[Issue Editor, Interviewer]
The Theory of Art and Design
Arriving from the global stage, Japanese curator Yoichi Nakamuta forges new paths for the emerging creative culture of Singapore.
Three years ago, Japanese curator Yoichi Nakamuta decided to leave his homeland of Japan and sink his roots into our sunny shores. Nakamuta had built a reputation abroad uncovering talent – the likes of Tom Dixon, Michael Young and Christophe Pillet – and collaborating with them for his furniture manufacturing company E&Y before they became international names.
Since arriving in Singapore, his design acumen and foresight has helped raise the profile of local creatives through various projects. In 2012, he curated the book ‘Creative Culture: The Singapore Showcase’ – the first of its kind here. Produced by Underscore magazine, it presented a curation of homegrown creatives from the music, design, fashion, architecture and art scenes at the forefront of their craft. In 2014, he took on the role of International Curator for Singapore Design Week’s fringe event SingaPlural, spearheading several innovative installations and exhibitions, as well as launched Industry+, a furniture brand that promotes Asian designers and manufacturers. As if his portfolio were not impressive enough, Nakamuta is also the founder of Tokyo-based Clear Edition & Gallery, which he established in 2007. The trailblazing platform, which promotes art beyond the usual genre to include photography and design and other non-traditional sources, exhibited at Art Stage Singapore 2015 in January. Despite his packed schedule, Nakamuta managed to find some time to share with us his ruminations about art and design then, now and in the future.
Briefly describe your journey to becoming a curator. What got you interested in art? Where there any art influences from your youth?
My journey to becoming a curator, or collector, began in 1981 in NYC where I was based. My first purchase of an art piece was Tom Dixon’s Bull chair. I did not have much money, I could not afford expensive paintings but I found something that was equally beautiful as art and sculpture. I had never met Tom Dixon, but I was so happy to get it. I lived two years in Soho in the early 80s where I went to art openings every night and met a lot of intriguing personalities. I still remember the smell of the freshly painted walls for the opening nights. That made me aspire to be a gallerist one day.
How does Clear Edition & Gallery continue, or diversify your journey from E&Y, the furniture manufacturing company you set up in Tokyo?
After I returned to Japan in the mid-80s, I wanted to open a contemporary gallery but I did not have enough money to open one. So I changed my mind and started my own design label E&Y in 1985. I was selling art furniture by Tom Dixon, Danny Lane, Andre Dubreuil, Ron Arad, etc. At the same time, I was working on furniture production for Rem Koolhaas, Steven Holl, Marc Mak, Michael Graves and many other western designers and architects. I handled the press for an Aldo Rossi project and photography exhibition with Shigeru Ban who had just come back from The Cooper Union in NYC. So my early stage in life was full of encounters with foreign designers and architects. I received good education by selling design!
Clear Edition & Gallery was set up much later when I finally decided to open an art gallery eight years ago. Owning E&Y as a design label, my interests in photography, design art and street art still keeps expanding. It’s happening all in once. So I feel sorry for my hardworking staff, doing so many different projects at the same time.
Clear Edition & Gallery’s ethos is to combine art and design in its selection of works. There is a fine line between what is considered art and what is considered functional design. What guidelines do you use to curate the content for your Gallery?
Of course market-wise, art and design are quite different. However, especially these recent years we tend not to completely divide the two when it comes to gallery programs. What is good is good. What or who we consider is good are the ones challenging the boundaries.
The art scene in Asia, particularly Singapore, has grown exponentially over the past few years. Is there room for even more growth, in terms of the quality and quantity of what is being done? What are your gripes about the way art functions in this climate?
I don’t know about quantity, but quality I hope so. Both are deeply related to each other anyway. Singapore functions as a hub well. I think more international attention should go to the local talents.
At Art Stage Singapore 2015, Clear Edition & Gallery displayed the works of Japanese artist Éi Kaneko, and photographer Jovian Lim, artist Soph O (Sophia Ong) and designer Jackson Tan from Singapore. Kaneko’s deconstructivist collages, Lim’s atmospheric images inspired by theories of eurhythmy, Ong’s fantastical imagery and Tan’ symbolic ‘DREAM’ sculpture and ‘Dot’ artworks are so different from one another. Tell us why you picked these particular works and artists to showcase at this exhibition.
First of all, I like photography, design art, and urban art. If you go to international art fairs, you often find many galleries showing these types of art forms, but here at Art Stage Singapore, I don’t see much of those [types of] artworks displayed. I wanted to explore these fields of art, which may be new for the Art Stage buyers. Clear Edition & Gallery Tokyo has in its program contemporary art/photography and contemporary design artists. We had no hesitation to show the same in Singapore.
Most of all, I like works of Jovian Lim, Jackson Tan and Sophia Ong and I would like to show more Singaporean artists’ works in the future art fairs!
In 2012, you curated the book ‘Creative Cultures: The Singapore Showcase’ featuring top creatives from Singapore’s architecture, design, art, music and fashion scene. Might there be further editions for other cities’ talents?
Yes, that would be fun.
A lot of your recent projects have been based in Singapore or are Singapore-related, and you have even moved here to stay. Obviously, you see potential in this city as a creative nucleus. Can you tell us your thoughts on this?
The potential I felt was the speed and the passion. The people who are in the middle of the creative scenes here are very young compared to the ones in Tokyo. They are very passionate, eager to challenge and very international, which is quite different from the matured scenes in Japan.
You are a veteran in the international design scene having scouted for and manufactured and exhibited the works of up-and-coming designers since the 1980s. How do you feel the climate of furniture design has changed since then, both in Europe and Asia?
I think the change is just in terms of the market. The output might be different from time to time but the talents are from all over the world, and that hasn’t changed much.
Back in the day, you talent-spotted designers like Tom Dixon and Michael Young before they became famous. In current times, who do you think are the up-and-coming names with that kind of calibre to watch for in the design field?
I am still on the look out!
How do you think the Internet has influenced the art world in the last decade? Do you think that has changed the definition of the artist and the designer?
Definition-wise no, it hasn’t changed much. But the Internet did give everyone the opportunity to speak for themselves and it did make the world a smaller place. I would say the function of galleries has slightly changed. How? The artists are more self-promotive these days. They have tons of tools to reach out to the public although so does the gallery. So I guess artists do not need to rely much on the galleries in terms of promoting their works to the masses. But business-wise the relationship hasn’t changed much, at least for us.
How would you define contemporary Japanese art, and similarly, how would you define contemporary Singaporean art, as they are today?
I don’t feel there is a difference. We have never selected our artists at Clear Edition by nationality and it’s basically the same with Industry+. Of course they all have their roots and some of the people we work with their roots are reflected in their works, but it’s a matter of the persuasiveness of the message they want to portray and not where they come from that is important.
What other interests do you have aside from art and design? For example, what do you do on your days ‘off’?
Film. This is my next project—making a documentary film. What kind film? Still secret.
What other projects are you working on for the coming year?
I am producing few exhibitions including an oncoming touring exhibition of Japan’s late industrial design master mind, Sori Yanagi, I am producing a book called ‘Underground Idols’ with Yonehara Yasumasa, I am also working on many furniture design productions and many gallery shows. You will find out more about them soon.