March 3, 2006:

[achtung! kunst] *from the Asia Art Archive* : Alternative Art Spaces in Japan

Asia Art Archive, March 2006
Alternative Art Spaces in Japan
- Andrew Maerkle interviews Roger McDonald of Arts Initiative Tokyo
Andrew Maerkle

Recent years have seen a turning point for Japanese alternative art
spaces, with the passing of a non-profit organisation legislation in
1999 and the recent establishment of alternative art organisations such
as Arts Initiative Tokyo (AIT), in 2002, which sponsors artist
residencies and arts education, and Art Autonomy Network (AAN), based in
Yokohama, in 2005, devoted to the research, promotion and archiving of
alternative art spaces and events in Japan. In 2006, the third
installment of the "Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial" will take place in the
Echigo-Tsumari region of Japan's main island, Honshu, in Niigata
prefecture. The festival, featuring international artists as well as
Japanese artists, is quietly gaining prominence, and it supports a
compelling vision of art integrated within a social setting and
environment – as such it also suggests a form of 'alternative' arts
festival. This year's Echigo-Tsumari will install permanent art projects
in abandoned buildings and homes in the region, addressing the steady
migration of young people from the countryside to urban centers such as
Tokyo and Osaka .

When asked to write about Japan for DIAAALOGUE, I thought about my
relationship to knowledge. As a member of the media and an editor of a
magazine, I am acutely aware of this relationship: I serve as a conduit
between specialists or people with special knowledge (in the case of
artists) and an audience that presumably – if I am doing my job right –
is learning about this knowledge for the first time or in a new way.
This is the fun part of being a writer and editor, and the publication I
work for, Art Asia Pacific, made great strides in building up its
knowledge of art in Asia earlier this winter by producing its inaugural
edition of the Almanac, a yearly special publication on Asian
contemporary art with analysis and documentation of contemporary art in
67 Asian nations and territories. It was a fantastic experience to
connect with artists and art professionals in places as disparate as
Yemen and New Caledonia as well as more visible countries such as Japan
and China. To that extent, I do have a specialised knowledge about Asian
contemporary art, but I always look to improve upon what I already have
– I am excited by the prospect of learning something new.

Japan, in particular, is a complex environment when it comes to
contemporary art. Japan supports a range of international contemporary
galleries, public museums, private museums established by individual
patrons or families, private museums established by corporations, and a
long mainstay of the Japanese art scene, rental galleries.

The recent prominence of artists working with Pop imagery, namely
Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, has brought significant
international attention to Japan's commercial contemporary art
galleries. While numbers of commercial galleries have increased in the
past ten years or so, with younger additions including Kodama Gallery,
Yamada Gendai, Hiromi Yoshii, and Gallery Side 2 quickly establishing
themselves alongside older peers such as Tomio Koyama Gallery,
Shugoarts, Mizuma Art Gallery and Gallery Koyanagi, Japan's commercial
market is still passing through a critical phase, expanding slowly and
not yet able to support the vast numbers of artists that find purchase
in other international art centers such as New York or London.

Similarly, Japan's network of municipal museums, extending throughout
the country, are relatively proactive in giving exhibition space to
young or unrecognised artists, but many lack the acquisitions budget to
actively support artists by purchasing their works. Rental galleries
provide another venue for artists without exclusive representation to
obtain exhibition space, yet despite the longevity of the rental gallery
system, they can only provide occasional support for artists, and at
considerable individual outlay. The Japanese art scene, then, embodies
certain contradictions – it harbors an incredibly vital wealth of talent
and sophistication, yet it also, to an extent, under-exploits the
potential contained therein.

