Posted:Jun 22, 2007

Interview with the Nakaochiai Gallery

The Nakaochiai gallery, housed in a former <em>kakigori</em> and <em>okashiya</em> shop (Japanese shaved ice desert and cake shop), is tucked away in a serene, beautiful residential area of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward.

Run by Julia Barnes, Clint Taniguchi and Yumi Wakiyama, it exhibits artists of all generations from Japan and abroad, exploring their work both in the context of the physical gallery space and online virtual space.

Can you tell me how this all started: how did the Nakaochiai Gallery come about?

J: Yumi and I used to run eyesaw, which was an international platform for emerging artists. We started it in Tokyo in 1999, and ran it until 2003 and what we essentially did was cut out any language barriers and invited artists from Japan and abroad to submit works. These would go through a selection committee of people we chose in Tokyo and then we would put shows in buildings that we rented: cafes, bars and galleries all over Tokyo. We’d also take away fees, charging the artist the minimum of what we’d have to: just enough to cover the costs. We did thirteen group shows and about fifty solo shows over a four-year period. After we shut eyesaw down in 2003, we opened up the Nakaochiai Gallery in November 2004.

How did you all get to know each other?

J: We had a friend in common. At eyesaw we invited twenty-five artists and musicians from San Francisco to Tokyo and they put on a group show there and through that connection I met a huge scene in San Francisco; it was through one of those people that I met Clint.
C: So, Julia wasn’t doing eyesaw at the time we met: she was in a period of transition and I was running a space in San Francisco called Triple Base and at that time we discussed the idea of setting up a dialogue between two art spaces in Tokyo and San Francisco. That was the impetus of the Nakaochiai Gallery starting.
J: We saw that we have this space where we already live, where it would be really straightforward to paint the walls, put the lights up and bang, we’d have a gallery.

Kazumasa Noguchi, 'Small Impact'. Site-Specific Installation
Kazumasa Noguchi, 'Small Impact'. Site-Specific Installation
Photo courtesy of Nakaochiai Gallery

Do you each have specific, defined roles within the gallery?

J: Yumi takes care of Japanese PR, the translations and proof reading. Clint handles all levels of installation and co-curates the shows with me. I oversee the gallery as a whole. We’ve all known each other for a long time, and we’ve each worked in our fields for ages so it works well.

What was Nakaochiai Gallery’s first show?

J: Clint’s show, SEE YOU was the first. He introduced his San Francisco community to Tokyo by presenting diamond aura photographs taken of Triple Base visitors. He then invited visitors of Nakaochiai Gallery to also have their photos taken in the same fashion, presenting each of them with their own photo at the end of the exhibition. This was one of a series of international community projects he did, with Instant Drawing Machine being the next project after that.

Crust and Dirt, 'Instant Drawing Machine', Harajuku, Tokyo
Crust and Dirt, 'Instant Drawing Machine', Harajuku, Tokyo
Photo courtesy of Nakaochiai Gallery

How did that project work?

C: Instant Drawing Machine (IDM) began as a collaboration between Oliver Rosenberg and I (also known collaboratively as Crust and Dirt) in San Francisco, with Julia in Tokyo. Julia would take her laptop out onto the streets of Tokyo in search of a wireless connection. Once it was established, we would set up our webcams and Oliver and I in San Francisco would be instantly on the streets of Tokyo. We engaged pedestrians by asking their wish or dream and drawing it for them live. We took IDM to seven cities around the world and presented all of the drawings in New York’s Drawing Center this past summer.

How have you found running a gallery in a residential area that is relatively removed from the major art centres in Tokyo? It must have its pros and cons.

J: It was always our original intention to try and have a positive effect on the local area, and I think we’ve been successful in that. Hearing stories from our landlord about how things in this area used to be, I think it’s definitely been a positive thing to bring this space that was dead back to life. We’ve had some really positive interactions with some of the locals, people who came here sixty years ago and ate kakigori, who can now sit in here and drink tea while looking at contemporary art. On the other hand, like anyone you have to make an effort: you have to invite people more because they may not know when we’re open or if a show is up or not, so it does rely on that more than people just dropping in. But I don’t really see any downfalls, actually.
C: I think it’s the right level of interaction here; if you were out on a commercial street you’d have a heavier level of interaction and I’m not sure if the space and what we represent aims to offer that kind of availability. So at this moderate level, we have a nice balance of engagement.

