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Japanese art finally finds favour in London

Contemporary Japanese artists have struggled for recognition in the capital, but that could be changing

The art scene in London has traditionally been less receptive to contemporary Japanese art than Paris or New York, but the opening of three major exhibitions and a specialist gallery within just a few weeks suggests that this could be changing.

“There has always been little exposure to contemporary Japanese art in London,” says the gallerist Yukiko Ito, whose White Rainbow gallery opened at 47 Mortimer Street, in Fitzrovia, on 7 October. “The general public tends to recognise only [Takashi] Murakami and [Yayoi] Kusama,” she says.

Slowly but surely, however, other Japanese artists are finding their way here. Shinro Ohtake, who exhibited at the Gwangju Biennale in 2010, at Documenta 13 in 2012 and at the Venice Biennale last year, in addition to a slew of solo shows in some of Japan’s most prestigious museums, is currently having his biggest survey show in London to date, at Parasol Unit (until 12 December).

Yoshitomo Nara’s unsettling drawings of cartoon-like children are widely recognisable, and he has had exhibitions at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles (2014), in New York’s Pace Gallery (2013) and Marianne Boesky Gallery (2009), and at the prestigious Asia Society (2010). He also took part in the 2011 Venice Biennale, but despite numerous museum shows around the world, he is having his first comprehensive London show only now, at the Dairy Art Centre. Frank Cohen, the centre’s co-founder and a longstanding collector of Nara’s work, says it was “the right time to do a show in London”.

Meanwhile, Yayoi Kusama is showing new work in Victoria Miro’s north London space. She is the only one of the three artists to have had a major museum show in the UK capital (at Tate Modern in 2012). Not even Takashi Murakami, whose exhibition at Gagosian Gallery’s space on West 24th Street in New York opens next month (10 November-17 January 2015), has had a museum show here, despite the artist having previously had exhibitions at the Fondation Cartier (2001 and 2002), the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2001 and 2007), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2007), the Guggenheim Bilbao (2009) and Versailles (2010).

Galleries at the fore

Since her collaboration with the fashion brand Louis Vuitton, “Kusama is the only one of our artists who sells on every continent”, says Glenn Scott Wright, a director at Victoria Miro. Cohen says that the market has been hugely influential in Kusama and Murakami’s critical success. “Gagosian [represented] them; that’s why they’re so big,” he says. “If [Gagosian] had Nara, his prices would have skyrocketed too.”

Some experts think that London’s museums and curators are trailing behind the market when it comes to contemporary Japanese art. Philip Dodd, the chairman of Made In China, which promotes business and cultural crossovers between China and Europe, and a member of the advisory board for the Art15 fair, believes that London’s galleries are “more adventurous” than its museums. “Japanese Modern and contemporary art has a great pedigree—perhaps more so than Chinese art—but sometimes the private sector acts much faster than the public,” Dodd says. A sale at Christie’s on Wednesday highlighted the lineage of Japanese art, offering works dating from antiquity to the present. The Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga’s work Untitled, 1965 (est £150,000-£200,000), sold for £230,500 (with buyer’s premium). But the market is not everything, and institutional support for contemporary Japanese art is growing. The Nara and Ohtake shows, which are both non-selling, have received £3,000 each from the Daiwa Foundation, which donates between £30,000 and £40,000 to shows in UK galleries every year.

Solid foundations

A number of other London-based foundations are also working to promote contemporary Japanese art. The Japan Foundation, a former government institution that has been independent since 2003, has a London office that contributes an average of £5,600 to selected UK exhibitions, and also organises packaged touring shows from its own collection. “We don’t just wait for sponsorship requests; we highlight trends in contemporary Japanese culture,” says Junko Takekawa, the senior arts programme officer for the foundation’s London office. As early as 2001, the foundation sent the show “Painting for Joy: New Japanese Painting of the 1990s”, featuring early works by Murakami and Nara, to eight venues across the UK.

The Japanese government has made relatively little effort to promote its living artists abroad, especially compared with China and South Korea. However, the country’s Agency for Cultural Affairs has just launched a new sponsorship scheme of ¥100m (£570,000), to be split between 20 galleries each year, helping them to take part in international fairs and events. “Until five years ago, the Japanese government mainly promoted traditional culture—there was a sense that ‘this is what Japan should be known for’—but that’s beginning to change now,” says Jason James, the director-general of the Daiwa Foundation. Will this stimulate the market? “It’s only the first year of the programme,” Yukiko Ito says, “so we can’t be sure yet.”

Can London accommodate more contemporary art from Japan? “London is a global city, so there’s no reason why this wouldn’t work,” Philip Dodd says, “but to leave your own home, you must first be welcome in another.”

Where to see it this week

• Yoshitomo Nara, “Greetings from a Place in My Heart”, Dairy Art Centre, until 14 December

• Shinro Ohtake, Parasol Unit, until 12 December

• Aiko Myanaga, “Strata: Origins”, White Rainbow, until 22 November

• Yayoi Kusama, “Pumpkins”, Victoria Miro, until 19 December

• Satoshi Hashimoto, Daiwa Foundation, until 18 October