Almost Perfect

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He’s a romantic, she’s a pragmatist. He’s the creative type, she has a mind for numbers. He’s the self-proclaimed “clown”, she is elegant and soft spoken. In every aspect of their professional and personal lives, Luis Mendo and Yuka Okada Martín Mendo seem to complement each other perfectly. Or to use their own slogan, almost perfectly. While they may be quite different in some regards, Yuka and Luis also have much in common. They share a passion for sustainability, and both left high-profile jobs in order to pursue their passions and a slower, more fulfilling life. Spanish-born Luis worked for over two decades as an art director in Europe before coming to Japan, where he now makes a living as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer. Yuka quit a job in finance to enter the ethical fashion industry, even running her own brand for seven years. Now, the pair have merged their respective strengths to establish one of Tokyo’s most unique artist spaces. Opened in October 2018, Almost Perfect is a creative residency aimed at the many people each year who come to Tokyo in search of inspiration. Illustrators, musicians, creative directors, theatre people, writers, and other types of creatives from around the world not only stay in the renovated, century-old rice shop, but they can also create in the studio and show their work in the gallery. The building that houses Almost Perfect was constructed in 1924, and three generations of the same family lived upstairs and sold rice from the shop until shortly before Yuka and Luis arrived. The renovations were conducted on a shoestring budget over just six weeks, and many of the building’s original features—including the rice mill—remain. “That’s also why the name is good, because if something isn’t quite right we can always say, ‘We’re not perfect, we’re almost perfect. Sorry that we don’t have a Herman Miller chair, but at least we don’t have Ikea,’” Luis says with his characteristic laugh. Yuka and Luis are masters of repurposing. A carpenter friend of theirs used an old shelf from a kimono shop to convert an electric piano in the gallery into a desk when it’s not being played. Upstairs, a cupboard that was formerly used to store futons—and as a child’s bed when the original family lived in the house—is now Luis’s worktable. “We have a policy in buying things. If we can’t upcycle or recycle something, the first thing that we look for is local producers. Whatever we find locally, as long as it is affordable, we go for it,” Yuka says. “And if we can’t find anything in this area or Tokyo or Japan, we go for organic things or something with a sustainable background.” This policy has resulted in an eclectic mix of items throughout the space. Beds from Muji, lamps found at second-hand stores, ceramics bought in the nearby “kitchen town” of Kappabashi, and an outdoor shower on the third-floor balcony (Luis’s favourite feature of the building) all live in harmony … Read More

Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum

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Completed in 1933, the property that is now home to the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum was originally the private residence of Prince Asaka and his wife, who became fascinated by Art Deco while living in Paris in the early 1920s. The couple commissioned Henri Rapin to design many of the home’s interiors, and Rapin enlisted the help of other prominent artists of the time, including René Lalique. “At the time, Japanese people greatly admired and dreamt of Western Europe,” says Toyojiro Hida. “And this building is a realisation of those dreams, of true French Art Deco style. I want visitors to feel how that dream was realised when they visit the museum.” Hida has over four decades of experience in the art world, but only since taking over as director of the Teien Museum in 2016 has he come to realise the significance of decoration as a field of art. “There’s a paradigm that starts with fine art, then decorative arts, then architecture and design,” he says. “But that paradigm has no relation to this museum. This place is more free, more open than that, which is its biggest appeal.” The inspiration for dedicating the Teien Museum to decoration—not decorative arts—came from the building itself, which is one of Japan’s best examples of Art Deco design. Walking through the front entrance hall with its striking Lalique glass-relief doors and mosaic floor and into the walnut-panelled great hall, it’s hard not to imagine scenes of Gatsby-esque splendour. Hida says his favourite piece in the museum is what is known as the ‘Perfume Tower,’ a Rapin creation named for its original purpose as a fountain that also filled the space with the princess’s preferred scents. Other significant elements of the building’s design include chandeliers by Lalique, wall paintings by Rapin, reliefs by Ivan-Léon Alexandre Blanchot, etched glass doors by Max Ingrand, and iron decorations by Raymond Subes above some doors. The majority of the building’s design elements and furniture are original, commissioned specifically to fit the architecture designed by Yokichi Gondo. “The building is the result of cooperation between Japanese and French craftspeople and designers, who worked together to complete it,” Hida says. “And the impressive thing is that the French artists never came here and saw the house in person. Everything was done by sending ideas back and forth via post.” The Teien’s remarkable design forms a stunning backdrop for displaying a wide variety of pieces spanning various disciplines, eras and continents. Previous exhibits have ranged from French picture books to Brazilian indigenous benches. “Art Deco was created by the French bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie were very democratic. They took in everything, from Brazilian ebony trees to decorations from the Nile region in Africa, in order to create the culture of Art Deco in Paris. So since the original concept of Art Deco was kind of that anything goes, anything can look at home in this space. As long as the decoration is clearly expressed, it works.” Hida says. “Decoration … Read More

