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Art Fair Tokyo Returns: A Sign Of Japan's Recovery?

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(Via Mutual Art)

Better late than never, they say, and this couldn’t be more true with regards to Tokyo’s premier art fair, triumphantly opening this weekend for its 2011 edition.Art Fair Tokyo is back - albeit later than expected - after one of the worst natural disasters ravaged the country in March, setting off a slew of devastating events which the Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan called “the toughest and most difficult crisis for Japan...[since] the 65 years after the end of World War II.”

And this is no exaggeration: It was the most powerful known earthquake in the country’s history, inciting an onslaught of cataclysmic events in addition to the quake’s aftershocks - including an extremely destructive tsunami, which triggered several nuclear accidents whose effects are still being felt across the world. Nearly 16,000 people were killed and experts say the overall cost of this multi-faceted tragedy could exceed $300 billion, making the Great East Japan earthquake the most expensive natural disaster on record.

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That the art fair is being held at all this year says a lot about the resilience of the country and its people. It also illustrates what Art Fair Tokyo’s executive director Takahiro Kaneshima hopes to convey to visitors, that “art can contribute to the recovery efforts for a society in the midst of a crisis.” In a recent conversation with MutualArt, Kaneshima explained the challenges of organizing such an event, especially in lieu of the circumstances, and details what makes this year’s Art Fair Tokyo truly a unique affair not to be missed.

The fair traditionally opens in April, during the annual cherry blossom season. Due to the earthquake/tsunami and subsequent crises, 2011’s Art Fair Tokyo will instead run from July 29th--July 31st. This is Art Fair Tokyo’s 6th year exhibiting and it’s the largest of its kind in Japan, showcasing the works of artists from all over the world while covering a variety of genres and time periods. “I feel that Art Fair Tokyo has been firmly established as an annual large-scaled art event in Japan,” Kaneshima says. “It reflect[s] the unique characteristics and potential of Tokyo, where traditional and modern culture co-exist.” Specifically, the international and domestic galleries exhibiting at the fair feature everything from antiques to modern and contemporary art, crafts, Nihonga (traditional Japanese paintings), sculpture and photography. Its inception in 2005 welcomed 83 galleries, with 7 cities represented from overseas; by 2009 the number of participating galleries had grown to 143 with 13 from international cities. And as director Kaneshima added, the 2010 edition of the fair welcomed a record-setting 50,000 visitors from across the globe.

Despite the earthquake and subsequent postponement of the event, the director says his greatest obstacle was related to the fair as a vestige for Asian art as a whole. “My biggest challenge was to construct the fair as a cornerstone of Asian culture and to have it function as an interactive platform for the exchange of ideas among Asians.” Kaneshima says this challenge led, in part, to the creation of Artistic Practices, a new program that focuses on Asian art of the 21st century. “Artistic Practices came about during talks with the PROJECTS Artistic Committee, which was established in order to build a spontaneous network within the Asian region and to strengthen the Fair's foundation in this sector.” Kaneshima says the committee sent out a questionnaire in order to communicate with those heavily involved in the Asian art scene. The responses were so intriguing that the committee then decided to create a platform which would, as Kaneshima says, “offer the opportunity to showcase Japanese contemporary art within a unique context, as opposed to a conventional approach.” The questionnaire was composed of two questions relating to Japanese art and artists in a 21st century context.

The committee received submissions from 100 applicants “well-versed in art,” all of whom had been nominated by the Projects Artistic Committee. It was based on these responses, in conjunction with the artworks themselves, that the judges chose the two winning artists for the debut of this innovative project: Taro Shinoda and Tadasu Takamine both contemporary Japanese artists who have received international acclaim. Exhibiting their works at the fair, Kaneshima says, will give exposure to the artists in a commercial context.

The development of Artists Practices - including the selection of the featured artists - occurred before the earthquake. But Kaneshima believes the works are even more evocative now, taken within the framework of the catastrophe. “I feel that the implications of both works have been intensified as they are subject to universal themes,” he says. “I think this exhibition will offer the unique opportunity to explore the Asian sense of nature and alternative sources of energy.” As for other special sectors of the fair, Kaneshima’s favorites include the avant-garde works of neighboring Asian regions such as Korea, China, Taiwan, and India.

