Alternative Art Spaces in Japan

Andrew Maerkle interviews Arts Initiative Tokyo programmer Roger McDonald about the history and sustainability of alternative art spaces in Japan.


Recent years have seen a turning point for Japanese alternative art spaces, with the passing of a non-profit organisation legislation in 1999 and the recent establishment of alternative art organisations such as Arts Initiative Tokyo (AIT), in 2002, which sponsors artist residencies and arts education, and Art Autonomy Network (AAN), based in Yokohama, in 2005, devoted to the research, promotion, and archiving of alternative art spaces and events in Japan. In 2006, the third installment of the "Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial" will take place in the Echigo-Tsumari region of Japan's main island, Honshu, in Niigata prefecture. The festival, featuring international artists as well as Japanese artists, is quietly gaining prominence, and it supports a compelling vision of art integrated within a social setting and environment—as such it also suggests a form of 'alternative' arts festival. This year's Echigo-Tsumari will install permanent art projects in abandoned buildings and homes in the region, addressing the steady migration of young people from the countryside to urban centers such as Tokyo and Osaka.

When asked to write about Japan for DIAAALOGUE, I thought about my relationship to knowledge. As a member of the media and an editor of a magazine, I am acutely aware of this relationship: I serve as a conduit between specialists or people with special knowledge (in the case of artists) and an audience that presumably—if I am doing my job right—is learning about this knowledge for the first time or in a new way. This is the fun part of being a writer and editor, and the publication I work for, Art Asia Pacific, made great strides in building up its knowledge of art in Asia earlier this winter by producing its inaugural edition of the Almanac, a yearly special publication on Asian contemporary art with analysis and documentation of contemporary art in 67 Asian nations and territories. It was a fantastic experience to connect with artists and art professionals in places as disparate as Yemen and New Caledonia as well as more visible countries such as Japan and China. To that extent, I do have a specialised knowledge about Asian contemporary art, but I always look to improve upon what I already have—I am excited by the prospect of learning something new.

Japan, in particular, is a complex environment when it comes to contemporary art. Japan supports a range of international contemporary galleries, public museums, private museums established by individual patrons or families, private museums established by corporations, and a long mainstay of the Japanese art scene, rental galleries.

The recent prominence of artists working with Pop imagery, namely Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, has brought significant international attention to Japan's commercial contemporary art galleries. While numbers of commercial galleries have increased in the past ten years or so, with younger additions including Kodama Gallery, Yamada Gendai, Hiromi Yoshii, and Gallery Side 2 quickly establishing themselves alongside older peers such as Tomio Koyama Gallery, Shugoarts, Mizuma Art Gallery and Gallery Koyanagi, Japan's commercial market is still passing through a critical phase, expanding slowly and not yet able to support the vast numbers of artists that find purchase in other international art centers such as New York or London.

Similarly, Japan's network of municipal museums, extending throughout the country, are relatively proactive in giving exhibition space to young or unrecognised artists, but many lack the acquisitions budget to actively support artists by purchasing their works. Rental galleries provide another venue for artists without exclusive representation to obtain exhibition space, yet despite the longevity of the rental gallery system, they can only provide occasional support for artists, and at considerable individual outlay. The Japanese art scene, then, embodies certain contradictions—it harbors an incredibly vital wealth of talent and sophistication, yet it also, to an extent, under-exploits the potential contained therein.

While commercial galleries and both public and private museums are fairly well documented in English-language and Japanese media, yet another type of outlet for art activities, alternative and artist-run art spaces, are relatively underrepresented. Many such spaces are engaging in provocative and intellectually stimulating programs while also supporting artists and audiences outside of the main center of Tokyo. For example, Gallery SOAP, a multi-disciplinary space established in 1997 in Kitakyushu, works with both Japanese and international artists such as Peter Halley, Takuji Kogo, and Noritoshi Hirakawa. In Tokyo itself, commandN, originally established in 1998, recently found new space in the city's Kanda district and has been reincarnated as Kandada/Project collective commandN in 2005. 

I decided to take this opportunity to contribute to DIAAALOGUE and use it to contact art professionals in Japan to engage with them about the alternative art situation there. Ultimately, Roger McDonald, who works with AIT as a programmer for its Making Art Different (MAD) education initiative, as well as organising events and doing independent curation, was willing to discuss at length with me the history and sustainability of alternative art spaces in Japan. I first came to know about Roger through his English-language weblog, Tactical Museum, through which he offers insights on life in Japan as well as the various art events that he attends or organises. What follows are excerpts from our correspondence.


Andrew Maerkle (AM): To begin with, could you tell me a bit more about what you do at AIT as well as any other projects you might be working on?

