New Emissary

In Search of New Japanese Artists

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New Emissary

In Search of New Japanese Artists

Art is a reflection of society. Does a lack of emerging talent from top art schools reflect a passionless Japan?

I’d marked my calendar months in advance for visits to the graduation exhibitions of two of the top art universities in Japan: Musashino Art and Tokyo Zokei. It’s my job to get out and find new talent for the gallery, and I was excited to see what the university shows might have to offer.

Visiting the exhibitions of art universities is one of the ways we find new artists. This part of my job never stops. I’m constantly looking for new artists—I just can’t wait for them to come in. I estimate that we look at 1000 portfolios for every artist that we choose. We’ve never chosen an artist who just sends a portfolio by email. We have to go out and find them.

We love the artists who we work with, but we need new works to keep our clients interested and to keep the feeling in the gallery fresh. There are clients who come into the gallery every week, and I hate it when I hear the phrase, ‘I’ve seen that.’ We like to see excited looks on people’s faces when they come in—a fresh look that says ‘I love it.’

Just like Starbucks, we need to add new items to our menu. New works and new artists add to the ‘wow factor.’

So, I woke up early on two different days and took very long trips by train and bus to see the university shows. Over two days, I must have seen the works of more than 300 graduating students.

My new finds? Zero. I couldn’t find one that blew me away or that I wanted to represent.

Three years ago, I was stopped in my tracks when I saw the sculptures of Tokyo Zokei senior Gakushi Yamamoto. He’d created a series of iron chairs that immediately captured my attention. The chairs show silhouettes of people, often with arms and legs, leaving us to use our imaginations for what else might be there. The son of a Buddhist priest, Gakushi believes that we always leave part of our essence where we’ve been.

Artist Gakushi Yamamoto

I’m not alone in my appreciation of Gakushi’s works. I’m happy to report that he had his first museum show this year, and in April 2011 he’ll become a member of the teaching faculty at Tokyo Zokei. His works have been selected by collectors in Germany, Switzerland, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan and England. I remember the words of one gallery visitor who said, ‘These should be in the Hirshhorn (Museum Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC).’ I agree.

I couldn’t find another Gakushi Yamamoto this year, and it’s disappointing. I wanted to be blown away. I wanted to find another great young artist to represent. I saw some nice works, some interesting works, some works that showed good technical skills, but nothing I could be enthusiastic about showing.

I’m not sure why the works I saw were nothing special to me, but here’s what I think. Art is of course a reflection of society. What I saw at these top art universities is a reflection of what I see too often in Japanese society—conservatism, fear, a muting of emotions, an unwillingness to take risks and most importantly, a lack of passion.

I’d expect the art universities to be different, that these would be the sort of places where people would move towards the edge. But I didn’t see it there. I also didn’t see any anger, joy, sadness, or political art. (I don’t remember ever seeing any political art in Japan.)

And I didn’t see any sensual works. It was as if the artists were afraid to put their deepest feelings on the canvas. One artist with great technical skill painted beautiful nudes, but he neglected to paint the details, like pubic hair, that would have given the works more impact.

After visiting these shows, I noticed that other gallerists had tweeted that the artists needed to study more, that they needed more skill. But I see it differently. More study and more skill would just give us more of the same. It wasn’t the lack of skill that made the shows I saw mediocre. It was the absence of passion and the fear of expression that were holding the artists back.

Japan's a free country. It’s a democracy. We have many freedoms here, but there are certain behavioural norms that discourage risk and innovation. We hear about this in business a lot. But it’s there in the art world too. It’s so subtle that the artists themselves don’t see it, but this conservatism seems to be killing the spirit of young artists here.

And if you’re in Japan this month, you can see the works of graduating seniors from five Tokyo art universities beginning Thursday February 17 at the National Art Center Tokyo in Roppongi and make your own judgments. I’m going to go and take another look. Take a look and let me know what you think—and if you find someone great.

Robert 'Bob' Tobin, is a writer, teacher, gallerist and art consultant. Each week on the New Emissary, he reports on the contemporary art scene in the Asia-Pacific, sharing his unique insights into some of the emerging trends and artists from around the region.

Images: Musashino Art University, by naosuke ii (top), Artist Gakushi Yamamoto courtesy of Robert Tobin.