Of course there were unique obstacles that arose as a direct result of the earthquake, but Kaneshima is optimistic - and rightly so. While the postponement of the fair to July did result in the withdrawal of several galleries that had originally planned to participate, a number of Japanese galleries have since stepped forward to replace them, bringing the total to 133 galleries - almost the same as the original figure. “I feel that everyone is even more united for the fair during this difficult time for Japan,” Kaneshima says. This feeling is also reinforced by the many charity-themed events and activities happening at the fair, all of which allow visitors to contribute to recovery efforts and the proceeds of which will be allocated to the Japanese Red Cross Society. In addition, a portion of all ticket sales and catalogue purchases will also be donated to support relief efforts. While the focus here is on art, there is an underlying feeling of art as a medium to unite and bring comfort in the aftermath of such a horrific crisis.

The committee received submissions from 100 applicants “well-versed in art,” all of whom had been nominated by the Projects Artistic Committee. It was based on these responses, in conjunction with the artworks themselves, that the judges chose the two winning artists for the debut of this innovative project: Taro Shinoda and Tadasu Takamine both contemporary Japanese artists who have received international acclaim. Exhibiting their works at the fair, Kaneshima says, will give exposure to the artists in a commercial context.

The development of Artists Practices - including the selection of the featured artists - occurred before the earthquake. But Kaneshima believes the works are even more evocative now, taken within the framework of the catastrophe. “I feel that the implications of both works have been intensified as they are subject to universal themes,” he says. “I think this exhibition will offer the unique opportunity to explore the Asian sense of nature and alternative sources of energy.” As for other special sectors of the fair, Kaneshima’s favorites include the avant-garde works of neighboring Asian regions such as Korea, China, Taiwan, and India.

Of course there were unique obstacles that arose as a direct result of the earthquake, but Kaneshima is optimistic - and rightly so. While the postponement of the fair to July did result in the withdrawal of several galleries that had originally planned to participate, a number of Japanese galleries have since stepped forward to replace them, bringing the total to 133 galleries - almost the same as the original figure. “I feel that everyone is even more united for the fair during this difficult time for Japan,” Kaneshima says.

This feeling is also reinforced by the many charity-themed events and activities happening at the fair, all of which allow visitors to contribute to recovery efforts and the proceeds of which will be allocated to the Japanese Red Cross Society. In addition, a portion of all ticket sales and catalogue purchases will also be donated to support relief efforts. While the focus here is on art, there is an underlying feeling of art as a medium to unite and bring comfort in the aftermath of such a horrific crisis. (Left: Point de Contact by Takesada Matsutani, 2007)

Along this vein, a series of special programs and related events at the 2011 edition will address the affects of the earthquake and the damage it caused. “We are currently planning a program of related-events including talk sessions exploring the relationship between society and art in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake,” says Kaneshima. Of special note are the two charity projects involving “uchiwas” (traditional Japanese fans): The first project displays unique artworks using uchiwas created by the artists exhibiting at this year’s fair and the resulting works will then be up for sale at a special booth in the venue; the second project - in collaboration with Deutsche Bank Group - is a set of workshops for children using the uchiwas and conducted by artists who have themselves been active participants in earthquake relief activities. All visitors are welcome to contribute art and proceeds from the sales of these artworks, postcards and portfolios will benefit the Japanese Red Cross Society in its continued efforts to aid in recovery measures.

Art Fair Tokyo also reinforces the “open art” theme of the fair, touting Tokyo’s highlights, all of which are personified in the fair itself. The city’s balance of traditional and modern culture is realized in the featured artworks that span countless generations and a variety of genres. Even the layout of the exhibition hall itself reflects the spirit of the Japanese capital. Kaneshima elaborates, “The booths will be laid out based on the contents of exhibits covering from antiques, arts and crafts, Nihonga, and modern art to contemporary art in such a way visitors can follow the unique Japanese art scene even easier than the past editions, as its structure will mirror that of a city, with the traditional district in the center merging into the newly industrializing districts on either side.” In this way, as the director aptly puts it, “Art Fair Tokyo demonstrates the strength and vibrancy of Tokyo’s art scene carefully, yet dynamically to the world.”

The fair is also part of a larger effort to develop the Japanese art market and bring back tourism to one of the world’s most unique metropolises. Executive Director Kaneshima has high hopes not just for the fair but also for the message he believes it will inspire: that art is both transformative and healing. “I hope to make Art Fair Tokyo not only a trading place, but to be an interactive platform which will contribute to the recovery efforts of society,” he says. “I think it will suggest new directions for a new generation through the power, creativity, and intelligence of art.”

Written by MutualArt.com Staff. Click here to follow MutualArt on Twitter.

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