Fundamental Change in Asia

An interview with Fumio Nanjo

Mori Art Museum, Roppongi

Fumio Nanjo

FUMIO NANJO, director

Born in Tokyo in 1949, he received his BA in economics and aesthetics from Keio University. He has organized numerous exhibitions as an officer of the Japan Foundation (1978–1986), as the director of ICA Nagoya (1986–1990), and as the founder and Director of Nanjo and Associates (1990–2002). In addition he has also curated numerous public art and corporate art projects, writes art criticism and teaches a course on art management at Keio University in Tokyo. He was appointed Director of the Mori Art Museum in 2006.

What kind of work were you doing at Nanjo and Associates?

FNhe original idea was for Nanjo and Associates to be a loose network of curators. However, it’s actually very difficult to work efficiently with other curators because most belong to museums and are working on their respective programs. There are also very few independent curators, and they want to be free anyway. So Nanjo and Associates effectively became my own curatorial office, from which I coordinated art exhibitions and conferences coming into and going out of Japan; fundraising was a big requirement for these kinds of events. On the editing front, I did a lot of editing for public art features in Space Design Magazine.

Later on, Nanjo and Associates set up a lot of public art projects. Shinjuku I-Land in Nishi Shinjuku consists of a main office tower with a few other buildings around it. It was planned in the late 1980s, and the developers had a very large budget to work with, allowing us to produce public artworks by big names such as Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein and artists from the Arte Povera movement. After that Nanjo and Associates was constantly receiving commissions for public art projects, many of which came to fruition all around Japan. There was less money around for art at the beginning of the 1990s after the bubble economy burst, so I shifted from working with major contemporary masters to young Japanese artists of the time such as Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara.

What do you think about the standards of public art in Tokyo?

FNIt’s not easy to make artworks sit well in public space. In the end the standard depends on the effort of each developer. Public art only tends to appear when it has been incorporated into the budget of a development from the beginning; once a new development has opened, usually there is no money for art to be added later. That’s why you tend to see public art only in newly developed parts of the city. This is not really an ideal state of affairs; public art should be spread more evenly around the city, but I don’t know who would want to pay for that after the completion of a development.

Does Japan have a ‘percent for art’ law?1

FNEach prefecture in Japan has guidelines for the incorporation of public art in new public developments, but the truth is not many people care. There’s little incentive to follow the guidelines: you lose nothing if you ignore them and you gain nothing if you pay attention to them. Without incentives, it’s hard to encourage people to spend money on public art.

Talking about the use of public space in a slightly different way, Tokyo of the 1960s and 1970s saw a lot of happenings and performances taking place on the streets, but this rarely occurs now. What has changed about the way people use the streets?

FNPerformance art in the streets booms when the country concerned does not have a fully developed art infrastructure and museums are not active in showing contemporary artists. This is the case in many Asian countries today. In the 1960s and ’70s, few museums in Japan were showing young artists, so they had to go out on the street. However, many museums were built in the following decade. After the bubble burst, museums stopped showing expensive exhibitions, and there was a natural shift toward holding more contemporary art exhibitions because they are cheaper to produce. Perhaps the Japanese artists of today have lost the passion or motivation to use the streets because there are so many potential venues.

Do you think there are enough alternative spaces for artists in Tokyo?

FNhere are few alternative spaces that would count as stable infrastructure. There are always a number of temporary places, but they generally don’t last long. This is particularly the case if you go to small cities outside of Tokyo, which are facing a decline in population and industry. Many shops have closed down in their city centers, so frequently local governments approach young artists and ask them to use these spaces for workshops, exhibitions and performances. They have a lot of opportunities these days, but I don’t think this is really the best situation because it means that artists are being paid for time spent working rather than for their artistic creations. A healthy situation for artists is when their work is sold on the market and they can have more time to themselves to make their art.

What led you to set up Arts Initiative Tokyo (AIT)?

