. But the underlying point with Nara was commercial – and nothing to do with his formal technique, which is very good. He was swept along by a different trend – the independent book publishing boom of the late 1990s. When the second book, Slash With a Knife, was picked up in late 1998 by Masakazu Takei of FOIL, it was because this small time magazine entrepreneur and photo curator had spied a non-art world market for the work. Tokyo has a large small scale book publishing industry able to produce and distribute books quickly; Japan has a ravenous appetite for printed works. Photography had similarly been pioneered in this form. Araki and Daido Moriyama made their careers through publishing in books, not hanging in galleries. It was the same story with Nara, who overnight found a huge cult audience by side stepping the conventional gallery and museum system.

しかし、奈良の成功を理解する本当の鍵は、実際彼がギャラリースペースの外、本のページ上で有名になったアーティストだということだ。90年代半ばの奈良の展覧会への最初の反応は、キャラクターを描くイラストレーター以上として扱うべきかわからない、といった感じだった。彼は80年代の商業デザイン/イラストレーションのブームの時から既に活躍しており、自身をこの分野で紹介しようとしていたが失敗に終わっていた。影響力のあるキュレーターの逢坂恵理子などによるこの初期の頃のコメントには、彼を「ヘタウマ」に関連付けている。これは、前衛美術の作家達の間でアンチアート戦略、価値の平等化の一環として中ザワヒデキらコンセプチャリストによって開発された概念である。しかし、奈良の基本的なポイントは商業的であり、彼の素晴らしい表面的な技術とは関係ないのだ。彼は、90年代後半に起こった自主出版ブームの流行に乗った。2冊目の本、『Slash With a Knife』がフォイルの竹井正和によって出版されたのは、この小さな雑誌企業家兼写真キュレーターが作品の為にアートではない世界の市場を下調べしていたからだ。東京には沢山の小規模な出版会社があり、速やかに本を出版したり販売したりできる。日本は書物に貪欲な国なのだ。写真もこの形式で同じように開拓された。荒木経惟や森山大道などは、ギャラリー展示でではなく、本を出版することでキャリアを築いた。奈良も同様に、因習的なギャラリーや美術館の制度の外側に一夜で大勢のカルト的な観客を見つけた。

Outside of the carefully controlled art market context, Nara was always indifferent about price for his works or how they were copied. Fans need to collect, he said. They have no money, and they need to be able to buy stuff as souvenirs, even if it’s next to worthless in art terms. Murakami’s entire theory was grounded in a simulationist aesthetic of “remake and remodel,” borrowing freely from commercial design and toy makers. Yet he tied himself up in legal knots by trying to sue companies that “copied” his DOB brand image. Nara just learned to let go and watch his own images reproduce. Moreover, as Murakami notoriously sought to consolidate his Fordist model of production under one roof from start to finish, Nara organised his business as a series of loose franchise contracts to outside firms who took care of business while leaving him with clean hands. And so he had Lamm Fromm stocking his products out of a base in Yoyogi, Workaholics Inc. producing made-in-China dogs for him in Harajuku, and Chronicle books publishing worldwide out of San Francisco. Yoshi Kawasaki and his company 2K by Gingham in LA took Nara’s images and did the same thing with T-shirts internationally that Masakazu Takei did with the picture books and postcards. The spin offs seemed to be infinite.


Distribution was the other side of the business. Nara’s work, however, casual as it may have seemed, showed up not only in museum shops, but in alternative art stores and off beat hipster boutiques the world over. These are the kind of fashionable stores where affluent adults, locked into a fad-obsessed adolescence well into their late 20s, 30s, even 40s, hang out and fill their lives with “cool” stuff. Once Nara started producing three dimensional toys, he positioned himself at the head of the 2000s adult vinyl collectible boom. Nara thus sold in a lot of contexts where no-one had any idea who the artist was – it just looked “cute” or “cool”. You might well own a Nara without knowing it – that was part of the charm and commercial power of his art. It was the base of a pyramid atop which stood his major auction and gallery sales.


And so Nara kept giving it all away. When he let the museum in Seoul keep all his work, Tomio Koyama argued with him about the danger to sales. Nara knew he would just get a permanent museum collection in his name. Nara may not have worried about the sales, but he was screaming down the phone and at meetings with the curators when they screwed up the catalogues or the website. Koyama was also furious about the café in Omotesando, that Nara set up with a partner as a permanent installation of his A to Z show. Parts of the famous Yokohama show were installed there, together with a small “shed” that recreated the atmosphere of the tour for fans, while charging Y700 for a cup of caffé latte. It is questionable who was the better businessman.

