Masato Nakamura Interview – Challenging the Very Structures of Art

“Reaching beyond the context of art, I want to create a temporary social installation within the dynamic metabolism of urban space.”
–Masato Nakamura

poster for Masato Nakamura “Luminous Despair”

Masato Nakamura “Luminous Despair”

at 3331 Arts Chiyoda
in the Chiyoda area
This event has ended - (2015-10-10 - 2015-11-23)

In Interviews by TAB Intern 2016-01-26

From 10th October to 23rd November 2015, Masato Nakamura presented his first solo exhibition in 10 years, under the title of “Luminous Despair”. Within the constant flux of society, in which direction do the ever-changing possibilities of art point? This interview by TAB intern Mana Yamagiwa examines the further challenges being undertaken by the artist himself.

– Recently, there has been a rise in art projects which are realized through the support of corporations and authorities, but with the demand of “marketable trends and easy digestibility and accessibility”, there are fears that the freedom of artistic expression may also be under threat. What are the challenges which art faces as it attempts to assimilate with society and what new values are seen to emerge here?

First of all, we have to firmly establish what we are referring to when we say “art”. Within the frame of local community projects and town development schemes, contexts and expressions which appear to diverge from the purpose of art are critiqued for their poor quality for example, but when such critics refer to art, they are essentially talking about the contemporary art market. This is based on the values of an art scene mainly led by the West, but a lot of the experiments which are happening now in Japan and Asia are occurring in a very different context to the contemporary art market.

Utilizing the tax income of the authorities to create a program of high public benefit may be seen as a concrete approach in tackling a certain social issue. When the artists and project team have a concrete strategy towards this issue, then it can be very effective. It is not about the quality of the work, it is more of a matter of how to solve the problem. And here in many cases the people who enjoy the art are not members of the art world, but old men and women of isolated communities, for example.

In this way, within the prerequisites of art, there is an impressive expansion taking place. By crossing art, industry and community, we can extend the very concept of art and allow it to take a functional form. For an art museum receiving donations and funding from board members, collectors and large corporations, they need only think of presenting work within the contemporary art market and have no association with industry or community. The value of art, the economy which supports the artist’s living, and even the range of people who view and encounter the work are currently under great flux, and, within this, the definition of art, and the position from which to think about art have undergone considerable development.

Community art projects are currently in a gestation period. From this point on they are likely to increase in surprising numbers, but will require a lot of weeding. This approach to the market has still not yet gained maturity, just in the way of bypassing the usual root of selling work and making collaborations with industry in the creation of products, or becoming apps for new devices, might suggest towards future possibilities. From now we will take an even further step in what has up until this time been discussed as public art, moving towards another form of engagement from which a completely new form of community art will be born.

– Within this context, why did you decide to open an exhibition of your work within a formal gallery setting? Could you talk a little about the forms of expression enabled through the art work and those enabled through an art project?

Well, actually I see 3331 Arts Chiyoda as my own art work. In making a local community project, I always think how can I share a creative encounter with local residents, how can such a creative platform be constructed together? After joining the Venice Biennale* there was a big shift towards “making things by ourselves”, establishing the financial independence of 3331, whilst joining in everyday creativity. It is not just by ourselves but also through the excitement of visitors from which creativity can be heightened. *Nakamura represented Japan in the 49th Venice Biennale (2001)

To exhibit within a white space within the environment of 3331, in other words, to have built an art museum or alternative space and to present work within a white cube space set within this, has a certain double meaning and is the beauty of this exhibition.

In this exhibition I show a large collection of photographs from the early 90s. Around that time I was studying in Korea, and when I returned to Japan I made my debut on the art scene. The bubble had burst, and a moment of change was upon us. The artists I was working with, along with the gallerists and critics, spent night and day in debate and thinking about the future, and I documented this with a constant snap of the camera. Of course I thought of photography as a mode of expression, but as I was not a photographer I did not have the immediate intention of presenting these works.

I am also showing a new installation. Here I have realized two plans which I originally made in the 1990s. While thinking about the so-called context of art, these plans formed a demonstration of a new approach, which is why I have designed them for a white cube space.

