Eighteen months ago I was excited to go to my first art fair. I could not wait to go and counted down the days. I even bought two admission tickets, one weekend pass and one with a guided tour. Now? I think about it before I decide to go. Dozens of artists and galleries gathered under one roof. What’s not to like?
At the risk of sounding like an arty curmudgeon, I am not going to gush about the Tokyo International Art Fair (TIAF). (Note: Ignore their spelling mistakes if you do check out their web page.) No, not the Tokyo Art Fair (TAF) at the International Forum near Tokyo station but the other one, the one in Harajuku, Tokyo. Are you confused yet? It gets worse. Some of the displays were the same, and I do not mean the good ones either. Whereas the Yokohama Triennale was too conceptual at times, the art fairs are too commercial.
More individual artists, such as Faye Chan (photo on the left), were prominent at TIAF than at TAF, but only a handful seemed to be making things that were truly representative of themselves and the kind of work that they enjoyed and were proud of making. Others seemed to be targeting interior designers with paintings that could have been made by anybody and that could have been sold by the metre. I could not have been surprised to see some alongside clowns and mountainscapes on black velvet being sold out of the back of a truck on a parking lot. Others were objects, such as surfboards, designed for those who dreamed of a certain lifestyle. I know of several surfboard and skateboard designers who have become popular urban artists with colourful paintings or sculptures, but these were just surfboards without any notable painting on them.
You know that commercial sales rather than critical attention is the goal when you see that seemingly ubiquitous booth of rhinestoned Marilyn Monroes and Audrey Hepburns. Posters with bling? These guys seem to always occupy a huge chunk or prime space at these fairs as well as a shop in Roppongi I think. If you were thinking of buying one, I beg of you to research emerging or re-emerging local artists and get two or three original pieces of better art for the same price.
To make things worse, the prize for best booth went to a similar group called the New York gallery in Tokyo. Why? I have no idea. They were selling prints (silkscreens?) of pink or black bottles of Chanel No. 5. Can you say Andy Warhol wannabe? It makes you wonder why they won best booth. Should that have been best investor of the new art fair?
Some of the individual artists
were obviously trying but had a short, narrow wall space that was maybe one metre across if even that wide. They spent a lot of money on business cards and colourful pamphlets with the hope of getting some attention in the Tokyo market and selling enough to cover their costs. Their individual styles and tastes stood out. It takes guts to show at an international art fair.
But with all the inferior commercialized stuff, it was hard to focus enough to find a few gems. Sabrina Vivian Bello’s work reminded me of Don Proch, a Manitoban artist who used to draw in pencil on plaster figures or heads even if his Don Proch is more colourful.
Some work, such as pieces by Cecilia Moreno Yaghoubi and Hidemi Shimura (represented by Saatchi), would have looked much better in a gallery. Those narrow room dividers, however, did not flatter anything. A few were obviously emerging artists and were fighting to find a style that reflected their own vision and what would sell. I do not think that some of them recognized their strengths and relied on trendy techniques like Zen Tangles to quickly make more commercial pieces. Don’t get me wrong. Those Zen Tangle doodles can result in some striking work, but very few people use the technique to create their own individual style. Printmakers that rely on photos have the same problem: the tools and the images they make are so strong that the artist has little space to insert individuality unless they use the tools in new and creative ways to make Art with a capital “A”.
Harajuku could not possibly host an art fair without art that had references to pop culture and was sexually perverted. Do Disney’s lawyers know about this? I have seen too many pictures like this in Tokyo with many that are misogynistic, often by female Japanese artists who mistakenly think it makes them edgy and have obviously never heard of feminism.
Roppongi had a graffiti artist; Harajuku had to have one, too. Many are fabulous and work hard at creating their individual style. I think this wall had had just about everything, including Kate Moss and Andy Warhol’s soup label for Campbell’s. If we look carefully, will we find the kitchen sink? As entertainment value in Harajuku, the home of street culture, the wall is priceless. It also was a great place for selfies and group photos.
Need more entertainment? How about some live painting? As a collector, wouldn’t you want a painting that was created in less than thirty minutes? To make things even more entertaining, the painter was a large, non-Asian painter dressed as a Harajuku girl in pink and black. Talk about a Kodak moment. She did have great tights.
What international, overly commercialized event would be complete without shady, muscular men in sunglasses and speaking a Slavic language? Everybody from the skateboard dealer to the glittery Marilyn is there for the art, right?
TAF had many of the same problems spread out over a larger area, but I think more of the booths wanted to show high-quality work to attract collectors with a discerning eye and large wallets. Spaces were larger and more expensive, so galleries usually focused on a range of artists in their stables. Local emerging or re-emerging artists were a minority.
I know I keep focusing on greater promotion of local emerging or re-emerging artists with individual styles, but I guess I grew up seeing such art in Winnipeg, Canada. Winnipeg has a strong arts community, and I saw many great exhibits developed from local talent. In the eighties and nineties, the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) featured a lot of local talent. They were not big-name shows featuring Monet, Rembrandt, or Picasso, but quality did not suffer. Careers and reputations were made; artists mentored each other.
Why can’t Tokyo have art fair with a better balance between art and commercialism? Is that too much to ask? Some places, like 3331 Arts Chiyoda, are getting close but consistency in quality was an issue there. It might be a great chance for the Tokyo art world to encourage or promote artists with their own voices rather than those who are very good at imitating others or those who think something has to be sexually perverted to be called art. No more copies of Mona Lisa with somebody’s face inserted. No more portraits of big-eyed girls to imitate Nara who imitated the Blythe dolls and the other big-eyed comics of the sixties and seventies. I do not want to go into a gallery or an art fair and think that I have seen it before but by somebody else. I want to go into a gallery and be blown away. Is that too much to ask?