We have been so waiting for this: Art Space Tokyo is the new fine English compendium to the Tokyo art world, a selection of Tokyo-based galleries with maps of their surrounding hoods, critical essays and extensive interviews with art-related folks about the city and the role that art plays within. And don’t forget about the overall book design and lay-out with lovely maps and ink drawings. Needless to say that it is done by two ardent Tokyoites, edited by freelance editor and writer, Ashley Rawlings and designed and curated by Craig Mod of Chin Music Press. Truly, another love child of Tokyo and Seattle-based Chin Music Press we are fond of a lot. PingMag talked to Ashley and Craig.
Written by Verena
Etsuko Watari, curator of the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art. From Art Space Tokyo. © Nobumasa Takahashi
Now the idea for Art Space Tokyo came up first in late 2006, right?
Craig: I was trying to think of what our next book could be and how to leverage the resources we had close to us. Being at co-lab [a former office building turned into shared artist spaces in Chiyoda] we were around people deeply connected with the Art Industry. At that time I was thinking about how frustrating it was as someone who enjoys going to galleries that there was no book providing a comprehensive English selection or guide to galleries. I also didn’t find anything similar in Japanese.
And you, Ashley?
Ashley: Back then, I was still working at co-lab as one of Tokyo Art Beat’s part-time translators and editors. Craig came to me with the idea of working with him on this guide, and I was immediately interested. Working at TAB gave me a very broad overview of the Tokyo art scene, so I was able to discuss with Craig what might be a good strategy narrowing down Tokyo’s 800 or so spaces into a smaller selection. From there we spent several months (a couple of days every month) going around different areas of Tokyo, visiting all the galleries and museums. We visited something like two hundred venues, at least.
How did you select the twelve galleries in the book?
Ashley: The idea was to focus on galleries or museums that have particularly distinctive buildings, exhibitions spaces or histories. We wanted the twelve spaces to come from a variety of different areas in Tokyo, which wasn’t hard, given how far and wide they’re spread out over the city. While the focus is on art, we also wanted to include galleries that focus on other aspects of visual culture: like design, architecture, anime and graffiti. That way, through the interviews with the directors and curators of all those spaces, we could get a multifaceted perspective on Tokyo’s art scene. Lastly, it was important to find galleries that aren’t just isolated from their areas but have a meaningful connection with their neighborhood – often that connection is made through the building alone, but it can also come from a lot more than that.
Which one, for example?
Ashley: Tokyo Gallery + BTAP is on the seventh floor of a regular, uninteresting office building, and it has even moved from one part of Ginza to another, but we chose it because its history is one hundred percent connected with the Ginza neighborhood and community. It was the first contemporary commercial art gallery to be established in Tokyo, and much of its history runs in tandem with Ginza’s status as the centre of the Tokyo art world. And its avant-garde, from the 1950s to the 1980s. And then the gallery, which has a space in Beijing, was also instrumental in kick starting the Chinese contemporary art boom. However, today Tokyo Gallery + BTAP is one of the few serious contemporary galleries left in Ginza. As land prices went shooting up in the 1980s, it became harder for galleries to establish themselves there and they would open elsewhere. So now the art scene is spread out all over the city.
Craig: On the other end of the scale, you have a place like Gallery éf – the building itself is so fascinating. That’s sort of the gallery that inspired the book in a way, because the space was so unique and beautiful…
Ashley: … it’s a 140-year-old wooden warehouse.
Craig: Having only opened ten years ago, the gallery is fairly new and low profile and kind of off the art world radar. But the space is so special and precious. It became the standard of what we were looking for architecturally in an art space. And the way they run it too – if you read the interview with the director – is very loose and they’re less concerned with being this stereotypically commercial gallery and are much more interested in connecting the space with the artists.
Interesting! Please tell us a bit about the visual concept of Art Space Tokyo as an illustrated guide!