I present my ideas through my art work, but the platform for this is the space of 3331 Arts Chiyoda, so in this way I see it as independent creation which connects with art, industry and community. But of course if you are coming from the perspective of the Western-centered art market, then 3331 Arts Chiyoda may still be difficult to understand.

If we look further into the context of art, we see examples such as that of Joesph Beuy’s “social sculptures”, which take the form of trees contributing to the construction of the town’s environment. But this was of course based on the concept of “sculpture” and difficult to bring beyond the art context. Clearly there was some link with the local community, but the financial support didn’t come from there. It is just an extension of the kind of public art promoted through the monuments built with the money of local authorities.

We also saw the emergence of installation and temporary structures throughout the 1980s. For example, the public art of Tadashi Kawamata which grows upon other architectural structures. This kind of work which questions the change and quality of a momentary space is particularly challenging. But this also originated from the idea of painting, and again is clearly contextualized within the field of art.

What is needed is not just a merely a discourse within the context of art, but for a creative suggestion from the side of society. When looking at things from the perspective of wider society, if you are not an independent entity within the community, with financial independence, then clearly you will not have sustainability. If you just think the authorities will continue to give you money, or people will sometimes buy your work and allow you to pay the rent, then you are not going to get far. In this way, 3331 is bringing to shape a fusion of contexts including the concept of social sculpture,  temporary urban structures, combined with the outside fields of industry and community.

– In Trans Arts Tokyo 2015 there are a large number of events which don’t appear to have a direct connection with art, for example markets, beer projects and a sports festival. To what limits can we expand the context of an “art project”?

The people who are making a beer fest don’t think about it as art. That is obvious. The people of the shopping street organizing a local festival also don’t conceive of their activity in terms of art. However, by joining within the frame of Trans Arts Tokyo there emerge new human relationships and connections within the community. If it is beer, then the process of making and drinking beer, even that in itself is a thoroughly creative engagement. In the middle of Kanda, in the midst of a dynamic metabolic state of the city, we create a temporary installation of the moment.

It is also an experiment in forming the foundations for our future thinking about art. Many of those who are making events within a town or community often think they are simply engaged in a town development project. Yet we can find a latent potential within this which can be tied to other parts and pushed to new territories. This is one of my thoughts in working in this dynamic city of Tokyo in the run up to 2020.

In the vertically divided society of Japan we think too much about the division of genre. There hasn’t been a proper fostering of people who can connect this vertical system to a horizontal one. So in that way it is certainly a challenge.

– What kind of experiences do you hope young people can build so that they might contribute to the future of an art project system which is financially sustainable on a wide level?

There are now many chances for people who want to follow creative pursuits within a commercial field. If you just think in terms of the art world then such opportunities have become quite narrow, and no matter how specialized you are the race is very tough. But if you turn your eye to industry or community, then one might realize how necessary the management of creative ideas and processes really is.

There are art projects taking place across the country, but there aren’t enough people to support them. There are very few people who have experience, know the commercial art market, have a good relation with artists, can communicate clearly and take the management reins when you try to make an art work in the middle of a mountain, for example.

If you look at this the other way, if young people start going out into communities, out into the streets, then they also have a chance to become leaders. If these kinds of professionals increase, along with a certain framework and literacy, then the infrastructure for culture, politics and economy have a chance to come together. Even the projects being realized in the provinces are showing particular momentum, but gradually they will bring their facilities together. It will take ten, maybe twenty years at least, though.

– With such a shift in the concept of art, and the polarization between art museums and art projects, what kind of role will museums play, given their high level of presence in terms of numbers?

Art museums will have to make more and more cut backs from now on. Their collection doesn’t change, the building becomes old, visitors don’t come, and the staff remain unchanged, so of course things will not change like that. If you ask how it is possible to do something new within this system – Well, it’s impossible. The first and foremost function of an art museum is to protect things of value. If the art museum doesn’t protect it, who will? If an art work consisting of a rock upon an iron plate is placed outside, then they merely return to iron and stone. Art museums are there to preserve value and pass this on to the next generation. They have to perform this role.

At the same time, art museums also foster a particular local culture of artistic engagements over a long time frame. Unfortunately, however, Japanese art museums are not very good at this. They can buy treasures like Impressionist paintings and show them off, but they cannot compete with international art museums in terms of recognition and capability. So then if you think also in terms of their budget, they have to maintain at least their function as preservers, and bring strength to local art and culture, in particular in the field of education.

