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MURAKAMI, IMPRESARIO
by Walter Robinson
 
Back in 1982, a bunch of us from the art group Collaborative Projects were invited to do a show up in Buffalo, N.Y. Was it at Hallwalls? A university gallery? In any case, we decided to mount "The Buffalo All-Artists Open," or something along those lines, putting advertisements in the local newspapers that invited artists to show up at the gallery with their works, which would all be hung, guaranteed.

One catch -- there was an entrance fee. I think it was $2, but that seems comically low. It was a little bit of a joke, in fact. U.S. artists, who tend to think they are owed success on a silver platter, donít generally like the idea of paying entry fees to exhibit their work, either then or now. But we promised to take all the money and put it in a kitty, which would be given out as prizes -- first, second and third place -- at midnight on the night of the opening party. Whatís more, winners were to be decided by a ballot of all who attended the event. I think the grand prize ended up being about $50.

Good idea, no? Buffalo is far north and there was a blizzard on the night of the opening. I had a bit too much to drink and somehow ended up the next day in the local emergency room -- nothing serious, I donít even remember what the complaint was, probably an earache -- where I found, for the first time in my life, a), a doctor who was attractive, young and female, and b) that I had high blood pressure. I remember very clearly how amazed she was at my condition. . .

But I digress.

Participants in "The Buffalo All-Artists Open" complained that, because of the snow, they couldnít come to the vernissage, so the vote was unfair. I remember also, in announcing the winners, I blurted out that I disagreed with the outcome -- which seemed like a horrible faux pax at the time -- though now that I am a practiced art critic, it doesnít bother me at all.

In any case, Iíll always remember "The Buffalo All-Artists Open," whose conception I thought was as neat and tidy as a Stella "Black Painting." It is, I am convinced, a high point in the unwritten history of collaborative artist-organized art exhibitions. . .

The point is, I am a sucker for this collaborative stuff. So Geisai #10 was an easy sale to me. A one-day art fair for art students and young artists, open to all comers, Geisai #10 was organized by art superstar Takashi Murakami in Tokyo on Sept. 17, 2006. About 800 young Japanese artists packed into a big hall at the Tokyo Big Sight exhibition center. The price of a booth started at about $210, for which you got no walls and no electricity -- thus, there were aisles full of young people sitting on the floor, surrounded by their works, most of them as cute as can be.

It was great.

Murakamiís art production company, Kaikai Kiki, flew me over to Tokyo from New York for the weekend, along with a handful of other western art critics, putting us up in a fancy downtown hotel that had the sleek glass and stone design of a corporate skyscraper. They ushered us around in vans and fed us at fancy restaurants.

I had been petrified at the thought of taking the 12-hour trip in coach, so I finally figured out how to turn all those unused frequent-flier miles I had into an upgrade to business class, where the seats are like the recliner chair my dad used to have in our family room. This -- eating, sleeping, watching TV -- I could handle any time. Like I said, it was great.

It turns out that Murakami is way more than Japanís answer to Walt Disney, a guy who parlayed a toothy cartoon mouse named "Mr. Dob" -- he has a "d" on one ear, a "b" on the other and an "o"-shaped head thatís liable to have too many googly eyes and a devilish grin full of razor-sharp teeth -- into much more than just ho-hum art-market millions (his auction record, set just last May and the highest for a Japanese artist, stands at $1,136,000).

No, Murakami is more than that. Heís an idealist who wants to kick a little ass and energize what he has called "Japanís sans-art-scene wasteland." Incredible as it may seem, Japan has hardly any art market of its own. Tokyo has no art fair, and Japanese tax law doesnít encourage collectors. They donít even like to hammer nails in walls to hang pictures (they prefer traditional altar set-ups). Japanese artists have to go international to get in the game at all.

So far, Murakamiís plan to shake things up seems to be working. As art insiders are well aware, he has already taken a mutant handful of artists -- that is, six -- along with him into the international art market. Kaikai Kiki manages their careers, taking a 10 percent agentís fee. The six are Aya Takano, Chiho Aoshima, Mr., Chinatsu Ban, Mahomi Kunikata and Rei Sato.

Kaikai Kiki has a staff of about 60 people, with offices in Tokyo and Long Island City, to manage all things Murakami, from soup to nuts, from the blow-out success of his recent redesign of Louis Vuitton handbags (est. $300 million in sales) to forthcoming feature-length cartoons starring Murikamiís menagerie.

