About Us (Articles)


Great Places to Hang in Tokyo.
by ROB GOSS
Photograph by KO SASAKI


Great Places to Hang in Tokyo. (TIME)01 Great Places to Hang in Tokyo. (TIME)02
Shooting galleries in Nihonbashi
by KIT NAGAMURA


Dr. Georg Albrecht Mai
Art attack: Danish collector Dr. Georg Albrecht Mai joins a gallery tour organized by Hitoshi Ohashi of the Tobin Ohashi Gallery. KIT NAGAMURA PHOTOS
Summertime, and the living's less easy than queasy as Tokyo's temperatures and humidity soar. It's like that as I exit the Hibiya Line's Kodenmacho Station, in Chuo Ward, headed for Jisshi Koen, the area's sole park.

My plan is to walk northeast, to the Bakuro-yokoyama district, where I've heard that building vacancies and low rents have allowed many contemporary-art galleries to move in. I envision a day spent jumping in and out of air-conditioned indie art emporiums.

Things start out differently. I find Jisshi Park to be a block of gray dirt and sand, bordered by a smattering of trees and earthquake-toppled stone lanterns. A 1.7-meter-high bell incarcerated inside a modern concrete belfry looms over all.

A sign informs me that the Kokucho Toki no Kane bell was first cast in 1626 to ring out the hours in Edo (present-day Tokyo), and that it was then recast in 1711 to repair damage from the city's periodic fires.

No longer used, the bell just hangs there, forlorn - but unlike so many temple ringers around the city, this one is under lock and key. I ask a gent on a park bench why. "It's in jail," he guffaws, and then explains that this open space was once inside the grounds of Japan's largest prison, Denmacho.

Established by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1613, Denmacho prison generally held between 100 and 400 accused outlaws from all walks of life, including women and samurai, until it was moved to Yotsuya in 1875.

Among its most famous inmates was Shoin Yoshida, a samurai educator imprisoned there in 1859 for attempting to stow away aboard one of U.S. Navy Cmdr. Matthew Perry's "Black Ships." He claimed that he did so to learn more about the "barbarians" he feared would colonize Japan - but back then the 1630s sakoku (closed-country) laws were still in force, and what he did could have cost him his head.

Though Yoshida was eventually executed for plotting rebellions against rulers he thought responsible for treaties unfavorable to Japan, many of his students took on important positions during the Meiji Reformation that followed the fall of the shogunate in 1867.

Jailbreaking, I cross the street under a torturous sun to take refuge at Dai Anraku Temple. However, there I stumble on a stone tablet marking the spot where Denmacho's executions took place. Mental images of beheadings superimpose themselves on my vision of the temple's jizo (bodhisattva statue), and I start to wonder about human cycles of suffering.

Before the heat fries me entirely, I head northeast through backstreets chewed up by jackhammers and construction crews. Nothing here resembles an art gallery.

Machi Yamada
At eatery Alimentare e Bar Renea, dried macaroni tubes hold scrolls that tell your pasta and future, by writer Machi Yamada.
Crossing Kiyosumibashi Avenue, I spot a line of people waiting outside a building decorated with what looks like tiny Pantone color swatches and a sign "Colorworks." Now, I'm hopeful. The ground floor, however, is Alimentare e Bar Renea, a trattoria with display cases holding 20-odd deli dishes to order in or take out. I pick one of the cheap lunch-plate combos (¥950) and find the tasty morsels and friendly service recommend the eponymous white-tablecloth restaurant in the basement.

Recharged, I climb stairs to check out the building's three upper floors. One displays British Farrow & Ball wall-coverings; another Colorwork's brand of paint, Hip - in 1,488 shades; and on the fourth floor I hit pay dirt in Palette Gallery, an art and design space meant to highlight innovative wall treatments.

Trotting downstairs, I am almost out Renea's door when a jar of dry macaroni pasta catches my eye. Each little tube is stuffed with a bit of rolled paper.

"Every one has an original fortune written by author Machi Yamada," manager Fujio Suzuki tells me. "They're really funny," he adds. I plonk down ¥100, and get one. Mine promises I will have a modicum of good luck, and recommends I immediately visit an industrial factory. Not an art gallery? Funny indeed.

Being slightly superstitious, I visit the very next industrial-looking site I find, a deep garage full of forklifts and pallets of the unartistic sort. Yasuo Suzuki, 62, the owner of Kounsha, tells me that his goods-transportation business started 100 years ago, when his grandfather made deliveries with a bike and rear-car. But the area he serves, Bakurocho, long known as a clothing tonyagai (wholesale district) has changed, he explains, rubbing the grease on his hands. How?

