New art exhibition opens in Tokyo
There is new hope for the contemporary art scene in Japan—or at least that’s the narrative surrounding Tokyo Gendai, an art exhibition that held its premiere earlier this month.
International art exhibitions were able to turn 20,000 square meters of exhibition space at the Pacifico Yokohama convention center into temporary bonded areas, thanks to the recent revision of Japan’s tax law regarding the import, storage and sale of art coming into Japan. In other words, galleries and collectors participating in exhibitions are exempt from paying the usual 10% import tax for bringing works of art into the country – a long-term problem for the Japanese art scene that has not been hindered by other Asian art markets.
Tokyo Gendai isn’t the first in Japan to take advantage of tax breaks. Last September, Art Fair Asia Fukuoka laid claim to the country’s first bonded area, albeit on a much smaller scale than Tokyo Gendai. The Terrada Warehouse in Shinagawa opened a bonded gallery area the same month, following the establishment of a permanent bonded storage facility in early 2022. Haneda Airport has been hosting a bonded area for exhibitions and auctions since 2021.
Japan already has a long-running art exhibition, Art Fair Tokyo, but due to Tokyo Gendai’s focus on being an international contemporary art exhibition, its point of reference is not the annual event that takes place at the Tokyo International Forum — once hosted as “mediocre market” by Blum & Poe gallery Ashley Rawlings — but its predecessor, the Nippon International Contemporary Art Exhibition
NICAF lasted only four years, from 1992 to 1995, when disappointing sales caused international galleries to back down and the fair to downsize to a more comfortable village party atmosphere. At that time it was also intended to make Tokyo a global arts center. The Mori Art Museum was even more focused on making Japan’s capital the go-to destination for the international contemporary art crowd when it opened in 2003. Its ambition to be “world-class” was streamlined to focus on Asia after its British director David Elliot left in 2006. In a press conference at the time, incoming director Fumio Nanjo justified this axis by saying that the museum no longer needed to justify itself in relation to “the West”. At the same time, he says he wants to “catch the wave” of Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetic, in which the French curator proposes that in considering art, the process of audience interactivity is more valuable than excessive concern for the artist’s intentions. However, Bourriaud’s ideas were already eight years old at the time, and have been vigorously challenged in subsequent criticism.
Optimism surrounding Tokyo Gendai, as expressed in the media coverage of the event at outlets such as Artsy and the Art Newspaper and through the organizers themselves, hinges on the fact that once you enter the exhibition, for tax purposes, you are, as fellow visitors to preview night warned, “not in Japan right now.” Director Eri Takane described the high point of organizing the event as going to the customs office to collect the bonded zone certificate signed with Tokyo Gendai co-founder Magnus Renfrew. “It’s historic,” he told The Japan Times.