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Back to Reviews 97

Araki on Issey Miyake's Pleats Please

An S&M model.
Photo © 1997 Noboyoshi Araki

Curator Fumio Nanjo with Yoshimizu's
Good Luck

Yoshitomo Nara
World is Yours

Miran Fukuda
Jigsaw Puzzle

Gregory Barsamian

Agnes Hedegüs et al.
conFiguring the Cave

Utsunomiya Art Museum

René Magritte
La grande famille

letter from tokyo
by Kay Itoi

Photographer Nobuyoshi Araki is known to capture today's Tokyo -- a vulgar, energetic and naked Tokyo, that is. So it was an inspired idea, if an unconventional one, when designer Issey Miyake invited Araki to spice up his sleek Pleats Please line. Shirts, pants and dresses, with Araki's notorious bondage pin-up photos of women on them, will hit stores here and overseas any day now. Made of beautifully pleated polyester, easy-to-care and inexpensive (priced between around $125 and $275), Pleats Please has been one of the most successful mass-produced lines by a designer's brand since its launch in 1993.

To showcase his new Pleats Please designs, Araki staged a press conference in February in a club (that the photographer was obviously familiar with) in Kabukicho, a Tokyo neighborhood that can be compared with New York City's seamy 42nd Street strip. Bar girls modeled the Araki outfits, posing on reporters' chairs, doing a little striptease and dancing with Araki. "Lately I've spent all my time undressing women," he declared. "But now it's time to begin dressing them."

Miyake's Guest Artists Series was inaugurated last fall with Yasumasa Morimura, who made dresses and shirts printed with an image of Ingres' nude from La Source entwined with his own body. Miyake plans to team up with eight more artists for the series.

Curator Fumio Nanjo recently completed his latest public art project. Nineteen artworks were placed around a new building complex in the redeveloped area of Kamiooka, one of Yokohama's busiest downtowns. The complex, named Yumeooka (a combination of Kamiooka and "yume," a Japanese word for dreams), includes a train station and bus terminal, where any number of people come and go every day. That inspired Nanjo to pick "passage" as the project's theme -- and it works.

The place did not provide much of an open space and artworks were planted on the sidewalk, on walls and ceilings, and on rooftop spaces. Choi Jeong Hwa, Korea's top young artist, transformed the lobby of the building into a stunning stone and glass installation that is a modern version of the traditional Japanese garden. This work alone makes the site a must-see for art lovers. On the rooftop is an eight-piece installation by a group named PH Studio, who used chairs that used to belong to elderly Kamiooka residents.

Nanjo complains that he and the architects did not agree on certain things, including the color of walls on which a few pieces are hung. Given that many of Japanese public art programs suffer from a lack of chemistry between artworks and their environment, this gives future project organizers something to think about. Any architectural problems, however, do not ruin the charm of the Yumeooka art. Though small-scaled, the installation catalogues important artists of tomorrow -- such as PH Studio, Yoshitomo Nara (who created a sculpture of a little girl with mean eyes), Yoshihiro Suda (whose delicate sculpted flowers are planted on the ceilings of a bank) and Miran Fukuda (whose ceramic jigsaw puzzle uses images of postcards of Yokohama).

Yumeooka is said to be the first Japanese public art project where local residents were fully involved. Nanjo and a committee of some 20 residents met nearly 100 times; many proposals were either turned down or reworked. That may be why the collection, which cost about $2.5 million, feels more accessible than some other artistic sites in Japan, where high-concept art sometimes overwhelms the average visitor. Take Hiroshi Yoshimuzi's sculpture on the sidewalk, which looks like a giant thumb. It's titled Good Luck, as if to tell the passersby just that. There's nothing pretentious about it. The residents of Kamiooka will enjoy it for years to come.

Nanjo will curate the Japan exhibition at this year's Venice Biennial. It will feature Rei Naito, whose ephemeral, ritualistic works were shown earlier this year at D'Amelio Terras in New York.

Even those wary of phrases like "digital art," "multimedia" and "virtual reality" would enjoy Japan's first "next generation museum." Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation, the county's telecommunications giant, premiered the new InterCommunication Center in a brand-new building, Tokyo Opera City Tower, on April 19. The ICC "celebrates the union of science, technology, art and culture," says director Takashi Kaneko. Parts of the display -- such as the special exhibition in which architects are working together via the Internet to build a virtual utopia -- haven't yet produced results as interesting as one might hope.

Its permanent exhibition, however, is unique and fun. It takes a form of ten compact galleries, in which artists display their digitally enhanced installation. The most delightful is Gregory Barsamian's multi-part kinetic sculpture Juggler. Strobe lights render an incredibly smooth, three-dimensional animation in the dark. What you see is 16 life-size mannequins picking up and juggling telephone receivers, which seem to transmogrify into baby's bottles and dice. It's breathtaking and message is clear -- "Do you think you are juggling technologies, or is it the other way around?"

Heri Dono's installation is quietly beautiful. On a bed of sand spread the floor are arranged gamlan, gongs and other traditional musical instruments from the artist's native Indonesia. Primitive music generated by a simple device fills the gallery, while a TV monitor in the back continuously displays minimal images like moving shadows. But what you would most expect to see at a place like this is conFigure the CAVE, a work created by four artists including Agnes Hegedus and Jeffrey Shaw. Each viewer puts on three-dimensional glasses and plays a life-sized wooden puppet interface to experience changing sounds and three-dimensional imagery around him.