And this is where people are needed. We don’t need bookish scholars, the researcher types, we need people who will go out into the surrounding community and really communicate, who will examine the objectives of an art work or an artist and build their program from there. If they don’t do this, then I don’t think art museums will be around for much longer. If they are in total isolation from the local area and its people, then even if they have such treasures, locals won’t be interested in joining the art museum. This is even more true if they are using public money. The art museum has to diversify in its functions.

-In their current state, art museums in Japan are unable to compete of an international level, but how might the unique message of Japan reach beyond its own shores?

Well, Japan is an island nation so it is unavoidable that it is quite insular to start with. But if you take the time to observe the grass roots culture which has emerged from a specific local district and it various ties, then it will naturally come to link with things beyond itself. Just because information is being sent across the world doesn’t make it correct, you know.

If you temporarily borrow some cool, impressive-looking work then sure,, you might have a moment of international exchange. That’s because the museum has brought in something easy to communicate to the international community. In this way only works of clear popularity are toured around. This is the current situation in Japan. In this way subculture and comic-based features frequently appear, as this suits the demands of Europe and America.

But just this isn’t enough. Even if the information isn’t fully transmitted to the outside, there are many dear things hidden within local communities of Japan. From festivals to traditional crafts, there certain things which you really have to go to that place to experience firsthand, or else you cannot appreciate them.

In Japan there is a rich in-built belief in nature, in the sea and the mountains. And because of this there is a wealth of awareness and tools surrounding this relation. This is currently being placed under the spotlight within the art world, with local art festivals increasing as a result. But if you approach such festivals with the mind of attracting an international audience with an array of popular and curious items, then the essence of that context can be lost. I think this is more dangerous than not promoting it to the globe to start with. While such exhibitions might compel people with interest at that moment, there remains no root in the local area. There is nothing within such an approach which indicates the attitude and courage needed to tackle the issue head on.

In conclusion, if we properly grasp the information that needs to be transmitted, then a real exchange will occur naturally. At the moment, even though we hold this information, our awareness of it is too weak, and we are still at a stage where we are unable to speak of it with confidence, and so community art festivals try to draw upon this approach again and again.

With great sensitivity, artists can produce works which lead us to examine what is before us. The art work becomes a communication tool and reaches the outside naturally.

– As these kinds of art festivals become popular and the conception of art becomes more expansive, what point can we say we are at now? And as we look four years into the future towards 2020, what is your personal vision?

I already have a clear vision. As an extension of my practices in the provinces and in Tokyo, I wish to create a Tokyo Biennial. Bringing art, industry and community together, I wish to create a design for all the creative actions and elements of this city, creating a clear platform for these together with everyone.

In fact, there once was a Tokyo Biennial, first organized around Yusuke Nakahara with the “Between Man and Matter” exhibition at the former Tokyo Metropolitan Art Gallery. The quality of this exhibition was quite stunning, it was a gathering of young artists who are now known as making the masterpieces of the contemporary art world. It drove the Japanese art scene from low to high gear.

These days there is so much going on in Tokyo on disparate levels that there is no chance to bring it together. In the previous Olympics (1964), there was a focus upon west Tokyo as a site of development, then the National Stadium and Aoyama Avenue were built, an American base was placed in Roppongi, the train system to Yokohama was also improved, and the city seemed to expand from west to east. But as to the north-east side spanning from the Tokyo Imperial Palace, it remained largely untouched by Western culture, developing in conspiracy with Edo culture. If you look at Tokyo as a whole there is a concentration of consumer culture in the West side around Shibuya and Roppongi, making the balance between east and west uneven.

Without removing the context of the city, I want to create a new way of passing down the traditional resources of Japan. I think a Biennial based on this premise should centrally take its action in the east of Tokyo, of course tying up with events like Roppongi Art Night. I want to make something a bit more interdisciplinary and interconnecting than the ideas of the metropolitan and national government.

The Olympic Cultural Program will span from 2017 to 2020. The sports event itself will take place for just over a month in the summer of 2020, while the cultural program will go on for four years, not only in Tokyo but across the country, meaning a very significant chance for culture in Japan. What is important, though, is to consider the framework for such a platform and what its legacy will be.