While commercial galleries and both public and private museums are
fairly well documented in English-language and Japanese media, yet
another type of outlet for art activities, alternative and artist-run
art spaces, are relatively underrepresented. Many such spaces are
engaging in provocative and intellectually stimulating programs while
also supporting artists and audiences outside of the main center of
Tokyo. For example, Gallery SOAP, a multi-disciplinary space established
in 1997 in Kitakyushu, works with both Japanese and international
artists such as Peter Halley, Takuji Kogo and Noritoshi Hirakawa. In
Tokyo itself, commandN, originally established in 1998, recently found
new space in the city's Kanda district and has been reincarnated as
Kandada/Project collective commandN in 2005.

[image] Installation by N55 member Rikke Luther at AIT, 2004-5.
Cardboard and mixed media. Courtesy Roger McDonald and AIT
[image] Installation view – Exploding Cell/Peter Halley. Courtesy
Gallery SOAP
[image] Installation view at Kandada/Project collective commandN

I decided to take this opportunity to contribute to DIAAALOGUE and use
it to contact art professionals in Japan to engage with them about the
alternative art situation there. Ultimately, Roger McDonald, who works
with AIT as a programmer for its Making Art Different (MAD) education
initiative, as well as organising events and doing independent curation,
was willing to discuss at length with me the history and sustainability
of alternative art spaces in Japan . I first came to know about Roger
through his English-language weblog, Tactical Museum, through which he
offers insights on life in Japan as well as the various art events that
he attends or organises. What follows are excerpts from our correspondence:

Andrew Maerkle(AM): To begin with, could you tell me a bit more about
what you do at AIT as well as any other projects you might be working on?

Roger McDonald(RM): AIT was started in 2002 as a non profit
organisation, registered by The City of Tokyo, by six young-ish curators
and arts managers. One of our main areas of focus is education - we run
an independent school program called MAD, which currently offers seven
courses and attracts over 150 people every year. Through MAD, we offer
the first curating course in Japan too. Rather than add another
exhibition space to the many already present in Tokyo, we felt it was
more important to add another layer to art education. In addition, we
began the first systematic artist-in-residence program in Tokyo and have
made partnerships with IASPIS in Sweden, FRAME in Finland and Asialink
in Australia, amongst others, and host artists and curators for 3 month
residencies. We apply to Japanese foundations for funds to invite
artists from countries that do not have funding systems in place - thus
far we have invited artists from Costa Rica and Palestine, and in March,
an artist from the Philippines arrives.
[image] AIT’s Roger McDonald fiddles with Franz West adaptives. Courtesy
Roger McDonald

Also in March, over 2 days, we initiate the 12 Hour Museum - the latest
in our ongoing series of temporary 'museums' popping up in the city. We
have done two before, for eight hours each. 12 Hour Museum is in
collaboration with Panasonic and will take place in their large hall in
Odaiba, Tokyo . We are working with artists, including Aida Makoto and
Takamine Tadasu, and an architect to design the space and video works,
and we will also show an interview archive of alternative spaces and
communities from around Japan , created by my colleague at AIT, Kai
Ozawa, who has travelled to six such spaces to talk with their directors
and video interviews.

For us, it's more interesting to experiment with different formats and
models for exhibition-making in Tokyo - a city which is suited to
archigram-ish ideas of 'plugging-in' - infrastructures are very
efficient for people to move about, so why not stay mobile and appear
momentarily? I suppose it mirrors ways the military talk these days:
"rapid reaction."

AIT are also the commissioners for Japan at this year's Bangladesh
Biennale, which opens March 5. We will work with 2 artists - Fuji
Hiroshi from Fukuoka [who creates energetic, bricolage-like
installations] and Yuken Teruya, originally from Okinawa and based in
New York [who cuts intricate dioramas out of discarded shopping bags].
Both artists work with waste materials and will make a new collaborative
installation in Dhaka. This is the first time that the Japan Foundation
have chosen to work with a non-profit organisation. Personally, I am one
of the curators of the Singapore Biennale, which opens later this year.