He shakes his head, uncertain how to respond. "But I'm not interesting," he says. "Let me introduce you to someone who is."

Suzuki whistles up his wife, Hisako, and she guides me into an alley so narrow that a postman arriving on his scooter nearly squashes us. Behind Kounsha, in a hollowed-out old building, I meet willowy 43-year-old Akemi Shiroyama, proprietress of L'atelier Exquis, a workshop where she fashions and sells one-of-a-kind bags.

With a background in designing swimsuits for Olympic synchronized swimmers, and a love of innovative fabric use, Shiroyama for years created handbags on the side. However, mere months ago, she decided to hang out her shingle. "I love this area, because people are so warm. Also, I want to hold collaborative events with artists and designers here," she tells me. If you can find them, I think to myself.

Hisako gazes at her new neighbor with undisguised admiration. "This part of town was really depressed," she says, "but in the past two years, small shops and galleries like this one are popping up everywhere. It's reviving."

Yoshihisa Suzuki and Yasuo Suzuki
Like father, like son: 62-year-old Yasuo Suzuki (right), owner of goods delivery service Kounsha, laughs at the suggestion that he and his 94-year-old father Yoshihisa Suzuki (left) look like brothers.
As Shiroyama demonstrates one of her favorite bag designs, a model that converts from bagette to boho in seconds, I note half-finished pencil sketches of birds on her wall. "I drew those," she says. While L'atelier Exquis is not, strictly speaking, a gallery, I realize that my macaroni fortune worked a charm.

Before I move on, Hisako's husband introduces me to his 94-year-old father. As I snap pictures of the two men, their camaraderie and laughter is infectious - and I understand why Shiroyama chose to open shop nearby.

Wandering south across Edo Avenue, the wholesale clothing district of Bakuro-yokoyama smells of plastic garment bags and ironed cotton. I note that many shops actively discourage non-commercial shoppers, but a few are less strict.

At Noda, a kimono shop 68 years in the same location, silk remnants fashioned into small, drawstring bags can be snapped up for ¥100, and tenugui (hand towels) for a mere ¥124. As I purchase a couple of these ecofriendly snips, I note a beguiling painting in the window of a crisp little gallery across the street. At last, art and air-conditioning, I think.

Robert Tobin and Hitoshi Ohashi
Ohashi and gallery partner Robert Tobin pose before the work of Indonesian artist Ida Bagus Putu Purwa.
Walking into the Tobin Ohashi Gallery, run by partners Robert Tobin, 63, and Hitoshi Ohashi, 48, I'm struck by the raw energy of the work on the walls - done by young Indonesian painters way outside the traditional Bali box - and the welcoming aura.

I tour the gallery's cleverly arranged three-room space - each with a different shape and intimacy level - admiring how front-window artist Agus Sumiantara has taken ordinary glass blocks and paint brushes and elevated them with sumptuous color and composition. I also like a kinetic oil-and-charcoal series titled "Emotion in Motion" by Ida Bagus Putu Purwa.

The gallery gradually fills with young people, Japanese and foreigners. These are members of Ohashi's Tokyo Art Collectors Group, I learn, gathered to attend one of his gallery tours. Would I care to join? Does a brush hold paint?

Walking with Hitoshi, I soon learn that the area's galleries are rarely in locations as accessible and obvious as the Tobin Ohashi. We pop up first to third-floor Unseal Contemporary and take in a show of pop-art mandalas by Buddhist priest Yukihisa Hirabayashi. At miniscule Gallery Hashimoto, refreshing works of sculpture and painting from Aoki Noe's "Sky Water" series share space with Tadasu Yamamoto's photographs.

Bakurocho Map
Heading north again, we descend to the echo-filled basement space of αM Gallery, a Musashino Art University showcase for talented young curators as well as norm-busting conceptual artists.

I gaze at Shiro Masuyama's provocative installation "Stratosphere Vol. 2," which focuses on issues of borders and terrorist mentalities in Belfast, where he currently lives. A video showing him scooping dog poo off his front step is intriguing, but I don't have time to fathom its meaning.

Ohashi guides us to two more galleries. At CASHI Contemporary Gallery Shima, our group ogles the pen drawings of Keita Sagaki, who reproduces famous works or makes landscapes out of tiny comic and erotic characters compressed or expanded in size to create tonal values. Next door, Radi-um von Roentgenwerke AG, a converted storehouse with red doors, is hosting a group exhibition celebrating the gallery's 20th anniversary with a show of miniature "hand-sized" sculptures and objets.

