Tokyo is a global hub for emerging artists. Can writer Ana Kalaw find enough inspiration in the city’s museums and galleries to make her own masterpiece?
Photos by Irwin Wong
My eyes are bleary, and my cramped fingers are coated in a paint that refuses to wash off. The glistening colour is seeping under my nails and settling into the grooves in my skin. Before me are four paintings of the same subject, five if you count the crumpled ball at my feet. Lying atop an orange-and-gold shag carpet that’s also stained – an accident I furiously try to erase while waiting for watercolours to dry – the discarded wad of paper seems to be taunting me. I’m close to tears, berating myself for thinking I could still paint more than 20 years after I had last wielded a brush. In two hours, I was to have an artwork exhibited in one of the most publicly situated galleries in Tokyo – and I was a complete mess.
Forty-six hours earlier, while lazily enjoying a trip to Japan, I received a phone call with a seemingly impossible challenge: create a masterpiece inspired by Tokyo and have it exhibited in one of the city’s top art galleries within the next two days. Somehow, the folks at +852 had convinced me to say yes before I could explain two important details about myself. First, I am not an artist. My formal training is limited to an art elective back in high school; my end-term class exhibition was a still-life sketch of my old sneakers that remains unsold. Secondly, I’m proud to a fault, so I have always avoided situations that might expose a lack of talent. Situations like hanging up a terrible painting in a flashy gallery where it can be gawked at by strangers. If I was going to do this, my artwork would have to be great, or at least good enough that I didn’t feel like violently kicking it across the carpeted room.
Step 1: Find inspiration
I am neither an expert on art nor am I a critic. But I do like art, and I love going to exhibitions. Combining my passion as an art viewer with my casual hobby as a doodler might not be impossible, especially in Tokyo, where artistic inspiration abounds. The city is steeped in art. Massive museums take up huge swathes of land in nearly every ku (city ward). Galleries dot the streets of neighbourhoods big and small. Numerous cafés and hotels dedicate their walls and lobbies to local works. Wildly popular Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami even has a café-gallery in Nakano (an area brimming with underrated cool), where his signature smiling-flower faces plaster the walls.
In trendy neighbourhoods like Daikanyama and Nakameguro, street art paints the urban landscape. Store shutters are covered with anthropomorphic animals and abstract geometric figures, the perfect backdrops for the young, stylish professionals who strut down these streets. In the shopping district of Aoyama, boutique windows of swanky Japanese labels like Comme des Garçons and Issey Miyake display gorgeously styled mannequins and funky installations that change with each fashion season. The seventh floor of the Louis Vuitton store in Omotesando houses Espace Louis Vuitton, a high-ceilinged, glass-walled space with large-scale installations by international and local artists.
The area where I’m staying – the intersection of the Nishi-Azabu and Roppongi districts – has more than enough art to stimulate my senses. The nearby National Art Center, Tokyo, is a shimmering, undulating structure designed by Kisho Kurokawa filled with constantly changing exhibitions. A 15-minute walk away, a massive bronze spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois guards the entrance to the Mori Tower, home to the Mori Art Museum. Perched 53 floors up, the museum offers world-famous contemporary art exhibitions, alongside breathtaking bird’s-eye vistas of Tokyo’s LED-swathed cityscape. Stroll 20 minutes west, and you’ll reach the Nezu Museum, which displays pre-modern Japanese and East Asian art – from calligraphy and paintings to ceramics and textiles – within a modern Kengo Kuma-designed structure surrounded by bamboo.
Seven train stops away is Ginza, one of Tokyo’s most famous upscale shopping and entertainment districts. It’s also a neighbourhood where small galleries thrive among dazzling designer boutiques, historical department stores and premium sushi bars. A couple of these galleries are located at Ginza Six, a relatively new shopping complex that houses some of the world’s most luxurious brands. Larger-than-life installations by renowned artists hang from the lobby ceiling, impressive and unmissable. When Ginza Six opened in 2017, it displayed Yayoi Kusama’s famed polka-dotted pumpkins. When I arrive, Six Boats, an installation by Berlin-based emerging artist Chiharu Shiota, floats like falling swan feathers amid columns of white thread. Works by globally acclaimed Japanese artists are scattered throughout the mall, including a “living art” installation by TeamLab, the digital collective that pioneered the idea of melding art with modern technology.
I land in a gallery called Artglorieux, a space that makes up for its diminutive size by showing the heavyweights of the art world. Today, Marc Chagall and Gustav Klimt are on view. But I’m more interested in the room dedicated to famed Japanese artists. Here, waterscapes by Hiroshi Senju are lined up with pieces by avant-garde masters such as Toko Shinoda, one of the world’s oldest practising artists. It’s not long before I lose myself in one of Senju’s lithographs, entranced by the gleaming waves of burnished gold delicately detailed onto a pure black background. Suit-clad manager Koji Kito tells me that the chiaroscuro-like technique goes back to the era before electricity, when art was created and appreciated by candlelight. Gold was used to brighten paintings, lacquerware and ceramics, the metallic tones reflecting the flicker of flames amid a room’s inky blackness.
Japanese artists have long had a complex relationship with Mother Earth, extolling her virtues and trying to find her a place in modern life. Senju’s artworks attempt to subdue the wildness of waterfalls and waves, taming nature’s chaos for the order and serenity of a city gallery. Takashi Murakami has anime animal characters clad in urban wear. Taku Nakano makes glimmering sake cups, bowls and goblets inspired by galaxies. Some of the best-known ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art, which I visit next, feature Edo-period sumo wrestlers, kabuki actors and beautiful women. But most of the collection’s 12,000-odd woodblocks focus on the natural world – soaring mountains and scenes from the sea, such as the renowned The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai. It’s this tension between the human world and the natural world that permeates much of Japan’s most famous art.
