West Tokyo Artist Studio Tour
Sunday 29 January
With the light starting to fade and one more studio to squeeze in, we take off again and wend our way through more industrial factories and warehouses until we pull up at another nondescript allotment. This is the home of REV: United Artists Studio and it’s the most crisp yet, with high ceilings, larger spaces and very tidy appearance. There is an artist at work, Mami Chihari, of the nine that occupy the studios. Her work has recently come back from an exhibition and she has put some of it back up on the walls to review and contemplate before embarking on a new body of work.
Mami and Tateko lead us through, pointing out some of the artists and advising on where they’ve recently shown or filling us in on what sort of work they produce. It’s again clear that they show together often, and through the similar galleries. I make a comment about the abundance of abstract painters, which leads us into a discussion about painters who hover on the edge of figuration/abstraction and landscape/abstraction. There’s general agreement that this is a fertile field of image making, the peripheral edges of known genres, mining the territory where it starts to fall away and bleed into other thints beyond its origin. And we talk about how no one ever really thinks of themselves as a ‘type’ of artist in this way, as adhering to genre or style. Most artists just make their art and many won’t even worry about classifications or definitions at all, in fact, many shun the idea of contemplating it completely.
We move through a printer’s studio, talking about the cleanliness required of printmakers, while avoiding any discussion of the pornographic imagery that has made its way into the artwork on the walls. Clean hands, dirty mind, is all I can think and hold my professional curatorial demeanour while analysing why this particular penis goes there with that colour, cropped at that junction, on that angle. There’s terrific storage facilities in the space next to the printmaker, just like the other studios. This is noteworthy, as the artists clearly take great care in the works they have finished or have had come back from exhibitions. Having seen a few different storage styles in public, private and artist-run-spaces, as well as many studios, it’s quite obvious the increased level of care and consideration taken by these artists compared to what I am used to. I cringe at the thought of my artwork in the spare-room wardrobe. Things here are properly wrapped, crated, strapped and labelled, neatly racked and dust covered. This is the case in personal spaces as well as in the designated communal storage areas. It provides a sense of shared commitment to the seriousness of the labours here, and a respect for the artwork itself. It’s almost as if the artists will tolerate the cold and the heat and the occasional bug across their feet, by they wouldn’t possibly allow a speck of dust on a work from 4 years ago that is temporarily archived.
We finish up with coffee and tea in Mami’s space. The cup I am offered is some sort of divine Japanese ceramic piece with an aqua glaze that I am so paranoid about dropping on the concrete floor I clutch to my chest like it’s a sacred vessel. The tea, mind you, tastes like elixir of the gods, so I’m sort of in a heavenly place as it is. Plus, having been through more than 20 artist studios, I’m just about vibrating with excitement. We talk about Mami’s works – another example of this blurred zone between genres, as it’s part landscape, part abstract. There’s Fontana and early Mondrian in there too, and we discuss whether the circles we see are portals inward or platforms outward. Childhood memories are evoked and shared, and I get to bask in that wonderful but all too rare experience of digesting artwork in a group and sharing our feeling about it while it works on us. I always feel like I would love that experience more often. It happens all too rarely. To stand with friends, talk about what we are seeing, sharing its affect upon us, arguing our point of view with an openness to others’ perspectives.
The tour comes to a close and we thank Mami, and my mind is racing. I am absolutely convinced that more people need to see this studio network and I 100% advocate that you go if you come to Japan. They have an open studio program in October and it would be more than worth your while if you have an interest in the arts, as maker or as consumer. There’s artists in Australia that I could instantly imagine would work with almost any number of artists I have seen on this tour in thematic group show situations; and of course, vice versa. I desperately want for the world to see and feel this energy here, this devotion, this intensity. There’s cultural value of such rich character that surely it’s only a matter of time before economic value is attached to it as well. I truly hope so. The production of work in places like this (and not just here but in Australian studios too) is just the sort of honest, driven, attentive and considered labour output that would enliven cultural spaces and cultural contexts. I come out of the last studio an ever more impassioned ambassador for supporting artists and finding ways to get their works injected into the cultural mix of our communities and homes.
