Posted:Jul 2, 2007

GEISAI Interview with Takashi Murakami

The 10th biannual GEISAI Festival is being held on the 17th September. Lena Oishi talked to GEISAI president and internationally renowned artist Takashi Murakami about his 5th year on the GEISAI wagon.

Photo by Natsu Tanimoto

The upcoming 10th GEISAI marks the 5th anniversary of the festival. Have there been any changes since GEISAI #1?

This 10th festival is a culmination of all the work we’ve done in the past 5 years. When we started GEISAI, there was a huge gap in the art competition scene after commercial sponsor-led competitions such as Parco’s URBANART ended shortly before. We initially began GEISAI to supplement that gap, but then we began noticing all these other little holes in the scene, so we’ve basically been running around trying to fill them as we go. The past few festivals have especially tried to raise awareness of the problems that the Japanese contemporary art scene have with art markets. So I guess the focus of GEISAI has shifted from being solely a competition in the last few years.

Do you prefer to focus on the competition aspect?

I mean, the fact remains that unless we discover new artists, there is no future. It’s just that recently I’ve come to realize that there is no foundation set up for these artists to survive in. The Tomio Koyama Gallery and Yamamoto Gendai have been scouting GEISAI participants, inviting them to show and sell their work at their galleries since the beginning, but these are rare cases. There aren’t many galleries in Tokyo, and even fewer Japanese collectors. Some galleries have specific events for unearthing upcoming artists, but with no specific goal in mind. They’re like, “Look, here’s your stage, the rest is up to you”. I’ve tried to accommodate this problem of “what next?” because I can’t just ignore it, but in doing so, all these problems related to making art in Japan suddenly became clear. Reforming is tough.

Any highlights in this upcoming festival?

One dramatic change is that we modified the presentation to accommodate the audience this time around. We tried very hard to prioritize the visitors in organizing everything, from the entrance, the booths, the stage set-up, and the salon. As I said before, discovering new artists and holding an art market simultaneously is very difficult. But this time, even though GEISAI has always been in the red, we’ve decided to spend a hell of a lot of money and try everything that we can possibly imagine. No worrying about the consequences this time! So frankly, I think GEISAI #10 will be much louder than previous GEISAI. Of course, for those expecting to see works hanging from a white wall, it will still look very messy.

What do you mean by “messy”…?

When you say art, people automatically imagine the NY style of having very few works spaced out on a white wall. But the booths at GEISAI are 1.8 x 1.8 meters, and young artists pack in 10 or 20 of their works in that tiny space. So when you cram 2 rows of 80 booths in a single hall, I guess it looks more like a flea market than an art space. That said, western visitors are attracted to this sort of strange atmosphere. So bearing this in mind, we’d like to turn this messiness into a positive. Of course, us professionals can pick out the good stuff regardless, so no worries there. In any case, I think that this sort of Asian Chaos is GEISAI’s specialty.

At this year’s GEISAI #9, there seemed to be a lack of photographers in competition. Is there a bias in what sort of artworks are shown at the festival?

That’s a good question. At one stage, around the 3rd festival, there were many photographic entries. The whole place was full of photos. The reason for the lack of photographers may be firstly because no photographer has won a prize at GEISAI in the past, and secondly, because recently there is a surge in competitions that specialize in photography. In other words, not many photographers attempt to become pro at GEISAI anymore, which is why you see this bias in the artworks displayed. So we’re thinking of taking a break after this coming GEISAI, in order to poise ourselves for a rebirth.

What sort of rebirth?

Until now, GEISAI was an exhibition cum competition, but we’re thinking of boosting the entertainment aspect of it. And maybe emphasizing the peculiarities of Asian art to the Western audience.

Another large art market similar to GEISAI is DESIGN FESTA. What do you think are the differences between these two festivals?

I’d say it’s that we have a particular perspective, and a defined target. In terms of perspective, the theme for our competition has always been “what is the international standard of art?” In other words, trying to figure out what the basis of value is these days. And our target is to explore what the “art market” is, and can become. DESIGN FESTA truly takes the form of a flea market, and a very powerful one at that. In a sense, they’ve already reached their goal. Do what you like, buy and sell as you please, and live however you want. But GEISAI tries to find things of value within such a structure.

Some GEISAI participants may not feel that the two festivals are all that different. But GEISAI tries to create a socially acceptable art environment, whereby in offering objective criticisms of the artwork, we make sure that the event doesn’t end in mere self-satisfaction for the participants. Also, we invite collectors and curators from overseas who have a particular status within the art world. Although small in number, these powerful people can offer participants an opportunity for their work to be displayed in their galleries. But again, recently I’m beginning to wonder whether there is even a need for a “basis of value” in Japan. Without a smooth economic flow, there is no way for people to make art all their lives, which is why I am trying now to create an art industry of sorts.

So I guess this is your task for the future.
The Japanese music industry also changed dramatically during the 1960s and 70s, and eventually exploded in the 90s. What used to be a poor man’s job, living in a 4 1/2 mat apartment, blew up into an industry of billionaires. I think that if we keep on with this structural reform, art can also turn into a large industry.

Do you have any plans to take GEISAI abroad anytime soon?

After GEISAI #10, we’ll be taking a 6 month break. During that time we’ll focus on rediscovering the ‘real’ of the art market, and reestablishing the standard of values in Japan and Asia, and of the art market. Bringing people to GEISAI from around the world is one of my goals. We’ll also try to figure out how to go about the language barriers.

Mr. Takashi Murakami, Thank you so much for your time!

Visit the official GEISAI website here

(Translation: Lena Oishi)

Lena Oishi

Lena Oishi

Born in Japan in 1982, grew up in England and Australia. With a BA in Media and Communications and MA in Cinema Studies, she now lives in Tokyo as a freelance translator and occasional editor. Works include VICE Magazine, Japanese editorial supervision of "Metronome No. 11 - <i>What Is To Be Done? Tokyo</i> " (Seikosha, 2007), and translation for film and art festival catalogs. She can also interpret simultaneously if you give her enough candy. Lena likes making her eyeballs bleed after watching way too many films while eating ice cream in the dark.