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Reviews and reflections on the Japanese contemporary art world

A Thousand Galleries Bloom

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Despite the gloom of the economic depression, numerous young gallerists in Tokyo are braving the storm and opening a variety of new spaces showing works by new and upcoming young artists on the scene. I talked this week to one of this new breed, Ei Kibukawa who, with his wife and partner Eiko Iwasaka, opens tomorrow (Saturday 26th September) a lovely little gallery in Kagurazaka called eitoeiko (their icon is above). This is at the other end of the village from the famous industrial building that for years housed the Takahashi Collection, and is currently home to Yuka Sasahara. Eitoeiko is in a more residential area, on a hill that looks over rooftops to Ikebukuro and Shinjuku.

The gallery is opening in a house their family is building, alongside a neighbour’s house that will be a café. It promises to be an exquisite cultural oasis in this beautiful little residential pocket of Tokyo. Ei has been working for several years as a copywriter for a major art auction house, and has a quite acute analysis of commercial trends in the Asian market; Eiko is a successful jewellery designer. They are part of what is now a fourth generation of gallerists coming into the contemporary scene in Tokyo since the early 1990s. Simplifying a lot, if the likes of Ikeuchi, Shiraishi, Mizuma or Koyanagi were the first generation, and Koyama, Shugo Satani, or Hiromi Yoshii the second, the third would be the generation of younger, mainly women gallerists who first worked for the older male pioneers (Yamamoto Gendai, ArataniUrano, Mujinto Productions). The fourth are different in that they are now coming into art from a variety of other backgrounds in the creative industries, drawn in by the social vibrancy of the Tokyo art world, perhaps more than its economic viability.

101 Tokyo was one of the key inspirations for this, a valuable attempt led by foreigners and young Japanese with foreign commercial experience, that aimed at diversifying and shaking up the far too comfortable and inward looking Tokyo scene. 101 Tokyo struggles on, despite the rank attempts by the mainstream Tokyo Art Fair organization to snuff it out. After the excitement of the opening year in 2007, Tokyo Art Fair immediately try to steal the idea, copying the format, persuading Tokyo contemporaries who had strayed back to their fold, and even appropriating the Bacon Prize that had been set up by famous dealer/collector Johnnie Walker to launch the upstart art fair. This was a typically defensive and short sighted reaction from the men and women in suits. The vibrancy of the major art fairs in London or Basel in part depends on the buzz of smaller, satellite shows that are excluded from or cannot afford the main event. 101 Tokyo organizers have been much more aware of contemporary trends in the international art fair circuit, and prioritize innovative younger styles. Moreover, they did something Tokyo Art Fair has completely failed to do, and that was attract foreign gallerists to Tokyo. I for one hope that this young wolf will survive and flourish.

Ei too hopes that 101 Tokyo will again play host to his gallery in future: they opened eitoeiko for business there in 2008. They have also recently been in Seoul at the Top Asia Hotel Art Fair. There were not too many sales, but they were encouraged by how “hot” Japanese art seems to be among young Koreans, and also the new networks that they have established with artists and gallerists in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul or Taipei. He knows that commercially to open a gallery now is a tough proposition. Still, it is their dream, and they and others like them are the people that really make the Tokyo art scene happen. Two other galleries are also opening locally, Oshima Fine Arts and Yuka Contemporary, the latter by a former assistant of ArataniUrano. Let a thousand galleries bloom. Ei is reflective: “Whether it is good or bad for the art scene in Tokyo I don’t know. Some collectors say it becomes much more difficult to go around the galleries. It’s like the big tree has broken down, and a mass of mushrooms grow up.”

The idea for the gallery was to focus on new young artists who share some indirect affinity with traditional materials, techniques or styles, while presenting very contemporary or pop themes. As a starter, they attracted one of the stars of MOT’s “No Border” show of neo-nihonga art in 2006, Yuki Yoshida. Other artists signed up include Nipporini (Takehiro Wada) and his Fellini-esque photo stories from Nishi Nippori, Masaru Aikawa’s populist renderings of famous LP covers, and the surreal doodling of ex-St Martin’s student, Dan Hards. There is real finesse and quality running through their artists, who all work on a small, pointillist scale. I visited the gallery which is just being finished in time for the opening, and caught glimpses of the installation for the upcoming show. Shintaro Hidaka’s city scape etchings manage to combine an antique look with a pop doodle feel, and I was struck by the delicacy of the face sculptures by Megumi Takasugi. They are also presenting one of the gallery’s English artists, part of their ongoing discovery of hidden affinities between underground art from London and the contemporary Tokyo scene. On a recent scouting trip to off-piste galleries in Hoxton and Hackney in the East End of London, they met and signed Alex Ball, a painter who executes small scale work with odd objects and figures that show more than a hint of traditional Japanese influences. The smallness throughout might be a commercial key in Japan where domestic art often has to be small to fit on people’s walls.

Eitoeiko show what you can do with a good eye and the enthusiasm to break new artists. Established gallerists will see the newcomers as competition. But what Tokyo contemporary scene needs is more not less diversity, more outlets for younger artists coming through. As Ei and Eiko show me around the beautiful building that combines cutting edge Japanese domestic architectural design with old brown wooden doors recycled from an Ibaraki farmhouse, they tell me how the plot was acquired in the immediate aftermath of the war by their grandfather, and how when you dig in the soil you can sometimes find pieces of crockery from the Edo period. Tokyo as always is a shaky place to construct anything, but this seems like good soil on which to build something new.

Eitoeiko gallery’s opening show, ‘Ever Bright Moonlight’, featuring works by Alex Ball, Megumi Takasugi and Shintaro Hidaka, opens Saturday 26th September. Vernissage, 1500-1700, followed by jazz performance on guitar by Junzo Iwami and Yayoi on vocals at 1900.

Eitoeiko, 32-2 Yaraicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-0805

2009/09/25 18:58



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A Thousand Galleries Bloom
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