West Tokyo Artist Studio Tour
Sunday 29 January, 2017
Exhibitions of art are the thin egg-shell horizon-line of a process far more complex than most people realise. When we talk about art we mostly reference the impact that it has had after the actual engagement with it, a kind of retrospective backstory to a past experience. Far fewer people set their eyeballs on the actual physical artwork than those who read about it after the show or see photographs of it on paper or on screen. Far fewer still, see what happens in the lead up to the show, when the artwork is run through a gauntlet of processes on its way to becoming that beautiful piece that gets shared on twitter or instagram and ends up on the cover of Art Collector magazine or in the home of an interested buyer. Thanks to a quirk of fate, an elliptical set of unlikely connections and a healthy dose of human generosity I was afforded a rare opportunity to find my way into the churning heart of the art ecosystem, to get inside a truly special place where the hot coals of creative ingenuity were being stoked and fired, fuelling the output of a remarkable stream of art well ahead of its impending dawn on the scene. Luckily, I had a camera on my phone and iPad at my apartment, so now I can relay what I saw and slice a section deep inside this fertile territory.
So, as part of my residency project I’m in Tokyo to learn about the contemporary art scene here and to see as much art as I can. Thanks to the lateral thinking of the residency project coordinators at 3331 Arts Chiyoda I got to meet with one of the art techs, Taketo Kobayashi, who is involved with a string of artist-run studio complexes that have recently and organically coalesced into a vibrant network – Super Open Studio. He offered to take me to a few of the complexes on a Sunday and I jumped at the chance. In 2013, Sagamihara City’s art centre ‘Art Laboratory Hashimoto’ produced a project focused on opening up the growing artist studio complexes appearing in disused factories and warehouses in the industrial areas of Sagamihara. From 2015 onwards, the studios took to self-organising under the moniker Super Open Studios and began to present an annual open-access event in the spring. Not unlike the situation in cities in Australia, artists find themselves priced out of city and inner-city rental space for studios and make their way to the periphery. This rings personally true for me, as my wife and I moved to Kyneton, an hour north of Melbourne, for this exact reason some five years ago. And in the same way that we discovered a community of artists and creatives doing the same thing and arriving in the same place, so to a completely spontaneous critical mass of artists erupted on the outskirts of western Tokyo and rapidly asserted itself as a pivotal production zone for the arts.
So, I trained my way out of central Tokyo and met Taketo-san, together with the very helpful and lovely Lana and Chihiro from 3331, at 11am at Hachioji Station on the western edge of Tokyo. Piling into his tiny 2-door Suzuki Jimny we headed off for Lucky Happy Studios about 20 minutes drive away. Pulling up to the ramshackle sheds and outbuildings, the piled logs and discarded plaster experiments sat like totemic markers in greeting. Taketo-san very kindly guided us through the spaces, showing us that there was very little insulation so that the spaces were either pretty freezing in the winter, or pretty boiling in the summer. But it was clear, these were fully operational, fully utilised studios. Paintings and sculptures were out, in process and being made. More vibrant than an art school the week before the grad show. And the work was terrific. There were 9 artists in this studio complex, spread out over about 5 buildings. There were storage areas loaded with completed works, some works crated on it sway to shows or just arrived back from them. Coffee cans full of cigarette butts, kerosene heaters at every stool and every OHS training session from university and local government screaming in the base of my cranium for attention. But what stood out more than anything, was the overwhelmingly sweet smell of compulsive labours of love. This was a working environment, and for every absent human away from their studio, the residue of their intensities and efforts over their canvases and their blocks of wood was palpably evident.
I spoke to a few of the artists there and learnt that for some, the passion of making art subsumed all else. They work part-time jobs, some work full-time jobs, and yet they return here under an innate drive to continue making art. Many have exhibited in well-known galleries, and some don’t even care if they exhibit at all. Some find the freedom of this sort of system just what they need to make exactly what they want without the pressure of conforming to gallerists’ desires or market trends.
I saw an amazing painting by Masaya Chiba – an artist who builds sculptures, places them carefully into arrangements that convey a sort of implied and complex intra-narrative, then paints that scene before destroying the sculpture upon which the final work was based. Fantastic stuff – and the sort unique insight into an artist’s process that is just so rarely granted. Next to his space, Maki Katayama’s studio catches my attention because of its beautifully delicate and yet rigidly structured colour block abstractions, plus a photo of Alan Turing taped to the wall. I learn that the artist works with mathematics, repetition and invented codes to work out composition and colour, apparently striving to find and produce a particular blue colour at the moment. Downstairs, I talk to Yuka Hasegawa who makes delicate drawings that combine text and domestic objects, or couches and beds that are have been used and loved to the point of destruction. She makes amazing icing drawings on cookies too, I’m told.
We move outside to make our way to the next building and the sounds of crows penetrated the otherwise quiet air makes me think of home. It’s the first time I’ve been outside of central Tokyo in a fortnight, and while Tokyo is much quieter and calmer than I ever has expected, the peaceful ambience of this area is noticeably present. Taketo-san guides us to his space. It is a decent size and has paintings on the walls, sculptures on the floor and a stack of older work carefully crated and leant up by the door. He tells how the just below the plywood floor is dirt and the cold is pretty unbearable. But again, he is here, working on his art, almost every chance he gets outside of his day job. He jokes about chasing away the bugs on the floor as they creep onto his work.
Taketo-san’s paintings are highly worked, evoking Kandinsky and Cezanne. The more you look, the more the obvious interest in art-historical movements appear in his work. Guston here, Kippenberger there. It is an incessant drive for a unique language built on the advances of the past and you can indeed see his own voice, or perhaps hear it (we do talk of Kandinsky’s synaesthesia) rising to the surface of the images. He has a motif he is locked on, feet and hands, and he makes sculptures of them to better understand them in his paintings. He shows us the models and the offcuts and we talk about an upcoming group show in which he thinks about exhibiting these pieces as works in their own right. Or maybe not. He can’t quite be sure. I ask to take some photographs of his work and the longer I’m in there, the more the works begin to activate and assert their strength. It’s a truly inspiring and humbling experience. And this is only the start.
(… next … Part 2: sculpture, lunch and on to TANA Studio)