Response from Yoshitomo Nara to the article “Yoshitomo Nara as a Businessman”

We have received a response from artist Yoshitomo Nara to the article “Yoshitomo Nara as a Businessman” by Adrian Favell, an official blogger at ART iT.
The response consists of comments on those parts of the article Nara regards as factual mistakes, and is published in full below.
(For the Japanese text, please click here)

The Japanese translation originally posted by Favell himself was temporarily removed from the blog by Favell due to inconsistencies between the Japanese and English, but has been reposted at the request of Nara. However, Favell remains concerned that the nuances in the original English text are not easily conveyed in Japanese, and so readers are requested to bear this in mind.

Note that the contents of ART iT official blogs represent the views of the bloggers themselves, and as a general rule the contents are neither checked nor edited by the editors.

ART iT Editors
August 2012

For each extract, the italic-face text on the top is Favell’s while the text underneath in green is Nara’s response.

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.
What does this mean in concrete terms? Also, in terms of a timeline, I think perhaps I’m no longer part of the Tokyo art world.

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.
We were thrown together not simply because we were both Japanese, but because we were both invited by Professor Paul McCarthy to teach at UCLA for a semester, and because Blum and Poe, the gallery that represents us both in LA, supported us both in various ways. Also, I knew Murakami prior to that, so well that we could talk nonsense and have a good laugh together.

Murakami still calls Nara to compare strategies, or anxiously discuss his next big – maybe foolish – move.
From memory, Murakami has called me around two or three times over the last ten years. And I’ve called him a similar number of times. The use of the expression “still” is also odd given that we never called each other and so on in the past.
Murakami is busier than people imagine, and we never meet or speak on the phone casually. The only occasions on which we’ve met have been at openings of our respective shows where we’ve stood and chatted briefly, and when I’ve been invited to serve on the judging panel at Murakami’s GEISAI. Even on these occasions the discussions have also involved several of Murakami’s friends and acquaintances, and I don’t think we’ve spoken alone at all in the past ten years. A dialogue between us is going to be published in the next issue of Bijutsu Techo (September 2012), but on occasions such as this, too, several people (seven or eight in this case) are present, including editorial staff and gallery people. Consequently, we don’t have the opportunity to discuss individual strategies, for example.

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.
I think it’s probably because I’m truly naïve (i.e. foolish) that I respond like this in situations where it would be better to hold my tongue, and state the kinds of facts that don’t need stating. Also, if all the facts were known, instead of the “cool business head” the writer refers to later on, I’m sure people would think I had foolish business head.

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 don’t have a massive inventory. Frankly, whenever I produced new work, it sold. This would have been easy to ascertain by enquiring into the sales situation at each gallery. The writer uses the expression “big money,” but regardless of how massive the number of prints, the total amount earned from them doesn’t even compare with the amount earned from two or three paintings. Perhaps the writer is talking about the secondary market, from which the artist themselves receives not a cent.

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.
If anyone was giving thought to an “operation,” a term that crops up frequently throughout the text, it wasn’t me but the gallery. And for a gallery, giving thought to operations is probably nothing unusual. Actually, I was always against the production of prints. On numerous occasions in the years that followed, Mr Kido of Kido Press, who was producing the prints at the time, asked me to produce more, but I refused. Recently, however, I’ve become familiar with the technique of woodblock printing, and as a result I’ve resumed producing prints. Note: Refer to Hanga no hanashi (About prints) on my blog, or in Nara Life (2012, FOIL, pp 54-57).

Much of Nara’s inventory in the 2000s was in fact largely undocumented.
The inventory for which the documentation is imprecise is from the first half of the 1990s; from the second half of the 1990s onwards the inventory is clearly documented.

They had a series of arguments about sales strategies.
For my part I don’t remember any arguments.

2009, Nara was keen to go completely independent of the commercial gallery structure, looking for staff to man his own independent operation.
This is untrue. It’s a clear factual mistake.

In the meantime, he was always unusually powerful in dictating how Tomio Koyama presented his work
I’ve developed the kind of relationship with Koyama in which we can say to each other whatever we want to say, but this doesn’t mean there’s an unequal power relationship.

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.
I‘ve introduced to Koyama only two artists: Hiroshi Sugito and Atsushi Fukui. Decisions about all the others were made by Koyama himself, and he never sought my advice.

He had been around since the late 1980s commercial design/illustration boom, and had tried unsuccessfully to present himself in this context.
I was in Nagoya between 1981 and spring 1988, but I never considered presenting myself in the kind of illustration context mentioned by the writer, and never entered illustration competitions and the like. Neither are there any products for which my pictures were actually used as illustrations. I first caught the attention of the Japanese art world when one of my works featured on the cover of the July 1995 issue of Bijutsu Techo in connection with the “Kairaku kaiga” (Pleasure painting) special feature. Until then I was a complete unknown, a fact that anyone involved in the art world could confirm. In fact I had no intention at all of debuting and wanted to study in Germany, which is why in 1988 I moved from Nagoya to Germany.

But the underlying point with Nara was commercial – and nothing to do with his formal technique, which is very good.
If the facts have nothing to do with each other, how was this point deduced?

Fans need to collect, he said.
I’d like to know where I said this, as well as the context of my statement.

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
Lamm Fromm and Workaholics are the same company. The made-in-China dogs are made by Sun Arrow, a Japanese company that makes stuffed toys for Studio Ghibli among others. The implication seems to be that I adopted a hands-off approach, but nothing could be further from the truth. For example, I even objected to Chronicle books doing a catalogue raisonné. More recently, I’ve only just said no to the publication in English of NARA48 GIRLS (2011, Chikuma Shobo). (The request came from the Japanese publishers, Chikuma Shobo, and I refused the request via Chikuma Shobo. For details, one need only ask Chikuma Shobo.) As is usually the case, rather than me saying, “I want to make merchandise!” it was a case of me being approached by another party.