Kaikai Kiki, by the way, is an Edo-period term describing the traditional Kano School of artisans. It can be translated as "extreme, unusual, gaudy." Kaikai and Kiki are also the names of two Murakami cartoons, drawings of tots in furry animal costumes, one a pink bear (with two down-protruding canines and a third eye, often closed) and the other a white bunny with Japanese calligraphs on its ears. Both are visible on the companyís English website.

And like all of Murakamiís creatures, Kaikai and Kiki have a peculiar Japanese cuteness -- called "kawaii" -- that he manages to make both opaque and slightly demented.

But back to Geisai #10. An open-call art fair in the U.S. seems like a dreadful idea, bound to flounder in a sea of schlock, kitsch and just plain awful art. But somehow, in Japan, the most comic-reading country on earth -- even "salarymen" can be seen soaking up manga at newsstands -- it worked. Geisai #10 was a Harvest Moon Festival put on by a bunch of kids who just wanted to hang out, show their stuff and have a little charming, sweet, outlandish fun.

Things got off to a typical start when we caught our first sight of Mr. -- his real name is Masakatsu Iwamoto -- walking down the sidewalk in full ninja gear, complete with mask and plastic sword. "It makes for good pictures," he said, before removing his disguise at the request of a polite policeman, who seemed to think the outfit was a security risk.

Mr. was helping to manage the fair, and at lunch handicapped the long list of participants for me, marking the names of former winners in the tabloid-sized Geisai #10 program. Once in the aisles, all plans went out the window, though I did manage to track down one of Mr.ís recommendations, Moe Murakami, a young woman who is Takashiís niece. Curled up on the floor along with only three delicate drawings of a winsome baby girl, the cutest thing in a world of cute things, Moe had only one work unsold, priced at •50,000 -- less than $500. Moe has an exhibition opening at the one-year-old S.c.o.t.t store and gallery in Tokyoís Ginza district on Oct. 3, 2006.

Up on the Geisai stage, it was show time. Murakami came out and welcomed the artists and the crowd, and then the judges were introduced, and then more judges were introduced, all with a certain game-show ťlan that would seem excessive at Western art events. The five-person jury in charge of awarding the three top prizes -- Geisai would have more than 30 prize-winners by the end of the day -- included two Americans: the artist Marcel Dzama and Douglas Fogle, the former Walker Art Center curator who is now organizing the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. Another large jury pool, perhaps three-dozen people, was brought on stage as well. These were the "Scout Judges," representatives of galleries (such as dealer Hiromi Yoshii), firms like MTV Japan, fashion magazines and designers, all of whom would select their favorites. At the completion of the fair, in a lengthy award ceremony, the individual winners of all the prizes would be announced, their names posted on a large tote board and the five judges and Murakami would again assemble on stage and discuss their decisions.

These exciting proceedings were conducted largely in Japanese, and I took the opportunity to wander around. The first thing I did, Iím not ashamed to say, was be seduced by a puppet (it was like that all day). "Mojamushi" is its name, a green synthetic Shinto forest spirit made by Keiko Moja, who sat on a green fake-fur rug surrounded by other puppets -- a kind of giant caterpillar, along with some anthropomorphized felt-covered cubes. Mojamushi is priced at •21,000 -- but I purchased a tiny finger puppet, a kind of knit flesh-colored head with eyes and thick eyebrows and a luxuriant mane of black synthetic hair that ran me •1,000 (less than $10). It says "ke," Moja says, which she tells me is Japanese for hair. Moja is 26 and a schoolteacher in real life. She uses her puppets in her class.

After this, my goose was more or less cooked. Speaking of which, I made the acquaintance of Yasuko Nukaga, a 20-year-old woman wearing a costume made of real bread -- she looked something like a brown Michelin Man -- named "Gluten," logically enough (though for some reason her characterís name is spelled "Gulten"). Gulten is out to save the world, or at least give it a hug, to judge from the postcards she was handing out, which read "Gulten planet heart the earth." She had also baked dozens of round little biscuits, each inscribed with a different smiley face and fitted with a safety pin on the back. These also were for sale for the equivalent of a dollar or so. "They are edible," said one of Yasukoís amanuenses, "but we donít recommend it!"