The museum is not in a very convenient location, but if you have some time in Tokyo, it's worth visiting. The museum will sponsor performances and talks, too. Check out the InterCommunication Center website [] for a schedule before you go.

After a year-long media attack on its purchase of a Rene Magritte painting with $5.9 million in public funds, the Utsunomiya Art Museum opened on March 23 in Tochigi, north of Tokyo. The criticism hardly effected the museum's acquisition plans, but it changed the way that Japanese public museums talk to the press.

When it bought La grande famille in February 1996, everybody seemed happy enough. "Given that it is one of the most significant works of Surrealism, we feel the price is appropriate," said Arata Tani, who became the museum's director. Magritte is a popular artist here and the painting, featured in art textbooks used at schools across the country, is among the most familiar artworks in Japan.

Then Asahi Shimbun, one of the major Japanese dailies, began its campaign in May that year. The paper, in its national, local and English-language editions, has since run at least ten articles, loudly repeating that the work was too expensive and the acquisition process inappropriate. Other papers followed suit.

Thus was Utsunomiya, a Japanese public museum, after announcing an art purchase, was forced to say that what it got was not only an important work but also an excellent deal. In April 1996, the Fukuoka City Museum explained that the recession had helped it buy a Salvador Dali painting, whose value had dramatically declined. Last February, the Shizuoka Prefectural Museum emphasized that it had bought an important Paul Gauguin partly because its price came down in negotiations by $1 million. The Tochigi Prefectural Museum boasted that experts said the $3 million J.M.W Turner oil it had just bought could have fetched $8 million on the market.

It's very hard to say whether or not Utsunomiya was conned into paying too much for the work, which had never been exposed to the market. It is hardly the most expensive painting a Japanese local government has bought. The city of Osaka paid $13.8 million for Modigliani's Reclining Nude with Hair Undone in 1989 for a museum which has still not been built. The Aichi prefecture bought Gustav Klimt's Life is a Struggle for $11.4 million in 1990. These purchases, made at the peak of the booming economy, were hardly examined. The Utsunomiya episode proves once and for all that those days are over, even for Japanese museums, which once boasted a mighty buying power.

But Asahi's latest article, titled "Surreal waste of tax money," which ran at the museum's opening, was a bit too much. Nobody has the right to call a Magritte masterpiece any kind of waste.

It's been a year since the death of Japanese businessman Ryoei Saito, who made worldwide headlines after he snapped up the two most expensive paintings ever sold at auction within three day in May 1990. Several years have passed, too, since the Japanese art shopping spree came to a halt. One of Saito's paintings, Renoir's Au Moulin de la Galette, has reportedly found a buyer and the other, van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet, is on the market. What happened to some of the other big pictures which were imported to Japan in the high-rolling '80s? Below, an analysis, according to:

(1) artist and title
(2) who brought it to Japan when and for how much
(3) what happened to it

(1) Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Gachet
(2) Businessman Ryoei Saito, May 1990, $82.5 million
(3) Much interest has been expressed in the work since Saito's death in March 1996. Two Japanese banks, which currently own it, are reportedly getting close to sell it to a prominent American collector for $70 million.

(1) Auguste Renoir, Au Moulin de la Galette
(2) Saito, May 1990, $78.1 million
(3) Earlier this year Sotheby's held it exclusive for 90 days and was able to sell it to a buyer Sotheby's would not reveal for an undisclosed sum, which was said to be close to $50 million.

(1) Picasso, Les Noces de Pierrette
(2) Developer Tomonori Tsurumaki, November 1989, $51.65 million
(3) With Tsurumaki's bankruptcy, the work is in the hands of a bank.

(1) Picasso, Acrobate et Jeune Arlequin
(2) A private collector, November 1988, $38.45 million*
(3) Some say it's gone to a Swiss collector; others say a Japanese bank has it.

(1) Picasso, The Mirror
(2) Dealer Shigeki Kameyama, November 1989, for $26.4 million
(3) Six years later, it was sold to an Israeli collector for $20.02 million at Christie's New York.

(1) de Kooning, Interchange
(2) Shigeki Kameyama, November 1989, $20.68 million
(3) Reportedly owned by a Japanese financial institution

(1) Renoir, La Tasse du Chocolat
(2) A private collector, November 1990, $18.15 million*
(3) Now in a privately run museum (not operated by the 1990 buyer) in Tokyo

(1) Cezanne, Pichet et Fruits sur une Table
(2) Osaka building-chain owner, May 1989, $11 million
(3) Now in a Tokyo leasing firm's collection.

(1) Monet, Nymphéas
(2) A private collector, 1988, $10.3 million
(3) A bank reportedly owns it.

(1) Lichtenstein, Kiss II
(2) Businessman Masao Wanibuchi, May 1990, $6.05 million
(3) Five years later, it sold for $2.53 million at Christie's New York

(1) Dali, Madonna of Port Lligat
(2) Businessman Masao Nangaku, mid-1980s, reportedly for 1 billion yen ($5 million)
(3) In February 1996, the Fukuoka Art Museum bought it for 560 million yen ($5.3 million) from a credit company.

*Because of the sharp yen-appreciation, these works lost value in yen terms but their value in dollars increased

KAY ITOI is a Tokyo-based journalist who writes about art, technology and lifestyle.