The New Art Factory

Misa Shin talks to TAB about the opening of her new gallery in Shirokane.

poster for Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei "Cube Light"

at Misa Shin Gallery
in the Shirokane, Hiroo area
This event has ended - (2010-11-19 - 2011-02-19)

In Interviews by William Andrews 2011-01-14

After serving as Director of Art Fair Tokyo, the country’s leading art fair, from 2005 to 2010, Misa Shin opened her own commercial art space in November 2010, with the inaugural exhibition by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The gallery also represents Shomei Tomatsu, Momoyo Torimitsu, Arata Isozaki and Ken Lum, among others.

The first thing visitors will surely notice about your gallery is that it is a former iron factory, with a huge front door. What led you to choose this building in Shirokane?

Now a lot of new galleries are emerging. In the east of Tokyo there are many galleries and I heard there were some original spaces there. But I thought it was better to have a gallery in the centre of the city. By chance the real estate agent told me this building was available. It’s in Shirokane so Roppongi is also close. There is also the Shirokane Complex [a gallery building containing Yamamoto Gendai, Nanzuka Underground and Kodama Gallery] nearby. There are a lot of small factories in this area. It’s really unusual to be a gallery in this space. A place with such a high ceiling and this kind of front door – this is unique.

Are there any practical or curatorial issues arising because the space is not a typical white cube?

I consulted with an architect about renovation. To convert this space into a white cube it would cost a fortune. This was formerly an iron factory so lots of strange things remain, such as old light switches. I wanted to keep these elements and take good care of them. I built a big white wall but that’s all. The part of the space where the ceiling is low we use as the warehouse. I really liked the front door. It’s very useful for loading and bringing in large works. Actually, the building is unusually practical. There’s even parking space in front of the gallery, which is rare in Tokyo.

Ai Weiwei, 'Cube Light' at the opening reception for the exhibition, November 2010.

Your first show is Ai Weiwei, a massive international name to launch your gallery. How did that come about?

The reason I wanted to start my own gallery was to create a mirror, where art reflects society. I wanted to exhibit artists who express social and political issues. Ai Weiwei is an old friend and we used to meet in Beijing before he was so famous. He has a very different attitude to the other Chinese artists in the Chinese Art Boom. He was the first artist to come into my head when I was considering starting my gallery. Now he’s really busy and famous, but he really liked this space and quickly suggested we exhibit this work.

Misa Shin Gallery in Shirokane, Tokyo, exhibiting 'Cube Light' by Ai Weiwei.Ai Weiwei’s exhibition consists of a single large installation work. But will it be harder to show more conventional 2D works in this space?

It depends on the artists but we have a wall. And artists like Yasuko Iba, although they work with painting, they have said they don’t need walls. All my artists are interested in the challenges of the space.

“Cube Light” is running for a relatively long time. Most commercial galleries exhibit works for around a month but the Ai Weiwei piece has been exhibited from mid-November until the end of January. Will this practice continue?

In general I think I will hold exhibitions once every two months; at the shortest six weeks. I don’t want to be always changing exhibitions. Rather I want to show works carefully and thoughtfully.

Starting with Ai Weiwei, the choice of artists for your gallery is pretty international.

There are many Asians, yes. But I don’t intend to separate artists by nationality. Indeed, I don’t have American or European artists. I have many Asian artists but they are all working internationally. Currently a line-up of six artists is decided. I am thinking of these artists for the long-term, so ideally I would like to hold one exhibition every two years for each artist.

The current economic environment in Japan is not very positive. It must be tough opening a gallery during this climate?

It’s tough, yes. But I don’t choose to open or not open a gallery due to the economic conditions. It’s just my wishes. For me, not opening a gallery because of the recession is not an excuse. I have wanted to do it since about twenty years ago. It took a time for the opportunity to come together.

In 2008 you said that ‘only now private collectors are starting to emerge’. How is the situation today?

Yes, people who buy art works are increasing. Japanese people are often said to not buy art works. They don’t know the price. Japanese don’t have the art ‘literacy’ training in this respect. For many years there has been a kind of taboo of talking about art works along with money. It’s not the case for antiques but for contemporary art there has been this ideal of purity.

So at Art Fair Tokyo we aimed to have the prices in the open for visitors to see. You can compare prices and can see the prices easily. People can understand that the price of an art work can be the same as a Louis Vuitton bag. Art Fair Tokyo’s visitor numbers have been increasing over the past five years but the sales remain almost the same. So in one way the market is very healthy. There are just ordinary men and women buying work, not related to investment. Japan has this very good and unique situation. But a gallery has to respond to this and so must also aim for foreign customers.

Misa Shin in her gallery in Tokyo, next to 'Cube Light' by Ai Weiwei.

Can you tell us something about the next exhibition by Seung Woo Back?

He is a Korean photographer. He went to North Korea ten years ago during a brief period of stability. Of course you cannot take pictures as you like. He was told what to take and where. Then the pictures are developed but then cut up by the North Koreans. So from these big photos come small elements, allowing us to see a new aspect of North Korea. It’s a very mysterious country to us but through these photos we can see many other aspects to the place. He also created a kind of North Korean Utopia inside the photos by building images up. He’s interested in photographing architecture and urbanism. He doesn’t make any judgment at all whether North Korea is good or bad. He’s not political. He calls it a kind of ‘archaeology’.

You can read a previous interview with Misa Shin on TABlog during her tenure at Art Fair Tokyo, and a photo report on the opening Ai Weiwei exhibition. The next exhibition, “Blow Up” by Seung Woo Back, starts March 4.

William Andrews

William Andrews. William Andrews came to Japan in 2004. He first lived in Osaka, where he was a translator for Kansai Art Beat. Arriving in Tokyo in 2008, he now works as an writer, editor and translator. He writes a blog about Japanese radicalism and counterculture ( and one about Tokyo contemporary theatre ( He is the author of Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicalism and Counterculture, from 1945 to Fukushima. » See other writings


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