Next I stopped to have my portrait painted in colored ink and pastel by Shinya Matsuda, a 21-year-old design student at the Osaka University of Art who also works making similar portraits at the Universal Studio theme park. He does such nice work with young women, giving them an appealing Las Vegas glamour in a style reminiscent of Sam Francis, but me, I ended up looking like a jolly sun in specs. The price was •1,000 (less than $10), a bargain, and provided me with something for the missus back home. Meanwhile, Matsuda had large, super-kitschy paintings of femmes, priced up to •80,000.

Apparently, my taste for schmaltz knows no bounds. I was immediately taken by Sumiwo Okamoto, a nice young woman dressed in traditional Japanese gear who spoke not a word of English -- needless to say, I speak no Japanese -- but who had made a kind of wall of her paintings of animals and cartoony people, done for some reason on flat squares of Styrofoam. Childish, but I donít care! My favorite was a picture of a fox, but there was also a nice frog.

Elsewhere on the floor, a young woman was giving out small hand-colored block prints of flowers to passersby, for free, like a latter-day Flower Girl. Her name is Shirota Junko, 25, and she had made a series of cute postcards with hand-painted cartoon illustrations -- a lion celebrating its birthday with a cake with five candles, a green kangaroo with a baby in its pouch, a girl holding an oversized bunch of flowers like an umbrella, a goat eating a blue flower, a sheep being floated cloudwards by a bunch of balloons attached with a bow. They were around •200 each and I bought several, thinking for sure that this must have something to do with animal spirits and their special place in Japanese folklore (sure, like animals donít populate folklore everywhere).

Next I ran into Yukiko Nishi, a 28-year-old artist who lives in Okayama. She had fitted her space as a Sumo wrestling ring, or a stuffed-toy version of one, anyway, and was herself wearing a body suit that turned her into a Sumo wrestler. "My Sumo name translates as ĎWhite Peach Dragoní," she said. "I am cute and powerful." She demonstrated her signature move -- a quick bump with her rear end that propels her opponent out of the ring.

But my favorite artist performer was Koiko, who had dressed herself up, from hat to toe, in a dense veil of white gauze. To me she resembled nothing so much as a ghost from one of those Asian costume adventures. Apparently rather high-strung, Koiko -- her card carries a drawing of a fish, a homonym for her name, along with a knife and fork -- explained with nervous gestures that she was an internet addict and that the outfit was a way to gain in real life the anonymity she finds online. Curious, this idea that one can hide by donning an outlandish mask!

By now I realized that I was succumbing largely to female artists, and went looking for some men. Face it, the male gene is short on kawaii, but that doesnít mean they donít try, in their way. Yuuki Ueoka, whose trademark is a striated red replica of a flayed human skin made of painted canvas, had several in various sizes draped over lines. Cute, I guess.

More successful was 29-year-old Keijirou Naka, a guy who runs his own design studio. He had made a bunch of simple line drawings of people and angels, their eyes closed as if sleeping or dreaming, painted in pastel colors with their outlines done in string. I liked them -- what can I say, I appreciate formulaic stylization. He had the smaller ones priced at •10,000, which is less than $100. I could definitely see these things as part of a 1950s living-room ensemble.

Of a different order was the performance of Hibiki Chikada, a 29-year-old artist perched quietly on a zabuton (a Japanese sitting cushion) with plastic swords and other hara-kiri accoutrements, discussing the Japanese death fetish with passersby. This, unsurprisingly, required a certain alcohol intake on his part, which had taken its toll by the end of the afternoon. Still, Hibikiís conceptual project was easily the most serious thing in the hall. "Like Yukio Mishima," he said, "my nation often romanticizes death. Mishima, whose head was cut off by his followers after he committed hara-kiri, is considered a symbol of the nationalist cause, a champion of traditional values against Western cultural invasion.

"I donít think so," Chikada went on. "A beheaded man speaks no more and hears nothing. The situation is, everyone speaks loud and listens to nothing. This is the discommunication, isolation or cultural death -- which I tried to show with the message, Ďspeak and listení."