Craig: It’s meant to be the “anti-guide” guide. In the sense that when we started the project, we were looking in bookstores for similar books. If you asked for guides to museums, you would invariably be presented with these photo books with no detailed information, just big beautiful photographs of museums. Those books have their purpose, but it’s frustrating that there’s not a greater depth to them. So, instead of having a hundred galleries, we choose a few spaces and drilled down deeply into them.
Including lots of fine ink-drawings. Who did them?
Craig: I wanted something that was totally antithetical to the glossy photographs of those books, so the inside drawings are all done in a sumi-e ink, bamboo brush style by Nobumasa Takahashi. Editorially, this book is about the people behind these art spaces and I thought that it’s very important to show them. But at the same time, an illustration leaves more to the imagination than a photograph. It maintains both some of the elusiveness often associated with the art world and the people involved, and allows the reader to have a stronger, more personal relationship with the text.
What about the structure?
Craig: The structure of the book pivots about the twelve chosen art spaces. Each of the spaces is given a chapter to itself. Each of these chapters is kicked off with a rich, visually distinct two-page spread ink drawing of the space.
So, this introductory illustration sets the tone, then you have these really useful, detailed maps of the surrounding neighborhood that we spent so much time on [laughs]. This is followed by a little introduction to the area, a background discussion of the space, general information on opening hours and fees, and then finally the chapter goes into a deep discussion of why this space exists through interviews and essays.
I love this city. I’ve lived here for six years now, and I thought it was really important to make sure we give a voice to the areas surrounding the galleries and museums. So the book does become very much a traditional guide in the sense that there are maps and insider-like recommendations for nearby cafes, restaurants and strolls. You can spend a day going to – say you go to SCAI THE BATHHOUSE – hopefully through the interview in the book you’ll understand why it’s there and how it fits into the contemporary art scene. After that, you can also spend the day walking around the neighbourhood, drinking special roast coffee at Bossa Cafe, or having some local, hand-made soba. I believe this neighborhood interaction is also key to understanding a space like SCAI.
Ashley: Thank you. The book functions both for people in Tokyo who can actually walk around the city, and for people outside of the country who can read about it. I also think we achieved the right balance between making it accessible to people who know nothing about the art scene and to people who are already working in the art industry. Whether they are in the Tokyo Art Industry or London or New York.
Is there any gallery or museum that you chose for having a distinctive approach to curating?
Ashley: They all have different approaches. One of the key things about the book is that it’s not focused so much on the exhibition programmes themselves as it is on getting a sense of the ideas of the directors and curators behind them. However, I would say 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT has the most ambitious approach to curating. They really don’t just want to line up products like a display case, but put on these installation-like exhibitions. Whether you like their exhibitions or not, they’re being pretty ambitious and going against conventional expectations. In terms of more classic curating, I think the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art is excellent.
Craig: What about Gallery Koyanagi?
Ashley: The thing about Gallery Koyanagi is that, with these commercial galleries, their emphasis is less on curating and more on selling. Although, that said, I think that out of all of Tokyo’s commercial galleries, Koyanagi’s exhibition displays are particularly well presented. Nakaochiai Gallery and Gallery éf are both really good at using their spaces to present installations and exhibitions that correspond with the history of where they are working.
Craig: I find Nakaochiai Gallery interesting because they leverage their foreignness. They sometimes hold one-night-only curated exhibitions in private apartments belonging to expats living in Tokyo…
Ashley: … an idea born out of necessity. Private luxury apartments can sometimes have more wall space than a typical Tokyo gallery. But more interesting than that is to see artworks for sale in a personal, domestic setting, rather than in the white cube. This touches on some of what Roger McDonald from Arts Initiative Tokyo talks about in his essay about “spacelessness” in Tokyo. Art spaces in Tokyo are these very shifting, ephemeral things. An exhibition doesn’t necessarily have to be a month-long extravaganza in a museum. It could last just one night in an apartment in Hiroo.
Things are very short-lived here in general… The year 2004 seemed to be a special date for many galleries. How come?
