A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Empty-Center of a City called Tokyo. From 'Art Space Tokyo', Chin Music Press, 2008


My memories of being brought up in Tokyo in the 1970s are faint, but very often brought back to life by small encounters I have in the city. One of my overwhelming memories is that everything was colored in a shade of brown or beige. This no doubt reflects a very particular 1970s aesthetic of American influenced ex-patriot culture in Tokyo – the Tokyo American club, my kindergarten, carpets at home and so on. Although I am from a mixed British Japanese family background, the Tokyo of my childhood is certainly heavily colored by a veneer of American home furnishings, architectures and television programs. After all, the year I was born, 1971, was a mere one hundred and eleven years since Commodore Matthew C. Perry steamed into Japanese waters in 1852 initiating the rapid process of Western modernization.




And yet amidst these memories are splendid spaces like the lobby of the old wing of the Hotel Okura. To this day largely unchanged, here one encounters the Tokyo of Sean Connery’s 1967 ‘You Only Live Twice’ James Bond, with its elegant mixing of Japanese traditional and International Modern styles. Built in 1962 by architect Yoshiro Taniguchi, the Hotel Okura’s interiors remain one of the most stunning spaces in Tokyo, perhaps architecturally symbolizing my own bi-cultural background.




Rather less grand, but equally wondrous is the wax museum in Tokyo Tower. A masterpiece of awkward, vernacular design, this museum is one of my favorite in Tokyo. Although a second, taller and more spectacular Tokyo Tower is due to open in Oshiage in 2011, the original 1958 tower retains much of its original early 1960s charm. I remember visiting the wax museum as a child, and standing wide-eyed before dusty figures of politicians or the somehow very odd looking Last Supper of Christ. Only later, did I come to appreciate the museum’s collection of Krautrock musicians, standing in their flared trousers and long kaftan coats, surrounded by an impressive collection of memorabilia from this genre. This ability to manifest personal interests or minor cultures is something that Tokyo seems to make possible, a consequence of the city’s seemingly endless appetite for curiosity.




Although Tokyo seems to change constantly, it is a city which manages to remain embedded in the memory of its inhabitants and visitors, not so much through its physical presence as through its ongoing passing. One often hears people comment on what used to stand somewhere, mapping out an effective geography of traces and memories. There does not seem to be such importance placed on notions of maintaining something in its proper place for eternity. Rather, places are re-invented in multiple configurations which can change with the passage of time and the fluctuations of one’s subjectivity and memory. Maybe this is why so much significance is placed every holiday period on people going back to their furusato or motherland, away from Tokyo back to somewhere with roots.




Tokyo is also remembered and its histories told particularly powerfully through the medium of photography, and more recently, film and video. This is an interesting fact to consider for a city which has undergone levels of almost total annihilation twice during the C20th – through earthquake and through war. One can argue that the city has undergone countless other, more tempered, phases of annihilation in the post-war period as developers and city councils continuously re-design parts of the city, tearing down buildings and parks in a cycle of little more than twenty to thirty years. The role of photographers in such an absorbed city has therefore been rather significant. From early figures such as Ihei Kimura to 1960s mavericks like Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki to more recent practioners such as Naoya Hatakeyama and Rinko Kawauchi, Tokyo is a city which has been caught and archived by the camera’s lens. Can we suggest that it has been photographs which have offered Tokyo a sense of place, of history, by providing it with a memory of reproduction? The relative lack of a sense of physical permanence has led to Tokyo being the subject of a great many artists and writers.




This sense of physical impermanence makes Tokyo something like a huge ever-evolving John Cage composition, whirling itself through chance procedures and the intervention of its inhabitants/users. Few anchor points exist to bind histories to places or people to places: except perhaps for the vast emptiness that is the Imperial Palace in the centre of the city. As Roland Barthes famously wrote in his analysis of Japan ‘Empire of Signs’ (1970), Tokyo is a city with an ‘empty centre’, in contrast to Western cities which place most of their important civic functions and architectures in a fully meaningful significant core. The palace remains a place of symbolism where an essentially ‘empty’ Emperor resides and performs complex rituals on behalf of the nation. One of the consequences of this ‘emptiness’ has been the lack a popular sense of political engagement which continues today. With the exception of the student demonstrations of the 1960s and the terror activities of the Japanese Red Army in the 1970s, Tokyo has seen very little popular protest or civil disturbance, at least in the European mould. The emergence of ‘net cafes’ and ‘net café refugees’ in 2007 in contrast points towards the greater privatization of public spaces. These transient spaces represent ‘empty’ places which can easily be ‘filled’ for a few hours by various kinds of people who either sleep in them or plug into the internet or other forms of mass entertainment. Not too unlike the Emperor’s secret rituals, we do not see what kinds of silent ceremonial go on in the tiny booths of such cafes.