Roger McDonald (RM): AIT was started in 2002 as a non profit organisation, registered by The City of Tokyo, by six young-ish curators and arts managers. One of our main areas of focus is education—we run an independent school program called MAD, which currently offers seven courses and attracts over 150 people every year. Through MAD, we offer the first curating course in Japan too. Rather than add another exhibition space to the many already present in Tokyo, we felt it was more important to add another layer to art education. In addition, we began the first systematic artist-in-residence program in Tokyo and have made partnerships with IASPIS in Sweden, FRAME in Finland and Asialink in Australia, amongst others, and host artists and curators for 3 month residencies. We apply to Japanese foundations for funds to invite artists from countries that do not have funding systems in place—thus far we have invited artists from Costa Rica and Palestine, and in March, an artist from the Philippines arrives.

Also in March, over 2 days, we initiate the 12 Hour Museum—the latest in our ongoing series of temporary 'museums' popping up in the city. We have done two before, for eight hours each. 12 Hour Museum is in collaboration with Panasonic and will take place in their large hall in Odaiba, Tokyo. We are working with artists, including Aida Makoto and Takamine Tadasu, and an architect to design the space and video works, and we will also show an interview archive of alternative spaces and communities from around Japan, created by my colleague at AIT, Kai Ozawa, who has travelled to six such spaces to talk with their directors and video interviews.

For us, it's more interesting to experiment with different formats and models for exhibition-making in Tokyo—a city which is suited to archigram-ish ideas of 'plugging-in'—infrastructures are very efficient for people to move about, so why not stay mobile and appear momentarily? I suppose it mirrors ways the military talk these days: "rapid reaction."

AIT are also the commissioners for Japan at this year's Bangladesh Biennale, which opens March 5. We will work with 2 artists—Fuji Hiroshi from Fukuoka [who creates energetic, bricolage-like installations] and Yuken Teruya, originally from Okinawa and based in New York [who cuts intricate dioramas out of discarded shopping bags]. Both artists work with waste materials and will make a new collaborative installation in Dhaka. This is the first time that the Japan Foundation have chosen to work with a non-profit organisation. Personally, I am one of the curators of the Singapore Biennale, which opens later this year.

AM: How would you define an alternative art space in Japan ? Is it necessarily defined in terms of opposition to commercial galleries and institutions?

RM: How to define 'alternative' in Japan is an interesting issue—unlike Europe or North America where there is a stronger oppositional and historical discourse between institutions and alternatives, in Japan, and indeed many Asian situations, the idea of the alternative is defined case by case. On one level there are artist-led and curator-led initiatives like AIT, commandN in Tokyo, Gallery SOAP in Kitakyushu, and Maejima Art Center in Naha, Okinawa, which in a sense look and feel much like 'alternative' spaces found nowadays in Berlin or London. There are also city-supported centres, like BANK ART in Yokohama, which describe themselves as 'alternative' and 'non-museum' based—but obviously with official funding. Some art museums run by prefectures or cities, such as Art Tower Mito, have developed unique exhibition programmes compared with most museums in Japan. They can in a sense also be considered 'alternative'. So my feeling is that the rigid distinction between the institution and the alternative is far more fluid in Japan. Until the 1980s department store museums (for example, Saison Museum in the Seibu department store) showed contemporary art more than art museums. Real estate issues in Tokyo and high land prices mean there are very few opportunities for squatting-type or warehouse-type shows. Going further back in history, it's interesting to think about The Yomiuri Independent's exhibitions from the 1950s and 60s which were open-call hyper avant-garde shows where many movements showed, such as the Neo-Dada and the Kyushu-Ha, until it got too weird for the organisers and stopped in 1964. This was in a sense an officially sanctioned 'alternative' space for showing cutting-edge art and played a crucial role in post-war Japanese art history.

AM: What alternative art spaces are particularly successful right now? In general, are artists and audiences interested in working with alternative art spaces? Do many alternative art spaces respond to very specific interests?

RM: With the passing of a non-profit law a few years back, many arts groups and spaces have drifted towards becoming official NPO's (like AIT). This law was one reaction to the great Hanshin earthquake in Kobe (on January 17, 1995), which highlighted the important role of citizen and non-governmental organisations in assisting disaster relief. Since moving back to Japan in 2000, I have seen a number of small artist initiatives and spaces open, only to close within a year or two, largely due to lack of funds. There is very little funding for alternative activities—it depends on the city too. I know that Osaka city supports arts groups by lending them empty office space free of rent. But Tokyo does not do this—although some wards within Tokyo have supported art initiatives (commandN borrowed a space in Akihabara, which is now closed). It's pretty tough to keep something going, let alone maintain a space.

