Contemporary Japanese artists have struggled to find recognition in London, but that could be changing
London’s art world has traditionally been less receptive to contemporary Japanese art than Paris or New York, but the opening of three major shows and a specialist gallery, within weeks of each other, suggests that this could be changing.
“There has always been little exposure to contemporary Japanese art in London,” says the gallerist Yukiko Ito, whose White Rainbow gallery opened at 47 Mortimer Street, in Fitzrovia, on 7 October. “There has not been enough opportunity here for Japanese artists, and so the general public tends to recognise only [Takashi] Murakami and [Yayoi] Kusama,” she says.
Slowly but surely, however, other Japanese artists are finding their way here. Shinro Ohtake, who exhibited at the Gwangju Biennale in 2010, Documenta 13 in 2012, and the Venice Biennale in 2013, with a slew of solo shows in some of Japan’s most prestigious museums, is having his biggest London survey show at Parasol Unit.
Yoshitomo Nara’s unsettling drawings of cartoon-like children are widely recognisable, and he has had shows at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles (2014), in New York’s Pace Gallery (2013) and Marianne Boesky Gallery (2009), and at the prestigious Asia Society (2010). He also took part in the Venice Biennale, 2011, but despite numerous museum shows around the world, he is having his first comprehensive London show only now, at the Dairy Art Centre. The centre’s co-founder and longstanding Nara collector, Frank Cohen, says it was “the right time to do a show in London”.
Meanwhile, Yayoi Kusama is showing a new body of work at Victoria Miro’s North London space. She is the only one of the three to have had a major museum show in London (at the Tate Modern in 2012). Not even Takashi Murakami, whose show at Gagosian’s West 24th Street gallery in New York opens on 10 November, has had a museum show here, despite ones at the Fondation Cartier (2001 and 2002), Museum of Fine Arts Boston (2007 and 2001), Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2007), Guggenheim Bilbao (2009) and Versailles (2010).
Galleries at the fore
Since her collaboration with Louis Vuitton, “Kusama is the only one of our artists who sells on every continent,” says Glenn Scott Wright, a director at Victoria Miro. Cohen says the market has been hugely influential on Kusama and Murakami’s critical success. “Gagosian [represented] them, that’s why they’re so big,” he says, adding “If [Gagosian] had Nara, his prices would have skyrocketed too.”
Some experts think that London’s museums and curators are trailing behind the market when it comes to contemporary Japanese art. Philip Dodd, the chairman of Made In China, which promotes business and cultural crossover between China and Europe, and a member of the advisory board for the Art15 fair, believes that London’s galleries are “more adventurous” than its museums. “Japanese Modern and contemporary art has a great pedigree, perhaps more so than Chinese art, but sometimes the private sector acts much faster than the public,” Dodd says. Christie’s sale on 15 October highlighted the lineage of Japanese art, offering works from antiquity to the present. The Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga’s work Untitled, 1965, est £150,000-£200,000, sold for £230,500. However, the market is not everything, and institutional support for contemporary Japanese art is growing. The Nara and Ohtake shows, which are both non-selling, have received £3,000 each from the Daiwa Foundation, which annually donates £30,000 to £40,000 towards shows in UK galleries.
A number of other London-based foundations are also working to promote contemporary Japanese art. The Japan Foundation, a former government institution, independent since 2003, has a London office that contributes an average of £5,600 each to selected UK exhibitions, and also organises packaged touring exhibitions from its own collection. “We don’t just wait for sponsorship requests, we highlight trends in contemporary Japanese culture,” says Junko Takekawa, the senior arts programme officer for the foundation’s London office. As early as 2001, for example, it sent the show “Painting For Joy: New Japanese Painting of the 1990s”, with early works by Murakami and Nara, to eight venues across the UK.
Overall, however, the Japanese government has made relatively little effort to promote its living artists abroad, especially compared with China and South Korea, though its Agency for Cultural Affairs has just launched a new sponsorship scheme of ¥100m (£570,000) to be split annually between 20 galleries, helping them take part in international fairs and events. “Up until five years ago, the Japanese government mainly promoted traditional culture—there was a sense that “this is what Japan should be known for”—but that’s beginning to change now,” says Jason James, the director general of the Daiwa Foundation. Will this stimulate the market? “It’s only the first year of the programme,” Yukiko Ito says, “so we can’t be sure yet”.
Can London accommodate more contemporary art from Japan? “London is a global city, so there’s no reason why this wouldn’t work,” says Philip Dodd, “but to leave your own home you must first be welcome in another”.