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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese art critics living in Japan.

Art Fair Tokyo 2011: In the World
Roger McDonald
Art Fair Tokyo 2011

Art Fair Tokyo is Japan's oldest and largest art fair. This year it took place over the weekend of July 29-31 at the Tokyo International Forum, a vast semi-underground expo space in the heart of the city. The fair's forerunner was the International Contemporary Art Festival, Japan (NICAF), which was launched in 1992 and became Art Fair Tokyo in 2005. The 2011 fair was postponed from its planned early-April opening to July because of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami.

Art fairs have, in many ways, usurped the role once played by museums and biennales on the international art circuit. This is perhaps not surprising if one considers the difficult financial circumstances faced by public-sector cultural institutions across the world and the ever-increasing pressure to attract audiences and be "more inclusive." Although these objectives have always been a part of exhibition organizing, it is fair to say that since the early 1990s and the dawning in many countries of neo-liberal economic policies that seek to privatize public institutions and allow for greater competition, art institutions, too, have had to adjust their raisons d'etre toward more sustainable business models. In this climate, the art fair plays a central role in presenting new art to a global audience as well as creating added-value experiences such as special exhibitions, talks, symposia and educational programs. Art fairs have gradually moved from being insider trade fairs to fully functioning temporary museum/exhibition events that attract both professional and general audiences.

However, a visit to any art fair is still a visit to a highly hierarchical, stratified space of economic and social privileges, as evidenced by VIP services, the activities of collectors and the presence of corporate patronage. In the eyes of many, this is what makes the art fair exciting and relevant today. Art fairs openly reflect the conditions in which art finds itself now: spaces of increasing privatization, wealth, cultural capital and exchange, all those aspects which Andy Warhol famously incorporated into the domain of art practice in the early 1960s. The art fair succeeds because it is driven by exchange and desire. Artworks are of course presented by galleries as being more than simply this -- i.e., as carriers of certain attitudes or shared histories, and this is certainly true -- but what everyone at an art fair is also doing is imagining what it would be like to own this or that, to buy something.

For this scheme to work well, the key is to assemble art that people think they want, or which at the very least can make claims to be of "high quality" as judged by critics, curators and other artists. The fair is a highly charged temporary junction where many value systems cross -- in plain view. Moreover, this junction point would not work properly if the only value system were economic. It is precisely because the economic interacts with the historical, the critical, the conceptual and the biographical that an art fair becomes something of interest. Indeed, this is perhaps the character and nature of the capitalism in which we are embedded today.

I have always thought that Art Fair Tokyo tries to do too much. It strives to cover everything, from contemporary art to antiques, porcelain and calligraphy. This is done in the spirit of opening up the compact Japanese art market, but paradoxically seems to stimulate factionalism among dealers and audiences. Art Fair Tokyo thus remains pointedly domestic, with only a small handful of international galleries participating. This year several top contemporary galleries dropped out too. Others have sought to address this problem (101 Art Fair being an intrepid attempt), but the realities of the market in Japan impose a unique and strict set of conditions.

Under the new directorship of Takahiro Kaneshima, the 2011 edition of Art Fair Tokyo boldly tried to appeal to a global art market -- installing a corporate VIP salon and initiating a series of strong talk sessions, as well as featuring special exhibitions by Taro Shinoda and Tadasu Takamine and documenting various art initiatives in the earthquake and tsunami affected areas of northeast Japan. However, I kept returning to the key ingredient which I felt was lacking: that desire-generating mix of strong artworks through which an art fair becomes a powerful manifestation -- at once an eclectic exhibition of new art where many kinds of knowledge are generated, and a market mirroring the spectacle of how art today is made, distributed and consumed. There could be a more rigorous selection of participating galleries and presentations, less concern with opening up to everything (small is OK!), more insistence on creating a lively junction of multiple, visible value systems (economic, historical, curatorial, educational, etc.), and more curatorial vision(s) of making something that could only come out of the conditions in which we find ourselves in now.

In the relatively small contemporary art market of Japan, such a shift toward making visible the various layers of value and literacy found in the Japanese art scene(s) is one of the most important tasks waiting to be done.


Art Fair Tokyo 2011, Venue II: Projects

Photos by Munetoshi Iwashita, courtesy of Art Fair Tokyo

Art Fair Tokyo 2011
Tokyo International Forum
29 - 31 July 2011
image
Roger McDonald
Roger McDonald was born and brought up in Tokyo, educated in the UK, and returned to live in Japan in 2000 after completing his PhD. He has worked on the Yokohama Triennale 2001 as assistant curator, the Singapore Biennale 2006 as curator, and organised a number of exhibitions and projects independently. He is deputy director of the non-profit curatorial collective Arts Initiative Tokyo, and teaches at Meiji University and Joshibi University of Art and Design.
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