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Here and There :

Here and There introduces art, artists, galleries and museums around Japan that non-Japanese readers and first-time visitors may find of particular interest. The writer claims no art expertise, just a subjective viewpoint acquired over many years' residence in Japan.

No Man's Land: Artists Amok in an Abandoned Embassy
Alan Gleason
The former French Embassy annex from the street, with wall paintings by Jef Aerosol and other participating artists No Man's Land Gate, designed by Nicolas Buffe (2009)

Vive la France! Only the French, I'll wager, would think of handing an old, soon-to-be-demolished embassy over to a bunch of artists. This is exactly what the French Embassy in Tokyo has done, allowing nearly a hundred artists from France and Japan to do as they please with the warren of bureaucrats' offices that it plans to tear down in a few weeks.

Although PR material for the exhibition, which is entitled No Man's Land, suggests that part of the draw is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the public to see the interior of this "historic building," the edifice itself is a bit of a disappointment. Designed by Joseph Belmont and built in 1957, the long, narrow four-story structure typifies the ugly, no-frills, raw-concrete style that passed for cutting-edge in Tokyo after the war -- in short, it resembles a college dorm more than an embassy. Inside, the endless rows of identically sized cubicles on every floor begin to numb the mind as you stagger from one installation to the next. Indeed, there is a scorched-earth aspect to trying to see everything there is to see here, making the show's title oddly appropriate.

With so much to look at and so many artists participating, the results are inevitably spotty. Some of the most memorable works are to be found out in the garden, which offers a welcome respite from the claustrophobic corridors within. Shotaro Yoshino has engaged in the ultimate hands-on interaction with embassy property by digging up a huge, coffin-sized chunk of it, which he has suspended by chains at an oblique angle over the hole, like an earthen trap door. In another corner, Kosei Komatsu and Aiko Ishiwata have installed Air Song, a luminous forest of tall, thin glass tubes connected to an air blower that sends delicate white feathers floating up and down the tubes in a synchronized dance.

Inside, noteworthy sights included Akiko Hoshina's clay-covered darkroom; Sarah Dolatabadi's stairwell, filled with a hanging jungle of electric wires; Matthieu Manche's manga-inspired paintings that juxtapose Japanese ultranationalist and grotesque horrorshow motifs; Aki Inomata's surreal photos of hermit crabs that have somehow been enticed to occupy clear glass habitats of various shapes and sizes (a fascinating video illustrates how Inomata accomplished this); and Hiroko Okada's delightfully wacky Love & Hate Lunch Box, a faux-cooking show video series (featuring, in a guest appearance, none other than Focus contributor Roger McDonald). Among the more established artists participating in the show a standout is Erina Matsui, whose masterfully painted oils feature disturbing self-portraits of the young artist as part-mushroom, in a state of what appears to be incipient decay.

Though the scale of No Man's Land makes the exhibition an exercise in stamina as much as anything, and the impact of the work on display is hit-or-miss, the sheer quantity of participants ensures that there is something for everyone. See it while you can -- the show closes at the end of January, when the old embassy will be torn down and, that's right, replaced by a condominium. (One cannot help hoping that the new French Embassy up the hill is a tad more attractive.) As you bid farewell and stumble out the gate (itself a work of art), treat your overloaded brain to a stroll through nearby Arisugawa Park and a cup of espresso at one of Hiroo's hip little bistros. It ain't Paris, but it'll do.

Akiko Hoshina has covered every surface of a small embassy room with clay.
Shotaro Yoshino's uprooted chunk of embassy turf, Draw the Ground History (2009)

Kosei Komatsu and Aiko Ishiwata's tubes-and-feathers garden installation, Air Song (2008) Discarded chairs in the back yard of the embassy: Is it art?

All photos by Alan Gleason

No Man's Land
21 November 2009 - 31 January 2010
Former French Embassy, 4-11-44 Minami Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Hours: 10:00 - 18:00 Thursday and Sunday; 10:00 - 22:00 Friday and Saturday
Closed Monday through Wednesday
Transportation: 5-minute walk from Hiroo station, Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line
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Alan Gleason
Alan Gleason is a translator, editor and writer based in Tokyo, where he has lived for 25 years. In addition to writing about the Japanese art scene he has edited and translated works on Japanese theater (from kabuki to the avant-garde) and music (both traditional and contemporary).
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