AM: How would you define an alternative art space in Japan ? Is it
necessarily defined in terms of opposition to commercial galleries and

RM: How to define 'alternative' in Japan is an interesting issue -
unlike Europe or North America where there is a stronger oppositional
and historical discourse between institutions and alternatives, in
Japan, and indeed many Asian situations, the idea of the alternative is
defined case by case. On one level there are artist-led and curator-led
initiatives like AIT, commandN in Tokyo, Gallery SOAP in Kitakyushu, and
Maejima Art Center in Naha, Okinawa, which in a sense look and feel much
like 'alternative' spaces found nowadays in Berlin or London. There are
also city-supported centres, like BANK ART in Yokohama, which describe
themselves as 'alternative' and 'non-museum' based – but obviously with
official funding. Some art museums run by prefectures or cities, such as
Art Tower Mito, have developed unique exhibition programmes compared
with most museums in Japan . They can in a sense also be considered
'alternative'. So my feeling is that the rigid distinction between the
institution and the alternative is far more fluid in Japan . Until the
1980s department store museums (for example, Saison Museum in the Seibu
department store) showed contemporary art more than art museums. Real
estate issues in Tokyo and high land prices mean there are very few
opportunities for squatting-type or warehouse-type shows. Going further
back in history, it's interesting to think about The Yomiuri
Independent's exhibitions from the 1950s and 60s which were open-call
hyper avant-garde shows where many movements showed, such as the
Neo-Dada and the Kyushu-Ha, until it got too weird for the organisers
and stopped in 1964. This was in a sense an officially sanctioned
'alternative' space for showing cutting-edge art and played a crucial
role in post-war Japanese art history.

AM: What alternative art spaces are particularly successful right now?
In general, are artists and audiences interested in working with
alternative art spaces? Do many alternative art spaces respond to very
specific interests?
[image] Installation view - What an interesting finger. Let me suck it.
Digital Projection: Chrysanne Stathacos, Federico Baronello, Tetsu
Takagi, John Miller, Mike Bode. Installation: Tetsu Takagi + Takuji
Kogo. Directed by Takuji Kogo. Candy Factory Yokohama 2001. Courtesy
Takuji Kogo

RM: With the passing of a non-profit law a few years back, many arts
groups and spaces have drifted towards becoming official NPO's (like
AIT). This law was one reaction to the great Hanshin earthquake in Kobe
(on January 17, 1995), which highlighted the important role of citizen
and non-governmental organisations in assisting disaster relief. Since
moving back to Japan in 2000, I have seen a number of small artist
initiatives and spaces open, only to close within a year or two, largely
due to lack of funds. There is very little funding for alternative
activities - it depends on the city too. I know that Osaka city supports
arts groups by lending them empty office space free of rent. But Tokyo
does not do this - although some wards within Tokyo have supported art
initiatives (commandN borrowed a space in Akihabara, which is now
closed). It's pretty tough to keep something going, let alone maintain a

As you point out, different groups do seem to stake specific positions
and audiences – AIT has focused on education and residency with a strong
international leaning. commandN is artist-run, led by Masato Nakamura,
and tends to focus on exhibitions and projects. Gallery SOAP was started
by artists – a sociologist and a musician – in Kitakyushu , and they
operate a community cafe and run an online art space [ in collaboration
with media artist Takuji Kogo, whose artist space Candy Factory in
Yokohama featured projects by Japanese and international artists from
1997 until it closed in 2001, ]. Maejima Art Center
operate in a run-down area of Naha, Okinawa, and work with urban
regeneration issues and communities.

AM: In the media outside of Japan, much of the focus is on Tokyo's art
scene, are there other cities capable of supporting both commercial
galleries and other art spaces?

RM: Commercially, the focus is still probably Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya -
but I think the impact of things like the "Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennal"
in the Niigata region has been growing and is important for developing a
new contemporary art fan base. Nara Yoshitomo had a show in an old
warehouse in Aomori a couple of years back which was apparently almost
totally volunteer-organised and a huge success. A new contemporary
museum opens in Aomori this July and I believe it has strong links to
Nara, who was born in Aomori . This is interesting because one often
sees prefectures building museums for 'famous' sons and daughters.