FNNanjo and Associates was a corporation, so in 2000 I asked my staff to research the possibility of setting up an independent nonprofit organization for art. After much discussion and fieldwork, two fundamental issues came up. Firstly, contemporary art needs more educational support. Many people say that they find contemporary art difficult to understand. This is the result of a lack of education about what it is, how it functions and what the background stories are. People need to know that it can be exciting and entertaining as well as academic. The second issue was that I felt that Tokyo needed an artist-in-residence program. I had been an adviser to ARCUS in Ibaraki Prefecture but there was no artist-in-residence program in Tokyo itself. AIT is now an independent and self-sustaining organization with several core members. It continues to develop and create new initiatives. The members approached several government agencies, particularly in European countries, which promised to send artists at their expense. Since then, the opportunities for artists to come to Tokyo have diversified a little.

Do you think it’s easy for foreign artists to establish themselves in Tokyo?

FNI think it’s very difficult, but it’s difficult for Japanese artists too. Again, it’s to do with the lack of stable infrastructure. Foreigners don’t know where to show. Museums are too big; they’re not the place to start. There needs to be more small, light organizations that can make quick decisions and take risks. Commercial galleries have to think about selling, so they will be less likely to take risks. It can potentially cost the gallery a lot more to promote an unknown artist, and if their work is not easily collectable — if it is ephemeral or site-specific—then fewer collectors are likely to buy it. Compared to other developed countries, there are fewer commercial galleries in Tokyo anyway. The only possibility is to show at places like BankART in Yokohama, Tokyo Wonder Site or other small alternative spaces.

What effect do you think the Mori Art Museum has had on the Tokyo art world since it opened in 2003?

FNI like to think that we have contributed to the restoration of people’s faith in art. After the bubble burst, a lot of masterpieces in this country lost their value and had to be sold to foreign countries. Many collectors lost money and this created a very negative mood in which art was perceived as something unreliable and dangerous to touch. In the early 2000s, I think everybody was ready for a change, so the timing of the Mori Art Museum opening right in the center of Tokyo was just right. We have shown that art is important, that it is enjoyable and can work as a positive influence on people’s lives.

One of the aspects that sets the Mori Art Museum apart from most other museums in Tokyo is that it makes the effort to interact with the rest of the world: the first director, David Elliott, was Japan’s first foreign museum director; the website is completely bilingual, and many of the staff speak perfect English. Do you think that Tokyo’s art scene is capable of being truly international?

FNThe answer to that question is not just limited to the art world, actually. Japan itself is facing a problem over how it relates to the rest of Asia and the rest of the world. The Chinese economy is booming and its art market is growing. India is the same; Southeast Asia and the Middle East are following. The essential point is that their people all believe in the future. Their young people have strong expectations and ambitions and they are playing a real game of survival. Japan, on the other hand, has finished with that period of its development. People assumed during the peak of the bubble period that the country would continue to rise, but after the bubble burst, Japan lost its sense of national purpose. Equally, for the first time, Japanese people are more individualistic; everybody has different dreams and goals. I feel this is quite different from China and India. I wish that young people here would spend a little less time focusing on small, private pleasures and have more ambition for the future. If they engage with the future, they can establish a new identity.

So Japan is a very disconnected place, isolated from the rest of the world?

FNJapan is connected economically, but at a social and intellectual level, it’s disconnected from what is going on in Asia and the rest of the world. The TV doesn’t really report what is going on in the art market in China. Even within the art world, not so many people are really aware of what is going on in China. Even if war breaks out in Iraq or Kosovo, nobody here cares. The news reports it, but the Japanese don’t feel any sense of danger. The Japanese are aware that other people are engaged in games of survival, but they don’t feel it. Japan is living in nirvana. But I think at least Mori Art Museum can struggle to be international. That is why we continue to be bilingual and try to be open to anybody.

As a curator, what do you think about working in white cube exhibition spaces?

FNI think that the white cube functions as a compromise that accommodates all possible situations; all works look okay in the white cube. In a sense, it’s the bottom line solution for an art space. You can make specialized spaces—concrete cubes or rooms with painted walls—but very often the artwork suffers as a result. For a museum that has to show so many different kinds of works, the white cube is the basic solution for multiple situations.

