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2013.02.01 Fri, by Translated by: 宋京
Out of Japan, Into Asia

Japanese collector Sueo Mizuma founded his first gallery in Tokyo’s Nishiazabu district in 1989, driven by the wish to champion young local artists whose work other Japanese galleries were, perhaps, not ready for. Since then, Mizuma gallery has expanded to encompass the work also of foreign artists in a conscious effort to show different and varied works. April 2008 saw the arrival of a sister space in Beijing’s Caochangdi art district, and Mizuma gallery artist Aida Makoto currently has a solo exhibition at Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.

Iona Whitaker: So, where did it all begin for you?

Sueo Mizuma: I was originally a collector, and my first gallery started in 1989. Why did I open my gallery? It was because I was very interested in young artists in the ’90s period. The contemporary galleries at that time were conservative, and still interested in the ’70s and ’80s period and European style — Western style. I found these very young artists and tried to introduce them to some galleries, but they said no. So I said “Ok! I’ll start my own gallery.” (laughs). It’s a big mistake! (Laughs) You know, the art business is so tough! And it’s difficult to generate interest in Japan.

IW: You have said you are interested in more radical art works in Japan. What do you think influenced your taste, initially? Why do you think you were going for these works that were different from what the galleries were offering at the time?

SM: I try to have very different exhibitions. Korean artists, Japanese artists, Italian artists…. At the Gillman Barracks, it’s a very good idea to open a gallery village. The opening was last September, and over 1000 people came, and maybe at the Gillman opening this week (as part of the programming for Art Stage Singapore) many people will come. But that’s all. So we need more advertising for the project, and ourselves as galleries to make more effort to promote the venture. People do have a pastime of collecting art, but they are only the richest people. Okay, we just started, so we need more marketing.

IW: What were your circumstances when you started the gallery?

SM: Well, it was Japan in the 1980s, so 20 years ago. The economy had gone down, and the economic market was suffering deflation, not inflation. People were surprised that everything was cheap. Of course still in Tokyo city, some things remained expensive — it’s a major Asian city — but elsewhere, things were cheap. But in art, it was a very difficult situation. We tried to sell to Japanese museums, but it was very difficult. So, I was looking for another market, and the first was the Western market.

IW: So that’s why in 2000 you started participating in international art fairs?

SM: Yes, in 2000 I think it was maybe four or five — and at Christies and Sotheby’s. They were very big centers for the Asian market, but mainly for Chinese art; Taiwanese, Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese, and Singaporian Chinese — mainly Chinese collectors. And then a new art fair started in Hong Kong, five years ago.

IW: Did you go to the first one?

SM: Yes, the first five times. And I met very big collectors from Indonesia and Singapore. And I thought, “Okay, so the market in South Asian art is still coming up”.

IW: That’s what makes you come to Singapore?

SM: Yes, yes. Of course, it’s my first choice to open a gallery in Hong Kong, but the cost there is very high, so only the major galleries are there. If my artists’ price range was over 1 million, I could open there, but unfortunately it’s not.

IW: What do you feel is the position of Japanese galleries now, relative to those of other counties in East Asia?

SM: Here, Chinese and Korean artists have already been introduced, but Japanese artists, very few. And so they are very interested, at fairs — “What is Japanese art?” And SAM, the Singapore Art Museum, has started having solo shows and group shows of Japanese artists’ work, so now Singaporean and Indonesian collectors are interested. Now, my artist (Aida Makoto) is showing at Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, so many Singaporean, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong collectors can see that.

IW: What do you think of the Indonesian Pavilion?

SM: Hmmm. (Laughs). But there are two Indonesian artist groups — one has a very domestic style, and the other consists of graduates from the Indonesian art schools who have also graduated from art schools outside — Goldsmiths in London, and so forth.

IW: And what’s your angle on Art Stage Singapore this year?

SM: Yes, better than last year. The opening day was good, but yesterday was very quiet. It’s like in Korea — after the first two days, the only ones coming are students! (Laughs). Just the audience – no collectors. And also, the local Singaporean buyers are always watching. They are more hesitant.

IW: So what is the appeal of attending this Worlds Apart hotel-art-fair?

SM: Well, Singaporean people, they love art, but not such huge art — you know, normal-sized, for interiors. That is why a hotel art fair is very good here, and the price is under 10,000 Singapore Dollars. Unfortunately, this time there has been no advertisement; people don’t know there is this fair, but if they know about this fair, maybe it can get better and better.  I actually advised this art fair, and recommended some Korean galleries as they are very professional about hotel art fairs.

IW: So it’s really tailored to local preferences?

SM: Yes, yes.

IW: What would you say your experience in the art world has taught you so far?

SM: (Thinks, laughs). An easy question, but for me a very difficult question. One thing is that I am Japanese, and Japan is something local. New York, London, they are something “Western.” But on the Asian side, it’s a little different.  It’s more localized — and I like it localized. That’s why I love Indonesian art, for example — because it is local art. It always has a national mindset, some nationalism, some identity. But, you know, the best side is the collectors and the artists — but the business side is difficult. I love art, so I want to be a collector, but this painting, will it be possible to sell it to another collector, in another country? What’s the price, and so on? You know, no longer just straight art, but all these other things!

Interview conducted on-site at Worlds Apart art fair, Singapore, January 25, 2013