Following Tomokazu Matsuyama’s solo exhibition at the Long Museum in Shanghai, the New York-based Japanese artist decided to make his homecoming to Hong Kong – where he described as his ‘second home’ – after five years with a selling exhibition Harmless Charm at Sotheby’s. 

“We are faking our world now,” says Matsuyama. In a time where internet ushered us into the digital age, Matsuyama raises a question: What is reality? With all the joyfully-coloured and irregular canvases, Harmless Charm extends the artist’s painterly exploration into self-identity and reality – a subject that has been at the core of his oeuvre.

On the launch of the selling exhibition, The Value chatted with the artist to learn more about the stories behind the paintings and the NFT collection. 

“A lot of people see my work as a mixture of Eastern and Western cultures. It’s not only so.”

Born in 1976 in Tokyo, Matsuyama grew up between Japan and America, where his family relocated in the 1980s. Living in a traditional Asian family, he never thought being an artist was an occuptation. It wasn't until he graduated from university that he decided to embark on an artistic path. 

“While I was growing up, I thought going to a good school, learning economics and business might lead to a stable life. Unfortunately, when I finished school, it wasn’t as such. I realized I was not interested in working for a company that would heavily focus on the finance. I wanted to be in the creative platform,” Matsuyama says.

As Matsuyama dives deep into the duality between East and West, tradition and contemporary, as well as reality and virtuality, the artist develops a distinctive style that resists cultural categorization and embodies what he refers to as the “struggle of reckoning the familiar local with the familiar global.”

On his eye-catching fluorescent canvases, Matsuyama often reconstructs a world where different cultural elements from across space and time are treated equally and blended harmoniously into a single scene, triggering conversations about diversity and the impact of globalization.

Tomokazu Matsuyama

“’How does the culture influence?’ That’s a question I can say to anyone. How do I identify Eastern and Western in this age? At the end, Earth is circle. If you keep going west, you’re gonna hit west,” says Matsuyama.

“We now live in an age where time is less of a matter as information technology has given us an abundance of information. Selecting what we’d like to live with and how we’d like to own [the information], instead of where we really live, has become a new language and this is what I found interesting.”

“A lot of people see my work as a mixture of Eastern and Western cultures. It’s just not so. It’s not only so,” the artist says. “I am not looking at the world in black and white, but trying to find the grey areas, where I can find new perspectives and ideas.”

Melody Mad Afternoon from Matsuyama's Fictional Landscape series

Close-up of Melody Mad Afternoon

“What I do in my work is that I try to include as many values as possible,” Matsuyama notes. “On the painting you find information that would easily be consumed and thrown away in a few weeks, and you also see images that lasted for centuries.”

Such an approach is evident in Melody Mad Afternoon, a painting from his Fictional Landscape series, where diverse references to art history and contemporary Asian and Western culture are amalgamated – including Andy Warhol’s Brillo box, a cat inspired by traditional Japanese painting and a scarf from New York’s garment district.

“The idea of my work is not about telling a story,” Matsuyama adds. “These different images I appropriated are from all around the world. I mix them until it starts to mean something and connect to who we are. So the viewers can find themselves within the work.”

Matsuyama's Equestrain series

World Town Lonely from Mythological series
“I want to fill the gap between NFT and fine art.”

Marking Matsuyama's debut on NFT collection, the spotlight of the selling exhibition is on his digital artworks. However, following a crash in cryptocurrencies, controversies has surrounded this sales mechanism of digital art recently – every day we see headline after headline about NFT bubble bursting, scams, frauds and rug pulls.

Amid all those negative views, what has attracted the artist to create artworks using this digital platform?  

“I am less interested in the NFT trading and what people are talking about NFT,” Matsuyama says.  

For Matsuyama, the crypto space is a new realm for him to extend his exploration of reality and identity in the modern age of digitalization, rather than an opportunity to join the NFT gold rush.

“I am more interested in the fact that we are faking our world now. With NFT, it went even greater. It’s all about the avatar. There’s no little bit of ‘you’ anymore – you become somebody else. That’s the new reality what Web 3.0 is offering.”

“You can’t take a physical painting to Web 3.0 because it doesn’t exist. At the end, when you own an artwork, you show it to others. You put it in a space where it actually exists.”

Frosti Aurora, NFT | Unique 1-of-1, projected as public art

Revolution December, NFT | Unique 1-of-1
When Matsuyama creates his NFT collection, his idea is to not only show the artworks in the Metaverse, but to make NFT artwork as inviting, stunning and energetic as a painting. Unique looping videos at 4k, his NFTs are designed to be projected on the walls of large buildings as public art – somewhat connecting a virtual artwork to the real world.

“NFT has a community-based language. There are diverse platforms within the NFT community, which is exactly the same as fine art. When we see a painting, it can be impressionism, pop art, conceptual art or abstract.”

“I decided to consider NFT one of them as well. I want to contribute as a traditional artist and find a thread. I want to fill the gap and make a little bit of something that hasn’t been done. And I’ll see how it goes.”
“True art looks 50 years ahead. It never gets old.”
While the concept of duality has weaved its way through Matsuyama’s oeuvre, his painterly exploration on duality continues in his NFT series. In the transition from physical to digital artworks, the artist’s focus was on the balance of static and motion.  

“To make an image that’s moving – that’s a very important point. It’s not an animation. It’s an image that moves and animation is a completely different language. When it becomes animation, you can create a three-dimensional world that it almost look like a Pixar film – but that’s heavily rooted in technology.”

“Art is not really about the technique or technology. True art looks 50 years ahead. It never gets old. Technique evolves. Technology evolves. You can’t rely too much on them.”

“My painting has the notion of stillness and movement. It’s almost like one of the cut-outs from movies. Traditionally, I’d like to follow how an animated image could contribute to a painting so I want to have the movement as least as possible.”

“My ideal is that I can have Pixar people to view my work and said: Oh my god. This is something we wouldn’t think of. And that’s what fine arts can do.”
The selling exhibition features over 20 works, including some newly created and never-been-seen paintings from his Abstract, Equestrian, Fictional Landscape and Mytholohical series, accompanied by his debut collection of 9 NFTs. Matsuyama's NFT collection, with price ranging from US$1,500 to US$200,000 (cryptocurrency is accepted as payment), will be available to view and purchase on Sotheby's Metaverse. 

Exhibition Details:
Name: Tomokazu Matsuyama: Harmless Charm
Date: 14 – 21 June 2022
Location: Sotheby's Hong Kong Gallery
Address: 5/F, One Pacific Place, Admiralty
Remarks: Click here to make a pre-registration