From REV we drive to a Canadian-themed restaurant to mull over what we’ve seen and catch our breath. I feel an immense pride for what Taketo and his colleagues have achieved in the simple act of building their arts community and providing a thriving productive zone for their labours. That alone is a success. The sense of beauty in that very human social construction is clear and the potential energies it drives through collaborative efforts and consequential individual growth is palpable. I also find myself amused by the fact I’m an Australian eating an Italian-style pizza in a Canadian-themed restaurant on the outskirts of western Tokyo. But also, perfectly at home with this sense of shared humanity that reaches across boundaries, defying temporal and spatial limits.
So, with what seems like thousands of artworks coursing through my head, close to twenty critical reviews of exhibitions I’ve witnessed, and half a dozen artist interviews currently underway via email or needing to be transcribed off my phone, there’s a few clear thoughts crystallising in the ether around my slightly discombobulated brain.
Firstly, I am convinced that there is an advantage in sharing information about the art produced in both countries, between each country. The artists of Australia and Japan are generally both keen to expand the reach of the work beyond what they perceive as a restricted ‘market’ (for want of a better word, but I don’t necessarily mean sales here, but also more than just ‘audience’). By each reaching toward the other we could begin a significant step in branching out to the world. There is generally a curiosity about the other – and this plays out at the simplest of levels at time, such as Japanese curiosity about Australian landscape and space, and Australian curiosity about Japanese notions of balance, composition and care for objects. Economically, we are close trading partners, so why not also in cultural exchanges? And on that front, we share a hard-working and striving ethic. Think about it – Japan basically rebuilt itself from annihilation after 1945, the only country to suffer through atomic destruction. Tokyo lost 100,000 people in one night during indendiary bombing. Within four decades it had grown into the world’s largest economy for a small period in the 1980s. Australia, even by its own often sardonic admission sits at the arse-end of the world, an outlying colonial post at the middle of last century. But thanks to an influx of migrants after the second world war and a sense of ingenuity, openness and competitive flavour to our character, Australia has only just quite recently earned its place on the world stage in the G20 nations.
Secondly, the nature of exhibition possibilities has changed in my mind. I came here thinking I would work towards a group show of 10-12 artists, split in half between Japanese and Australian, and produce shows in Tokyo and Melbourne. But I’ve noticed a very particular style of exhibition in Tokyo that works really well and has thrown up some excellent exhibition outcomes. And it is something we don’t do much of in Australia. It is the two-person show. Not a collaboration, not a comparative analysis sort of thing, but more like a group show of just two artists. I really like it and now I’m thinking that rather than a singular large group show, maybe it might be better to work on producing a series of sort of ‘dialogues’ that pair an Australian and a Japanese artist. Maybe it’s something that could take place every year and the shows can be presented in both Australia and Japan, and it affords the artists the opportunity to visit the other country, to learn more about their work in relation to another artist’s, and open connections between the practicing artists of each country, gradually expanding with each iteration over time.
Thirdly, with nearly four weeks under my belt, I’ve become a big advocate for the benefit of the international residency. In the same way that travelling abroad not only helps you to learn about other cultures and ways of life, but also to learn and understand your own culture in a new light, so too with your work. I came here looking to learn about ways of working from a different context and am coming away with a better understanding of my own practice as a curator. And this is something I have heard repeated in my conversations with other artists visiting here. So, part of my intention will be to drive connections and foster more opportunities for artists to visit – whether Australian artists coming to Japan, or Japanese artists coming to Australia. Not with any intention of outcome, just to have the chance to see, witness and make work while in a new context.
I’m looking forward to coming home to a new job and new possibilities and putting as much as I can of what I have learned back into my work. As you can probably tell, the studio visit was an energising experience. Getting inside the throbbing heart of the productive territory of art’s creation will do that to you. People who make things for the sheer compulsion to deliver meaning, offer ideas and enhance our experiences of the world are beautiful and fundamentally important parts of the universe. May they shine on, and may we all find a way to sharpen their light.