What kind of spaces do you ideally like to work with?

FNI prefer old buildings with specific contexts. In 2006, I curated the Singapore Biennale, where we installed artworks in chapels, mosques, synagogues, Buddhist temples and Hindu temples. We also went to some rundown military barracks, kept them as they were and installed artworks. When you put an artwork in a white cube, you’re just delivering one message, but in more specific locations you can achieve a dialogue between the space and the artworks and cultivate layers of meaning that relate to the histories and purposes of those spaces. It’s more exciting to work with artists to find the right artwork for the right space, and the end result is more stimulating for the viewer.

What do you think makes a successful exhibition?

FNThat’s hard. I don’t fully know yet. Overall, of course you would need to judge on a case-by-case basis, but I think it comes down to what kind of surprises are set up for the visitors. It’s important that they leave having experienced something unexpected and stimulating. It’s not so interesting when you see an exhibition full of works you have already seen; it just confirms what you already know. So with this in mind I would like to show art from lesser-known areas of the art world such as India, the Middle East, South America and so on.

How has the Tokyo art world changed over the past fifteen years?

FNThere’s been a drastic change. When I started working in the contemporary art field at the beginning of the 1980s, no Japanese artist expected to be shown in Western museums. The breakthrough came around the time of the Venice Biennale in 1988, for which I was commissioned to select some Japanese artists. There were also several very important exhibitions about Japanese contemporary art at that time: A Primal Spirit: Ten Contemporary Japanese Sculptors,2 organized by Toshio Hara and Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties,3 organized by myself and curators Shinji Komoto, the curator of the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, Thomas Sokorowsky and Kathy Halbreich. There was also Magiciens de la Terre,4 organized by Jean-Hubert Martin in 1989 at the Pompidou Center. These exhibitions were very powerful showcases of Japanese art at that time; they were instrumental in gradually shifting the focus from Western contemporary artists to Asian ones.

People in New York or London may not feel it yet, but this change is going on now in a very powerful and fundamental way. The boom in the Chinese art scene has affected the sensibilities of Western collectors. Before you had artists like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Dan Flavin and Mark Rothko as the masters of modern art, and of course their works are very beautiful, but they are the last flowers of Modernism. The last fifteen years have seen the focus turn to a Postmodern sensibility of using the local culture of each artist for the creation of contemporary art. Now we are looking at Cai Guo Qiang, Xu Bing, Huang Yong Ping, as well as artists from India and Southeast Asia. In the 1980s, their kind of works — using material like dynamite, fish or Chinese traditional toilets — came across as very kitsch and local, and it wasn’t regarded as universal or international. However, now people feel differently when they see works of this nature.

How do Japanese contemporary artists differ from their Chinese counterparts?

FNJapan occupies a strange position in between Asia and the West and the two different vocabularies that they represent. The former is very local and uses vernacular languages for contemporary art. The latter is often still modern, minimal and universal in its aims. Of course, Japan has been the good kid in the story of Modernism in Asia. Chinese people have told me that the work of Japanese artists is not like that of the Chinese: it is more universal and abstract and Japanese tradition does not play such a big part in it. Of course we have Makoto Aida, Akira Yamaguchi and Hisashi Tenmyouya, who each make use of the ukiyoe or traditional painting style in their different ways, but overall the Japanese style of contemporary art has been pushed through some filters. Takashi Murakami’s idea of Superflat draws on the Japanese traditional methodology of painting, which presents no concerns about three-dimensionality, unlike European artists who have been chasing this concern since the Renaissance. Nevertheless, while he uses Japanese traditional art, his paintings are very slick and clean, like industrial products; he is not selling traditional vernacular culture. This is a bit different from the way the Chinese draw on their traditions.


  1. Governments often mandate that a small percentage of a building’s construction costs, usually around one percent, be used for public art.
  2. Held at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art from March 10 to April 14, 1990, and then at four venues in the United States and Canada.
  3. Held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from June 15 to August 6, 1989.
  4. Held at the Pompidou Center in Paris from May 18 to August 14, 1989.