Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Osaka Research Visit

For the past four days I have been in Osaka, Japan, where my intention was to meet some Japanese artists, get a sense of how contemporary art is being shown, talked about and valued here, and move the 'Indefinable City II' project on. I had organised a couple of visits before going.
 My first visit was to Artcourt Gallery, in Tenmabashi. This is a privately owned Contemporary space, representing and working with both emerging and established artists. I had arranged to meet up with Ami Fukuda, and arts manager at the space on Saturday afternoon, as there was an artist's talk, which would be a good chance to see the work, meet Ami, and hopefully learn about the space and the works.
The talk was very interesting: of course, it was in Japanese, so I didn't know what anyone was saying, but the organisation of the talks was that each artist was introduced by a perhaps more senior individual, who would then put a series of questions to the artist.
 The work in Frontier was great; and Ami explained it is the 10th version of this show that they have had, usually showing new and interesting work by emerging or up and coming artists. The fish bone assemblages by Yumiko Tanabe were really striking.
Ami said that for Japan, Artcourt is an enormous space - and that some Museums that they work with have been able to show large scale works form their collections at Artcourt, where they cannot fit them into their own space.
Some of the works that stood out for me from the show were these fish bone assemblages - above - by Yumiko Tanabe - they are real bones dipped in urethane paint, which gives them a quality like ceramic.
And the series of paintings of anemones and sea creatures by Mariane - a beautiful painter whose work has just been featured in one of Japan's most important art magazines.
 I met Mariane after the talks and told her about Indefinable City II, and why I was in Osaka. I love Mariane's paintings but I am not sure that they fit the theme, but still it was great to see them.
Above Mariane, and Ami showing Mariane's work in the magazine.
One artist whose work I thought would be great for Indefinable City was Tomomi Takata.
 Tomomi graduated last year from Kyoto University, and her work exploring areas in cities which had been red light districts was fascinating. Tomomi was interested in how with gentrification, these once prevalent areas disappear, with little or no evidence of their former use. Tomomi visits the sites, documenting, looking for clues and making interventions which perhaps uncover their past. In particular, Tomomi pointed out some images of Okinowa, where whole areas were dedicated to 'catering' for U.S. soldiers. This is a largely unwritten history in Japan, and a poignant and sensitive body of work.
 I was also intrigued by these carrier bag cloud droplets by Akira Higashi - I hope that the exhibition will look at how sustainability in cities, and so using rubbish bags as material interests me.
This is something which has cropped up a number of times in conversation since I have been in Japan: sustainability in relation to our natural (and unnatural) resources has been mentioned by everyone I have met. Ami made me very welcome at Artcourt, much needed for a tired, jetlagged hot and bothered artist -  and I do hope to stay in touch.
My other prearranged meeting was with Koh Yoshida, who runs Tsukiyo to Syonen (Moonlight and the Boy) with his wife Mio. They opened their gallery 4 years ago, although it has been in this particular spot for one year. They have a varied programme which includes art exhibitions (both selected by them, and artists hiring the space) design shows, regular concerts as well as being involved in a forestation project. 
Navigating Japan is hard, as signs are often not included in English (understandably) and a clear print out of maps were very useful, but I still got lost a lot. When peering hopefully at a map, without fail friendly Osakians stopped to see if I needed help, and a combination of pointing, bowing and pointing usually got me where I needed to be. I actually find it quite interesting being lost, as long as there is no time deadline.
I managed to find the gallery in time for the 7 o' clock concert on Saturday night: I recognised the second floor space from the flag - which I had seen online.
They had two bands playing: really relaxing and beautiful music, and I couldn't help admiring all the lovely objects in the space.
These euphorbias, growing like trees, with a tiny deer standing as if on a mountain. And then these amazing can lights made by Mio: just an ordinary dented can with holes in until the lights are off. 
Artworks are for sale throughout the space, but in an understated way, which makes each piece feel special and beautiful.
I returned on Monday for a meeting where myself, Koh and Mio could sit down and discuss the idea of Indefinable City II. Originally I was hoping to come to Japan and meet some artists and curate the show myself, but it seems to make more sense if this is a joint venture between AirSpace and Tsukio to Syonen, which Koh agrees with. I had prepared an intro postcard to distribute to Japanese artists, which explained the premise of the exhibition, and the requirements for application: I asked Koh what he thought, and it turns out this is a strange way of curating a show in Japan. It is not usual to put out a call, and wait for artists to send proposals, and usually exhibitions are not curated like that here. I wonder how it works - as an open call (I find) can be a really good way of finding new artists to work with.