そして、奈良はたくさん寄贈し続けていた。彼がソウルの美術館に彼の作品を全て所蔵させたとき、小山登美夫とセールスにおける危険性について議論になった。奈良は、自分の名前を冠した常設展コレクションとして作品が美術館に残るとわかっていたのだ。奈良はセールスについて心配することはないかもしれないが、カタログやウェブサイトに間違いがあったときには会議中でも電話でもキュレーターに向かって怒鳴ったりする。小山はまた、「A to Z」展の常設インスタレーションとして奈良がパートナーと開いた表参道のカフェについても激怒していた。ファンのために巡回展の雰囲気が再現された小さな「小屋」と一緒に、有名な横浜での展覧会の一部がそこでは設置され、そこで700円払ってカフェラテを飲む。どちらが優れたビジネスマンだったかは疑問である。

As A to Z became an almost permanent, endless world tour – with dozens of variations in different countries – Nara perfected a business organisation so much more effective and manageable than Murakami’s authoritarian corporate model. Nara always came over as the consummate slacker CEO, while being an extraordinarily manipulative and demanding individual according to those who worked closely with him. He succeeded by channeling the spirit of the voluntary feel good NPO. His organisational experiments in his home town, Hirosaki, were striking for how well they tapped into a different feeling in Japan after the Kobe earthquake of 1995 – the same spirit as seen again after March 2011. With local aid, he set up his art operation as a charitable NPO, with himself as a sleeping director. He got his friends and fans in to help build the exhibitions. They called all this “collaboration”. As Nara said, with a charming smile: “This is where I started to get a kick out of it – it’s like there were a hundred of me”. It was the community spirit he inspired – but it was all in his name. After A to Z, Midori Matsui was less impressed with these politics. It no longer conformed to her introvert “Micropop” theories. She criticised Nara over the Hirosaki shows for their “regressive populism”. Yet still she pointed to its basic power: of “how it had become a contemporary equivalent of folk art, representing and consoling people who feel alienated from modern art”. His home region, meanwhile, could not believe its luck. The visitors in Hirosaki or at the Aomori Museum of Art are all there to see Nara. He has become as much a part of the local tourist industry, in this sad and grey corner of Japan, as the region’s famous lacquerware or seafood.

「A to Z」展が、様々な国で多数のバリエーションがあるほぼ終わりの無い世界巡回展として続くにつれ、村上の独裁主義的な会社モデルに比べると奈良はビジネス組織を、より効果的で処理しやすく完璧にした。彼と一緒に働いたことがある人々によると、奈良は並外れて人を巧みに扱い要望が多い人でありながら完全なる怠け者CEOとして君臨していた。彼はボランティア心を満足させるNPOの精神を伝えることによって成功したのだ。彼の弘前での組織的な実験は荒々しいバブル経済後や阪神大震災後の日本の気持ちにどれほどうまく踏み入ったかで印象的だった。その同じ精神は、また2011年の3月以降にも見られた。地元の助けを借り、彼は自分を眠った理事につけ慈善NPOとしての自分の美術活動を立ち上げた。彼は友人やファンに呼びかけ、展覧会の手伝いをしてもらった。彼らはそれら全てを「共同作業」と呼んだ。奈良は魅力的な笑顔で『だんだんワクワクしはじめた。自分が100人いるような感じだった』と言っていた。彼を奮起させたのは共同精神だったが、全て彼の名前の下でだった。「A to Z」展後、松井みどりはこれらの策略にあまり関心を示さなかった。それはもう既に彼女の内向的な「マイクロポップ」論に合わなかったのだ。彼女は弘前の展覧会で奈良を「退行的な人民主義」と批評した。だが、それでも彼女はその基本的な力を「どのようにそれが現代のアートから疎外感を感じている人たちを慰め代表する現代の民族芸術と同義語になったか」と指摘した。その間、彼の故郷では、その幸運を噛みしめていた。弘前や青森県立美術館を訪れる人たちは皆奈良目当てだった。この寂れて薄暗い日本の片隅で、その地方で有名な漆器や海産物と同様に彼は地元の観光産業の一部となった。