Circling back to Tobin Ohashi Gallery, Tobin generously offers chilled wine to all as the sun sinks. I ask Ohashi if I have now seen every gallery in the area. "No way," he exclaims, his eyes popping out. "There are more, at least 20! I will do them later, so please come!" Coolest thing I've heard all day.
Zhu Wei - Tobin Ohashi Gallery - Tokyo
by ozgaka


Zhu Wei's exhibition is his first in Japan and it reveals his memories of what appears to be of officials' from Communist China. It's a strange portrayal of human beings by Zhu because none of these official Chinese party figures seem to look you in the eye; there is a kind of avoidance of it within this exhibition.

For example, there is a lithograph titled; Comrade (that actually looks like a pencil drawing because Zhu has achieved an excellent system in constructing an image with this print media) but the idea of Comrade tends to fade away because there is something more going on psychologically within the stillness of the print.

For instance, within Zhu's Comrade print there is the sensation resonating of indifference to the viewers gaze, there is not even a hint of recognition, it's like the official is lost in a day dream but even that is hard to say, it's like he exists, resigned to his fate in life, distant to everything that appears to be nothing more than living in the now, oblivious to time, trapped incognito and obedient to unseen hierarchies..

Comrade it's an interesting word but how many times does it appear to be used so flippantly in life, for when one looks at Zhu's print there is no reassurance that this official would ever treat me as a comrade, for his eyes are down cast, turned away, not engaging and fingers crisis crossed limply, as if there is no energy with the cigarette in his fingers burning/smouldering aimlessly away, echoing the futility of his existence without even a token drag on it, it's like his being is sucking the life out of you as the smoke drifts aimlessly into space only to vanish into insignificance which tends to be metaphor for him..

This exhibition brings about many questions about the Chinese societal memories of old and the new. And as one observes the other painted imagery on the walls within the gallery, there is a feeling that engaging the past is just as important as seizing the future but these figures tend to want the advancements presented in the now to be affirmative but they seem suffocated under the controls of the past.

A partial reality might be from viewing Zhu's China and its comrades is that the ongoing and unlimited challenges caused by the use of the historical characteristics of avoidance and the current mix of capitalism is a shift to something more liberal and user friendly for the common good.

On top of these complex societal Chinese painted memories that Zhu as presented in this exhibition is a very good system of painting and print making, it's a delight to examine the traces, hues and tones within his paintings, what was also surprising is that this artist makes his own paper which reveals a very intimate involvement on his part in the process of image making.
'Zhu Wei: Utopia'
by C.B. LIDDELL



"Holidays" (No.3.) by Zhu Wei COURTESY OF TOBIN OHASHI GALLERY
The status of contemporary Chinese art often seems driven by the notion that China is projected to overtake America as the world's leading economy and superpower sometime in the future, combined with the rather naive hope that artistic freedoms will somehow spill over into wider political freedoms.

The inherent qualities of the art seem somehow secondary in this grand socio-economic-artistic narrative. That Chinese art has accrued such a political patina is enough reason to be wary of it, but among all the buzz and chatter of a preternaturally active art scene, it is still possible to find art that sidesteps the hype and exists on its own terms as the culmination of authentic artistic processes.

The color ink wash paintings of Zhu Wei are a case in point. Painted with a traditional Chinese painting technique, these have a delicate, old-fashioned charm; while their contemporary subject matter avoids kitschy evocations of the past. The individualism and character of the artist is also strongly present in the distinctive way he has managed to stylize these modern motifs - mainly slightly satirical closeups of human figures - to fit this time-honored medium.

Given the nature of his art, it is also appropriate that Zhu Wei has opted to make his Tokyo solo debut with a small, low-key show at the Tobin Ohashi Gallery. The ironically titled "Utopia" show will present four specially prepared paintings along with eight prints.

This intimate outing represents quite a contrast to the loudly-trumpeted but hugely disappointing "Ai Weiwei - According to What?" at the Mori Art Museum, which welcomed China's most renowned contemporary artist to Tokyo a couple of years ago - especially as Zhu Wei is by far the more palatable artist.
Tobin Ohashi Gallery -- Nihonbashi -- Tokyo
by ozgaka


It was refreshing to walk into the Tobin Ohashi Gallery in Nihonbashi because the ambience of the space was filled with aesthetic wonderments. At times when walking around the galleries, some of them seem to have a feel of exclusive alienation, it makes viewing artworks more of a discomfort than a pleasure because every customer or audience member is valuable, and they've taken time out to visit your space, well this certainly wasn't the case here, one was made very welcome and conversation with Mr Ohashi was highly informative.

