To geeks in Japan (and we have many of them here), Akihabara is "the Mecca of the holy land of consumer electronics," in the words of a recent story in the Washington Post. A densely packed neighborhood of blinding neon signs and electronics stores, Akihabara remains the busiest shopping district in Tokyo, all but immune to the country's economic turmoil.
There are good reasons why young artists like Masato Nakamura, 35, who is known for his stylish neon installation works, are smitten with the town. "Akihabara is not all about high-tech," he explains. "It also symbolizes craftsmanship -- look at those tiny shops where one can find all kinds of components and chips. It's also the town of people who 'create' things with their hands."
About a year ago Nakamura opened a nonprofit art gallery called Command N in the area (as any geek can tell you, pressing the "Command" and "N" keys on a Macintosh computer starts a new "file"). But his love for the town didn't stop there.
He is currently leading dozens of artists in an unusual exhibition called "Akihabara TV." The idea is simple. Akihabara shops all display the latest Japanese large-screen television sets by Sony, Matsushita and Toshiba. Playing on all those TV monitors are, of course, whatever programs happen to be on the air. Nakamura's brainstorm was to take advantage of those hundreds of monitors and show video works -- preferably on themes that have something to do with the glittery electric town?
Thirty-five artists from 11 countries rushed to participate in the project. The international cast is appropriate, Nakamura thinks, because Akihabara actually is one of Japan's most culturally diverse neighborhoods. Foreign tourists flock to Akihabara to shop, and duty-free stores there (several multi-story buildings are duty-free zones) feature their recorded announcements in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic.
Nakamura originally pitched his idea to the people at the Akihabara Electronic Shops Association. "When he first came to see us about this, I probably understood only 50 percent of what he said," recalls Hiroshi Sato, head of the association and vice president of Sato Musen, one of the leading Japanese electronics chains with 12 stores in Akihabara alone. "After seeing video clips, I still can't say I fully understand."
Yet Sato admits that the shops could certainly use the publicity the show might bring, and is certainly willing to cater to the art audience.
Many of the video works -- most of which are one minute long -- are funny, light-hearted and sophisticated. Singapore's Lee Wen documents his well-known performances as Yellow Man, in which he paints his body bright yellow and does things like getting a cab and visiting a gallery. English video artist Peter Bellers makes fun of Japanese magazines with stupid English (or English-sounding) names, such as Oops! and Lee and With.Makoto Sasaki's tape shows changing Tokyo skies, a series of amazingly pretty images.
If you want to see the show, better hurry. Maps to the participating shops are everywhere in Akihabara for the run of the show, Feb. 27-Mar. 14, 1999. Even if you are not into art, you could check out those amazing Toshiba flat TVs.
Incidentally, Nakamura has recently closed his solo exhibition at the Kirin Plaza Osaka Gallery, where he installed his version of McDonald's famous golden arches. This guy deserves continued watching….
Fukuoka Asian Art Museum opens in Japan
The city of Fukuoka in Kyushu, a southern island of Japan, opened on Mar. 6 what it calls the world's first full-fledged museum solely devoted to modern and contemporary Asian Art.
Fukuoka, an old port which is much closer to Seoul than to big Japanese cities like Osaka or Tokyo (many Fukuoka residents travel abroad via Seoul), has always had a certain focus on art in Japan's neighboring nations. The respected Fukuoka City Museum has presented large-scale Asian art exhibitions every five years since it opened in 1979, a time when "art" just meant Western art to most Japanese museums. The museum aggressively bought from artists who participated in such exhibitions while it also has had keen interest in Western art.
Now, the Fukuoka City Museum's Asian art department is splitting off to be a museum exclusively dedicated to Asian art. Fukuoka Asian Art Museum is tiny, occupying two floors in a new high-rise. But it boasts the world's largest modern and contemporary Asian art collection with 1,000 pieces including important works by the region's most prominent artists, such as Nam June Paik (Korea), Heri Dono (Indonesia), Nguen Phan Canh (Vietnam) and Fang Lijun (China).
The museum has spent 600 million yen ($5 million) on acquisitions in the last three years. One would imagine that the money could buy lots of Asian art. The most expensive purchase was Progress by Education by the late Carlos V. Francisco, an admired Filipino artist, which cost 53 million yen ($442,000). West Japan Newspaper, an influential local paper, noted that the new museum's probable acquisition budget of 100 million yen ($834,000) a year might have an impact on the Asian art market.
The museum opens with the first Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale, Mar. 6-June 6, 1999.
Feuding Yamatane brothers imperil museum
The long-running feud of the two Yamatane brothers, heirs of the late founder of Tokyo's Yamatane Museum of Art, has the local art world worried about the fate of its top-notch collection of Japanese art.
Taneji Yamazaki, who founded the Yamatane Securities Co., had amassed a collection of 2,000 Japanese-style paintings, including the ones recognized by the Japanese government as "juyo bunkazai" (an important cultural treasure). In 1966 he established the Yamatane Museum on the eighth and ninth floors of a building owned by Yamatane Real Estate Co., another company he owned, in Kabutocho, a Tokyo equivalent of Wall Street. Designed by Yoshiro Taniguchi, who is currently working on the expansion and renovation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the exhibition space had long been loved as "Kabutocho's oasis."