It is hard to think of any comparable story in global contemporary art. Talk of Murakami’s explosive anger, exploitation, bad feelings and resignations have always been rife about Kaikai Kiki. Nara’s massive operation has never been portrayed as anything but an enormous and fun fan club. Not everyone was happy at Hirosaki, though. Some fans vowed they wouldn’t come back, after the hard labour involved. Nara kept his money tight, and expected everyone to pay their own way at after work drinks parties. Not everyone could live off his own preferred diet of cigarettes and curry rice. Nara’s operation was thus a rolling organization, in which he managed to get everyone working for him while having next to nobody on the payroll. Yet, as a collective art practice, Nara’s methods were never theorized as important. Paul Schimmel, for example, doesn’t get Nara at all. Ask him, and he thinks he is just stuck doing pictures of little girls and cute dogs. Well, yes, and that’s the point: at $8000 a pop Nara has been much closer to becoming like Picasso signing a beer mat than Murakami. Or, for that matter, Damian Hirst, when he signs off on another one of his automated $50,000 spin paintings. Nobody would ever describe one of Hirst’s cynical rejoinders to the emptiness of contemporary art cute or cool. Nobody loves Damian Hirst or his work, however much it is theoretically admired. Nara is almost universally adored.


Yoshitomo Nara’s identity as a populist “folk artist” – with very solid sales – may augur well for his prospects in the era after the global boom of the 2000s, just as Murakami might be dated by his association with the branded “pop life” of Warhol and Koons. It may even allow him to survive the demise of Cool Japan. Like Murakami, though, it is Japan and its long term regard for him, in the end, that Nara cares about. And on this point, Nara has unquestionably ruled as the most popular and visible contemporary Japanese artist. It’s the fans that count. When he started writing his blog before Yokohama, it was the master stroke of genius – the moment that Nara made the transition from cult pop-art star to major cultural figure. Nara has made work that is instantly recognisable, loveable, but then copyable by all. He was always an artist in whom everyone shared. There was little development in his style he moved from gallery painting to installation artist. But he alone turned his audience into Nara producers as well as Nara consumers. What other major contemporary artist could send out the word and have thousands of fans making the art for him, as they did in Yokohama and Hirosaki? Forget Yoshitomo Nara? There doesn’t seem much danger of that. The audiences have kept growing. At an opening in Japan in mid 2011, the now married 50-something artist still had a long line of teenage girls queuing for him to draw on their arms. The cult continues.



In his comments,Yoshitomo Nara has focused on factual issues in the text, rather than the more general impression he may have had on first reading. Clearly he was reacting against the surprising tone of the piece, which seeks to read his work "against" his popular "naive" image: i.e., as a sophisticated, "strategising" contemporary artists, who has engaged in a range of art practices over the years as "part of the struggle for a page in art history", as I call it. While noting humbly my clear errors, I feel that most of Nara's comments actually clarify my short account rather than changing it fundamentally. A few point to differences over my use of certain confidential sources.

Opinions have differed over to what extent the translation was a cause of misunderstandings. There are certainly some problems, and I believe the translation, while rendering a complex text into a direct, rather literal Japanese, probably misses some of the irony as well as warmth in the writing.

As a blog, the article is also taken out of its context in the book, which was a mistake of mine. This chapter immediately follows a chapter on Takashi Murakami's Art Entrepreneurship Theory. The goal of the chapter, then, is to compare the two artists, and consider in the same terms Nara's enormous and ambitious art practices -- which have spanned individual "espressivist" works, huge scale collaborations, and (whatever he says) an amazingly large range of commercial products available worldwide. I therefore use the metaphor of Nara as a "businessman", re-imagining him as a CEO of this kind of operation, and seeing him also as a consummate artist of the Web 2:0 moment. I note that the way he has embraced NPO style organisational structures, and loose business agreements that look like franchises, actually might have even allowed for an even more successful fame as an artist than Murakami's self-conscious business style operation. I have nothing critical to say about Nara's many charitable and political actions, and make no claim in the text about who profits from all the work and products -- only that the full range of Nara's art practices are part of what has made him successful nationally and internationally.

The other clear contextual issue which causes me problems, is that my account of Nara in Before and After Superflat only runs until his New York Asian Society show in late 2010. As with many artists, I feel March 2011 has had a dramatic affect on how Nara presents himself publicly. Nara has now clearly ended the phase of collaborations in his work that I write about, and also perhaps feels differently about the issue of commercial products. Indeed, in the book and elsewhere, I note already his shift away in the mid 2000s, away from the "pop life" of "superflat" style art-as-branding (which he embraced in the early 2000s), towards becoming a more community based and eventually political artist. From the vantage point of 2012, this kind of reading might be stressed more.

I would like to also, in as a brief way, to run through the points raised by Yoshitomo Nara in his comments.

"The fact is, after Cool Japan..."
"They were thrown together at UCLA..."
"Murakami still calls..."

I feel the events surrounding the Twitter uproar and these comments confirm the close and sympathetic alliance between Nara and Murakami at the pinnacle of the Japanese art world. Information about their calls and communication came from an anonymous insider source -- I need to correct the exaggerated impression of frequent calls, or that they are "plotting" the "new pop revolution" together.

