West Tokyo Artist Studio Tour
Sunday 29 January, 2017
It becomes apparent pretty quickly, that with 23 studio complexes distributed around this part of western Tokyo, something pretty special and pretty intense is going on. I’ve met a handful of artists only at this one site in about an hour or so, but before arriving I’ve been researching the artists at the other studios online and I know enough with this first physical incursion to feel that there is valuable cultural forces at play here. I’m only barely scratching the top veneer of the outer edges of the surface of the beast, but you can feel the blood throbbing and the heartbeat is tectonic.
Taketo-san then brings us back along to another studio of small rooms, including a wood-working room with plastic curtains to keep the dust contained. I meet Yosuke Takayama who brings out a flyer from a recent exhibition to show me. While few of the artists speak English, they almost all will try to find a way to greet me, ask where I am from and why I am here and engage me in conversation. It’s embarrassing being a westerner who only speaks English, it feels so cliché and colonial and lazy, so I’m always effusively apologetic but no-one I meet let’s on that I am rude or not trying hard enough, in fact most apologise for their language deficiency (which makes me even more embarrassed because most speak much better English than they realise).
Most of Yosuke’s sculptures are packed up, having recently arrived back from a show, but I spot the top of one that I recognise from his flyer and he pulls it out. It is fantastic work – hardwood form, hacked and cut, painted and sanded, figurative in nature. It’s all enamel gloss, sanded colour, solid oak human bust smashed on to a Suntory Boss can of coffee and everything about it is brilliant and I want it. He pulls another work out of a box, just as awesome and then motions for me to go into his woodworking room. There’s traditional Japanese saws and chisels, beautiful timbers and I notice a baseball cap on the wall, with a carved version next to it. It reminds me of Toby Pola’s work, so I bring up the @unskilledlabour instagram account and show Yosuke. He’s impressed and then picks up a xylophone mallet and plays the hat, revealing two crisp and sweet notes that fill the room. Ah-mazing.
We go back into his sitting area in the studio and he brings out his portfolio of work. It’s just astonishing. I ask about how often he shows and find out he shows regularly but the frequency is erratic. He has had work exhibited at Art Basel in Miami too. He then heads out the back and digs out the very first sculptural head he made at high school. It’s in an acrylic vitrine and it is like a prized artefact. Surrounded by his recent work it is indeed a seminal and important work and an honour to see it in this context. He talks about how he only found it quite recently and when he saw it he recognised it as his brother at first. He had a hard time for a while with his brother, and when he saw the work again as an adult, and realised how similar he looked to his brother he said it made him reconsider his connection to his brother, and indeed to his own younger self. Just a really wonderful insight into someone’s life and to their own relationships with their work and how it affects them. Brilliant to listen to.
Just before we leave Lucky Happy Studios – after more than two hours of a supposed on hour visit – I get to chatting to Kanako Tada who comes out to say hello when she hears my English. Kanako-san lived in Brisbane for a short time and talks to me about the Tokyo art scene. About the pressure to study at post-grad level and about gender imbalances in the system. I tell her about the same situation in Melbourne and how it seems that much of what is happening in one city is being echoed in the other one. The artists are also keen to see their work reach beyond Tokyo, Kanako talks of her desire to study in Europe to expand her philosophical learnings and her connection to a more internationally oriented contemporary practice.
With two more complexes to visit, and my head already whirring with ideas and schemes in the process if being hatched in the back of my mind, we pile back into Taketo’s Jimny and make our way to the next destination. We have to stop for lunch though, and as we stayed much longer than we planned at the first stop, we hit the 7-11 and get some food. Now, for those who haven’t been to Japan, the 7-11s here are not the same as those in Australia. You can get relatively ok food here, fresh sandwiches, fresh bakery items, sushi and sometimes bento boxes. I offered to buy Taketo’s food and he bought 2 small rice dishes instead of the 1 he was going to buy, and a drink he always wanted to try. It cost about $4 all together. We gobbled down our sandwiches, rice, coffees and chocolate in the car park like voracious teens, slightly bedazzled by the tour through the works of nine really strong artists. Then we drove through warehouses and outer-suburban roads until we came upon TANA Studio.
Six artists make TANA Studio their working home and it has a very different feel to Lucky Happy Studios. Rather than sheds this is a single warehouse space, just like you’d find in the suburbs of an Australian city. Brick walls, steel girder struts, roller doors, high ceilings, mezzanine and concrete floor. The first space is occupied by fragments of broken Sylvanian Family houses which I recognise because of a show at XYZ Collective called ‘The Sylvanian Families Biennale 2017’. The curator of the show, artist Kenji Ide, is one of the tenants at TANA Studio. It becomes clear that a substrata of multi-networked interrelations exist between and across many of the artists. Just like in Melbourne, where self-organised curated shows, spontaneous ARIs, and collaborations occur among the like-minded of the art world, so too here in Tokyo.
It’s Sunday, so not a lot of artists are in the studio but I meet Taichi Nakamura. He has a whole series of paintings piled in one corner of his studio and a series of watercolour preliminary sketches pinned to the walls. But mostly it’s large white canvases that are moments away from being built up into new works. His work is all toxic sunsets and ghostly figures and I ask if he has heard of Australian artists Sidney Nolan or Arthur Boyd. At which point he rushes to his bookshelf (it must be noted that almost all the artists have incredible personal libraries in their studios) and comes back with monographs of these artists. I learn that he is obsessed by their work. He offers us all coffee and we sit down to chat. Over the course of the coffee I learn that he came to Australia for a holiday, staying in St Kilda, so that he could come and see Nolan’s work in the flesh. He even hitch-hiked to Canberra just so that he could sit in the Nolan room all day and absorb his artwork.
As we talk more I discover Taichi researches ecology with a focus on the environmental degradation of soil and land due to the misuse of pesticides and chemical contamination caused by poor agricultural practices. This information, together with his study of the painting techniques of Australian artists, fuels his painting production. And he labours at his output with a high octane intensity, a work ethic that sees him in the studios more than most of his peers. And this all gets me to thinking.
My role as a curator is to facilitate. It is to find platforms and forums to share the good work of intelligent people who produce creative work with diligence and drive. This singular visit with Taichi triggers an idea. One I have since begun pursuing and hope to find a way to make happen. It’s certainly worth a try, if not for this one outcome, then at least for the pathway it might clear for other versions of this idea. What if – there was a way to bring an artist like this, an artist working in Tokyo who is obsessed by Australian painters, to Australia so that he could immerse himself in the artwork he finds most inspiring. Let’s say, a residency somewhere that gives him the chance to spend time at Heide where Nolan worked and lived; to visit the public collections of Melbourne that house work by Nolan, and Boyd, and Williams, and Booth and others. And what if he could spend some time with a university that has research labs in bio-science and agriculture, seeing what our scientists are trying to do and correct ecological damage, or even how they think and work with the environment and the industries that interact with it. While he’s in Australia, maybe there’s even a regional art event that he can exhibit some paintings he makes while he’s there, sharing his research with a new audience and providing a chance for an Australian audience to see their culture reflected back through the eyes of someone from another country in another hemisphere who is interested in what we do and have done.
I can’t help but think that would have a significant impact on an artist’s work; be a wonderful way to promote Australian art to another culture; give insight to our scientists about how their work is perceived; and open a channel of cross-cultural communication between two places that are becoming increasingly curious about the other. Suddenly I feel like this sort of arrangement, working back and forth with artists to facilitate movement and connections between Japan and Australia, might just be an excellent outcome for this research trip. I’m working angles on it right now and I’ll keep you posted about whether it’s a viable project.
(…next, REV Studio, dinner and some final thoughts…)