My bag is full of self-published books, one-inch pins and postcards. As I wait for my friends in the atrium of Tokyo Big Sight, a crowd teeming with art-lovers mills about all around me. The atrium stage is empty, except for a single dancer slowly moving to Céline Dion’s rendition of Etta James’ At Last. This is Design Festa, volume 36.
Happening twice-annually since 1994, Design Festa bills itself as Asia’s largest art event. Just like indie art events in Canada, here you’ll find row upon row of booths displaying crafts, original art, zines, comics, and anything else that fits under the Festa’s broad umbrella of “original design and art.” But the scale of the show is difficult to articulate: 10,000 artists are presented in 3,000 booths over two days. You can’t possibly see it all.
Despite its magnitude, Design Festa fits easily into the massive Tokyo Big Sight convention centre, and the ample aisles and ad-hoc food court do their best to make the show relaxing instead of overwhelming. Outside there’s a line-up of local bands if you need to take a beer and music break, and inside the vendors call out to passers-by, eager to explain the story behind their creations.
Design Festa draws mainly Japanese exhibitors and attendees, but there’s also a sizable contingent of foreigners in attendance. One of these exhibitors, Sharon, has come from Taiwan to show her work for the first time. Her abstract, geometrical art hides menacing and manic faces that only emerge at second glance. Despite the quality of her work, sales at her booth are soft. But she says the experience, the networking and the connections with her international colleagues made the visit worthwhile. Likewise, first-time attendee Montreal artist Rupert Bottenberg used the Festa as an opportunity to connect and re-connect with artists from around the world in support of en masse , a collaborative art event which came to Japan from Canada the same week as Design Festa.
The Festa specifically engages the diversity of expression of its exhibitors, encouraging people to create booths that are as much installations as they are pop-up shops. There’s an area set aside for the creation of large-scale public works of art over the course of the weekend and there’s also a low-lit zone for those whose work plays with light or is best viewed in a dim ambiance. More than one booth didn’t seem to be selling anything at all: at one stall I was invited to sit with a person in a large green fun-fur costume while my friends took pictures of us on their phones. The moment of wacky engagement with the public was that person’s anonymous art.
I was also surprised by how many very straightforward, traditional handicrafts were on display. Amidst all the youthful zines and bizarre art happenings, there were also 60-year-old leatherworkers displaying their sturdy bags, and woodworkers offering salad bowls and delicate cutlery. The diversity of visitors and exhibitors at Design Festa seem to keep it from becoming an art-hipster echo chamber. There’s a real and delightful cultural exchange going on here that blurs the line between irony and earnestness.
Artists, creators, and culture-mongers looking for a welcoming and dynamic art event to include in their tour of Tokyo shouldn’t miss Design Festa. Volume 37 of the show is planned for May 18th and 19th 2013. Exhibitors can register for booth space now at designfesta.com and tickets for attendees will be available at the door.