Step 2: Gather supplies
My mind filled with gilded canvases and flowing water, I set off to create a masterpiece. Like its galleries, Tokyo’s art shops seem randomly scattered across the city, tucked into multi-level megastores in Shinjuku skyscrapers, cosy cubbyholes in Ginza and quaint storefronts beside the Roppongi train station. No matter the location or size, entering an art shop in Tokyo feels like stepping into a library. An air of hushed solemnity hangs over the place, and the staff will sombrely greet you with the barest of nods. I slink between aisles in Roppongi’s Lapis Design & Art Supply, overwhelmed by all the handmade paper and specialised tools. I had decided to work in watercolour, but quickly experience an information overload when faced with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with tubes and vials labelled with myriad colours – three different shades for metallic gold alone. I pick up some transparent and concentrated watercolours, gouache paint and a few brushes, including a wide one with soft natural bristles that might have been sable, and another with a tiny tip for achieving the fine strokes found in most Japanese paintings.
Back at my apartment, I start with a few pencil sketches, hoping to get my creative juices flowing in the medium that I’m most comfortable with. After a few drafts, I move on to using the watercolours and promptly realise that they’re not as easy as I remembered. Too much water will wrinkle the paper, too little and the paint will dry too quickly. A few hours into the project, my hands are covered in paint, I have a ruined carpet and the mediocrity of the four paintings before me is causing me to hyperventilate. Time is running out; I’m scheduled to exhibit in an hour, so I quickly choose the painting with the least mistakes and hope for the best.
Step 3: Exhibit your art
The Club gallery, located in Ginza Six, had agreed to display +852’s “artist”. Owned by the self-proclaimed “world’s best art bookstore”, Ginza Tsutaya, The Club is a straightforward space that exhibits international contemporary artists, some bearing a connection to Japan, others rarely seen in the country. When I arrive, the gallery is exhibiting the work of Tokyo-born Brit Nicholas Hatfull, whose massive canvases feature a technique that combines iPad sketches and spray paint. I’m told that this exhibit, which features strong lines and surrealistic representations of everyday objects, is mainly influenced by the films of Yasujiro Ozu, a director touted as the most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers. I wonder who I should say inspired my work, should anyone ask.
The staff at The Club are young, intelligent and very professional. I pray they don’t see the paint splotches along my nails or the panic in my eyes. Soon, we’re joined by an elegantly dressed woman with a pixie cut – Yukako Yamashita, The Club’s managing director, who used to work in the Tokyo office of Sotheby’s. As we chat, she explains the idiosyncrasies of Japanese art: “The Japanese have this mentality about caring for even the smallest details, not just in art, but in everything else.” She goes on to say that, though subtle, these details are still significant. “When you open up a comic book, you see how all these small details fill up and complete a page.” I think about the rather simple piece I’ve created and wonder if I’ve put in enough details. Will they see the inspirations and agonies that went into my process – the museum visits, the street art, the brush selection, the dread I experienced every time I saw a master’s artwork hung on a gallery wall? I cringe when they ask to see my painting.
“Kawaii!” “That is quite good.” “Clean lines and a good use of colour!”
My heart skips a beat. I resist the urge to prostrate myself and profess gratitude. Honestly, I don’t even care if it’s just Japan’s famed politeness; I feel deeply relieved. Emotions in check, I tell them they’re being too kind and watch as they put on gloves and reverently handle the frame as they hang it up.
Yamashita-san takes a look, gives a brief nod and asks me for the story behind the painting. I tell her how I’ve always been intrigued by the Japanese crane, tsuru. The almost mystical creature moults once a year during summer, rendering the bird flightless and defenceless until the end of the season, when it grows back its feathers and regains its ability to fly. I had seen the bird in numerous artworks at the museums and galleries and, while fretting over my challenge, had come to empathise with its feelings of vulnerability and intense desire to ascend confidently into the sky.
The Club’s founder tells me that my art can resonate with the new generation of art collectors in the city, because it’s rooted in both Japanese culture and my own personal story. “If I keep it for a while and display it later, maybe someone will come in and buy it,” she says. “Maybe we can put it next to a Warhol.” I know she’s half-jesting, but her teasing approval is as good as gold, making me feel like a real artist, flying high on the opening night of her first big city-gallery exhibition.
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New takes on old traditions
Feast your eyes on these distinctly Japanese artforms
Translated as “golden re-joining”, kintsugi is a 15th-century technique for transforming broken pottery into beautifully resurrected masterpieces using lacquer resin mixed with gold powder. Kintsugi is a manifestation of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. If you have time, take a kintsugi class at the Saidegama pottery shop in Omotesando, under the tutelage of master ceramicist Taku Nakano.
Making paper by hand is a classic Japanese artform, and the fine marbling or “floating ink” technique of suminagashi takes it to a whole new level. The distinct sumi ink swirls can even be applied to the fabric of a yukata – try making your own wearable piece of art at Tokyo Teshigoto, a workshop bringing traditional crafts to the present. Absorbent Japanese paper will help create truly one-of-a-kind patterns.
This traditional Edo-era glassmaking technique dates back to the 1800s. Kiriko refers to the multi-faceted decorative surface of the glasses, which are painstakingly hand-carved (sometimes exact to measurements as small as 0.1mm) by skilled craftsmen. Watch artisans in action or make a basic Edo-kiriko glass at Sumida Edo Kiriko Kan, a Tokyo-based studio and workshop.