Like their colleagues in New York, art dealers in Tokyo are inclined to begin the summer with special group shows before taking a break for a few weeks in the middle of August. What follows is a sampling of some of the summer attractions.
Philosophical Toys Shugoarts, which is on the second floor of the new art building in Tokyos Shinkawa district (and which also houses Taka Ishii, Tomio Koyama and a viewing room of Gallery Koyanagi) turned over its space to artist Yukio Fujimoto and his conceptual, interactive and playful artworks, which he calls "philosophical toys." They are so much fun that everyone ended up spending more time there than they'd planned.
Six music boxes are piled up like a tower in the center of the gallery. All of them play Johann Pachelbel's Canon. Viewers are welcome to wind the boxes. Since they don't play in unison, the tower of boxes produces a not unpleasant cacophony that is both strange and familiar.
Having studied electronic music at the Osaka University of Arts, Fujimoto (b. 1950) calls himself a sound artist rather than a visual artist. His works almost always deal with sound. You can't see sound, of course, but Fujimotos artworks, often made with music boxes and vinyl records, can be stunning to look at.
Take Bowl (2004), easily the prettiest piece in the show. Fujimoto placed a small music box mechanism in a shiny stainless steel mixing bowl. Viewers take the thing in their hands, wind it and put it back in the bowl. The moving metal teeth make silvery sounds, and as the wind-up key slowly revolves, the mechanism itself also rumbles in the bowl, making a different kind of noise. This simple installation is quite absorbing; it was thronged with viewers at the shows July 10 opening.
Record (2001) is made from a vinyl record and a metal brush. The brushs bristles scratch the surface of the record, creating numerous grooves that are recording some kind of sound, according to the artist. Delete (2004) is made of five of the artist's favorite vinyl records (including John Lennon's Imagine and David Bowies The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars) -- only he has sanded the surface of each record, deleting the music, in his words.
Fujimoto, who represented Japan in the Venice Biennale in 2001, has a very enthusiastic following in the art community here. The Otani Memorial Art Museum in Nishinomiya in western Japan has been holding an annual Yukio Fujimoto exhibition since 1997. Titled "Audio Picnic at the Museum", the show takes place for a single day only. This year it is scheduled for Oct. 2, 2004; the museum plans to continue the project through 2006.
Girlie Heads Tomio Koyama Gallery recently presented a show of works by the now-internationally known artist who goes only by the name Mr., and who bases his colorful paintings of young girls on the characters in manga, or Japanese cartoons. The first assistant to Takashi Murakami, Mr. has closely worked with him since 1995 or so.
The exhibition at Koyama, called "Mr. Thank You for Your Hard Work," featured recent comic-style paintings, including one with a cartoon image of Carlos Ghosn, the president of Nissan Motor, who, as the first non-Japanese head of a top Japanese firm, enjoys a superstar status here. Also included were monumental sculptures of cartoonish heads of girls. New Yorkers had a chance to preview them in a show at LFL Gallery in Chelsea, along with works by two other Kaikai Kiki artists, Chiho Aoshima and Aya Takano.
Murakami, the most celebrated Japanese artist of his generation, put in an appearance at the July 10 opening, and allowed his many fans to pose for pictures with him.
Field of Dreams
Downstairs, in the basement of the building, Koyama has a space called Project Room, where a Koyama staffer Yuko Nagase organized a show of the freshest of the fresh called "Field of Dreams". It featured three young artists: Kazumi Sakamoto (b. 1979), Keisuke Yamamoto (b. 1979) and Taro Izumi (b. 1976). All three artists were having their gallery debut. Izumi makes humorous works and Yamamoto colorful paintings; Sakamoto's stylish, delicate drawings are a real find.
In the same building, Taka Ishii Gallery showed the serene landscape photographs taken by the young artist Tomoki Imai between 2002 and 2004. Titled "Another Time," the show included an impressive untitled 2004 photo of several giant trees in the forest, and an untitled 2004 image of the blurry ocean seen through nondescript glass windows.
The Futurians Taro Nasu Gallery, which is located in the Complex art building in Tokyo's Roppongi district, was packed with visitors on July 15. It was the opening for a group show of four up-and-coming British artists: Dee Ferris, Roger Hiorns, Ben Judd and Ben Ravenscroft. Curated by the London-based artist Alasdair Duncan (who Nasu met in the mid-1990s when he was studying in England), it's titled "The Futurians," after the term coined by the Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov. They make a a variety of "futuristic" figurative and abstract work that we might simply term "postmodernist." Nasu published a catalogue in English (with a small booklet of Japanese translation) with essays by Duncan and the London art critic J.J. Charlesworth. The show is on through Aug. 7.
Also in the Complex building, Ota Fine Arts is presenting the curious "Maestros in Early Period, a show of early works by four of todays top Japanese art stars. The show includes a series of six photos from 1976 by Hiroshi Sugimoto of his fellow artist Tomio Miki's New York lofts, a 1953 pastel of a flower by Yayoi Kusama, a 1986 self-portrait by Yasumasa Morimura and Nobuyoshi Araki's black-and-white pictures from his 1963 "Sachin" series, which feature a young girl.
Yet another gallery in the Complex, Roentgenwerke is presenting "The Light Staff," a show of works using light by Masato Nakamura, Tatsuya Yusa, Simon Patterson and Jake Chapman.
Paradise Island Museum
The Chichu Art Museum, easily one of Japans most unusual museums, opened on July 18. One of its main attractions is Monet's Water-Lily Pond (1915-26), a gorgeous two-panel painting which Soichiro Fukutake, the owner of the museum, bought in 2000 from a Paris gallery. There's nothing strange about that, except that the museum features only nine artworks by three artists -- James Turrell, Walter De Maria and, of course, Monet.
The new museum was designed by Tadao Ando specifically to accommodate the artworks, which include special site-specific pieces by Turrell and De Maria. To make the point a bit clearer, the museum has been completely buried in the ground -- thus the name: "chichu" literally means "underground" in Japanese.
Miraculously, all the artworks shine in glorious natural light, despite the subterranean construction. The Monet gallery holds a total of five water-lily paintings (one on loan from the collection of Asahi Breweries). De Maria's solemn installation piece, titled Time / Timeless / No Time (2004), is a large room with a highly polished black granite sphere place in the middle of it.
Another gallery holds Turrell's Open Sky (2004), a rectangular skylight plus room lighting that dramatically changes from pink, green to purple, or from bright to dark, aided by hidden computer-controlled LEDs. It's hard to keep your jaw from dropping.
The museum is not what youd call conveniently located. It stands on a small, remote island called Naoshima in western Japan. The local landscape is lovely, but its a time-consuming and tiresome trip from Tokyo. You must first fly to Takamatsu (70 minutes), then ride an airport bus (an hour) to the Takamatsu port and then take a ferry (another hour). Or you can take a bullet train from Tokyo to Okayama (3.5 hours), drive to the port and take a ferry (20 minutes).
This is the second Ando-designed museum built on the island by Fukutake, who is chairman and CEO of Benesese Corporation, Japan's top education services company. The first, in service for over a decade, houses a top-notch contemporary art collection.
So once you get there, theres a lot to see. To an art lover, the Naoshima is the closest thing to a paradise island.
KAY ITOI is author of In Search of Lost Masterpieces (Jiji Press, 2001).