Interview: Sueo Mizuma

Interview and photography: Andrey Bold


The contemporary Japanese art scene, while incomparable in scale with America and Europe, is filled with remarkable and truly original artists. What's missing is broad public recognition and financial support. While the government turns a blind eye to its very existence a handful of galleries keep it alive and blooming. One of the first people to recognize the need to support local artists is the owner of Mizuma Art Gallery Sueo Mizuma, a prominent figure on the scene and of one the biggest supporters of the contemporary Japanese art. We meet on the second floor of his gallery, also housing a traditional Japanese tea room, to talk politics, culture, Takashi Murakami and why he thinks Japan is dragging behind Singapore when it comes to contemporary art.

Gallerist Sueo Mizuma

Gallerist Sueo Mizuma

      • AB Tell us what brought you to the gallery business in the first place?
      • SM I was a collector first and the editor of a corporate PR magazine. We had two versions, domestic, covering young Western artists and international, covering the Japanese. Prior to that I thought Warhol is a very famous artist and is out of reach, but suddenly I realized I can actually buy his works. It completely changed my perspective.
      • I opened my first gallery in Azabu in 1989. Aki Kuroda introduced me to Maeght Gallery, which represents him and I started to work with them. Aki also introduced me to some interesting young French artists.
      • AB So you started with European artists first?
      • SM Yes, Japanese art in the 80s was a little boring, heavily influenced by the European school of painting. I think I became interested in Japanese art in 1987, or 89, at the Venice Biennale. Funakoshi Katsura and Miyajima Tatsuo were showing their works there. I was with an English friend of mine and she loved it. She was drawn to the Japanese nature of the works that I no longer noticed. After that I started to understand how Westerners view Japanese art a little better and started to look for the artists whose works evoke similar feelings, but couldn't find any and continued to work with French painters. If I only knew better and have collected conceptual art instead I would’ve been very rich now. Unfortunately, New Painting, is all but gone. [Laughs]
      • In the early 90s there was Toko Museum in Aoyama run by Masami Shiraishi, the President of SCAI THE BATHHOUSE. He just had left Fuji TV Gallery, which was instrumental in introducing many international artists to Japan. We had this exchange project—Jeffrey Deitch curated “Strange Abstraction” and introduced three New York artists in Tokyo, while I curated “Double Take” featuring Aki Kuroda, Yuko Shiraishi and Leiko Ikemura in New York. I had high expectations for this show and when I heard people saying Aki Kuroda is an oriental Matisse I thought “Wow, this is good. He's going to break big in New York!” Unfortunately he didn’t. A little conservative. I had to study more. [Laughs]
Manabu Ikeda, Foretoken, 2008, 190 x 340cm. Collection of Sustainable Investor.Co.Ltd. Photo by Yasuhide Kuge © Manabu Ikeda, Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery

Manabu Ikeda, Foretoken, 2008, 190 x 340cm. Collection of Sustainable Investor.Co.Ltd. Photo by Yasuhide Kuge © Manabu Ikeda. Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery.