Once Nara started producing three-dimensional toys, he positioned himself at the head of the 2000s adult vinyl collectible boom.
Where was I so positioned? More information is needed.

And so Nara kept giving it all away.
It wasn’t a lot. I think the only places I personally gave work to were the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei. In addition, I’ve donated drawings to charity auctions, donated the proceeds of sales, and so on for causes such as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and fundraising for art museums that have hosted my own solo shows.

When he let the museum in Seoul keep all his work, Tomio Koyama argued with him about the danger to sales.
I’ve checked with Koyama, and neither of us have any such recollection.

Nara knew he would just get a permanent museum collection in his name.
Surely everyone knows that if your work is kept it goes into a permanent collection? Being in the position that he is, perhaps the writer is unaware that “From the Depth of My Drawer,” the solo show I held in 2005 at the Rodin Gallery in Seoul, which is operated by the same parent company as the Leeum, was a resounding success despite a whole lot of difficulties, largely due to the assistance I received from the locals, and I shared the excitement of this success with the curators, the contractors, the cleaning ladies, and the ladies who worked at the restaurant at Namdaemun Market where we ate every night. This solo show was selected in a professional journal as the best exhibition in South Korea that year. For a Japanese artist to be selected for something like this is extremely rare in South Korea. Accordingly, I came up with the idea of donating my artwork as a token of my gratitude. The museum considered purchasing it, but I preferred the idea of a gift. According to Koyama, as well as accepting this donation, the Leeum bought from the gallery two paintings and one ceramic sculpture.

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.
What meetings? I’d also like to know how I screamed. I usually only raise my voice in situations like this one.

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.
By “partner,” does the writer mean graf? If so, we only worked together on the interior. In addition, I worked on the interior completely free of charge, and had nothing to do with the running of it. All the others who worked on it, including graf, were paid appropriately. The owner, a man named Mr Sadahiro, specializes in managing restaurants.
For me, this doesn’t even come close to constituting a business. Because I’m not paid a cent. I checked with Koyama himself, and he says he was never furious. The café was originally established through the kindness of the owner, Mr Sadahiro, as a satellite of the Hirosaki “A to Z” show.

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.
There’s no “business organization.” It’s news to me that I’m the CEO or whatever. I’ve never had my own organization. Perhaps the writer is referring to the Osaka creative team graf, but we’ve always been in an equal relationship with respect to “A to Z.” They were paid the appropriate living expenses, including a daily allowance, by the executive committee that was set up with local people taking the lead (it was not set up by me). I participated without recompense because I wanted to strengthen my ties with the volunteers. The only people involved with that show who weren’t paid were the volunteers and me. We raised the funds necessary to hold it from people on the basis that the money would be “returned if there was a surplus” but “not returned if there was no surplus.” At the end of the show, the proceeds from admission charges, merchandise sales, and so on were considerable, and we returned to each of these people a sum equivalent to what they contributed along with a small drawing. We still had a lot of money left over. Later, we made donations to an orphanage in Thailand, UNICEF Japan, the United Nations World Food Program, and so on, and sent left over T-shirts to children living in landmine-affected villages in Cambodia. The following year, using the money still left over, we made a large dog sculpture and donated it to the exhibition hosts. Altogether there were some 10,000 volunteers, and although I don’t know the extent, it’s only to be expected that there would be problems arising from relationships within this group. One would also expect there to be people with negative things to say about the organization. I just wish the writer would investigate thoroughly the ratio of negative opinions to positive opinions.

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.
I made an effort to avoid the perception that “A to Z” was in my own name. I did everything I could to avoid using my name, something that should be clear from reading the media interviews, articles, and so on from that period. In fact there was even someone (a member of the executive committee) who declared that it was he who produced “A to Z” (laughs).

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.
I sense in the expression “this sad and grey corner of Japan” some ill will towards the provinces. Hirosaki is known for tourism (Cherry Blossom Festival, Neputa Festival) and agriculture (apples). Please look up the tourist numbers during Japan’s Golden Week. If I’m not mistaken, Hirosaki is in the top three.
I think one could say it experienced something similar during “A to Z.” Some 80,000 people attended an exhibition in a city with a population of 180,000 (at the risk of repeating myself, can a city this size really be called a “corner” of Japan? Although it’s not the prefectural capital, it’s also home to the only national university in the entire prefecture), and I’m sure the businesses in the vicinity of the venue also benefited while the show was running.

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.
Considering the number of volunteers, it’s no surprise some reacted in this way. However, there was no compulsion with regard to the type of work people did or the number of days they worked, for example.

Nara kept his money tight, and expected everyone to pay their own way at after work drinks parties.
I was not in the kind of position where I had control over money. The executive committee was in charge of the finances, and when others paid I also paid. It should be possible to confirm this with the executive committee. Otherwise, please ask one of the many and unspecified volunteers who were in this position.

When he started writing his blog before Yokohama, it was the master stroke of genius…
I’d been writing a blog in one form or another long before this.

There was little development in his style he moved from gallery painting to installation artist.
Actually, I’m currently moving away from installations. This was the case with the Yokohama show. And I have no plans for any future collaboration with graf.

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?
I now understand that not everyone was interested in cooperation for its own sake, so chances are I won’t do this kind of thing again. In this sense, although people are free to think that I’ve made the transition from cult star (the writer’s opinion, not mine) to cultural figure (again, the writer’s opinion, not mine), I think, on the contrary, I’ve probably succeeded in taking back the sole power I had in the ’80s and early ’90s.

Translated from Japanese by ART iT

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