21_21 Design Sight

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Don’t go thinking that 21_21 is a museum. It can’t be, because it is without permanent collection. But then, neither is it a gallery – its expansive mission is bigger than that. How, then, to explain it? “Most museum and art gallery directors come from the curatorial side,” explains Associate Director Noriko Kawakami. “What’s so special about 21_21 Design Sight is that the directors are all working designers.” They are, in fact, more than that – they are three of the biggest names in the Japanese creative industry: graphic designer Taku Satoh, industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa, and fashion designer Issey Miyake, who has been the project’s driving force from the start. “Another reason we’re different from an art gallery is that we exhibit familiar things from everyday life,” says Kawakami. “But we want to show their beauty and emotion.” During the first half of 2014, Satoh and anthropologist Shinichi Takemura co-directed an exhibition titled ‘Kome: The Art of Rice’, which explored how the humble grain has enriched Japan’s design traditions as well as its diet. A previous exhibition curated by Satoh investigated water, while another by Fukusawa was named ‘Chocolate’. One of Miyake’s motivations has been that, despite its cultural affinity for beautiful and functional things, Japan has no official museum of design – although he never intended for 21_21 Design Sight to become that institution. His is a more modest goal, formulated with the help of late sculptor Isamu Nogichi, architect Tadao Ando, and several others: to create a space where people can experience good design and understand its transformative possibilities. Ando and Miyake collaborated on the structure of the building using the latter’s concept for making garments from a single piece of unbroken thread. Approaching the building through the surrounding gardens, visitors catch sight of two massive triangular roofs at ground level, each made from giant sheets of folded steel. Beyond the entrance, the exhibition rooms are subterranean and surround a sunken courtyard framed by large windows. On sunny days dramatic shadows move slowly across the cavernous space. Kawakami and the three directors meet monthly to brainstorm ideas and choose a curator for each show. For everyone involved, an open mind is imperative: while assisting Satoh in the preparations for ‘Water’, Kawakami says she worked with a scuba diver, an astronomer, a biologist, and other unlikely professionals. “What keeps every exhibition interesting is that each has its own methodology,” she says. “There are never any prepared answers. There are never any rules.”

Taka Ishii Gallery

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Taka Ishii had his heart set on becoming a painter while studying for a fine arts degree in Los Angeles. Until, that is, the day he saw photographer Larry Clark’s “Tulsa” prints in Los Angeles. “I was shocked to see his work,” says Ishii. “There was lots of violence and drugs. I liked it. It was like watching a documentary.” When he returned to Tokyo from LA in the early 1990s, Ishii discovered Japan had its own photographers working in a similar vein, people such as Daido Moriyama and his iconic 1979 image of a stray dog, “Misawa”. “That was the start,” Ishii says of his then-nascent career path. When he opened his first gallery in 1994, it was with a solo show of the same Clark that had originally inspired him. A year later, he showed Moriyama’s works for the first time. “To exhibit those two photographers was a dream come true,” Ishii says. The reality of operating a gallery, however, was harder than he had expected. “I had worked as a private dealer, but never in a gallery before,” he says. “I didn’t know the system. I had to learn everything from scratch.” Tokyo had few international contemporary art galleries at the time, and Ishii did not know any collectors. He reached out to magazines and newspapers to attract media coverage. Slowly, collectors followed. Fortunately, his original gallery was located in the first floor of his family home, and was therefore rent-free. Low-key, soft-spoken and with an air of disheveled cool, Ishii is now one of Japan’s most successful contemporary art dealers, with two galleries in Tokyo and one in New York City. His stable of established artists includes Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki, Naoya Hatakeyama, Thomas Demand, Sterling Ruby, Dan Graham, and Cerith Wyn Evans. He also actively promotes up-and-coming Japanese photographers and mixed media artists. These days, Ishii’s collectors mostly come from abroad. The domestic market remains a challenge. A difficult venture in Kyoto proved that point. He and a fellow Tokyo-based gallerist opened a collaborative space in the ancient capital in 2008. But collectors there, wary of outsiders, wouldn’t buy from them. “You need a strong connection with the local people, especially in Kyoto,” he says. “We didn’t have that. I really was too bad.” The space closed in 2013. Ishii remains optimistic – the trends are moving in his favour. Japan is becoming an international destination, and the number of young Japanese collectors is steadily growing. “Interest in post-war Japanese photography is growing abroad. Even foreign museums are buying now,” he says. “We have so many great photographers. Helping them reach a global audience is my ultimate reward.”

