Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Masami Shiraishi, curator

For Art Fair Tokyo 2015, I interviewed the event's chairman, Masami Shiraishi. The interview was carried out by email a couple of weeks before AFT, with questions translated into Japanese and answers translated into English. The accompanying pictures are random shots I took when I visited the event.

CBL: Tell us about your previous involvement with Art Fair Tokyo and why you think you were selected as the chairman of the AFT Board.

MS: In 1992, I launched the Nippon International Contemporary Art Fair (NICAF) in the initial wave of market globalization. It was 25 years ago at the end of the bubble economy. Japan was seen as a rich and potential market, so the fair attracted top international gallerists of that time. Though I leant that the economic power does not spontaneously lead to the high appreciation of art. In the economic stagnation in the following decades, making a finance to hold an art fair seemed a little too hard. It was only in the last 4-5 years that we saw separate events in the fair format across the city, but I felt very strongly that these individual activities should be unified and put in one view in order to reflect the reality of the Tokyo’s art world today. It is also at the extension of my efforts to build the domestic art infrastructure in healthy relation to the global market. I felt like it was my role to undertake this so I accepted to be a Chairman at ART FAIR TOKYO.

CBL: How will the approach and focus of this year’s AFT differ from that of previous AFTs?

MS: The fair carries on what have been done previously — putting the domestic Japanese antiquities and traditional paintings market alongside the global contemporary art market. My aim is to shift away from the market dichotomy and segmentation and to create a common platform on which diverse people from different art genres could mix and merge. This year, Art Fair Tokyo opens less than a week after Art Basel Hong Kong which is the biggest international art fair in Asia. For this reason, we have prepared two special projects during the fair period. In the first curated section (“Japanese Contemporary Art at the Venice Biennale”), we exhibit Japanese artists who have participated in the Venice Biennale, often said to be the world’s most influential art event. We’d like to trace the recent development of Japanese contemporary art together with audiences by reaffirming the achievements of these artists who have been appraised within a global context. The second project concerns the market for Japan’s unique antiques and traditional paintings, such as Nihonga and Yoga, for which a large domestic market remains. We will examine the two extremes of the contemporary and antique markets through the context of Rimpa, the 400-year-old art movement that continues to be reappraised today in contemporary art. We have highlighted some contemporary artists who are considered to be continuing the lineage of Rimpa. Many of us hope that Japanese artists will receive recognition overseas, but a few pay attention to the fact that the artists who exhibit at Venice have always been supported by their galleries. We hope the fair will be an opportunity to focus on the galleries’ contributions to the overall cultural activities and to emphasize the presence of the commercial market including the galleries and the collectors.

CBL: Economic trends always have a big impact on art. How have rising share prices and greater wealth of the rich effected the art market?

SM: I think the rich will increase, though we don’t really know what will happen. The affluent class in Japan may not have the same consumption patterns as the overseas one. Even if the affluent class increases and there are more people buying art, what then happens to our awareness of art, domestically or otherwise? The art market and the art scene are integrated, so if the affluent class is interested in the scene, how far will they penetrate it? This is when the strengths of those of us involved with art are tested.

CBL: There has also been a consumption tax rise last year.

SM: There hasn’t been any marked impact yet, such as a drop in the market. People say that the art market is supported by the affluent. It is hard to say how much influence consumption tax has on this.

CBL: Also I guess that problems with China and Korea over historical questions may have an influence.

SM: In the art world, there is absolutely no sense of this kind of antagonism. In the artistic world, sharp political statements are made, but this is not conspicuous. Rather, in the art market, collectors and curators interact with each other in a way that is almost completely unrelated to the political situation with China and Korea. Politics is not always the topic of conversation. You can’t sense any influence that perceptions about history have on the market.

CBL: How have you and your colleagues been responding to these economic challenges?

SM: In terms of contemporary art history, we take pride that Japan has been a pioneer in Asia, and many Chinese and Koreans also look favorably on this. Gallerists should produce market incentives and introduce artworks to the number of affluent collectors in Asia. I want to reach out to and beyond those countries.

CBL: It is often said that the contemporary art market in the past was institutional, but that when institution budgets were cut, the art market had to appeal more to individual buyers. As a consequence Art Fair Tokyo also started to focus on antiques and more classical art. How healthy is the art market now? Who are buying, what is selling well, and which groups are you hoping to attract to the art market?