AM: Regarding the history of alternative spaces – the Sagacho Exhibit
Space used to have really strong programming a couple years ago and then
folded. It seems that, as you say, places come and go. Are there patrons
who offer funding, boards of directorship, or other institutional
apparati established for many of the non-profit organisations in Japan?
Or will spaces find ways to resurrect themselves even if not in a
conventionally "sustainable" manner?

RM: Sagacho Exhibit Space was indeed an important pioneer alternative
space in Tokyo. It billed itself as Tokyo's first such space - begun by
patron and former fashion writer Kazuko Koike in 1983 and lasting until
2000. It was a large warehouse-type space in an old rice warehouse
[which also ultimately housed commercial galleries such as Tomio Koyama,
Taro Nasu, and a collaborative viewing space, Rice Gallery, between
Shugo Satani and Atsuko Koyanagi]. The building was torn down in 2000.
Because of Sagacho's size and non-commercial nature it showed
large-scale works and installations by many artists who went on to
become famous – people like Morimura Yasumasa and Miyajima Tatsuo. I am
not sure how Koike-san funded this, but it certainly played a key role
in developing Tokyo as a scene.

As for patrons and boards, NPO's must gather a minimum number of
'members' to apply for official status. This in effect becomes like a
board - and I know that many art NPO's ask famous names to become
members to lend the organisation legitimacy. AIT have an advisory panel,
which has no executive power, but helps us in securing funds and trust
from partners. As to whether patrons fund groups, I have not heard of
this. Unlike the US, I think there is basically no patronage layer in
the arts in Japan which helps non-profits or alternative spaces – of
course big corporations like Benesse (who run Naoshima Island), NTT (who
run the InterCommunication Center in Tokyo) and Mori (who run the Mori
Art Museum) fund their own museums and projects. Alternative sectors
have to rely on either city or prefectural support or apply to a limited
number of foundations (POLA, Toshiba, etc) for project support.

AM: Do you think it's important that alternative spaces continue to
develop along the NPO model as AIT have done or is this just one approach?
[image] Landscape view of the Echigo-Tsumari region, Matsunoyama. Photo:
S. Anzai. Courtesy Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial Executive Committee

RM: I think the NPO model is one approach that has become visible
recently. It is important in so far as it provides a kind of 'third way'
model between the museum and commercial models, but it is still in its
infancy. To become an NPO means that one needs to become accountable to
a 'public' and adopt a sense of professionalism. On the other hand there
is the danger of losing a sense of independence and critical base as
well as becoming an extension of prefectural cultural policies - it is a
fact that as museums face crisis now in Japan , they are appealing to
NPO's to provide content and programming at 'cheap rates.' There is the
misguided perception that NPO's are like volunteer orgnisations. I think
a deeper debate is required within the NPO community on these issues -
trying to define whether the NPO model really represents a 'third way'
and if so, how can it be different from how museums have operated until now.

AM: What do you think of the "Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennal"? It seems to
be funded mainly by local governments but managed by a commercial
agency, Art Front. Does Echigo resemble the mixed model of
corporate/institutional/alternative you have already discussed?

RM: I think Echigo-Tsumari is a quite extraordinary model for another
kind of international exhibition - moving away form urban centres to
rural regions, working with communities over a ten-year period, having
the same Director, and developing a theme over 3 manifestations. It is
as you point out run by art promoter, Fram Kitagawa's company, Art
Front, but when I spoke with him about this, he mentioned that he went
for this approach because when dealing with prefectural governments, it
was quicker and economical working in this way, rather than going
through committees. I don't think he makes any money doing this! Indeed,
I know that Art Front rely on artists and can only offer very basic
remunerations. But big names offer to participate and take part because
they like what it's all about. The triennial also has a huge volunteer
network called the Kohebi Tai (Little Shrimp Brigade) with its own
organisation and structures. It is perhaps an example of this mixed
model approach.


with kind regards,

Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)


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