NANZUKA is an art gallery in Tokyo’s hip Shibuya districtestablished in 2005 when the city still had an underground scene.Even as trends change, the gallery’s mission remains the same: to promote Japan’s top contemporary artists around the world.
From an art history student to a gallerist
Walk five minutes from Tokyo’s Shibuya Station and enter through a black door to discover the NANZUKA contemporary art gallery. Now in its 15th year, the gallery is located in a low-ceilinged basement where the gallery’s resident artists display their work.
“This building is getting torn down after the Olympics," says owner Shinji Nanzuka. “I haven’t found a new place yet, so my artists are a bit on edge. (Laughs.)" On this day the gallery is displaying the large-eyed sculptures of Spanish artist Javier Calleja and the robot women sculptures of Hajime Sorayama—typical of the kind of work you will find at NANZUKA. After studying art history at Waseda University, Nanzuka opened his own gallery and slowly built up his reputation.
“I was interested in how Japanese art was turned into an institution and how it came be positioned in a historical context," Nanzuka says, “so in university, I researched self-taught artists who existed outside the context of academic art. But there were no museums that accommodated my research topics. I thought about pursuing a doctorate, but I forgot to submit the necessary application documents. (Laughs.) Following a suggestion from my academic advisor, I decided to open an art gallery." Nanzuka had no idea what he was doing, but he figured that if he could gather some of his favorite artists and sell a few of their works, he would do just fine. It helped that he had a strong ally: video artist Naohiro Ukawa, who Nanzuka met at a club.
An auspicious beginning of all-night parties
“It was Ukawa’s idea to do a combination studio-gallery-club," says Nanzuka. “On opening day, we had visitors staying until the morning, and Ukawa turned the event into a party. Then, at Ukawa’s own exhibition, DJ Richie Hawtin began an impromptu gig and the gallery became packed—works were toppling over and breaking left and right! Those were the days."
Nanzuka says the art industry at the time was very conservative. “There was a time when gallerists were trying to promote themselves overseas through the works of Japanese artists, and part of the strategy involved distancing themselves from the classic art shows that department stores organized. As a result, the contemporary art industry became pretentious, dictating what counted as contemporary art. My goal was to bring together these commercial creatives and destroy these rigid definitions of art."
Initially, most of the resident artists were young, in their mid-20s and making a living by drawing magazine illustrations and designing graphics for brand T-shirts. Many of them—such as Hiroki Tsukuda and Masato Mori—are considered prominent contemporary artists today. But the good times were put on hold following the 2008 financial crisis.
“After the crisis, the underground scene vanished," Nanzuka says. “People stopped going to clubs. Many of these people were my age, and I think they felt this was some kind of wakeup call. There really hasn’t been a substantial underground scene in Tokyo since. With no scene, there’s no underground music or art. Young people are more fragmented than ever—it’s like a return to the otaku culture of the past. Then, there was the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The past ten years have been difficult for the Japanese art industry."
One of the hardest jobs of a gallery owner is learning how to correctly read the times and changing course to accommodate them. In recent years, this has meant harnessing the power of social media.
The need to be bold and test boundaries
“How the art business used to work," Nanzuka says, “is that you first had people view each artist’s works as a single ecosystem, and once they started to understand the context that tied the works together, they paid the big bucks. I think this is still pretty much the trend in Europe. But in the last couple of years, we’ve seen the sudden emergence of a new market of young, wealthy art lovers who go on Instagram and other social media and immediately purchase whatever work they happen to like. Normally, NANZUKA is seen as embracing trends, but for our artists, the act of creation itself hasn’t changed. That’s why they think there’s a high possibility this trend proves to be short-lived. Having said that, I have seen up-close how the art market and galleries have begun to slowly change. Change always comes with risks, but I’m supportive of these kinds of changes."
Collaborating with UNIQLO certainly marks a change. Who knows how these T-shirts—featuring the works of NANZUKA artists—will influence consumption and contemporary art once they are distributed across the world. “Art and fashion are similar in that neither can survive without being bold," Nanzuka says.
“It took a lot of trial and error to see how much we could get away with within UNIQLO’s boundaries. There was more that I wanted to do, but I think the artists and I created a pretty good collection. In any creative endeavor, you want to constantly test others to see how much creativity they’ll let you pursue."
©Erik Parker ©Haroshi ©Harumi Yamaguchi ©Hiroki Tsukuda ©Hajime Sorayama ©Javier Calleja ©Julia Chiang ©Katherine Bernhardt ©Keiichi Tanaami ©Oliver Payne ©TOKYO-SKYTREE ©TOKYO TOWER ©YOSHIROTTEN ©Yuichi Yokoyama Courtesy of Nanzuka
Shinji Nanzuka | Nanzuka was born in Tokyo in 1978. He studied art history at Waseda University, then founded Nanzuka Underground in an underground Shibuya space in 2005. After a stint elsewhere, the gallery returned to Shibuya in 2012 as NANZUKA. He also runs AISHONANZUKA in Hong Kong.