Koh is also keen to consider if the show might contain UK artists as well as Japanese artists - and then tour the show to the space here? This is something we need to think further about, and decide. I am also wondering if the title might change, as if this is to be a partnership, it may not suit Koh to inherit the title?
We had a good long talk about the idea for the exhibition, as well as how our respective spaces are organised and work. I wondered about how they survive, which Koh said was difficult, and partly why they have such a varied programme, it is much more difficult to get funding in Japan - and it is very competitive.
In relation to the show: I wanted to discuss the idea of Japanese Boro: which is using parts of old clothes to patch up other clothes becoming a new and improved garment. Vintage Japanese Boro is very expensive. Koh explained that Boro is not just for clothes, and I was quite interested, as we (in U.K) are not very good at reusing and recycling.
We had a discussion about how the Japanese do not like to throw anyhting away, Koh used the example of his Japanese/English dictionary - which he has had since a child. He explained that as he uses it all the time, it becomes important, and the Japanese believe in a way that when an object is used a lot it will have a god inside it, and so it can't be thrown away. He said if he longer uses the dictionary he will give it to his friend, and if she doesn't use it she will pass it on, and so things are reused. We then discussed the way that this idea is at odds with the other more modern cultural trait, where everything is also available so cheaply and conveniently that there is a wasteful, throwaway culture. When you go to the convenience store to buy a salad they give you: a napkin (wrapped in plastic) chopsticks and a fork (wrapped in plastic) in case you can't use the chopsticks, all in a carrier bag.  A lot is wasted. 
I remembered the phrase ii ra nai (spelling - sorry) which is something like I don't need it - so I could stop having all the extra stuff with my salad. Koh said it is very interesting that on the one hand, everything is used many times, and on the other, people can buy and throw away so easily, this is happening simultaneously. Koh said that before the earthquake people were thinking about and talking about sustainability - but since the earthquake, and the questions it has raised about nuclear power  - more than ever people are discussing sustainability, respect for natural resources, and materials. 'Now - we should not throw everything away easily, we should recycle - we should save energy.' 
I talked about the idea of Boro in relation to Indefinable City: my idea for Indefinable City II is around a future city which doesn't waste anything; green space in integral to the way the city works, and not an afterthought, it may look beautiful and ramshackle, it is a better utopia than the one presented by the regeneration companies when I was researching Indefinable City in 2006.
I was very interested to hear about how and why an art gallery would get involved in a forestation thinning programme in Chihayaakasaka. Koh told me that 60 year ago the forests in Japan were natural, but then they were cut down in order to grow orange trees. Whole mountain areas were felled, and orange trees planted, to satisfy the market. Then, oranges began to be imported from elsewhere, flooding the market, and the price of oranges collapsed. The orange groves could not be sustained, so many of these were felled, and cedar trees planted. Cedar is good wood for building houses, so suddenly everywhere cedars were growing. Again, cedar began to be imported, and the bottom fell out of the cedar market - as a result, Japan is full of forest areas with cedar trees, but they were densely planted (never intended to be left to mature) and as they have been largely abandoned and left to get on with it - now the forests are dying - as the trees vie for light - and all are sickly, skinny, leafless things. They go to the forest area and join in the thinning out of the cedar trees, to give others a chance to survive. The wood is used to make one-off frames and other furniture for sale in the gallery. I find the idea of the forest as palimpsest interesting: much like the city - and these forests surround cities. I somehow want to link the idea of this with the exhibition - and I like the idea of a mountain/forest city.
 After we had discussed ideas, we agreed we would each have a think and decide how to proceed: whether this is a show of Japanese artists in Stoke only, or both UK and Japanese artists: or whether perhaps we can swap: and UK artists be shown in Japan, and Japanese artists in UK? After the meeting Koh had arranged for some Japanese artists to come and meet me. We went for a meal together, and many questions were asked about arts in the U.K. and Japan.
We talked about survival, and how to make ends meet.
We will see what develops from these visits. I also went to the aquarium, which was in the Tempozan Harbour Village, housing many of the leftovers from the 1970 World Expo (something about World Expo sites really attracts me...) and I went to the Museum of Housing and Living, where I enjoyed the lifesize recreation of an edo village and the models of Osaka city through time...and it got me thinking about Indefinable City as a series of zones or districts: what zones and districts make up a city? Altogether the Osaka visit has been amazingly inspiring...I have a number of ideas brewing already.

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