Passion it seems (not only by the artist but the galleries owners too) is a desired outcome within the artworks and this appears to be the case on show in Tobin Ohashi Gallery with the array of quality and quantity artworks on exhibit from throughout east and south East Asia.

Veritical Five
Than Nguyen Trucs painting: Veritical Five
Than Nguyen Truc's painting titled; Vertical Five, acrylic and collage on canvas is a very interesting image, the optical sensations resonating from the artworks tend to transcend the praxis by the British Artist Bridget Riley, for there is this distinct Matrix sensation that dazzles the eyeballs, this is achieved through maximalist overlays of thinly cut coloured strips placed vertically on the canvas. Riley may well have painted optical illusion but here Truc has really pushed the memory of such sensation further outwards, releasing imagery of previously unseen optical vibrations.

Number Series
Agus Purnomo painting: Number Series
Another interesting painting is by the Indonesian artist Agus Purnomo titled; Number Series, acrylic on paper and again the image has this strange matrix of numbers marching down the canvas, it's entirely different sensation than Truc's painting. The ochre/charcoal hues with intermittent purple numbers within Purnomo's numeric painting is very seductive, it is like painting deconstructs numeric signifiers along with their meaning, thus creating a very idiosyncratic aesthetic, this is a highly desirable achievement by the artist.

Another interesting painter on show is Jun Ogata, especially his large bright cobalt blue painting that is imbued with traces of limited but intrusive markings, in an array of whitish and greyish blues protruding from the edge of the image, creating a wonderful aesthetic tension. Artist's individual aesthetic constructed into paintings often arrive at curious end common standpoints, being the final art piece, why this happens and why it seems so coherent visually is a kind of phenomena from one's memory but as evidenced by Ogata here is does happen many times and well.

So if you're in or around Nihonbashi take time out to visit the gallery which has many artists on show from around the Asia/Pacific region.
Language no problem for gallery pair
by NATSUKO FUKUE


Hitoshi Ohashi, 48, and Robert Tobin, 63, have been in a relationship for 20 years. When they first met at a bar in the Shinjuku district in Tokyo, Ohashi, a makeup artist, barely spoke English, and Tobin, an American professor in the business department at Keio University, didn't know much Japanese. But they say language wasn't a problem.

Robert Tobin & Hitoshi Ohashi
All in the family: American professor Robert Tobin and Japanese makeup artist Hitoshi Ohashi, who run an art gallery in Tokyo, pose for a photo with their dog Momo at their home in Meguro Ward on April 26. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO
Now they live together in Meguro Ward with a 2-year-old miniature Schnauzer named Momo (Peach) and run an art gallery introducing contemporary Asian artists.

When and why did you come to Tokyo?

Robert: I came in 1989. I was a consultant for the U.S. Air Force and Navy (in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture; Yokota, Tokyo; and Yokohama) to help them downsize. I did the job almost for two years, but I met Hitoshi. They wanted me to go back to America or go to (South) Korea, so I quit. I really wanted to stay here.

Hitoshi: I'm from Fukuoka. I wanted to live in Tokyo, so on the occasion of my friend's wedding here, I found an apartment and decided to move 23 years ago.

How did you meet?

Robert: At a bar in Shinjuku 2-chome.

Hitoshi: I'm not that outgoing, but that night I went there just because I didn't have many gay friends. I wasn't looking for a boyfriend. Then, Bob was sitting next to me.

Did you expect that you two would be in a relationship when you met?

Robert: I didn't expect it. I think that's one reason why it worked. And right after we met, Hitoshi left for one month to work in Osaka.

Hitoshi: I had just started working as a freelance makeup artist at that time, so I decided I would concentrate on my job 100 percent. I don't know how we started our relationship. It was gradual.

But you didn't speak much English back then?

Hitoshi: My English was limited to only "hello" and "goodbye."

Robert: He's very good with a dictionary so he was checking them and using some phrase books.

Did you have any miscommunication at the beginning?

Hitoshi: One time Bob asked me to come to Kitakurihama (near Yokosuka), where he lived, and he said we would meet at "31." I couldn't really understand the time in English, but I thought it was a strange time. Not 30, not 40 but 31. I even didn't know how to ask why.

I went to the station, then saw a (Baskin-Robbins) 31 ice cream shop. . . .