After Yamazaki's 1983 death, a rather childish quarrel took hold between his two sons. In 1991 Seizo Yamazaki, head of Yamatane Real Estate Co., publicly accused his brother Tomiji Yamazaki, director of the museum, of mismanaging it. Seizo was dismissed as a museum board member, which in turn prompted him to raise the museum's rent.
So Tomiji moved the museum out of his brother's building to another building elsewhere in Tokyo. The new location has less than half the exhibition space of its original place. Yamatane's curators filed a request to stop the move with the Tokyo district court, while the Japanese Art Critics Association released an unusual statement, expressing a concern about the whole mess. Both actions led nowhere -- except that the museum fired two curators who opposed the move.
The museum now claims that last summer's move was only temporary and that it will make its permanent home in a 54-story building scheduled to be completed in 2002 in Roppongi, Tokyo.
But art insiders wonder aloud how the Yamatane museum, which could not afford to remain in an old structure built by the original collector, will be able to pay rent in the brand-new high-rise in Roppongi, one of Tokyo's trendiest and most expensive neighborhoods. The museum is unlikely to get help from the Yamatane group companies.
One speculation involves the Mori Building Co., developer of the 54-story skyscraper. Unconfirmed speculation has Minoru Mori, head of Mori Building (and uncle of New York-based artist Mariko Mori) interested in some kind of deal regarding the ownership of the splendid Yamatane collection.
In the meantime, Seizo Yamazaki has set up his own art space. Called the Takasaki Tower Museum of Art, the new museum is located in Takasaki, north of Tokyo, and displays art collected by him personally as well as works owned by Yamatane group companies. Seizo could not use the familiar "Yamatane" in his museum's name because the original Yamatane Museum of Art had registered it as a trademark.
Only one thing is sure: Yamatane curators can no longer borrow artworks from Seizo and the Yamatane group for their exhibitions.
Japan to semi-privatize national museums
The Japanese economy is in trouble, and has been for more than seven years. After dozens of proposals to fix struggling financial institutions, pump up domestic consumption and restructure corporations, the Japanese government is beginning to do something -- like slimming down the country's bureaucracy. And the government has decided that the arts should be no exception.
According to the recently announced reform, over 70 government organizations are to be transformed into quasi-private organizations called "independent administrative corporations," starting in 2001.
Nine of these are art institutions. The National Museums in Tokyo, Nara and Kyoto, the National Museums of Modern Art in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, and the National Research Institute of Cultural Properties in Tokyo and Nara are all slated to become new entities independent of the Cultural Affairs Agency, which currently oversees them.
The new corporations are to be "self-supporting," though their operating expenses will still be paid by the national government. Each corporation will set annual "target" figures, presumably covering things such as the number of visitors and admission receipts, and an outside organization will assess their efforts. The national museums, while they boast some of the country's best art collections, have been criticized for being too heavy on research and too light on presentation.
Experts say the overall annual budget for the seven national museums, currently 8.3 billion yen ($71.6 million), will probably shrink. There has been no word on their collection budget, but on the positive side, a museum would be able to carry forward the remains at the end of every fiscal year to the following year's account, which the current national museum system does not allow. This system would let the museums save up enough to make a costlier acquisition than a year's buying budget would allow.
The death of Nikkei Art
The death of a magazine is a sad event. But when Nikkei Business Publishing, publisher of the 10-year-old Nikkei Art magazine, announced that the March issue would be its last, most art dealers in Japan were neither surprised nor particularly saddened.
Nikkei Art was launched in 1988 at the height of Japan's art shopping spree, and was the country's only magazine on the art market. Articles typically gave tips on how to buy, frame and store artworks. The magazine also published auction results, and translated stories from the ARTnewsletter until ARTnews began publishing a Japanese version of the magazine in 1994. (ARTnews Japan ceased publication within a year of its inception).
Japanese dealers were cautious about Nikkei Art from the start -- and gravely unhappy when the magazine began exposing their trade secrets, such as news of private dealers' auctions. In 1991, the year its circulation peaked at 21,000, some 60 Japanese dealers held a summit conference to discuss how to deal with the magazine. Many expressed their rage by withdrawing ads.
As the country's booming economy ground to a halt in the early 1990s, few Japanese needed art-market info. The magazine changed its format, adding more exhibition reviews. By late 1997 (with a cover story on "The Magical Power of Trees") Nikkei Art had become just another art glossy. Circulation slipped to around 13,000.
Perhaps saddest of all, most dealers who were infuriated at Nikkei Art back in 1991 could care less today. With or without the magazine, their business has been extremely slow -- if not dead. Still, Nikkei Art was the only relevant art magazine in the early 1990s in Japan. In a note to readers in the final issue, the publisher vows to "prepare for the future possibilities."
KAY ITOI is a Tokyo-based journalist who writes about art, technology and lifestyle.