“Low” Art People

By Shinji Nanzuka As Told To YJ Lee

For Shinji Nanzuka, the founder of Japanese gallery Nanzuka Underground, what’s more important than the art itself is the artist. “I am more interested in how art affects us humans, why only human beings do creativity,” he says. “It's a very fundamental reason to prove ourselves.” Born to a children’s book illustrator mother and history professor father, Nanzuka traveled a lot from a young age, and grew up in the 1980s admiring illustrators such as Keichi Tanaami and Hajime Sorayama, whose works were often featured in local magazines. After studying for a Master’s in outsider art, child art, and commercial art, Nanzuka felt the need to carve his own space in the field which, at the time in the mid-2000s, was saturated with conservative, classical interpretations of art. “Museums only talk about dead people and it’s kind of boring for me. I wanted to work with living artists,” he says with a laugh. “I thought this type of Japanese art has much more potential to join the global scene to explain what we have in Japan.

Now representing Tanaami, Sorayama, and more, Nanzuka is responsible for some of the major art-fashion collaborations hailing from Japan as of late, namely the linkups between Sorayama x Dior, Daniel Arsham x Pokémon, and Stussy x Harumi Yamaguchi. Though largely behind-the-scenes, Nanzuka has been at the center of Japan’s most exciting underground art movements for nearly two decades now, bridging the East and West in his uniquely socio-anthropological approach. For Nanzuka and his artists, art is not only a means of expression, but also human connection. Here he discusses his vision, his artist management philosophy, and what it means for him to be friends.

Japan didn't have the word “art” until the 19th century. We translated the word “art” into a Japanese word in 1867 or something. Before that, we just had ukiyo-e or papercraft sculptures. Japanese people lived together with art without any authority or hierarchy. It's quite natural to live together with art, in daily life. This is quite important for us to partner with another field to make something different — not only fine art, because we don't believe in fine art in our history.

I started my gallery in 2005. At the time, there was an art bubble created by old, established rich people who had already been in the market. They bought art as a kind of asset investment. There was quite an obvious hierarchy between high art and commercial art. Design, fashion, music, manga, anime — they were all distinguished as lower subcultures. But I really didn't think it was right. We have so many good artists in this “low” field. Most of the classic, fine art people still don't want to invite those “low art people” in the field even though we have a big impact in the culture. Fine art is still very conservative. For example, even though I did Art Basel Hong Kong and Miami before in 2011 with Keiichi Tanaami, I’ve never gotten into the Swiss Basel fair. Most of the European classic fine art people want to keep us to this small territory.

I built my gallery underground and I only represent artists who originally came from outside of the mainstream fine art categories. The most important job for me is to up the artists’ value. A big collaboration for Hajime Sorayama with Dior increases his value. A big museum show or a big collaboration with a brand is the same for me. I'm always trying to find a good project for my artists. Keiichi Tanaami or Sorayama originally worked in the commercial art field, which means they worked for the client. For them to collaborate with fashion brands is totally natural. They are very happy to work with brands and build partnerships with any relevant field.

I think definitely the Sorayama Dior collaboration was the most successful. Kim Jones came to Sorayama’s studio and he wanted to make a big, big sculpture. It was a totally crazy project on the production side because we needed to build that sculpture in six months. It was quite a huge, heavy production. We needed to build that sculpture without any crane inside the building. We didn't really realize until the end why the robot represents Japanese culture for Western people. This is an asset of old Japan. In the 20th century, we had very high technology. We had many good tech companies in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But Western people imagine Japan is a kind of tech company, like a giant robot. Japanese people actually didn't understand why a robot can be a symbol of Japan.

I think Japanese people are quite naughty. We are the type of people who develop stuff on imagination by ourselves. Chinese art history has much bigger diversity, but Japanese culture is more into going to a small, small point. In Japan, we had quite a good magazine culture in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, which had strong journalism to talk about politics and social issues. We had underground magazines with very shocking pornographic visuals, as well as very strong essays to talk about politics. That's why we have this type of erotic art in the commercial art field.

I met Pharrell in 2017 when I had a Sorayama show in my gallery. I took him to Tanaami’s studio, then the next time Pharrell would come to Tokyo I would see him. It’s quite natural. I get to share those same visions, same taste. People connect that way nowadays. We sometimes do studio tours, sometimes private dinners. Last time he came to Tokyo, he had his 50th birthday party. Haroshi and I were there to drink together and congratulate him. Tanaami painted Pharrell's portrait with his study of Picasso. It's Pharrell’s face. This is so funny that Tannami is copying a Picasso painting. Sorayama produced this shark sculpture before but he didn't release it. He made this one sample, and said, “This is good for Pharrell, strong like a shark.” He likes this shark sculpture very much.

Before Pharrell started JOOPITER, I thought this was very interesting. During Covid, we didn't have any art fairs. I realized that the gallery and the art market system might be dead in the future. Social networking and information technology opened closed markets to be public and now artists speak directly to collectors via Instagram or Wechat. In the future, the classic, closed art professionals at the gallery will no longer exist. Pharrell is the symbol of this new creativity. He represents the creativity of the human being in this case. Like a New York MoMA, or Gagosian, or Pace gallery, JOOPITER can work with artists directly. This is why I am interested in working with Joopiter. The most important thing for friends is trust and sharing. For this JOOPITER project, we share the benefits.