Robert: But I didn't feel like language was really a big problem.

Do you feel cultural differences?

Robert: Food, customs . . . all these things. I find them interesting. But it's not just cultural differences, and there are Bob-and-Hitoshi differences, too.

Hitoshi: For example, I don't like arguing because it's embarrassing. Bob always wants to talk.

Robert: Hitoshi just smokes outside. . . .

Hitoshi: Arguing is not cool to me. But Bob said we have to clear things up.

So what do you do when there is a conflict?

Robert: We try to make a joke of it. If we have some argument, we have this technical rewind. Erase the argument and start over again.

Hitoshi: For example, if I said something bad to Bob and he's hurt, I say, "I'm sorry! Rewind . . . then play!"

Robert: It works.

What happened after Robert quit his job for the U.S. military?

Robert: Hitoshi supported me.

Hitoshi: I was living in a small apartment at that time. Only the size of six tatami mats. I told my landlord he wanted to stay but only for a short time because he was looking for a new apartment. Maybe only a few weeks or a month. But a few weeks became a few months, then a year.

Robert: Then I got consulting jobs for Japanese companies that were going overseas. They came to our small apartment with a limousine in the morning to pick me up.

But I wanted to find a university job. Hitoshi recommended that I apply for Keio even though I was little bit older than the age limit.

How did you start an art gallery?

Robert: Six years ago I traveled in Asia for a month. After a lot of success in consulting and university, I needed a break. I went to galleries and met many artists there, and knew that was my life. I came back and said to Hitoshi, "We're going to start an art gallery." In five minutes he said yes.

I was always an art collector, and we always had art in our home.

Do your parents know you're gay?

Robert: My family loves Hitoshi, but if I had married and had children, that would be the best thing for my mother.

Hitoshi: I think they know, but we have never been clear about the topic. They used to ask me why I wasn't getting married every time they called. I asked them not to bring it up because I have a perfectly happy life. I'm 100 percent satisfied.

One time, Bob and I planned to go to Fukuoka. I did all the planning, and the day before, my father called and asked me to cancel the trip.

I'm close to my sister, so I told her my foreign roommate is actually my partner. She started crying and yelling. She said I should go to a hospital. We had no communication for about 10 years until I called her again to see how her sick husband was doing.

For the past 20 years, I also lost touch with my best friend because I told him I was gay. He also suggested I go to a mental hospital.

Robert: The most important thing is we're happy.

Are you open about the relationship?

Robert: We try to live a very open, free life. We used to hang art at the American Club. I said, "Honey, lower that side!" I was a bit embarrassed for a second, but thought to myself "get over it."

This relationship is the priority for me. Love is really worth developing.
'Silent Auction' lends ear to plea of needy
by NATSUKO FUKUE


There are many ways to enjoy art: Visit an art museum, join a pottery club or simply walk around a town and take a look at the different architecture.

Hitoshi Ohashi and Robert Tobin
Art for food: Hitoshi Ohashi and Robert Tobin (left), organizers of the "Silent Auction" event, pose for a photo at the auction's venue, a restaurant in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS
Robert Tobin and Hitoshi Ohashi, owners of the gallery Asian Collection, believe it is essential to have their gallery be approachable and comfortable for visitors in order that they enjoy art. It's the reason Tobin and Ohashi held their "Silent Auction."

The silent auction, staged in March at a restaurant in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward, doubled as an art show with the theme "meet, eat, art" and was organized to give artists and art lovers, both old and new, a chance to get together. The sale of four paintings also helped collect money for Second Harvest Japan, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization that redistributes food to the homeless, orphanages, single mothers and others in need.

Some 90 visitors filled the venue as they relaxed with wine and canapes in hand. The organizers explained the procedure for a silent auction in an opening greeting and the chairman of Second Harvest Japan, Charles McJilton, spoke on the poverty situation in Japan. "We estimate that about 20 million people live on the poverty line, and almost a million of those people don't have a food every day," McJilton explained. "Your support tonight will help those people get food for tomorrow."

Tobin explained that their decision to donate money to the NPO came about because they consider art and homeless people to have something in common - you cannot go anywhere without seeing either the homeless or art. "People think art is beautiful but being homeless isn't. We think the homeless are a part of life and art is a part of life as well," he said.

Artist Masumi Yoshida
Work in progress: Artist Masumi Yoshida uses modeling paste to create her work.
One highlight of the event was the opportunity to watch artists at work. Masumi Yoshida, a 25-year-old student at Joshibi University of Art and Design, was one of four artists participating.