Tomio Koyama Gallery

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Tomio Koyama’s passion for contemporary art began, like many great love affairs, in Venice. It was the 1990s, and the future gallery owner was attending his first Venice Biennale. Lost in the narrow, twisting lanes, he was hunting down a space showing works by the late conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim. Two deer sculptures with flaming antlers were the clue he needed. Deep inside the building, Koyama discovered a world he had never imagined. “It was filled with famous collectors and artists of all kinds, all mingling and drinking together,” he says. “I could feel the power of art. I really wanted to make something like this. I knew the variety and creativity suited my personality.” Koyama was 33 when he opened his first Tokyo gallery in 1996 in the same place as the Sagacho Exhibit Space in Tokyo’s Koto district. The 1927 red brick warehouse was once a rice market, and the first exhibition space for what became some of Japan’s most influential contemporary galleries. At the time, Koyama was among a new generation of gallerists looking for alternative spaces and collectors beyond Ginza, once the heart of Japan’s art scene. “My gallery and my generation are very different from older Japanese art gallery owners,” he says. “They were from inside Japanese society representing Japanese collections and bringing in historically big name foreign artists.” In contrast, Koyama says, he had to focus on international art fairs when he started because at that time there were no buyers in Japan who were interested in works by the young artists he was representing. His big break came when he began showing two up-and-coming artists, now world famous, Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara. The former he represented in Japan from the mid-1990s to early 2000s; the latter remained with him for a remarkable 19 years. Buyers still ask him for ‘the next Murakami’ – someone Koyama has yet to find. “Murakami’s style was so unique in the ‘90s art scene – a genre all of its own. These days, we have a new generation of artists in Japan, all highly trained, and all with their own styles,” says Koyama, who represents about 50 emerging and established contemporary painters and sculptors out of his gallery space in Roppongi. Through Koyama Art Projects, Koyama and his team curate exhibits at other spaces outside of his own gallery. One of his goals through these projects is to develop a new ceramic market combining the skills and aesthetics of older generations with those of younger, contemporary potters, and introducing their works outside of Japan. “We have a huge variety of artists, artworks, and accumulated technical skill in Japan,” he says. “These artists are ambassadors for our cultural spirit.”

Ota Memorial Museum

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With its pop boutiques and streets packed with fashion-crazed teens, Harajuku may feel like an odd place to go to look at woodblock prints. But Michi Akagi, curator of the Ota Memorial Museum of Art, doesn’t entirely agree. “Young women 200 years ago looked at these pictures for fashion and make-up tips,” she explains. “So they were not that different from the Harajuku girls of today.” It’s true, ukiyo-e (the name means as ‘pictures of the floating world’) were the gossip magazines of their era, purveyors of fashion and scandal. Produced cheaply for mass consumption until the 19th century, they idolised kabuki stars, lionised sumo wrestlers and made pin-ups of fashionable courtesans. Some functioned like travel magazines, promoting scenic spots around the country, while others raised eyebrows with their graphic erotica. The late insurance magnate Seizo Ota, who died in 1977, recognised the value of the prints at a time when other establishment grandees dismissed them as lowbrow fodder. He used his personal fortune to fight the tide of foreign demand. Sold by the pound, the pretty pictures were often used as linings for the souvenir boxes of early international visitors. When they reached Europe, artists including Vincent van Gogh admired their exotic imagery and unusual lack of perspective. The museum Ota built to house his collection occupies a low-rise modernist building in one of Harajuku’s many hidden corners. Works in the main gallery are arranged around a rock garden complete with a bench for contemplation. The collection has grown to about 14,000 prints and scrolls, including works by Hokusai Katsushika, Hiroshige Utagawa and Utamaro Kitagawa, the discipline’s most famous artists. Ukiyo-e artists were the political satirists of their time, delighting the masses with their cheeky antics. Utamaro in particular was famous for his portraits of beautiful women, especially geisha from the infamous pleasure quarters. “These courtesans were banned from appearing in ukiyo-e prints at that time,” explains Akagi, referring to shogunate laws to stamp out decadence. “But Utamaro pictured them anyway, and in his prints he left small hints as to their famous names. The public loved these illicit riddles. His work was the people’s art.” The people’s art of modern Japan is the comic book, or manga – also dismissed my many in the elite as lowbrow fodder. The word manga was used by Hokusai to describe the ‘playful sketches’ he made for his students to copy. Even today, manga artists reference books of the artist’s sketches like church-goers consulting their bibles. “These pictures helped set trends that influence us even today,” says Akagi. “So what better place to show them than in one of the coolest neighbourhoods on the planet?”