If we think about what was left from the previous Olympics, we have the example of the city highway, which enclosed the Kanda River and destroyed the landscape. At the time people didn’t realize the importance of the river, but we can’t afford to make the same mistake again. We therefore need to be careful of not merely reaching our hands out to the large sums of money which appear on offer, but instead we really have to consider what kind of city and culture we wish to make by our own resources. It is here that the inter-relation between art, industry and community will become key.

―You referred to art as a tool for solutions. What do you see as the system in society which needs the most change?

The first thing we have to tackle is the way we work and live. How to gain a life/work balance? Since the period of rapid development, my parents’ generation worked recklessly hard. But when it comes to our generation, now we have TV, Internet, a stream of information coming to us, and we don’t want to focus all of our efforts just on work, but also balance and challenge other things.

What is important to consider amongst this is how, within your life plan, you wish to engage with the city and the issues of society as part of your work. You have to take an active, subjective position, being fully aware as to what you are working for. Of course, one might say that producing goods in a company is being useful to society in some way. However, just that on its own is not enough. I say this because we have come to see, particularly after the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami, the great power that can emerge when each individual strength is linked together.

Study, graduate from university, get a job and then enjoy life. We can’t just travel along this determined rail. In fact, I am trying to make a school in which members learn to pursue their visions by investing in experience, skills and human relations. Participants can receive an income while taking on these challenges.

When I propose the Tokyo Biennial, there are those who say, “Oh, but we’ve never done anything like that before”, or who say, “But the neighborhood council is ‘scary.'” When you tell them to negotiate, those kind of people are of no use. What is needed is the fostering of the kind of people who can build horizontal connections, drawing in companies, neighborhood groups, foundations and universities to tackle a single task. I want to work with people who have made it part of their life plan to go out into the community and build the skills, experiences and knowledge to take on these issues.

I think it is particularly necessary to create a concrete framework for young people in their 20s and 30s to enter into society with their own unique vision of what they want to do, being able to work in a way which encourages problem solving and grappling with the obstacles we face. To give your all to this. Nowadays, universities in Japan only place emphasis upon knowledge, but new graduates have no direct experience so they can play little role when it comes to the work itself. I really want to open a school which is for people who as serious members of society want to dedicate themselves to these kind of projects. It would be a pioneering step. Creating an organization on a national scale, with a base not just in the provinces but with opportunities for the students to come to Tokyo, too. Then when the Tokyo Biennial happens, all these people can draw together and then return to their communities with that knowledge and experience.

The local regions also face various challenges. Within this art exists as the idea of an artist, creativity and innovative thinking in itself. For some localities, this is a form of expression which they have never experienced or produced before, and when it reaches them, it is as if water has suddenly come after a long drought, bringing a rain of activity.

To finish off with my solo exhibition again, it has been a long time since I made my debut in the early 90s. I had the opportunity to join many international exhibitions, and came to be part of that art scene. But then I thought, “Hang on!” We should be making our own spaces. It’s fine to be made a fuss over elsewhere, but we want to make our own culture. After some time of attempting to create such spaces, we were able to open 3331, and here a new potential can be grasped. In the local regions too, I have had the opportunity to take on many projects. Having gone full-circuit, I wanted to take this chance to reflect my ideas in my personal work again, and from the center of the art museum scene attempt to challenge the very structure of art.


Masato Nakamura – A social artist who has build up a range of art projects based on the merging of art and society and art and education. He is currently associate professor of painting at Tokyo University of the Arts. He represented Japan in the 49th Venice Biennale, 2001. He has led the artist initiative command N since 1998 and has developed various local generational art projects based on a sustainability, including Himing (Himi City, Toyama) and Zerodate (Odate City, Akita). Having run the project space Kandada between 2005-2009, he went on to open the artist-run, independent, alternative art center 3331 Arts Chiyoda (Akihabara, Tokyo) in June 2010. Publications include “Art & Education” (1997), “Education in Art” (2004). We was awarded the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s Art Encouragement Prize in 2010. In 2011, he initiated the earthquake regeneration program “Wawa Project”. In 2012, he began the local Kanda community project “Trans Arts Tokyo”.

Translated by Emma Ota

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