Tokyo is also a city which has bathed itself in the electronic dissonance of neon and countless mobile devices used by its inhabitants. Parts of the city are indeed intense accumulations of electric lights and signals, acting like beacons across the immense urban carpet. Spectacular advertising architectures convey the city’s nervous energy towards consumption, which drives much of its energy. I am fascinated by the fact that the most widespread illegal drug in Japan is amphetamines. Figures from 1997 state that Japan is currently undergoing its third wave of stimulant drug abuse with over one million users.[1] Stimulant drugs in Japan are the fourth most widely used drug after caffeine, alcohol and nicotine and the most widely used illegal drug in the country. And then there are the countless legal so called ‘energy drinks’ which are sold in convenience stores and supermarkets, marketed successfully on television and magazines as what ‘keeps the nation going’. Although legal controls on illegal drugs are strictly enforced, it is also a paradox of living in Tokyo that one is daily assaulted on numerous fronts by highly effective stimulants (electric lights, ‘power supplements’ etc) which act on the nervous system.  Tokyo is a city of speed, of staying awake and of being constantly reminded of the inevitable power of Capital through one’s body and visual stimulus. In the face of such an effectively orchestrated onslaught what is there to do but submit to its energy and, as The Beatles so eloquently put it, ‘turn off your mind and float downstream’.[2]




In discussing Tokyo’s art spaces therefore, it becomes necessary first to recognize the cities temporal nature and the ways in which it has passed its stories and histories on through various technologies and rituals. The histories of art in Tokyo have also reflected this condition to varying degrees. The oldest and first museum to be constructed in Tokyo was the Tokyo National Museum or Tokyo Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan, opened in 1872[3]. National and Metropolitan museums have been built in the postwar years, with a recent spate of contemporary art museums being completed since 2003 including the Mori Art Museum and the National Art Center Tokyo. I must briefly mention the Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Nippon Mingeikan), which opened its doors as a museum early on in 1936. One of the only museums I know of which asks its visitors to remove one’s shoes on entering and wear slippers, the Mingeikan continues to offer a very unique museum experience in Tokyo. From the perspective of art spaces as physical architectures Tokyo presents a relatively new arena. However, as I suggest, if we consider Tokyo to be a city which also constructs its own very unique methods and spaces of telling stories, a rather different history of art spaces emerges.




This story is also a partly invisible story, or perhaps it would be better to say that it is a story about almost invisible spaces. Certainly in the postwar period, a number of avant-garde art events and actions have happened in and around Tokyo – the more well known being held on trains, the tops of buildings and on streets. However it is only from the early 1990s that Tokyo experiences what can be called a history of ‘alternative spaces’ along the lines of European or American models. Indeed, this is an interesting story with its origins in the artist run initiatives and squats of the early 1970s of New York and major European cities. I have found it somewhat intriguing that while in 1970 the American artist Robert Smithson was building his monumental Land art work ‘Spiral Jetty’, espousing a critical position against urban art institutions, the very same year sees Japan engulfed in the opening of the Osaka World Expo, and the unveiling of Taro Okamoto’s giant quasi-primitive ‘Tower of the Sun’ monument. In many ways the 1970s in Europe and the United States is a period of increasing movement away from institutional art spaces into derelict industrial spaces and lofts. In Japan, the Expo symbolizes a moment of victory for visionary young architects who realize their structures with huge influxes of public money. Many artists participate in the Expo, but in many ways Japan’s arts policy is molded from this time towards the construction of museum boxes – the start of the so called ‘Hakomono Gyosei’ (Box building Policy) which continues almost unabated to this day on various scales. In Tokyo the now non existent Sagacho Exhibit Space, located in an old food warehouse, is considered to be one of the cities first alternative art spaces, opening in the late 1980s. It closed in 2000 with its building being torn down to make way for new developments in 2003. Since the closure of Sagacho there has been no comparable alternative space in Tokyo, and only a stream of smaller, tactical initiatives, some of which survive for several years only to fade out due to lack of funds.




The reasons for this are no doubt tied closely to the nature of the city and its economics. Real estate and rental prices remain high, and vacant buildings are usually tightly sealed to prevent squatting, or quickly refurbished to await for new occupants. Added to this is the frankly very poor infrastructural support for contemporary art in Tokyo – either from the state or the city. Funding is difficult to find, and certainly not available for rental or running costs. This has created a situation of ‘realpolitik’ in which artists or curators must operate. New project spaces or initiatives must invariably plan ahead and devise viable business models if they are to sustain themselves for more than a brief period. In this sense, art spaces may have to look like any other small business operating in Tokyo – and become in this sense invisible. Galleries, artist initiatives or non profit organizations may be found in apartments, old office buildings or small city factories. Art finds itself sandwiched between different things or functions and must find its place in the relative disorder of the city fabric. Tokyo’s art spaces have rarely been able to advertise themselves loudly, like their New York or London East End counterparts. Rather, like chameleons, they tend to remain hidden or co-exist symbiotically next to neighboring businesses or homes.




