The New Art Factory | TABlog

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After serving as Director of Art Fair Tokyo, the country’s leading art fair, from 2005 to 2010, Misa Shin opened her own commercial art space in November 2010, with the inaugural exhibition of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The gallery also represents Shomei Tomatsu, Momoyo Torimitsu, Arata Isozaki and Ken Lum, among others.

The first thing visitors will surely notice about your gallery is that it is an old iron factory, with a huge front door. What made you choose this building in Shirokane?

Now a lot of new galleries are emerging. In the east of Tokyo there are a lot of galleries and I have heard that there are some quirky spaces there. But I thought it was better to have a gallery in the center of town. Luckily, the real estate agent told me that this building was available. It is in Shirokane so Roppongi is also close. There is also the Shirokane Complex [a gallery building containing Yamamoto Gendai, Nanzuka Underground and Kodama Gallery] close. There are a lot of small factories in this area. It’s really unusual to be a gallery in this space. A place with such a high ceiling and that kind of front door – it’s unique.

Are there any practical or conservation issues due to the space not being a typical white cube?

I consulted an architect for a renovation. To convert this space into a white cube, it would cost a fortune. It used to be an iron factory, so a lot of weird things remain, like old light switches. I wanted to keep these items and take good care of them. I built a big white wall but that’s it. The part of the space where the ceiling is low that we use as a warehouse. I really liked the front door. It is very useful for loading and bringing in big jobs. In fact, the building is exceptionally practical. There is even a parking space in front of the gallery, which is rare in Tokyo.

Your first exhibition is Ai Weiwei, a big international name to launch your gallery. How did it happen?

The reason I wanted to create my own gallery was to create a mirror, where art reflects society. I wanted to exhibit artists who express social and political issues. Ai Weiwei is an old friend and we met in Beijing before he got so famous. He has a very different attitude from other Chinese artists in the Chinese art boom. He was the first artist that came to mind when I thought about creating my gallery. Now he is very busy and famous, but he liked this space very much and quickly offered to exhibit this work for us.

Misa Shin Gallery in Shirokane, Tokyo, exhibiting 'Cube Light' by Ai Weiwei.Ai Weiwei’s exhibition consists of a single large installation work. But will it be harder to show more conventional 2D works in this space?

It depends on the artists, but we have a wall. And artists like Yasuko Iba, although they work with paint, they said they don’t need walls. All my artists are interested in the issues of space.

“Cube Light” has been in operation for a relatively long time. Most commercial galleries display works for about a month, but the Ai Weiwei piece was on display from mid-November to the end of January. Will this practice continue?

In general, I think I will do exhibitions once every two months; at the shortest six weeks. I don’t always want to change exposure. Rather, I want to show the works with care and thoughtfulness.

Starting with Ai Weiwei, the choice of artists for your gallery is quite international.

There are a lot of Asians, yes. But I do not intend to separate the artists by nationality. Indeed, I do not have American or European artists. I have a lot of Asian artists but they all work internationally. Currently, a line-up of six artists is decided. I think about these artists for the long term, so ideally I would like to do an exhibition every two years for each artist.

The current economic environment in Japan is not very positive. Must it be hard to open a gallery in this climate?

It’s hard, yes. But I do not choose to open or not to open a gallery because of the economic conditions. It’s just my wishes. For me, not opening a gallery because of the recession is no excuse. I have wanted to do this for twenty years. It took a while for the opportunity to come together.

In 2008, you said that “it is only now that private collectors are starting to emerge”. How is the situation today?

Yes, more and more people are buying works of art. It is often said that the Japanese do not buy works of art. They don’t know the price. The Japanese do not have artistic “literacy” training in this regard. For many years there has been a sort of taboo to talk about works of art alongside money. This is not the case for antiques but for contemporary art there was this ideal of purity.

So at Art Fair Tokyo, we wanted the awards to be open to visitors. You can compare prices and see the prices easily. People can understand that the price of a work of art can be the same as that of a Louis Vuitton bag. The number of visitors to Art Fair Tokyo has increased over the past five years, but sales remain almost the same. So in a way the market is very healthy. There are only ordinary men and women who buy work, unrelated to the investment. Japan has this very good and unique situation. But a gallery must respond and must therefore also target a foreign clientele.

Misa Shin in her gallery in Tokyo, next to Ai Weiwei's 'Cube Light'.

Can you tell us about Seung Woo Back’s upcoming show?

He’s a Korean photographer. He visited North Korea ten years ago during a brief period of stability. Of course, you can’t take photos the way you want. He was told what to take and where. Then, the images are developed and then cut by the North Koreans. Small elements therefore emerge from these large photos, allowing us to see a new aspect of North Korea. It is a very mysterious country for us, but through these photos we can see many other aspects of the place. He also created a kind of North Korean utopia inside photos by constructing pictures. He is interested in architectural and urban planning photography. He doesn’t judge at all whether North Korea is good or bad. He is not political. He calls it a kind of “archeology”.

You can read a previous interview with Misa Shin on TABlog during her tenure at Art Fair Tokyo, and a photo report on Ai Weiwei’s opening exhibition. The next exhibition, “Blow Up” by Seung Woo Back, begins on March 4th.


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