As you point out, different groups do seem to stake specific positions and audiences—AIT has focused on education and residency with a strong international leaning. commandN is artist-run, led by Masato Nakamura, and tends to focus on exhibitions and projects. Gallery SOAP was started by artists—a sociologist and a musician—in Kitakyushu, and they operate a community cafe and run an online art space [in collaboration with media artist Takuji Kogo, whose artist space Candy Factory in Yokohama featured projects by Japanese and international artists from 1997 until it closed in 2001,]. Maejima Art Center operate in a run-down area of Naha, Okinawa, and work with urban regeneration issues and communities.

AM: In the media outside of Japan, much of the focus is on Tokyo's art scene, are there other cities capable of supporting both commercial galleries and other art spaces?

RM: Commercially, the focus is still probably Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya—but I think the impact of things like the "Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennal" in the Niigata region has been growing and is important for developing a new contemporary art fan base. Nara Yoshitomo had a show in an old warehouse in Aomori a couple of years back which was apparently almost totally volunteer-organised and a huge success. A new contemporary museum opens in Aomori this July and I believe it has strong links to Nara, who was born in Aomori. This is interesting because one often sees prefectures building museums for 'famous' sons and daughters.

AM: Regarding the history of alternative spaces—the Sagacho Exhibit Space used to have really strong programming a couple years ago and then folded. It seems that, as you say, places come and go. Are there patrons who offer funding, boards of directorship, or other institutional apparati established for many of the non-profit organisations in Japan? Or will spaces find ways to resurrect themselves even if not in a conventionally "sustainable" manner?

RM: Sagacho Exhibit Space was indeed an important pioneer alternative space in Tokyo. It billed itself as Tokyo's first such space—begun by patron and former fashion writer Kazuko Koike in 1983 and lasting until 2000. It was a large warehouse-type space in an old rice warehouse [which also ultimately housed commercial galleries such as Tomio Koyama, Taro Nasu, and a collaborative viewing space, Rice Gallery, between Shugo Satani and Atsuko Koyanagi]. The building was torn down in 2000. Because of Sagacho's size and non-commercial nature it showed large-scale works and installations by many artists who went on to become famous—people like Morimura Yasumasa and Miyajima Tatsuo. I am not sure how Koike-san funded this, but it certainly played a key role in developing Tokyo as a scene.

As for patrons and boards, NPO's must gather a minimum number of 'members' to apply for official status. This in effect becomes like a board—and I know that many art NPO's ask famous names to become members to lend the organisation legitimacy. AIT have an advisory panel, which has no executive power, but helps us in securing funds and trust from partners. As to whether patrons fund groups, I have not heard of this. Unlike the US, I think there is basically no patronage layer in the arts in Japan which helps non-profits or alternative spaces—of course big corporations like Benesse (who run Naoshima Island), NTT (who run the InterCommunication Center in Tokyo) and Mori (who run the Mori Art Museum) fund their own museums and projects. Alternative sectors have to rely on either city or prefectural support or apply to a limited number of foundations (POLA, Toshiba, etc) for project support.

AM: Do you think it's important that alternative spaces continue to develop along the NPO model as AIT have done or is this just one approach?

RM: I think the NPO model is one approach that has become visible recently. It is important in so far as it provides a kind of 'third way' model between the museum and commercial models, but it is still in its infancy. To become an NPO means that one needs to become accountable to a 'public' and adopt a sense of professionalism. On the other hand there is the danger of losing a sense of independence and critical base as well as becoming an extension of prefectural cultural policies—it is a fact that as museums face crisis now in Japan, they are appealing to NPO's to provide content and programming at 'cheap rates.' There is the misguided perception that NPO's are like volunteer orgnisations. I think a deeper debate is required within the NPO community on these issues—trying to define whether the NPO model really represents a 'third way' and if so, how can it be different from how museums have operated until now.

AM: What do you think of the "Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennal"? It seems to be funded mainly by local governments but managed by a commercial agency, Art Front. Does Echigo resemble the mixed model of corporate/institutional/alternative you have already discussed?

RM: I think Echigo-Tsumari is a quite extraordinary model for another kind of international exhibition—moving away form urban centres to rural regions, working with communities over a ten-year period, having the same Director, and developing a theme over 3 manifestations. It is as you point out run by art promoter, Fram Kitagawa's company, Art Front, but when I spoke with him about this, he mentioned that he went for this approach because when dealing with prefectural governments, it was quicker and economical working in this way, rather than going through committees. I don't think he makes any money doing this! Indeed, I know that Art Front rely on artists and can only offer very basic remunerations. But big names offer to participate and take part because they like what it's all about. The triennial also has a huge volunteer network called the Kohebi Tai (Little Shrimp Brigade) with its own organisation and structures. It is perhaps an example of this mixed model approach.




Wed, 1 Mar 2006
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