However, Tokyo supports one of the most advanced public transportation systems in the world. The lack of large, historical art spaces is counter-balanced by the considerable mobility of its inhabitants who can safely and swiftly journey through the city, linking up various small spaces as they wish. Like Michel de Certeau’s analysis of the city walker who carves out unique pathways through the formally controlled environment, Tokyo’s infrastructure allows individuals to traverse spaces and ‘draw’ their own maps. This moulds a very specific understanding of art spaces in Tokyo which does not privilege spaces, so much as the creation of certain passages and durations. The density of the city perhaps shifts the focus from highlighting spaces, to the operations which link them together, forming criss crossed paths through and across Tokyo. Furthermore it is interesting to think of the numerous businesses in Tokyo which trade in time, including various service hotels, internet cafes, massage parlors and karaoke booths. These establishments charge customers by the hour for the use of usually compact rooms or cubicles. Of course related to this would be the unique system of so called rental galleries in Japan – in effect real estate agent-like galleries which charge artists for the use of exhibition space, normally for one week. The artist Hiroharu Mori created a text work for an AIT project in 2007 which humorously contrasts rental galleries with karaoke booths in the Ginza area of Tokyo. The work consists of the following paragraph:




According to my research on the internet, there are over sixty rental galleries situated in prime locations throughout Tokyo’s famous Ginza district. A breakdown of these galleries reveals that fifty two indicate rental fees on the internet. The average cost of these rental spaces is ¥267,807 per week (open six days a week). The average opening hours of these galleries per day is seven and a half hours. Therefore we can surmise that an average gallery space is available for ¥5,844 per hour. On the other hand, there are ten major Karaoke boxes in the Ginza area as well. The average rental price for these places is ¥695 per hour.


By the way, if I could sing a song for six days straight at a karaoke box, it would cost me ¥31,278. But how many songs do I need to sing before I become an established artist?”[4]




Although rental galleries still make up a sizeable part of Tokyo’s art spaces, since the late 1990s their scale and significance has somewhat decreased. This is due to the changing expectations of young art students as well as to the emergence of newer commercial gallery spaces, many of which combine multiple different functions including galleries, shops and bar spaces.




Being space-less is today both a result of Tokyo’s exacting real estate market as well as of its very specific social and psychological geographies. I would suggest that it is in fact the most effective method to operate in Tokyo at a time when the demands for space are greater than ever. In suggesting this I am keenly aware of many key historical precedents which have also respected the route of least spatial conquest in engaging with art. Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Boite en Valise’ and its questioning of the relevance of authenticity in museums, Andre Malraux’s proposal for a ‘Museum without Walls’ where the power of photography and reproduction techniques could render art spaces less important, the many ingenious and humorous multiples of Fluxus artists, through to a panoply of more recent manifestations and experiments including Yutaka Matsuzawa’s radical proposition to ‘vanish objects’ in the 1960s and Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s ‘Nasubi Gallery’ made in tiny milk delivery crates in 1992. Matsuzawa, who died in 2007, is one of the most interesting artists in this regard, often considered to be a ‘Father’ of conceptual art in Japan. During the 1965 Yomiuri Independents Exhibition he distributed fliers to the gathered visitors with the instruction to close one’s eyes and imagine oneself to be in a far away place, which he called his ‘Han Bunmei Ten’ (Anti-Civilisation Exhibition). Inspired by Buddhist metaphysics, mysticism and telepathy Matsuzawa’s immaterial gestures perhaps embodies the most radical break with the sanctioned art space in Japan.




Standing amidst the whirlwind of a busy Tokyo crossing, one’s nervous system assaulted on all fronts, Matsuzawa’s almost invisible gesture of closing the eyes makes a certain kind of sense. It suggests that the holy grail of the white cube space may not be so final here, and that slight gestures or the simple act of imagining can momentarily open up quite unexpected spaces for art and for a different kind of consciousness, pulsating with other kinds of codes and rules to what the city nurtures so confidently.


[1] From ‘The World Geopolitics of Drugs 1997/1998’ Annual Report, October 1998.

[2] ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, recorded by The Beatles in 1966 and included on their album Revolver. It is said that John  Lennon read Timothy Leary’s book, ‘The Psychedelic Experience’ (1964) which contains the advice: "When in doubt, relax, turn off your mind, float downstream".

[3] I should more accurately say that in 1871 The Museum Department was established as a section within the Ministry of Education; the Taiseiden Hall of the former Yushima Seido (the Confucian temple) was designated as the Museum Bureau Pavilion to prepare for establishing a museum. The National Museum opens the following year.

[4] Hiroharu Mori “How Many songs?”, a small text work included in the journal ‘Museum is Over! If you want it’ published by Arts Initiative Tokyo in March 2007 on the occasion of 16 Hour Museum in Tokyo. The text work was supported by ARTSPACE Sydney, Australia.