      • AB And you opened the gallery.
      • SM Yes. After the bubble burst it was difficult business wise, but the rent was cheap. Half of the buildings in Aoyama were empty. It was also very good for the artists. Nobody wanted to buy art anymore and they had to reflect on that. Beginning of the new era. Around this time I met Murakami, he just had graduated. You know, I'm the second person who bought his art work.
      • AB Who was the first one?
      • SM Mr. Shiraishi.
      • AB How much did you pay for it?
      • SM Around 20,000 Yen (roughly $200). I told him I'll watch him for several years and offered my support. He was very happy.
      • AB Good start.
      • SM I met him later, he introduced me to his mother and said “He's the second person who bought my work” and I had completely forgotten it! He said Shiraishi has sold his. He also told me it was very encouraging to sell at young age and made him think of Geisai. Anyway, I stoped collecting when I opened the gallery. To keep it in business I had to sell many works from my collection, Rothko...
      • AB Rothko? You had Rothko?! And you sold it?!!!
      • SM Blue Divided by Blue, a very small painting. I bought it in the 80s, at that time I was in the stock market and sold it for half-price.
      • AB You sold ROTHKO for half-price.
      • SM To keep my gallery. It went for one billion yen in 2008, at the auction.
      • AB Crazy.
      • SM If I had only kept it... but I’m happy, I don’t have Rothko, but I manage many good artists. They make golden eggs. [Laughs]
      • AB Would it be correct to say that most of the major players on the Japanese art market, like yourself, came from the business background which formed a rather conservative taste in art?
      • SM Yes, they view art as an asset class. That's why they choose to invest into traditional, tasted by time art like the Impressionists. It's very risky to collect young artists, they have no value, but I always say—“Please, support the Japanese culture.”
      • AB And make a new market.
      • SM Exactly. Who's going to support Japanese culture, if not the Japanese? Americans? Chinese? We have to do it.
      • AB Murakami did very well selling internationally.
      • SM I always say Murakami-san’s work is very important to our culture, it's our treasure. He keeps one edition of each of his works you know, to make a museum. I really hope it'll be in Japan, but he's very hesitant showing his works here.
      • AB Why?
      • SM I don’t know... Maybe because the Japanese have been sort of cold towards him, he turned “anti-Japanese.” He's an avid collector you know, not only contemporary art but also ceramics, very good traditional Japanese works, an amazing collection. He's very active and I respect that, but some Japanese hate it. Like otaku, even though he says he translates otaku subculture for Westerners they don't buy into it.
      • AB I must say even for me, as a foreigner, some of his art is very... calculative, pragmatic. The way he uses Japanese subculture in his works.
      • SM His recent works are very different, but of course he's known for superflat, which he started, a mix of otaku and kawaii. I visited Susan Hancock, an art collector, in Miami once and she had some of the KaikaiKiki artists there. I asked her “Why do you collect kawaii art?” She replied “It makes me happy!” Then I understood, sometimes the contemporary art can get very... heavy, the pressure of philosophy, the concept.
      • AB Art Fair Tokyo gives an impression that the Japanese art market is very conservative and antique-centered. It's almost ironic, traditional arts were a bit out of trend elsewhere but there is a revival now with even Frieze on board. Japan however never even fully embraced contemporary art.
      • SM The scene is very domestic and full of ugly “Western style,” knock-offs of Renoir—Monet. It's 21st century! Antique is very strong, but the contemporary is still very fragile. Antique collectors are actually at home when it comes to contemporary art. Fake or real. You can only trust your eye, never can be too sure. Same as with young artists, you never know if they make it big. They compliment each other well, antique and contemporary art.
Akira Yamaguchi, Fusuma Painting Dedication to Shoin of Yorin-an, Byodo-in, 2012, 172.7 x 455.7 cm, 173 x 277 cm, 175.5 x 287 cm, Photo by Seiji Toyonaga. Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery

Akira Yamaguchi, Fusuma Painting Dedication to Shoin of Yorin-an, Byodo-in, 2012, 172.7 x 455.7 cm, 173 x 277 cm, 175.5 x 287 cm. Photo by Seiji Toyonaga. Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery.