"My work using modeling paste is meant to depict the monotony of daily life, but I add some variation to the shapes to indicate those little changes that bring us happiness," said Yoshida.

Her work theme is "myself as viewed from my friends." Yoshida says, "I want to convey that it is important for people to support each other." The event gave Yoshida and other artists not only the chance to meet people interested in art, but also the opportunity to talk with other artists, which Yoshida says she found "exciting."

Kevin Gibson, managing director of Robert Walters Japan K.K., attended the event and praised the promotion of local art. "Most people in business, like myself, never get to see this creative side of Tokyo," he said. "It's quite well done." Gibson also had the pleasure of meeting photographer Joji Shimamoto, whose photos he found "very interesting."

Event-goers (from left) Yumiko Tomono, Kuniko Ueno and Naoko Shinomiya
Art appreciation: Event-goers (from left) Yumiko Tomono, Kuniko Ueno and Naoko Shinomiya check out the art works on display.
Naoko Shinomiya, Yumiko Tomono and Kuniko Ueno, all employed by the European Union Delegation of the European Commission to Japan, attended the event because it piqued their interest when they heard about it.

"The event's concept is to eat food, meet people and enjoy art. I've never seen such an event, so I immediately thought 'this is going to be fun,' " said Tomono.
Shinomiya, however, found the concept much like what is common practice in Europe. "People I work with are into food, drinks, and culture. I'm influenced by this kind of European culture so I decided to come," she said, adding that she was particularly happy to see many more art works than expected.

For Ueno, who is a frequent visitor of art museums and galleries, the event's collection of paintings, sculptures, and photographs had its own uniqueness. "I personally liked this one," she said, pointing to a work by Yoshida.

Event co-organizer Hitoshi Ohashi
For a good cause: Event co-organizer Hitoshi Ohashi talks about paintings with a visitor to the exhibition/auction.
Ueno noted the presentation style at the event. "The artist's works are displayed next to the space where she is working on a new piece, and that's interesting," she said. On the other hand, she was "also surprised that some works are just casually set on the floor."

Tobin and Ohashi opened the gallery four years ago, and have been helping others to discover young Asian artists such as Yoshida.

Ohashi said that he found that many young people hesitate to enter an art gallery because they have the impression that only people who are well-versed in art can do so. Art, Ohashi pointed out, has to be fun and close to everybody. "Art is for everybody," he said.

Some ¥100,000 was collected from the auction and 10 percent of the profits were donated to Second Harvest. "It may be a small amount of money," Ohashi said, "but we hope it can contribute a little to the society."
Communicating through the unsaid
by ANGELA JEFFS


Sculptor Gakushi Yamamoto arrives looking as if he tumbled out of bed - or rather rolled off his futon and into the nearest shirt and pair of jeans that came to hand. And that may be so, considering he has had to travel two hours to meet up in Moto-Azabu for 10 a.m.

Miniature chairs of iron exhibited
Ironworks: Miniature chairs of iron exhibited at Asian Collection Contemporary Art Gallery in Tokyo's Minato Ward.
We choose to sit on square upholstered hassocks rather than on the carpeted floor of Asian Collection Contemporary Art Gallery. Which is rather odd considering there are also 10 chairs available. The problem is, they are exceptionally hard to use, being a) made of iron and b) created in miniature.

Initially, there were 12 chairs on display. An Indian collector had offered to buy the entire set, but in the end was only allowed to take two. At this stage in Yamamoto's career, the gallery would rather his work receive exposure and the word get around than have nothing on show.

"I agree," says Yamamoto, shyly at first but quickly gaining confidence. "I want to make a living, but at the same time I know it is important not to peak too soon."

Yamamoto is a graduate student sculptor at Tokyo Zokei University in Hachioji. Last year, his work - displayed on a circle of plinths - won top prize in the annual show of five art universities in Tokyo. It was at this exhibition that American gallery owner Robert Tobin saw the chairs, went home, discussed them with his partner, Hitoshi Ohashi, and offered representation.

Yamamoto is no stranger to the American way. Born in the U.S., he spent the first three years of his life in Los Angeles, and then another two flitting to and from Japan and the U.S. before returning for good.

"My mother's family emigrated to California when she was junior high school age. My father's family is all here," he explains. "When my paternal grandfather died, my father had to return to Japan to take over his temple. Called Enjoji, it's near Kyoto Station."

chairs
"When a chair is reduced in size, there is no known reality."
Yamamoto has few specific memories of living in the States, simply remembering it as a happy time. The only downside was having to play the piano. He was not a good music student, he says.