Almost all of the offerings at Geisai #10 were somehow "Japanese," a quality that seems to irritate many sophisticated locals as much as it appeals to the international art market. Murakamiís own work seems unabashedly Japanese, a quality he purposely developed, according to a story last year by Arthur Lubow in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, thanks to a new perspective on his own country that he got after he came to New York in 1994. But the Japanese property of works by top Japanese contemporary artists -- Nobuyoshi Araki, Mariko Mori, Yasumasa Morimura, Yoshitomo Nara, Hiroshi Sugimoto (but not Yayoi Kusama?) -- or its prevalence, anyway -- does seem, somehow, to be a relic of a jingoistic art market, however great and multivalent the individual works might be.

The jurors apparently agreed, and gave most of the top prizes to artworks that have no Japanese attributes at all (so to speak). Needless to say, none of my cutesy favorites won anything. Thatís why Iím an art critic. For instance, Geisai #10 included hardly any photography, a condition that I had utterly failed to notice until the art dealer Hiromi Yoshii gave one of his Scout Prizes to Tofu Shirauo, a young woman who had taken several color pictures of a girlfriend taking a shower and otherwise preparing her toilet. Some skin, but not much -- though the model has a kawaii tattoo on her back.

Disconcertingly, the medal winners had booths that looked like what you might find at a Western art fair -- which isnít to say the works are lacking in any way. In fact, I like them the more I think about them (they are winners, after all). The gold-medalist, Enami Nara, 28, exhibited three paintings in acrylic on what looked like unprimed linen, each showing fighting couples -- amid all Geisai #10ís sweetness, a bit of head-bashing won out. Though it was hard to tell, itís quite possible that they are pictures of women beating up men, which makes it even better.

Naraís painting treatment is wooden, clearly photo-derived and rather interesting, in the end, though suggestive of the kind of autistic painterliness that has been the rage in Europe since Luc Tuymans. Such could be said as well about one of the bronze medallists, Marefumi Komura, 28, whose booth featured several smallish paintings done in an awkward mosaic of square patches of paint -- a student divisionism? -- all depicting morbid subjects like a dead bird, a corpse, a skull. They werenít bad, and Marehumi seemed to be doing a land-office business, thanks in part to his modest prices.

The silver medal went to Miki Taira, 22, who made two faceless figures of crinkled paper -- a mother and child? -- that look rather like aliens, or perhaps spacesuits for aliens, except that they are covered with tiny Japanese calligraphy. Feeling a little extraterrestrial? We can identify.

Probably the grooviest of the lot was a long horizontal "scroll," its surface solidly covered with shiny graphite, the product of 150 hours of work by Masamitsu Katsu, 24, who graduated from school last year. He received a bronze medal, and said he was reserving the piece for an upcoming show. It was probably unique in the fair, and it seemed bizarre that such a postminimalist exercise -- however effective and likable -- is a standout in Japan, though it would be greeted with a yawn in New York. Ah, art, what a pain.

The next day, we were taken on a tour of the new Kaikai Kiki headquarters in downtown Tokyo, a modest building of several floors, with workspaces, conference rooms, a small gallery and, apparently, a little apartment for Murakami, who works all the time and lives, to all appearances, quite modestly.

Murakami sat on the floor and spoke briefly about Geisai #10. It had been a success, he said, to the extent that it had given young artists a chance to show their work and make contacts. This latest fair had also begun to reach an international audience -- we ourselves were the tautological proof of that.

One goal was not achieved, Murakami said, and that was sparking museum interest. "No a single museum person came to Geisai #10," he said. Well, Murakamiís battle with the Japanese art establishment is nothing if not vigorous.

Gesai #10 was promoted as the final installment of the fair, on which Kaikai Kiki has lost an estimated $6 million overall. No one seemed to believe the fair was finished, however, and in the end Murakami admitted that the sounding of the death knell was a promotional strategy designed to heighten interest. Geisai #10 is more likely to mark a turning point, a move in a new direction, though Murakami admitted that he doesnít yet have a plan. The exhibition hall is booked for July, but he hasnít decided what to do -- a situation that somehow keeps his project real.

In the meantime, Murakami is planning for his own mid-career survey exhibition, which is slated to debut at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art before it travels to the Brooklyn Museum, Frankfurt and one more venue in 2008. And, if you read Japanese, thereís always his new book -- The Art Entrepreneurship Theory.


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine. He can be reached at Send Email



 



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