Ashley: 2004 is a year that some people in the book mention. A whole new generation of galleries has been established since 2004. That year marks the point when a certain critical mass was achieved in the Tokyo art scene, and things have started to gather momentum since then. The art market has got stronger, art fairs have been established, and there are enough serious galleries now to put Tokyo’s art scene back on the international stage. It took ten to twelve years for the art market in Tokyo to rebuild itself after the economic bubble burst.
Ten years? But still, there must be lots of professionals working at least partly in art. How come there weren’t enough?
Ashley: It’s simply about the basic infrastructure of the art market. Tokyo still has very few serious commercial contemporary galleries and collectors compared to the United States, Europe and China. I guess the bubble started off a vicious circle of negative perception because many companies and private investors had made a lot of money out of art in the late 1980s, mostly out of impressionist works. But when the bubble burst, they saw their works lose value very quickly. The value of contemporary art is far less easy to ascertain than impressionist art, so after being burned in the early 1990s, nobody was rushing to invest in the art scene. It took people a long time to realize that art is something that you can enjoy, and that seems to have been the focus that has been put on Japanese contemporary art in recent years.
In the context of…?
Ashley: The last five years or so with places like Mori Art Museum opening with the aim of making contemporary art appealing to a broad audience. This popularization of contemporary art has been increasingly reflected in the media, with more and more magazines releasing special issues that demystify the contemporary art scene and the art buying process — so this is all helping to generate a much more positive cycle of public perception.
For the book, we initially conceived it as focusing on physical spaces but we also wanted to expand the content to cover issues about the art market and the art scene in general. So we included interviews with figures who are not necessarily connected to a certain fixed space: like art fair directors or auction house directors, a collector, people in the media. There’s an essay by Tetsuya Ozaki, the editor of ART iT magazine that assesses the state of art publishing and criticism in Japan.
Yes, please tell us your point view on art criticism in Japan!
Ashley: I think the Japanese are very open-minded when it comes to art. They don’t want to criticize something without feeling they have done as much as they can to grasp its context. People all over the world realize that understanding contemporary art is not easy. In the British newspapers, for example, there is a lot of knee-jerk criticism of contemporary art made by writers who actually don’t seem be making much effort to understand what they are criticizing. Whereas in Japan, people give it the benefit of the doubt more and they have the presence of mind to not want to badmouth something that they don’t necessarily know enough about.
A fine silkscreen as cover of Art Space Tokyo.
However, it does create problems because criticism is important in pushing the art scene along. The culture of criticism in Japan hasn’t achieved the same kind of critical mass as other parts of the art scene, and I think this is one factor in why the art market or the art scene here isn’t yet as powerful as it could be.
Despite that, in an interview in Art Space Tokyo, Toshio Hara talks about a museum-building boom at the moment. How would you explain that?
Ashley: Museums from the 1960s to the late 1980s used to be the driving force behind the art scene. They used to set the trends. But that faded out in the 1990s and there has been less and less government support for them. Japan is moving more towards a model of encouraging museums to be self-supporting through private funding. This boom at the moment is, in some cases, like the National Art Center in Roppongi, a legacy of the 1980s. That museum has been in the planning stages since the 1980s and it’s only now that it has finally been built. Overall, the trend now is towards privately run, or corporate-run museums– Such as Mori…
On the other side, we have the feeling that it’s very hard for artists to get sponsorship or funding from the government…
The two radiantly smiling makers, Ashley Rawlings (left) and Craig Mod (right.)
Ashley: It’s pointed out throughout the interviews in the book – the government isn’t really doing what it could to support the art scene. More and more the infrastructure of the Tokyo art scene is being developed by private capital rather than government funding.
Ah, we’d love to go into that deeper, but sadly we have to finish. One last thing, as with all the works of Chin Music Press, this one really comes from the heart!
Craig: Yes, but this one in particular was a real labor of love between two art obsessives! [laughs]
Indeed! Thank you, Craig and Ashley! Now folks, Art Space Tokyo is a must have. You can get it now online and in Japan and it’ll be in American bookstores from September. So far, there is no money for a Japanese version. But who knows…