Happening in Japan

Petit Geisai 15: A Young Artist’s Battlefield


The Geisai festival has been a fixture of the Japanese art calendar for 10 years. The event, organized by art world celebrity Murakami Takashi, is known as a hotbed of undiscovered and rising artists, and is nearly legendary for a vibrancy and immediacy unrivaled in the Japanese art world. What makes Geisai so special?

Japan’s premiere festival for young artists, Petit Gesai 15, took place in the shadow of Tokyo Sky Tree at the Asakusa Industrial Trade Center on October 9, 2011. The fifteenth Geisai was held in a smaller venue than usual—hence “petit”—but the artistic energy and inspiration on display were greater than ever.

For a virtual taste of the lively atmosphere at the event, click the link below: A Peek at Petit Geisai 15 (360° Panorama)

Taking Geisai Back to Its Roots

Geisai’s predecessor, the Geijutsu Dōjō Grand Prix, was founded in 2001 by Murakami Takashi, a leader of the Japanese and global art world. The Geisai festival was started with two objectives in mind: to discover fledgling artists making their professional debut and to create a simplified market for regular consumers to purchase artworks. Murakami opened the first Geijutsu Dōjō alongside an exhibition of his own works.

In its first incarnation, Geijutsu Dōjō had no artist review requirement, meaning anyone at all could participate. The wide array of styles on display and the celebrity panel of judges brought lots of attention to the event. In total, over 200 artists took part in the forerunner to Geisai, and art lovers from all around Japan flocked to the highly successful event.

One year later, in 2002, the festival adopted the name Geisai, a contraction of geijutsusai, the “art festivals” that take place at Japanese art universities. In that year the festival moved to a larger venue and begin to attract an even greater number of artists as participants. Impressive showings at Geisai have proven crucial for young artists, many of whom quickly go on to make their art gallery debuts, or even win contracts for individual exhibitions. The festival has acted as a gateway to success for Geisai winners and participants alike.

Geisai continued to grow, and by 2009 the event was large enough to move to the Tokyo International Exhibition Center (Tokyo Big Sight) and to welcome over 10,000 visitors. The year 2009 also marked the debut of Geisai Taiwan in Taipei.

This successful arc was disrupted by the March 11, 2011, earthquake. Geisai 15 was originally scheduled for March 13, but the event was canceled and rescheduled half a year later. Murakami decided that the postponed event would also be an opportunity to return to Geisai’s roots, and to return emphasis to young artists making their debut. Two new restrictions were placed on participation: all exhibiting artists were required to be under 30, and in an effort to improve the quality of works displayed in the smaller venue, a preliminary artistic review was introduced. The scaled-down event became the “Petit” Geisai 15.

Bringing Art to Life

Petit Geisai 15 marked a fresh start, but the event was as lively as ever, with artistry and creativity in overwhelming abundance. The October event was similar in scale to the early Geisai events, with just over 200 artist exhibits including paintings, illustration, sculpture, and other installations in a broad mix of styles. Visitors crowded through the tight hallways between booths to see the artworks and interact with the artists, while on one end of the hall Murakami himself took up the microphone, mixing event formalities with artist commentaries on their own work, as well as his own brand of humor.

The preliminary artistic review ensured that higher quality pieces would be shown, and the smaller venue allowed for personal and direct communication between the artists and guests. Exhibiting artists and visitors alike enthused: “Recent years’ events have lacked a certain energy, but this Geisai had the same kind of power we saw in the early days.”

Murakami Takashi energetically emcees the Petit Geisai.

Another new twist at the “petit” festival was a visitor voting system for ranking artist exhibits. The highest ranked artists were awarded a personal exhibition of their works at the art gallery Hidari Zingaro. Murakami himself gave a running commentary as votes trickled in and artist rankings shifted, to the audience’s delight.

Geisai is also an outstanding venue for young artists to make themselves known to art world scouts. Geisai artists have sometimes been scouted by galleries within 30 minutes of the event’s opening. Even when the creators fail to make immediate connections at their debut showing, they learn valuable lessons from speaking directly with gallery and publisher representatives for the first time.

Petit Gesai 15’s panel of judges consisted of three Japanese art world luminaries, all of the same generation as the exhibiting artists: Matsui Erina, Kuwakubo Tōru, and ob. Despite their established status in the art world, the judges understand the great value of a place like Geisai, where budding artists can come in direct contact with galleries and scouts. Matsui and Kuwakubo understand that value better than anyone: Geisai was the launching point for each of their national and international careers.

“To invigorate the Japanese art scene,” argues Kuwakubo, “Japan needs a better-developed system through which commercial galleries can find and promote artists. Right now, Geisai is the best chance for an artist in Japan to get his or her start in this world.”

Matsui, meanwhile, notes: “There are plenty of art competitions in Japan, but this is the only ‘living competition’ with a real connection to the future. For the artists, that makes Geisai a ‘battlefield.’”

Judge selections. Above: Hiroko, selected by Matsui Erina. Bottom left: Fujikawa Saki, selected by ob. Bottom right: Yokoyama Nami, selected by Kuwakubo.


A Proving Ground for Creators

For emerging artists, Geisai can be the royal road to success in the art world. Many put everything on the line for Geisai, where overhearing things like “I’ve been preparing for two years” or “I quit my job to focus on my exhibition” is not at all uncommon. More than a few artists approach this “battlefield” with a heroic resolve and resignation to fate. With this singular goal in mind, they pare their entire world down to be expressed in the space of one Geisai exhibition booth, where their skill and worth as a creator will be tested.

“This was my first Geisai, but there’s a clear difference between this and other events,” observed the artist ob. “People here are much more serious and determined. Just coming in contact with these artists and their ‘must win’ spirit has inspired me to further my own work.”

Ezaki Tarō, the top-ranked artist as selected by visitors.

The event closed with the awards ceremony for the individual judges’ awards and the visitor vote ranking awards. The smiling faces ascending to the stage during the awards ceremony were certainly outnumbered by those who had taken their chance and found some meaningful success or encouragement. At the end of the event, the faces of the battle-weary artists showed nothing so clearly as relief.

Geisai 16 will take place on April 1, 2012. Young artists throughout Japan are already hard at work preparing for the event. The next battle—to leap from Japan to the world stage—is already starting.

(Originally written in Japanese by Majima Emari. Photographs by Somese Naoto.)

art Geisai Murakami Takashi Matsui Erina Kuwakubo Tōru ob Kaikai Kiki Painting Sculpture