A friend and I decided to have an adventure and crash an opening viewed on Tokyo Art Beat. Sachiko Kazama was having a solo show at the same time she was in the Roppongi Crossing show at the Mori Hills Art Center. This new show was not one of those blockbuster shows at one of the large galleries; it was at a tiny gallery called SNAC on one of the side streets near the Museum of Contemporary Art. The artwork at these small galleries often have more energy than that by old men who died years ago but are featured elsewhere. I wanted to check out the artwork and the space. I still need to find an artist-run centre that I like as much as the ones in Winnipeg and Fukuoka City.
It was already evening, and many shops were closed for the evening. Thank goodness for Google Maps, because we almost walked past the gallery! A small sign like those used by small restaurants or pubs was on the sidewalk. That was it. No large windows, nothing on display for the the general public walking by, and no large lettering in any language. As we walked by, the wooden door opened to show a bright, white room with people inside. It looked like a party but was it the one we were looking for? Would it be okay for us to walk in as strangers? We double checked the name on the sign and went in.
I knew we were in the right place as soon as I saw the black-and-white relief prints on the walls. They were much smaller and less complex than the ones in the Roppongi Crossings show. You had to look carefully and take a second glance to fully appreciate what she did.
What do I mean? It would have been very easy to walk past the print of Mount Fuji and the other of a car and dismiss them as typical prints done by every elderly Japanese man at every community centre in Japan, but the placement suggested a connection between the two. Sure enough when I read the information on the wall explaining the prints, I saw the same humour that I had seen before. These were not random choices; these were the nationalistic idols of Japan. We realized that we had to look at everything more carefully and not take anything for face value.
She had taken anonymous-looking photos from newspapers and used them for her own purposes. A group of pictures from the real-estate section were beside bar graphs that echoed the shapes of the buildings being sold. Why? Think. What else is often represented with bar graphs? Income, financial growth, and other economic activities. Pictures of Japanese graves? Well, funerals and graves are very expensive. People sometimes need to take out loans to pay for them. Business cards were stamped with words that people use to label others and printed with erasers that everybody has in their house. Kazama’s theme was Japan as a consumer society! People spend money and get loans to pay for their possessions, and the Japanese phrase that is usually used to describe such possessions begins with the word, “my”: my car, my home, my bag, my cup, my, my, my… As you can see, not all of these are large-ticket items. That was why she called the show, “プチブル (Puchi Buru)” (Petit Bourgeois).
Why the white poodle? Small dogs that can fit handbags are very trendy in Japan. You say that they are popular in other countries, too? Not in quite the same way. Individual breeds become trendy. One year huskies were popular, and everybody had to have one even if they did not have large yards. Kazama remembered having a white poodle when they were all the rage and she used that to represent consumerism in her print. Is it a coincidence that the dog is cute, white, and destructive like the Stay Puff marshmallow man in Ghostbusters? I will have to ask her another time. To be honest, I originally thought the print said, “プチプル (Puchi Puru)” and meant small poodle! Her word choice was much more interesting than mine!
Meet & Greet
Please remember that we crashed this opening. Most people in attendance were probably friends of the artist or associated with the gallery somehow. We knew nobody; nobody knew us. We were obviously outsiders and stood out even more because we were not Japanese. One woman looked at us and giggled. She seemed to be an intelligent woman aside from that reaction and looked like somebody I would probably be friends with under normal circumstances, so I did not let her reaction upset me too much. The guy that opened the door approached us and started chatting. As a visible minority, people often want to talk to us instead of with us, so I automatically braced myself for the worst. What a pleasant surprise! He spoke to us in English but his English was really good. I mean really good and not filled with direct translations and katakana. Tamura-kun was the self-proclaimed best translator in Japan and supposedly owner of the country’s smallest art gallery. He was intelligent, inquisitive, and a fountain of information.
After chatting with him, I bravely gathered enough nerve to approach the woman who I thought might be the artist in question. She seemed just as eager and just as nervous as I was but relaxed when she realized I was speaking in Japanese. I don’t know if comparing her stitched bathrobe print with one by Jim Dine helped or hindered me but I think it broke the ice.
After a short Q&A session, we both relaxed as we realized we were both female printmakers. close in age, and of similar temperaments. She was not fluent in English but she knew a few words; my friend and I speak Japanese that is not perfect but we can successfully get our points across. If something was not clear, we also had Japan’s best translator on hand, right? We could make witty or sarcastic comments without the need to apologize or explain in great detail. (That can be rare in any country but maybe more so in Japan!) We could speak straight from the heart without any excuses. We were immediate friends!
Birds of a Feather Flock Together
Sachiko Kazama and Tamura-kun went out of their way to answer my questions. They were kind and generous in their explanations of the art scene in Tokyo. Like many places in Japan, mentors and networking are important. Other people have previously told me that one reason to get your masters degree in fine arts at one of the big universities in Tokyo is the networking. Your professors will plug you into their networks, introduce you to the right people, invite you to exhibit with them, provide employment, and possibly share or provide expensive art supplies or studio space. Every city, every medium, every genre, and every other category that you could possibly think of has a similar association with a strict hierarchy that requires membership and that might provide some of the same benefits. Kazama, like many of the other artists I know throughout Japan, dissociates herself from those groups and has thereby struggled to establish a name for herself. Her work is humorous and does not follow traditional Japanese methods of mokuhanga. The old men in those associations don’t know what to think about her work!
They reminded us that rental galleries are common throughout Japan. They then explained that the system was a Catch-22: you are damned if you do exhibit at those galleries and damned if you don’t. I was confused. They explained that Tokyo has another level: private or commercial galleries. If you exhibit only at the rental galleries, you are branded as an amateur or a hobbyist. If you don’t exhibit at a gallery in a country where most are rented, nobody will see your art. See the problem?
Kazama had a solo show at a rental gallery in Tokyo and was then approached by one of the curators from the SNAC gallery, which unbeknownst to me is supposedly interested in promoting emerging or re-emerging talent. She also advised sending information to galleries, giving presentations, and so on. I had already been thinking about volunteering for Tokyo Art Beat since I am always in their virtual space anyways, and Tamura-kun also suggested it. I guess I will have to drop them a line…
All in all it was a great evening! I learned something new and was reminded that I need to get into the studio to do some work. I need to just do it! Instead of letting ideas percolate in my brain for an incredibly long time until they get stale, I have to overcome my fear of starting new projects and scribble something down. Yes, scribble. Perfection is not needed or desired. Guess what my goals are for 2014…