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Beijing is Enchanted with Contemporary Japanese Art! A Visit to Mizma Gallery

Jeonghwa Son_Editor

Art districts in Beijing along the Dashanzi, Jiuchang, Caochangdi and Baiziwan streets are full of life, basking in the attention of the world. The Caochangdi district boasts an art museum and a gallery designed by Ai Weiwei, and a magnificent artist studio. The highly acclaimed Ure Mail Gallery, Dooart and PKM gallery of Korea are competing in the area, and Japanese galleries are finally appearing, one by one. In particular, the debut of the Mizma Gallery from Nakameguro, Japan, attracts our attention. The reputation of this gallery has been on a steep rise with its manpower of young Japanese artists. The spacious gallery space displays traditional Japanese paintings in a contemporary style, and they exude the singular charm of Japanese art.

The theme of the first exhibition at Mizma Gallery, Beijing, is ‘OFF the rail.’ The concept captures aspirations for de-genre, de-normalization and an effort to deviate from a fixed orbit. One painter, Hiroyuki Matsukage, presented a photograph entitled Sakura (2004) at the opening, and attracted people’s attention with a pop music performance titled Gorgeous. In the performance, he modified a saxophone to make odd sounds, and presented a variety of sounds and spectacles, including a strip show. His exuberant stage manner showed his free spirit in his approach to music and art. The quiet evening streets of Caochangdi were flooded with roaring sound, dazzling light and people from the ‘Off the rail’ exhibition.

 Mizma Sueo, as planner and director, confesses that he is a heretic in the art society just as the title ‘OFF the rail’ suggests. He wants to manage the gallery in a different way from current Japanese galleries, with unique methods such as collecting art funds. His resolution is quite impressive: he is not interested in pursuing an orderly life and main stream ideas based on ordinary values, and he is determined to run the gallery with a spirit of challenge. It is well known that Mizma Gallery has recently been introducing many gifted young artists. What is notable is that, despite Mizma’s unique preference for art and his liking for J-pop, there is a strong undercurrent of Japanese tradition in his choices. The artworks selected by Mizma Gallery showed the sensual tints of traditional Japanese color, and were received with much fanfare at prestigious international art fairs and biennials. Mizma Gallery also discovered Aida Makoto and Jungei Hatsushiba at the 2001 Yokohama Triennial, bringing enormous popularity and reputation.

Up-and-coming artists who participated in the exhibition included Aida Makoto, Jungei Hatsushiba, Hiroyuki Matsukage, Tomoko Konoike, Hirofu Isoai, Yamaguchi Akira, Akino Kondo, Koji Tanata, Hisashi Tenoya and O Jun. Akira Yamaguchi demonstrated a traditional Japanese painting style in Manjushri Crossing the Sea (2007). The artist used oil color instead of conventional mineral dye. Artists like Nanchao produce paintings in a contemporary style with traditional materials, while others work on traditional Japanese painting with oil color. His works are reminiscent of generals in the ancient Japanese times with majestic and high-spirited air, and also show the fearsome expressions of the emperors from Buddhism.

Aida Makoto’s Harakiri School Girls (2006) is one of the series that portrayed schoolgirls with amputated arms and legs. The artist cruelly expresses women as cripples, dogs, foods, plants and objects of consumption. Through these paintings, he urges viewers to acknowledge the social atmosphere in Japan that despises women. It is understandable that Aida used to be a political activist during his college years.

Jungei Hatsushiba engages in media art that displays life of poverty-stricken Vietnamese people. Born of a Vietnamese father and a Japanese mother, the artist used to work with a theme of the Vietnamese war. His nationality is American, as he followed father to the U.S. However, he is plainly an Asian in American people’s eyes, and remains an outsider in Asia. He shows the agony of a life from Vietnam by reflecting his own sense of alienation in his painting.

In this exhibition, photography, painting, installation work and media art are brought together in a way that represents a consistent personality as a whole, like a creature that grew up with nourishment from the Japanese soil. Instead of copying the trends of the art world, these artists stick to their uniqueness and original sensibilities, to frankly express their inspiration. Most of the artworks have a strong flavor of traditional Japanese painting, but they are blended with comic elements to give a light and cheerful feeling that young people find attractive. Japan shares its Buddhist philosophy and culture of Chinese characters with China and Korea. However, Japan has a historical and geographical condition that makes its people introspective. Combined with Otaku culture, this led to the birth of the new-generation Japanese paintings. Underneath the style of traditional Japanese painting are found social and political agendas, and these artworks harbor an omen for Japanese Power that will follow the rise of Chinese Power in the near future.

The director Mizma Sueo remarks that ‘art experts from all over the world come to Beijing for its fine quality galleries. This is the best showroom. I’d love to invite Japanese artists here and support them to work to their hearts’ content.’ Recalling Mao Tse Tung’s famous saying ‘east wind will prevail west wind,’ we expect that Mizma Gallery will be a platform to launch Japanese artists not only in China, but also in the global world of art.

<Interview>

1. I heard that Mizma Gallery moved three times before it opened a Beijing branch. Can you summarize the history of the gallery?

I opened the gallery in 1989 in Nishiazabu, and the turning point came in 1994 when I met the artist Aida Makoto. I moved the gallery to the fashion district in Aoyama, and concentrated on ‘Morfe’ art events that attempted to blend commercial districts with art. Once again, the gallery moved to its current location in Nakameguro in 2002, and I engaged in introducing Asian artists to international art fairs and biennials. It is exciting to be working in Beijing, and I’m planning to run a residence program as well.

2. You practically discovered Aida Makoto. I assume communicating with an artist is an important part of your work. Can you tell me what your relationship with Aida has been?