      • AB Do you think the situation may change?
      • SM We have to change our educational system, art educational system. It's very conservative. Museums also. They hate avant-garde, ambitious work.
      • AB How do you think it can be changed? Is it up to the government to come up with an initiative, or media and galleries can make a difference?
      • SM There is a government program, Cool Japan, but we never use “cool” describing the country, it's not in our language. Very stupid. I always say we are hot, we are HOT Japan. Manga is HOT.
      • AB It's beyond my understanding why such business oriented country like Japan is so slow to move forward. It's important to keep tradition, but just as important to support the youth, young artists, creators, to expand, to invent new business opportunities. I think playing safe is long expired, 80s are not coming back. Just look at the rapid progress Chinese and Koreans are making! They say we're young, we're hungry, we want to be a part of the global market, we support our art.
      • SM Arts and sport. You know, Korean economy is maybe one fourth of the Japanese, but they spend seven times more on culture and sport. Seven times!
      • Japan did many terrible things in Asia during the World War II. To make up for that we flood Asian countries with cash, build there, develop infrastructures, roads, support local economies, but never, never take any steps in promoting the Japanese culture.
      • AB Fascinating, I can't think of any other country where culture is so integrated in everyday life. There are kimonos for every season and occasion, festivals throughout the year, so many rituals I don't even know where to start. People are trained to appreciate these things from the birth. They're also very curious about other cultures. All it takes is a little effort, I'm sure people will quickly become interested in art if it's properly advertised.
      • SM I agree, but it's not exclusively a Japanese problem. Even the countries with fast growing economies like Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines don't have a decent contemporary art museum. Who collects the South East Asian artists? Singapore Art Museum, SAM. That's it! Tokyo is a very cosmopolitan city but there is no international museum. Paris—Pompidou Center, London—Tate Modern, New York—MoMA, Tokyo—none. We had a good shot at Manga Museum when the ex-Prime Minister publicly announced his love for the genre, they even came up with a budget for that, then—re-election and the plan was abandoned. Manga has a long history in Japan, many publishing houses keep original artworks which they could exhibit. It could've become a great tourist attraction, but we lost the chance, unfortunately.
      • AB Ok, but if you look at the history of art, particularly contemporary, you'll see it was pioneered by the individuals, not the public institutions. Where would the art be without Guggenheim, Saatchi and Castelli?
      • SM American tax system makes donation much easier. Same in Singapore, that's why it's the center of activity in Asia now. Japan has to change the Tax Law, then things will change.
Makoto Aida, Electric Poles, Crows and Others, 2012, 360 x 1020 cm. Photo by Osamu Watanabe. Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery.

Makoto Aida, Electric Poles, Crows and Others, 2012, 360 x 1020 cm. Photo by Osamu Watanabe. Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery.

    • AB Any changes since 3/11?
    • SM It only has gotten worse, government wants to increase taxes so we'll have to pay even more! Japanese economy has been in the recession since the bubble burst, I'm afraid it may turn into depression. Awful! [Sighs]
    • AB What is the ideal artist—gallerist relationship?
    • SM I’m not interested in showing artists in my gallery only. I'm interested in artist's’ thinking, philosophy and want to support broader projects, beyond the walls of my gallery. Now my artists are becoming very successful. Aida-san is having a solo show at Mori, but before I had to pay his bills. There is a famous story about him, when he had his first exhibition in Kyushu, Fukuoka, I told my assistant to pay only the transportation fees, but when Aida-san drinks split the bill. Of course Aida-san had no money, as usual, and when my assistant told him they'll have to devide the bill he says “Sure, no problem, I have sponsorship all over Japan” and goes straight to ACOM ATM. There is even manga based on this. He's a cult figure for poor and upcoming artists, an icon.
    • AB It doesn't seem to me he even wants to be rich.
    • SM He's very different from Murakami-san, he's not interested in international fame, his priority is Japan. He's only happy when the Japanese buy his works.
    • AB What Westerns think of his work? Does he get any recognition?
    • SM He's getting more popular in Asia now, there are also some American collectors. One is a copyright lawyer from LA who bought Aida's painting of Mickey Mouse fucking Minnie. He loves it!
    • AB What does excite you the most?
    • SM My artists. Several of them are heaving solo exhibitions at the museums and I'm very excited about that. Also “Zipangu,” the exhibition I curated. You know, “Zipangu” was the first recorded mentioning of Japan by Marco Polo, most of the things people know about Japan were discovered by foreigners. Bruno Taut introduced Westerners to Katsura Rikyū, Gutai group was discovered by Michel Tapié, ukiyo-e... but after 3/11 we have to re-discover our own culture.
    • AB What do you hate the most?
    • SM Being busy. I hate that. Oh, I'm a very lazy man you know...
    • AB Really?
    • SM I don’t know why... It's stupid... and I started a gallery in Singapore. I'm a fish, migratory fish, if I stop swimming I'll die.
    • AB If you weren’t a gallerist who would you be?
    • SM Ha-ha-ha-ha! A collector.
    • AB So no matter what you'd be into art.
    • SM Oh yeah. It's in my blood. Art is my life.

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Interview transcript: Chisako Izuhara