SM: The art market was stagnant for some time after the bubble collapsed. The participation of corporations and organizations did indeed decrease. However, it’s not the case that we expanded to include antiques in the fair in order to encourage more individual buyers. We thought it important to have a fair that visualized the total art activities in Tokyo, including a diverse range of media and genres. Japan had an existing art market and the contemporary can follow the achievements of the past. We wanted to join up the existing strengths of the market into something new, stronger and bigger. There are two ways to be involved with the art market. One is thinking of artworks as assets and cultural resources; enjoying having good things for oneself and supporting the value of culture as an important element of civic life. The other is to buy artworks as an investment in the anticipation that the value of certain artwork will rise in the future. These two different psychologies are not clearly divided within the mindset of the buyers. But I want there to be more people who buy the works that match their interests or way of thinking and increased awareness in Japan of buying art commensurate to economic clout or assets. To do this, it’s important that we don’t construct a market based solely on a relationship between dealers and the galleries, but build up a situation where art museums, foundations, journalism, and all of society are aware of art’s strengths as enriching culture.

CBL: I have often felt that the Japanese art market has its own unique characteristics, but at the same time it is trying hard to fit into the global market. In the past AFT has tried very hard to appeal to Asian collectors. Does this create a contradiction between adapting to local conditions and appealing to international tastes? Can you expand on this point?

SM: Compared to the new markets in Asia, it is distinctive that Japan has an historical background in the context of contemporary art. I want people to be aware of this going forward. Many artists have traveled to Japan and have burst into domestic culture, with its long history. Nam June Paik and Cai Guo-Qiang also both studied in Japan. The reputations of postwar Japanese art movements like Mono-ha, Gutai and Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop) continue to rise, and this history is our asset. We can be proud of possessing land that produced such arts. What seems absurd is that the younger artists in Japan don’t have anywhere they can work and instead have to go overseas. There isn’t the market in Japan for these superior artists to work and we also don’t yet have the comparative capital strength to bring back the artists who went away. That is the great contradiction that we have long felt in the industry. Unless we strengthen the market, we won’t be able to see the artists in Japan recognized domestically and pass them onto the overseas circuit. I want to construct a market strength that has the ability to assess independently, rather than just reimporting art.

CBL: The Olympic Games is still five years away, but other businesses that I report on are already being greatly influenced by it. Perhaps with the world’s eyes will on Japan, art that has Japanese characteristics will be more appealing. How to you expect the coming Olympics to influence the Japanese art market, and how can AFT adjust its approach to make the most of this opportunity?

SM: When the Olympics were held in London there were many cultural events and projects. This initiative was called the “Cultural Olympiad.” I expect that these kinds of activities will also increase in Tokyo, and I want to be able to appeal to audiences overseas. Not just once - it is essential for an art fair to be held every year. Art Fair Tokyo proposes a hybrid model — putting together the antiques and contemporary art market — which is unique and special on its own term. And as the fair continues, more and more people will surely become interested in it. If Japan invests into an “art Olympics,” then there are plenty of talented artists. But I don’t want to just fish out single artists; I want to cooperate as a large community, taking an overview of the whole art scene.

CBL: What should visitors look out for at this year’s event? What artists and trends are you excited about?

SM: I want to reassess the artists already introduced widely by the biennales, and also take a look at the many other artists from our long art history who have not yet been discovered overseas. Everyone is invited to join us in this event and to make your own findings along the way. Talking about the Japanese art market, the unprecedented scale of success by Takashi Murakami (b.1962) and Yoshitomo Nara (b.1959) first comes to my mind. The focus of global interest is now shifting back into the past, such that the large exhibitions of Gutai and Mono-ha are held in public museums and institutions across Europe and the United States. Now I want to point to the generation in between these two periods, especially ‘post-monoha’ artists. At Art Art Fair Tokyo, we exhibit a selection of works by Toshikatsu Endo (b.1950) and Shigeo Toya (b. 1947) as its prominent examples. Out of younger generation, I want to introduce Kohei Nawa (b. 1975) who makes impressive sculptures based on truly contemporary ideas. His solo exhibition is now shown at my gallery in Yanaka called, SCAI THE BATHHOUSE. The exterior of an old renovated bathhouse suggest that the gallery is indeed about Japanese art.