"Nara's naive image ..."
I think the popularity of Nara's image remains undiminished. I appreciate the sincerity of Nara's feelings on the subject.

"His works range from famous paintings..."
"On paper, I could have made..."

It is difficult to assess what constitutes a "massive inventory". The two volume catalogue raisonné published last year is enormous, and the story I tell about the minor print in a series of 72 at TKG is true. By "big money", I mean the "value" on Nara's work (over $1 million for some paintings) -- which is connected to the diffuseness of his practices across many forms. I accept that literally speaking, a few big paintings make a lot more money than a large number of prints. Again, I am not saying anything about who actually profits -- as Nara says, profits from sales on the secondary market are never made by the artist.

"Much of Nara's inventory in the 2000s..."
"In" here means "during". During the 2000s, the documentation on much of Nara's (ie. his early work) was imprecise.

"They had a series of arguments ..."
"2009, Nara was keen to go completely independent ..."
"In the meantime, he was always unusually powerful in dictating..."
"When he let the museum in Seoul keep... "
"Nara may not have worried about sales, but he was screaming... "

These were claims based on statements with a close informant, who for obvious reasons I keep anonymous. I regret not being more cautious with these claims, which may or may not be true, although I had no reason to doubt them. My only intention here is to put a bit of human flesh and blood on Yoshitomo Nara as a driven and emotional personality, and on the sometimes difficult relations between artist and gallerist or artist and curators. I intend no malice. As in his Twitters, Nara emerges as a sometimes emotional, demanding and intense personality. Elsewhere in Before and After Superflat Tomio Koyama is portrayed as one of the heroes of the Tokyo contemporary art scene.

"He would tip off Koyama..."
I need to correct the words "any number" and "several" which are an exaggeration according to Nara's information here. Other artists educated by Hitsuda at the same school as Nara include Masako Ando (currently on show at Hara Museum) and Mika Kato, so the implicit connection is stronger than Nara suggests. I was also referring to one or two foreign artists in TKG's list who have similar styles to his, but my information about the connection with Nara may be incorrect.

"He had been around since the late 1980s ...."
"But the underlying point with Nara was commercial..."

I was perhaps wrongly including Nara in the general tendancy of artists to seek success in the design world of the 1980s. On the basis of Nara's statement here, the factual issue of whether he "tried unsuccessfully" to become an illustrator is therefore wrong. I feel, though, Nara was certainly part of these "heta uma" trends, consciously or not. The same issue is discussed by Hideki Nakazawa in his Contemporary Art History (2008).

"Fans need to collect, he said..."
I would need to track down an exact quote. But I feel this is valid as an extrapolation of Nara's attitude based on what he writes in his autobiographical books about his products and fans. I see nothing wrong with this claim, which is very sympathetic to the artist.

"And so he kept giving it away..."
That Lamm Fromm and Workaholics are the same company, duly noted. The made-in-China toy dog I own has a Workaholics product ticket on it! I was not aware of Sun Arrow. While noting that Yoshitomo Nara distances himself from products in his name, it is a fact that products in his name (©Yoshitomo Nara) are on sale absolutely everywhere in the world today. Nara is obviously very concerned about what is produced in his name, but also in maintaing a "hands off distance" between these products and the rest of his work as an artist (unlike, for example, Murakami). In my reading, this is what I mean by a kind of "hands off" approach. My argument is that these commercial activities are relevant to Nara's success as a serious artist. My exact knowledge of the business arrangements ends here, but what Nara says is essentially consistent with my account, which was based largely on in-depth discussions with Masakazu Takei and Yoshi Kawasaki about Nara's books and T-shirts respectively. I have admiration for all of these people involved.

"Once Nara started producing..."

Maybe it was an accident, but Nara's turn to producing vinyl toys made him a cult hero in this creative field. His importance in this field is discussed, for example, in Woodrow Pheonix, Plastic Culture: How Japanese Toys Conquered The World (Kodansha 2006).

"And so he kept giving it away..."
"Nara knew he would just get a permanent collection in his name..."

I am aware of these facts about the Seoul show as is clear in the book. Again, it is a matter of interpretation, but my reading of what happened seems to be correct.

"Koyama was also furious about the café..."
Again, we may not not know whether in fact they disagreed, as was reported to me. The partner I am refering to is indeed Mr Sadahiro. I would remove the line about "being a better businessman", as again I'm not claiming that Nara makes money from these operations, only that they are a significiant and interesting part of his art practice. The A-to-Z café allows people to visit the show if they were not able to see it elsewhere.