Neither was he interested in studying to take over his father's role at the temple, which did not go down well at home especially since he had been named Gakushi from the kanji characters gaku, meaning study, and shi, for priest.

"My father is not interested in my work. My mother's more empathetic because she used to paint, and even today she pots as a hobby. Luckily, my younger sister is interested in keeping the temple going. She's busy studying the Buddhist way while training in the hospitality business."

While at school, Yamamoto mostly used to draw. He then became interested in interpreting his sketches three-dimensionally. By 2005, he was mostly interested in wood carving; in 2006, he created a group of identical organic shapes in a variety of different materials, including terracotta, bronze, resin and concrete.

"I was experimenting, trying to find my chosen medium. Right now I am settled on metal and stone. I really like iron and when I began making the chairs, my teacher said, 'You have talent and a skill. Use it!'

"Why chairs?" he continues, thoughtfully running a hand through his hair. "Because a chair has a certain reality. But when it is reduced in size, there is no known reality; you have to make up your own story."

One of the chairs is simple and rustic, as in corroded with rust. "My own story here is that the chair began life empty and that its emptiness is never ending. But you may see it differently."

The other chairs have more obvious lives of their own, endowed with bits of the human figure - arms, legs, hands, feet - that suggest the posture of an occupant without offering any hint of the sex, age or identity of the individual.

"I'm not interested in the full human body. And I never portray faces. The back of a chair may suggest the shape of a head, but that is all."

As if to confirm this, when asked to select the paintings on view in the gallery that he most actively likes and at the same time anything he fails to warm too, he chooses the work of American artist John Fraser, whose sensibilities match his own, and two portraits by a Japanese painter that Yamamoto personally finds disturbing.

Sculptor Gakushi Yamamoto
Sculptor Gakushi Yamamoto last year won top prize in an annual show of five art universities in Tokyo.
"It's not my way. A portrait is finished. There's nothing more to say. I want to leave as much as possible open to the imagination. I believe an artist and the viewer communicate through the unsaid, not the obvious. This is what interests me."

He sketches all the time, on the train or out on the street. He sees people sitting, their legs apart or crossed, holding a hand in this way or that, and so such details of poses become food for his art.

Asked his favorite of the remaining 10 pieces on view, he looks perplexed.

OK, if there was a fire, which one would he grab?

"No. 2," he replies immediately: Two hands resting on the arms of a chair, with one hand holding a stick or cane.

This proves immensely moving to someone who lost her mother last year (for this is how I remember her at age 96: fingers still clutching fiercely at life, but no longer able to walk unaided).

Right now, he says, he is working on another idea, hopefully a piece to show competitively next year.

"Will I go on making chairs? I don't want to stay with chairs; I am young and want to move on. For now, all I can say is I'll make them if there are people who really want them. But in the future, who knows?"

He has no interest in postgraduate studies, either here or abroad. This may change of course but right now he's emphatic: "I've had enough of school."

He wants to travel, "see a lot of different places, meet different people. I'm especially interested in the U.K. and Germany. Many of the artists I most respect are German."

His parents worry, wishing he would get a proper job. But he has no qualms about the future. He insists he has never expected support, nor will he ever ask. He supports himself by teaching drawing part-time in a prep school, and assisting his senpai mentor who is two years older and also a sculptor.

Yamamoto is aware that sculpting is not the cheapest creative profession. You need forges, welding equipment. And raw materials - metals in particular - are getting more expensive.

"I've already joined forces with two other sculptors in my year. We're renting a 40 mat tatami space one hour beyond Tachikawa. It's super-country out there; real inaka, with a village street with a few houses and shops that stops at a mountain."

It's the perfect studio, he enthuses, being once owned by a sculptor from Hiroshima, and then another artist.

"We're buying equipment as and when we can. The money from the two chairs that sold went towards setting the place up. We may be joined by a fourth member, which will make the rent even cheaper."

Yamamoto foresees no clashes in working with other artists, because they are all doing such very different work. Their only problem at the moment is in trying to decide on a name for the atelier.

"There's lot of fighting," he grins.
New Asian Collection gallery is dream come true
by ANGELA JEFFS


Robert Tobin makes charismatic progress around the back side of Ebisu Station in central Tokyo.

Robert Tobin
Robert Tobin, who began his career in Asia working with the military and now teaches business at Keio University, is opening an exhibition space for Asian art in Tokyo with his Japanese partner, Hitoshi Ohashi.
"O-hayo gozaimasu, Bob-san," calls a smiling Japanese woman, waving from across the road.