Steps on the way to the Nakaochiai Gallery
Steps on the way to the Nakaochiai Gallery
Photo: AR
Making steamer baskets next door to the gallery
Making steamer baskets next door to the gallery
Photo: AR

Your Back to the Streets exhibition of Becky Yee’s work in November 2005 explored that notion of engagement, portraying encounters between young people from Harajuku and the older generation in the traditional shopping streets of Tokyo. Can you tell me more about her?

J: Becky is Chinese American and has been in Japan for about nine years. She’s a commercial photographer, working for Relax and Brutus magazines, and so she flies all over the world and gets to work on all sorts of interesting projects. She organised her first art project with me at eyesaw: she photographed three prostitutes and had them covered in ten thousand yen bills. There was one photo of them naked, holding handbags in their mouths and then another series of them dressed up in their working clothes. She really tries to pull out what’s going on in the depths of Japan and investigate it.

Becky Yee, 'Sugamo #33'. Photographic Print
Becky Yee, 'Sugamo #33'. Photographic Print
Photo courtesy of Nakaochiai Gallery

How did people react to the Back to the Streets show? Did people find it out of context in this quiet little neighborhood?

J: Yeah, loads of people came here and laughed and giggled but… (laughs)
C: It was successful in that it brought two generations together in a very novel way. During the opening, there were the old people who came from Sugamo and there were the young ones…
J: That opening was amazing: the Harajuku kids were all dressed up in their crazy gear and then there was this black taxi that arrived at the front door and this super old guy got out who could hardly walk… it was just so ridiculous, that opening (laughs). It was just like the photographs: as if the actors had come, but you see that they’re actually real people!
C: I think that was what was at the heart of the show: it was experiential. It brought those people together in a novel way and the pictures are memories or documentations of that shared experience.

How do you meet your artists?
C: We meet artists through many venues: online, exhibitions, friends and our networks.

You’ve shown a lot of artists from outside of Japan, particularly from San Francisco. Is it part of the gallery’s mission statement to give priority to foreign artists?

J: Not at all, our priority is on the art and not necessarily where it is from. We really wanted to bring to Tokyo the energy and sense of community that exists in San Francisco and the Bay Area; that city is so alive because it’s all so concentrated and dense and that’s something that Tokyo lacks because everything is so spread out all over the place. Chris Duncan’s show next month will probably wrap up that twelve month series of working with artists from over there.

Can you summarize your mission statement?

J: As I mentioned before, one reason for setting up the gallery is that we wish to bring something back to the Nakaochiai community. Our gallery and our neighbour’s house are the only traditional wooden homes left on our street. Presenting art in such a space allows us to share an experience from a generation that is coming to an end.

Another reason is that I want to rejuvenate the spirit of collecting contemporary art in Japan. The art crash in 1989 inevitably led to the crash of the Japanese economy. I think that after the art crash, people completely lost faith in collecting artwork and on various levels I want to restore this faith in people. So, by concentrating on collectors, we allow them to understand how their support is crucial to helping artists survive.

That’s interesting because Takashi Murakami said in his recent interview with TABlog that he thinks the art collecting industry has exploded at places like the Basel Art Fair and that this effect will no doubt come to Tokyo in the next year or two. I’m not sure what to make of that. I guess it’s probably a good thing…

J: No, it definitely is, so long as they don’t use art as currency again, as they were doing before (laughs). I mean, it was absolutely outrageous. Yes, I’m also optimistic about the art market here. It’s almost two generations ago that the art crash happened and I believe that people are changing. Actually, we’re going to talk about the art market at Pechakucha night on September 28th at Super Deluxe: about what’s going on, why it’s taking so long to recuperate… in a very non-biased way, of course!

What kind of projects do you have in the pipeline?

J: One thing we are working with in this physical gallery space is to understand how it relates to its virtual presence online. We are aiming to move things beyond the gallery space so that whether we’re in Japan or somewhere else we can do things with artists wherever we are.
C: As for shows, we are excited to have Chris Duncan over from Oakland. His show, Playing Fields, will include an installation in the front room, which will surely give our neighbors a double-take when they walk by.

Thank you for your time and I’m looking forward to seeing what your next show has in store.

Ashley Rawlings

Ashley Rawlings

Ashley Rawlings was the editor of TABlog from 2006 to 2008. More information about his work can be found at