Dazed Digital

Tokyo

The Container

February 22, 2012

A gallery inside a shipping container, within a hair salon... We talk to curator Shai Ohayon

  • Text by Sophie Jackson

A hairdressers may not be the first place you might expect to find an art gallery, but The Container in Nakameguro embraces this very dichotomy. A metal shipping container in the corner of Bross Hair Salon has for the last year been putting on some challenging and provocative shows. With no entrance fee and an open invitation to those popping into the salon to take a look, the brainchild of Shai Ohayon is a fine example of inventive use of space and dodging the inflexible rules of exhibiting in Tokyo.

"I am trying to find ways to get people who would not describe themselves as art lovers to interact with art in a different way and to put on exhibitions that are slightly challenging."


Satellite Voices: Could you tell us a bit about your background?
Shai Ohayon: I was born in Israel, lived in Canada, then the UK and moved here two-and-a-half years ago. Whilst studying fine arts in Canada, in semi-protest at my university's suburban location I held my fourth-year exhibition off-site with five artists and a few live shows. This demonstrated the potential to me and I ended up holding nine events, entitled ArtGig. I then moved to London to teach and whilst living there proposed to Chris Hammond at the MOT Gallery to hold a show of Canadian artists with a corresponding show of British MOT artists in Canada. I also worked on the Fulham Palace new artistic vision and before my relocation to Japan I was doing freelance consultancy with an agency of the British Council Agency and other arts organisations. 

SV: What is your take on the contemporary art scene here and how does The Container fit in?
Shai Ohayon: There are a lot of very good commercial galleries in Tokyo. The primary market in Japan is very weak so they tend to show safer things that they will be able to shift rather than doing things that are more challenging. The Container is not so commercial, so I don't mind showing the kind of work that other places in Japan would avoid. The commercial system limits opportunities for emerging artists in Japan as a whole. I think that a lot of it derives from a different cultural understanding of art, in Europe or in North America artists organise themselves and here people don't. The commercial system coupled with the lack of artists’ initiative, has created a situation wherein it is very difficult for artists who are emerging or in mid career to exhibit.

There are possibly a lot of cultural reasons for the lack of artists’ independent initiatives, but the fact of the matter is that they don't do it. Perhaps it is because Japan has a culture where notions of criticism are not embedded, you take what you are given, it is slightly less pro-active. There are very few artist-run spaces to exhibit in and on the whole, as a curator, I am interested in this issue and also in accessibility to the general public. I am trying to find ways to get people who would not describe themselves as art lovers to interact with art in a different way and to put on exhibitions that are slightly challenging.

SV: How did The Container and your involvement with it come about?
Shai Ohayon: The owner of Bross hair salon, Yuta-san, who is a bit of a nutter and a bit of an artist in his own right, decided to build the container inside the salon, with no actual use for it. I work quite regularly with an artist called Jack McLean and we did the first container exhibition for him, a sculptural installation called Salt Mine in March 2011. Jack’s wife is a friend of someone who works at the salon and that was the initial contact. After a few conversations with Yuta-san, we both decided we should go for it and transform the space into a gallery. Now we put on four exhibitions a year, each one runs for about two-and-a-half months and they are all installation based.

SV: What has the reception been like to the project? 
Shai Ohayon: Although the work on show can be quite serious, we are running it out of a hair salon and it is important for me to maintain a strong sense of accessibility. Some people come specifically to see the show and some people just take a look whilst they are waiting to get their hair cut. I think it is important for art to be witty or clever but not alienating. We have been very lucky with the Container, right from the first show we got Critic’s Pick review in Artforum and we receive regular reviews from local and international websites and magazines. This has built a momentum and people are starting to understand and appreciate what it’s about.

SV: What other projects are you working on at the moment in Tokyo?
Shai Ohayon: I host ArtGigTokyo here, a continuation of the project in Canada. The events are themed and I ask various artists to interpret the theme in a location that relates to the chosen topic. The first one was about sex and hosted in a club in Shinjuku... There is our current exhibition at The Container, a video installation with the British artist Ami Clarke, entitled "Be Seeing You". It is a powerful show and includes a free publication the artist launched with the show "UN-PUBLISH", which refers to a statement Julian Assange made regarding the removal of information from the net. The Container is a long term project for me. Eventually we are planning on filling it up with Japanese art and shipping it to London, then bringing it back to Tokyo filled with British art. Before then there are some very interesting shows that I am working on, the next one with Shibuhouse, a young collective made up of twenty artists (http://shibuhouse.com/) who all live together in Shibuya.

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