I met him in Aoyama in 1994. He was a student at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and was having a hard time making a living with annual income of $3,000. I was preoccupied with an exhibition in the fashion district of Aoyama, and I was planning a group exhibition for young artists. Aida brought a work titled Kuboso. They were photos of a doll called Nika-chan in his dark studio. Something about the photos caught my attention. I asked him to bring more photos, and what he brought is now known with the title Ajemitsu. Upon seeing them, I offered to buy them, feeling a jolt of excitement. His bidding price was $3,000. Next year, I exhibited them in several places in New York, but the reviews were negative. Aida had to go through difficult times before his talent was recognized. In 2001, at the Yokohama Triennial, Aida presented a work entitled Penchira Haiku, and his message on the undecipherable nature of the world strongly appealed to the art critics of the world. His reputation began to soar, and so did that of Mizma Gallery in Japan.

3. Aida Makoto’s art is stimulating and can be visually disturbing. Also, his styles change constantly. His solo exhibitions present such a variety of styles that they look like collections of different artists’ work.

To me, Aida is a genius. So is Murakami Takashi. His strength is that he doesn’t like to exploit the same idea repeatedly. Even with the same object, he produces a better outcome when he works the second time, and people are excited about his talent. For example, people seem to want to create animation characters out of young girls, but Aida gets tired of that idea quickly. Not only does he hesitate to repeat the same painting, he also doesn’t like to have exhibitions at the same venues twice. I can’t say that Aida’s personality didn’t affect the fact that Mizma Gallery moved twice in Japan, and finally opened a gallery in Beijing. I am devoted to working for artists like a servant, and I do my best to serve them. From visitors’ perspective, it is better that a gallery stays at the same place, but for artists, it can be desirable that a gallery provide better places when circumstances allow. I learned the spirit of challenge from Aida’s constantly changing art world.

4. What kind of business mind do you have in running the gallery?

In Japan, people think that artists are meant to be poor. That is, people have this antiquated idea of ‘tsurezure kusa’ that encourages a modest way of thinking for artists, that they need to endure poverty to pursue the lofty nature of art. There are systematic obstacles behind the decline of the Japanese art market, such as minimal support from the government, and strict taxation on art collections. In addition, the personality of Japanese people also plays a certain part. From what I see, a gallery needs brilliant management strategies to be able to provide space where artists can fully devote themselves to creative activities. In that regard, I praise the effort of artists like Murakami Takashi and Chim Pom to commercialize art. Mizma Gallery also plans to adopt the idea of an art fund to give more benefit to the artists. While I ran a gallery in Aoyama, I saw the young artists’ work being neglected and ignored among the overpowering aura of fashion. It broke my heart to see the artists’ lack of confidence in the feeble aura of their works. I want to put priority on the artists, then follow up with viewers and financial issues. This attitude makes gallery management exciting.

5. On the fifth floor of Mizma Gallery in Nakameguro, you host exhibitions of young artists with the title, Mizma Action. Mizma Gallery distinguishes itself from other Japanese galleries by emphasizing youthful and original images at the fore, and using j-pop elements like a trademark.

In fact, in Japan, not many gallery owners of my age work with young pop artists and focus on promoting them. Some of other major galleries tend to think that Mizma Gallery engages in quite unusual activities, such as collecting art funds. Promoting young artists is one of my strong points. Their youthful spirits give me energy. For a long time, I only did what I liked to do, like a child. Life would be boring if I had to think in fixed frames and try to imitate the so-called mainstream life. Personally, I think Mizma Gallery is the leader of heresy, and emits an air of resistance even in its appearance.

6. You call yourself a heretic, and even the title of the exhibition, ‘OFF the rail,’ seems to support the idea.

That’s right. Rail indicates a mainstream world, and adding ‘OFF’ turns the meaning around to be anti-mainstream. When I say ‘a mainstream life,’ it could be a very ordinary life. You know, there is a rail in a life that leads one through marriage, a happy family life and so on. My intention is to escape from all the predetermined paths in a life. Rather than catering to ordinary viewers, I want to present the aura of the artists that aspire after new art with the spirit of challenge.

7. In Japan, more than 90% of the art transactions involve Japanese paintings. Mizma Gallery deals with paintings that stand somewhere between traditional Japanese paintings and contemporary paintings.

Mizma Gallery never engaged in purchasing or selling traditional Japanese paintings. You can say that most of our collections are in a fusion style. The new-generation Japanese paintings are often categorized as J-pop, and Mizma Gallery successfully launched them into the market. If we dealt with traditional Japanese paintings, we wouldn’t be so different from numerous other galleries. When we display our work in other countries, our review is usually extreme: either the best or the worst. Collectors who are tired of Orientalism or conventional Japonism find our collection to be wonderfully refreshing, and people who dislike heretic styles disapprove of our collection.

8. You appeared on Kitano Takeshi’s TV show, Anyone can be Picasso, for three years. Murakami Takashi also frequently appeared on the show. How would you describe this experience?

At the time, the program belonged to part of a lesser-known world of sub-culture. Many people advised me not to appear on the show, because it was risky. Now people realize that the Japanese art market is on the decline in the art world, and they are becoming more welcoming and open to the outside world. However, some people still criticize those who appear on TV shows. I enjoyed it because I could talk about art very casually to the public. Although the viewer rating was not very flattering, it was a memorable experience.

9. What is the most memorable episode while managing the gallery for all of these years?

Talking with Aida always impresses me. Sometimes we drink together. One day I suggested separate bills, and Aida assured me not to worry. He said he had sponsors all over the country. I was surprised and wondered what he would do. Surprisingly, he went to an ATM machine to take out cash. I was bewildered and felt sorry for him. Later, Aida made an animation work out of the episode.

 
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