"Hi there, how ya doin?" greets a young American businessman in passing.

When asked if he knows everyone, Bob laughs. "No, it's just that this is my patch. My 'hood."

Bob is in a spin, but it's the right kind of spin. Having been up early for a 7 a.m. appointment with a client who he is coaching in organizational change, Bob has an hour to spare before he heads off to Keio University, where he teaches in the faculty of business and commerce.

There is also the gallery, with 101 things still to do. Although -- as he observes more than once -- his plate is full, he's not complaining. Because on Oct. 30, a longtime dream comes true: Bob and his partner, Hitoshi Ohashi (also up early to frame pictures), are opening Asian Collection, an exhibition space for paintings, prints and sculptures from all over Asia.

"It's in our home in Naka-Meguro," he explains, "so we'll be open on one Sunday every month, and by appointment. If it goes well, we'll aim to open a separate gallery, but that's stage two."

Born in Boston, Bob -- who is 193 cm tall, with hands the size of dinner plates and a large heart to match -- couldn't wait to get away. "It was too cold and too small."

He went as far as he could envisage at that time, to teach at Pepperdine University and live in Long Beach -- "Iowa by the sea, if that means anything to you!" But it was a great life, living in a house on the beach, training for and participating in triathlons, and flirting with the local arts scene, which was "surprisingly good."

He began his career in Asia working with the military, helping units downsize and working with officers to help them change direction and find new employment. Soon he was moving between bases all over the region.

In many ways it was a dream job, because "I was making contacts with artists everywhere I went. I was always interested in the arts, which is ironic, because personally -- whether potting or painting -- I'm hopeless. But I know what is good. I know what I like."

The last 16 years have been stable, with Hitoshi. "We're proud to be together. Everyone has ups and downs, but that's normal. We just emerged from a big down, and now the relationship is stronger than ever. He does coaching too, but primarily he's a fashion guy. Also he's a boxer."

The coaching part of Bob's life is well established. Working with major companies like IBM, Citibank and Dell, but also lots of smaller outfits, he helps chief executive officers and chief financial officers become stronger leaders and prepares them for the demands of promotion.

At Keio too, he's a familiar and effective lecturer. "I get 100 to 150 students and faculty members sitting in. This afternoon's class is concerned with strategy and management as part of a course on innovative business management in Asia. Last night I did a special presentation on how to make a presentation."

Six months ago, he took time off and went backpacking. Traveling through Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, he found Asian artists struggling, with nowhere to show their work. "I came back, and began contacting artists I'd met 20 years ago, saying: 'How are you? Where are you? What are you doing now?' It was Hitoshi who came up with the gallery's name. He called me one day and said, 'I've got it: Asian Collection.' "

For the opening, AC will be showing original prints from Thailand's Silpakorn University, including work by Natthapol Suwankusolong and Panya Vijinthanasarn. "I'd been to this university many times to see exhibits. The last time I visited I saw an artist cutting paper for amazing etchings using natural pigments. 'Who's that?' I asked."

The gallery features Mikihiro Nishimatsu, a painter from Kyushu who experiments with traditional materials to make gestural works inspired by calligraphy. Hong Kong's Chung Tai Fu will show works on paper inspired by the movement of the people and culture of his city.

Such work will hang above a selection of monks' alms bowls made by a sixth-generation family of Thai craftsmen. "Made from brass and steel, they are truly beautiful. I love them -- and they will be the cheapest items on sale."

The time spent backpacking -- traveling light, living on next to nothing and visiting an orphanage of children whose parents had died of AIDS -- helped free Bob of many crisis-perceived problems. That's why 10 percent of all AC profits will go to the Phyathai Babies Home in Bangkok, and the Support the Children Foundation in Chiang Mai, which helps abandoned kids in Thailand. "Can you believe newborns are left in garbage cans?"

Asian Collection aims initially to sell to the expat client base. But he believes the word will quickly get out into the wider community. "I like to quote Thoreau: 'To enhance the quality of the day . . . that is the highest of the arts.' "

In the runup to the opening reception, Bob can't stop smiling. "I'm so excited. I have an artist lined up who reflects the nostalgia of his mother's life, with her sewing machine, a bill and something she made on it. And another who only does elephants, painted onto a backing that resembles elephant hide."

Bob's plate is full?

It's overflowing. "There was a time when nothing was enough. Now enough is more than enough."