June 2009, Interview with Tomoko Ashikawa

June 2009, Interview with Tomoko Ashikawa
Streets at Night, 2009, Oil and Acrylic on Panel, 45.5 x 45.5 cm (Left), Pool, 2009, Oil and Acrylic on Panel, 18.3 x 25.5 cm (Right) Both by Hiroshi Yoshida

Maison Shoka 101
1-5-9 Sangenjaya
Setagaya, Tokyo

In May I interviewed Tokyo based curator Tomoko Ashikawa to discuss the contemporary Japanese scene and her experiences of the two dichotomies that UCLA sociologist Adrian Favell touches on in his paper After the Goldrush. Japans' New Post-Bubble Art and Why it Matters. Favell writes that Japan "now sits more as an alternative to both Western and Asian (Chinese) modernity; it has more in common with the declining, decadent welfare states of Europe, than the growth and power obsessed US; and its crisis of confidence, therefore, may offer a much better guide to the uncertainties and fragilities of the 21st century than the rampant, unsustainable visions of globalization that drove the1980s and 1990s." A former New York resident, currently based in Tokyo, Tomoko has experienced working in the arts in two global capitals. In February this year, together with Shin Yamauchi, she opened the waiting room - a home gallery space in the heart of fashionable Sangenjaya.

Rachel Carvosso: How did you start the waitingroom?  

Tomoko Ashikawa: The Daniel Reich gallery in New York started from an apartment in the Chelsea district and he became successful. The takeninagawa Gallery in Azabajuban (Tokyo) also started as a home gallery called “take floor”. We knew of these kinds of examples so we thought why don’t we do the same thing? When we were looking for a location we liked this place – it has a slightly separated space so it feels like a gallery or like home. I like the neighborhood and we found out later that there are many creators and artists living around here.  

RC: Do you think art scenes tend to work that way – somehow people tend to congregate and create a scene or is it a case of gentrification rather than an organic process?  

TA: I think there are intentional and unintentional scenes. Roentgenwerke AG, Taro Nasu Gallery, also Real Tokyo Estate are building up the Bakurocho area as an “art neighborhood” intentionally, it's a cheap district and they moved there together to make the scene. That's intentional and that's successful - people are going, they’re to see art - but in our case it’s un-intentional, it happened later. I think both are interesting.  

RC: What are some potential problems and advantages of a home gallery space?

TA: We were really lucky. There are some residential apartments in this building, but half of the apartments are offices. Our first opening had more than 100 people. We knew it was going to happen so we went to the room next door and upstairs with a cake to give to them, to say hi and to explain about it. We had a great night and no trouble with the neighbors. Japan is quite crazy about noise! In New York everything is fine, people don't care, but in Japan if you choose the wrong place it could be a nightmare. At the opening salon, it's a combination of art opening, home party and talk event. The danger of the home gallery is that it could end up being just for our friends, but I think it has been successful in that we have people who see the information somewhere and come to the openings.  

A really important aspect of the home gallery is that people can actually talk and discuss things. When people visit they go to the gallery space, but we usually have coffee and drinks so we can sit and talk. We are not so interested in having a white cube gallery, but in having a space where communication can grow. This is not just a gallery, we like the fact that we are living here. We want to make a friendly environment but at the same time an environment that's not uncomfortable for people who just came to see art. A popular blogger found out about our first exhibition and came to the opening and came back the following week. His comment was that this space is not a place for everyone, it is a place for people who are interested something that is “different” - it limits the audience, but in a good way.  

RC: How important is the Internet culture to a smaller space like a home gallery?  

TA: I think the Internet culture and blogs are really important. This gallery can be hard to find, you need energy to find it, but I think that it is a good energy. A girl who wanted to visit us got lost and called us for directions. When she arrived she said, “This is really cool! I was wondering what kind of space is was, I wanted to see it!” We asked her how she found this space and she had found it from the internet through someone’s blog.  

RC: You lived in New York for about 9 years, what were your impressions of the main differences in terms of the contemporary art scene?

TA: I went to college in Japan too but I hated it because there was nothing going on so I quit and I transferred to the school in New York. After graduating I started working for the AG Gallery. From my experiences as a student I thought that the gallery scene would also be really different in Japan, but when I came back it wasn’t. Tokyo is becoming a global city. In terms of the contemporary art scene there are definitely more things going on in New York because there are more galleries, more museums and more alternative spaces. Artists are opening spaces more in New York, but I think that exciting things have been happening for the past two or three years in Tokyo, too. A lot of young galleries have been opening, so I think there is much more going on than ten years ago.  

All the people who were working at the “big” galleries in Japan, like Tomio Koyama, Taka Ishii, and so on have started becoming independent and creating their own gallery space. The established gallerists helped them so it was a good community. I feel like it's the same in New York or Tokyo in that you have to meet people and introduce yourself, then opportunities come as a result. But I think it's easier to do that in other countries. I think it's more closed in Japan, in New York everyone is more open. Tokyo is different from when I was here, but its definitely becoming more global and more social - that's why I am having a similar experience in both cities. New York is totally different from other parts in the U.S. and I think Tokyo is also different from other parts of Japan so, in that way the two cities are really similar.  

RC: How would you describe the current scene in Tokyo to someone who didn't know what was going on now?  

TA: I think its becoming more international. Before the bubble crashed a year and a half ago, art was really fashionable and all the magazines were selling the idea that “art is cool, visit museums and galleries”. When it was really popular it was almost like high fashion, it was hype. The real art scene always happens after the good times so that's what’s happening right now in Tokyo. Artists always build up the communities and then building interesting scenes, which become the real scene later.  

RC: For you, as a Japanese curator, is creating a distinctive “Japanese” identity a kind of neo-orientalism or a way for emerging artists to create a beneficial “brand”?  

TA: Even though Tokyo is becoming more global it’s still Japan – we see foreign countries as “bigger” countries and assume that there are more exciting foreign artists. Personally, I think it should be different and that big events such as last years’ Triennale should include more Japanese emerging artists because it’s an international event that is happening in Japan. I think Japanese tend to dream about the scene outside and then bring it to Japan to make the event bigger, and I think that's bullshit.  

I think at waitingroom part of our mission is to introduce emerging Japanese artists. We would like to keep introducing young talent, which is not out there yet. Shin and I used to live in New York so we would also like to introduce our favorite "scenes" to here - things that haven’t been introduced into Tokyo yet. We want to show both Japanese emerging artists and emerging artists from other countries who haven't been discovered here yet, so the issue of cultural identity is not as important as recognizing and promoting new talent.

whitehot gallery images, click a thumbnail.

Rachel Carvosso

Rachel Carvosso is an artist and poet currently based in Tokyo. She writes for Tokyo Artbeat and various publications on both Arts and Social issues and is currently organising a book arts fair in London.

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