"As to A to Z became an almost permanent endless world tour..."
"Nara's massive operation has never been portrayed ..."

Again, I am interested to observe the NPO like structure of Nara's "operation" (that is, his work as an artist understood as a coherent art practice) rather than actual business details. I note the charitable aspects of the Hirosaki shows in the book, I reported a figure 3000 volunteers (it perhaps depends on how they were counted), as this was the information I was given by Hidefumi Hatakeyama at Harappa, the NPO connected to Nara in Hirosaki. Everyone knows the "positive" story about Hirosaki from Nara's video, Travelling with Yoshitomo Nara. To be fair, I note the fun and populism of most people's involvement, and simply stress that certain negtaive opinions about it that have never been reported before.

"They call this collaboration ..."
I simply note that Nara's reputation and standing as an artist (his name and value) has risen through his collaborative practices and the way he has involved his fans as consumers and producers.

"The visitors in Hirosaki..."
I bear no ill will towards Aomori or the north of Japan. My impressions were based on touring the region and noting the depressing nature of Aomori and Hirosaki as cities.

"Nara kept his money tight and expected ..."
This is perhaps unfair, given what the artist says. However, it was only reported here as the views of some of the people who worked at Hirosaki.

"When he started writing his blog ..."
Elsewhere in Before and After Superflat I date the moment from when Nara discovered naoko's blog "Happy Hour" and started to write for that blog (from his autobiography, Little Star Dweller).

"There was little development in his style..."
"But he alone turned his audience into Nara producers..."

As I note above, I feel the perspective on Nara's work has changed since March 2011. It is clear now he has been moving back to a kind of emotional, solo production and away from collaboration, installation work and the emphasis on commercial products. My account is a historical account up to his New York Asia Society show in late in 2010.


For everyone's information, I have been involved in and doing research on the Tokyo art world since 2007. I invite you to explore the three years archive of articles on ART-iT, which includes extracts from my book, catalogue essays, as well as articles published in ART IN AMERICA and online with ART FORUM.
(about David Elliott's Bye Bye Kitty show / Art in America)
(catalogue essay for THE ECHO)
(about Roppongi Crossing 2010 / Art Forum)
(about Showa 40 nen kai / Art Forum)

I feel the need to add some more details about the research methods used in this book.

Before and After Superflat is based on the research method of ethnography

The book is an ethnography of the Japanese art world from 2007-2011, including interviews, participant observation as a visiting writer in the Tokyo art world, and as many textual and historical sources possible. In the making of this book, I talked in detail or spent time with about 250 important members of the Japanese world, as well as many more younger members who -- for reasons that are now obvious -- were kept anonymous. I detail my principal textual and personal sources in the book. I was not able to access interviews at the time with a number of famous figures, despite repeated attempts. These included Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami. In all about 500 people are listed in my cast of characters, a portrait of the Tokyo art world during these years.

The following extract is taken from the pages “Sources and Acknowledgements” (p.231-236). Here I include a Japanese translation, but please refer to the English original in case of doubt, as there may be inconsistencies in the translation.

“...The intention of the book is to portray the Japanese contemporary art scene in its full social and economic context during the 1990s and 2000s, and from the point of view of those active in the Tokyo art world. My aim is to faithfully reflect as far as possible the voice and viewpoint of the many people I have met and talked with during my research. It does not seek to present it from the point of view of the two most famous names in the story – Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara – as their writings and interviews are already so widely available. I have, of course, consulted all the available catalogues and literature by and about these two artists, but theirs is practically the only perspective ever heard or seen in the West.


As an “outsider” observer of the art world, the sociologist naturally tends to want to demystify aspects of this world. These are the very things which most “insider” writings by art critics and art curators tend to reproduce: particularly the focus on the “genius” of certain artists and the “sublime” status of certain forms of art. I have my own tastes, of course, but as a sociologist, I have tried to take a “flat”, non-hierarchical view of the world I encountered. Everyone I met there, from the lowliest gallery assistant or art student trying to start out in their career, to the superstar artist jetting from Tokyo to New York and back, is an important part of the system. I have listened to their stories. The art world is a complex mix of creators, entrepreneurs, enthusiasts and dogsbodies. This is also a reason why artists – particularly famous ones – are not always the most interesting people to talk to.


Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011: pp.231-2...”

The book is a sincere attempt to launch a discussion in English (and Japanese!) about the art history of Japanese contemporary art from 1990 - 2011. While it is true that we must listen to and carefully assess what artists have to say about themselves and their work, it is also true that the art history of this period will not be written by artists but by art historians. I hope this open discussion will contribute to this end.


2012/07/12 22:15






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