Walking past the different galleries’ booths feels like a market bazaar in a small town, albeit a town housed in the cavernous glass and steel belly of the Tokyo International Forum.
Somehow, something doesn’t feel quite right about Art Fair Tokyo. The visitors I spoke with felt dissatisfied, with most saying that they had yet to find any work that really stood out; one likened the whole experience to bad sex.
AFT’s fundamental problem is a lack of visual and conceptual coherence. These days, art fairs seem to have become synonymous with contemporary art and its affluent cosmopolitan patrons, so it may be surprising that Tokyo’s biggest art fair devotes so much space to older forms of art. There is something bizarre about looking at 18th century Japanese pottery and turning the corner to be confronted with the bold, flat graphics of Julian Opie’s paintings. However Tokyo is notoriously defined by these bizarre juxtapositions of old and new, and there is some honesty in the way Art Fair Tokyo presents an overview of Tokyo’s commercial art world, as it is – regardless of genre.
The reality is that the contemporary art market in Tokyo is dwarfed by the traditional art market, which sells more conservative, primarily Japanese collectors the aesthetic safety of classical Japanese art, early 20th century European painting, and contemporary Japanese painting done in the style of early 20th century European painting. Unfortunately, much of the latter is painfully bland: dull landscapes and portraits that show neither technical prowess nor conceptual innovation. This problem is specifically Japanese: a 150 year old legacy of the Meiji Era, when there emerged a schism between painters who tried to imitate Western styles (Yoga) and those who tried to formalize a Japanese style (Nihonga). Over the course of the 20th century, the two styles gradually merged until they became an indistinguishable mish-mash that is neither Yoga nor Nihonga in its approach – spawning generation after generation of complacent painters who continue to churn out works of unrivalled mediocrity.
By pandering to this uninspired but profitable domestic market, AFT risks losing its credibility in the eyes of the internationally-minded audience. In theory there should be no problem with mixing the old and the new in the same space: museums all over the world are able to house, and even juxtapose, works of all genres and periods from the ancient past to the present day and still maintain a coherence and relevance that is stimulating to visitors. However, regardless of whether it is a museum that aims to illustrate the history of art, or an art fair that aims to sell artwork, both have a responsibility to produce exciting exhibits, and measured against this simple criteria, AFT fails to inspire.
Much of this failure to captivate is beyond the organisers’ control, and it is a problem common to all art fairs. While any art fair can claim to have put all participating galleries through a rigorous selection process, there is nothing to stop those galleries from putting on unappealing shows. The majority of those participating in AFT have not put enough thought into their presentations; every gallery is displaying in a booth that is considerably smaller than its own exhibition space, yet many of them have crammed in every artist they represent. Many of the galleries handling older art look like cluttered little antique shops, and the contemporary galleries that have over-hung their spaces have produced some jarring clashes between otherwise individually strong artworks. This may not matter much to a one off buy-and-run collector, as a good rummage around for something that will look good on the living room wall will no doubt turn up something to everyone’s taste, but these slightly desperate displays do not convey any care for the artists, a discouraging first impression to collectors looking to build lasting relationships with galleries.
Of course, there are some exceptions: Kadomatsu Seishindo’s booth is a little crowded but the boldness of the gold Edo Period screen in the centre stays with you. Gallery Kouzome Bijutsu’s display sends out the clear message that they are fully supportive of Yang Xiaomin’s unusual ‘Cubist graphic’ work, while Gallery Koyanagi and SCAI the Bathhouse have understood the ‘less is more’ aesthetic and have produced cool and collected, but striking displays. Taking the opportunity to make a more inventive use of the limited booth space, Gallery Han and neighbouring Gallery Kogure have come up with bizarre but cohesive exhibition environments that are almost installations in their own right.
One of the underlying problems affecting AFT is the lack of clear definition of how an art fair should present itself. As a forum for the gathering of art galleries and the sale of artwork, in what way does an art fair differ from each gallery’s activity within its own space? Principally it is about taking part in an intense period of self-promotion. For all but the most jaded collector, the exclusivity of the gallery space is itself a key source of consumer satisfaction, and this is reduced in the supermarket-like environment of an art fair.
At the risk of sounding like a script-writer for Sex and the City, maybe an art fair should aspire to be like a good department store with striking and memorable window displays; a place where Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani can sit side by side in smaller spaces than their respective flagship stores, with neither brand attempting to show their entire collection in the reduced space, and the department store managers cultivating expectations of aesthetic discretion from its tenants.
Despite its limitations, AFT is nevertheless doing its best to resurrect and support the infrastructure of the art market that has been so stagnant for so long; the art industry is always one of the first to suffer during an economic downturn, and so it is understandable that there has been a loss of confidence since the early 1990s. However, there is a growing optimism among gallery owners and members of the press that Japan’s art market is coming close to a renewed period of growth, in part a predictable knock-on effect of the renewed interest in Asia fuelled by China’s contemporary art boom. People who visited AFT when it started two years ago say that there is a little more of a buzz to this year’s atmosphere, and that it has come a long way from the stuffy image it projected in its pre-2005 incarnation as NICAF. Despite being flooded with third-rate artists, the Japanese art scene has a hard core of first-class talent that deserves the best representation there is, so we can only hope that over the next few years AFT matures into an international art fair that really makes the rest of the world sit up and take notice.