Ayako Rokkaku’s Transformation from Regional Sensation to Global Art Market Star
Over the past two decades, Japanese artist Ayako Rokkaku’s vast, dreamlike fantasies have been hypnotizing the art market. Rendered on canvases as wide as 23 feet using her bare hands and fingertips—and oftentimes in front of a live audience—Rokakku’s exuberant works have caught the attention of museums, collectors, and galleries around the world. A self-taught artist, Rokakku forgoes the use of any preliminary sketches or guidelines, choosing instead to create based on her own intuition. Her colorful and childlike illustrations of cartoon-inspired figures immersed in rainbow-hued environments have fast propelled the mid-career artist to become a leading figure in the Japanese contemporary art scene.
“Her easily recognisable rainbow-world aesthetic and iconic style featuring mostly female figures full of character is the driving force behind her growing market,” said Danielle So, a Phillips associate specialist and head of the firm’s 20th-century and contemporary art day sales in Hong Kong. “She creates a visual vocabulary that is unique to her yet fits within the Japanese kawaii (cute) canon with vividly colored backgrounds full of intricate details of flowers and tiny figures as the backdrop for her large-eyed characters.”
Portrait of Ayako Rokkaku in her Amsterdam studio. Photo by Nico Delaive. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Delaive.
Demand for Rokkaku’s work was evident beginning as early as 2003 when her paintings won the Illustration Prize at Geisai art fair in Japan. Founded by Takashi Murakami’s studio, Kaikai Kiki, Geisai was created in order to support and spot emerging and cutting-edge Japanese artists. This critical reception from one of the most prominent figures in contemporary art was instrumental in launching Rokkaku’s nascent career as an artist—she had only just begun painting the year before. Her work was recognized at the art fair again in 2006 when she was awarded the prestigious Akio Goto Prize. That edition of the fair also saw a number of her works sell. Rendered on cardboard panels, the works went for anywhere between JP¥3,000 (US$27) and JP¥10,000 (US$90) depending on the size. According to one report, a few were snatched up by Emmanuel Perrotin of the eponymous gallery.
Rokkaku’s inclusion in Geisai gave her institutional recognition and launched her primary market forward. Her work at the fair also charmed Nico Delaive of the Netherlands-based Gallery Delaive, who soon offered Rokkaku her first gallery representation; in 2007, the gallery held the artist’s second-ever solo exhibition, titled “Walking Around Clouds,” at its Amsterdam outpost. The representation placed Rokkaku on a roster alongside established artists whose repertoire is steeped in color, including Sam Francis, Niki de Saint Phalle, Walasse Ting, and Karel Appel.
“Nico first encountered Ayako Rokkaku’s art through his friend Takashi Murakami and thought she was a great fit for us,” said Robrecht de Vocht, manager of Gallery Delaive. “He was captivated by the colorful works and her original technique of applying paint to the medium with her bare hands.” The 2007 exhibition ended up traveling to galleries in Denmark, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Italy.
Born in Chiba-shi, a town situated in the greater Tokyo area, in 1982, Rokkaku is best known for her large-scale, charmingly dippy landscapes depicting vivid scenes replete with female characters, tiny flowers, skulls, and animals who look as if they are suspended in motion. Through a multimedia practice incorporating wool, cardboard, layered acetate, and antique Louis Vuitton suitcases, the Japanese artist generates a visual language that takes pleasure in the simple joys of life, while equally celebrating the absurd.
“I always loved doodling as a kid,” said Rokkaku in an interview. “But I didn’t start to draw seriously until I was 20 or so. I was looking for a way to express myself, I guess, and kind of stumbled upon it one day. I was wondering what I was going to do with my life, and when I started painting everything clicked.”
According to So, demand for Rokkaku’s oeuvre can largely be credited to the artist’s idiosyncratic, performance-based approach to painting. Conceiving these works as a spontaneous physical act done in front of a live audience has become a hallmark of the artist’s career. Having had the opportunity to witness a Rokkaku performance in 2018, So said the experience leaves “a strong impression” on the viewer as they watch her fully surrender to the painting.
“Her live painting performances make it possible to see the artist at work from up close,” added de Vocht. “[The work] offers a glimpse into her world and also allows the audience to interpret it in their own way.” The organic application of bright acrylics result in works that have a high level of texture and intricate detail. This unique method of working also gives Rokkaku an edge over her often comparable contemporaries such as Yoshitomo Nara and even Murakami.
Along with Rokkaku’s standout booth at Geisai, her 2007 exhibition at Gallery Delaive helped establish demand on the secondary market. That same year, her 2006 cardboard painting Work appeared at a Shinwa Auction sale with a high estimate of JP¥200,000 (US$1,804); the painting ultimately sold for an astounding JP¥520,000 (US$4,692).
Soon after, Rokkaku’s paintings were the subject of two solo exhibitions—one at the Kunsthal Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 2011 and the other at the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum in Slovakia in 2012. The two exhibitions centered on scenes of children in the summer that on the surface appeared joyful, but were tinged with insecurities, anger, and fear. At the Kunsthal Museum show, a corner of the exhibition was given to Rokkaku as a “studio” where she produced new paintings every day for three weeks that were then broadcast over the internet.
Over the course of the next decade, Rokkaku’s demand at auction progressed at a steady pace, reaching a fever pitch in 2018. That year, her paintings were featured in a three-artist selling exhibition, “Perpetual Colours,” which included works by Sam Francis and Walasse Ting at Phillips in Hong Kong. “The demand was truly unimaginable,” said So. “All the works were sold within the first day of the opening.”
By 2019, a nearly 15-foot-wide untitled canvas from 2017 sold for HK$2.8 million (US$360,621) at an Est-Ouest Auctions sale in Hong Kong. Then a year later, another untitled work from 2017 showing a wide-eyed girl with long limbs in a colorful field fetched HK$2.7 million ($357,682), skyrocketing past its high estimate of HK$400,000 (US$51,000) at a Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong. Within two months, those prior record-breakers were obliterated when her painting The Sisters (2007) sold for a staggering NT$11.7 million (US$416,268) at the Taiwan-based auction house Ravenel. “The market for Rokkaku is not driven by speculation and you can see the demand growing every year,” said So.
This month alone, the artist had her auction record broken twice: Phillips and Poly Auctions sold an untitled 2018 canvas—a work featuring a female figure frolicking in a rainbow-tinged grassy knoll—for HK$3.5 million (US$454,686) at their “20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design” day sale in Hong Kong, more than quintupling its low estimate. A few weeks later, Sotheby’s sold a 2016 untitled canvas for a total of HK$4.7 million (US$614,530) at its “Contemporary Curated” day sale in Hong Kong, more than sextupling its high estimate to become the most expensive work by the artist sold at auction.
This recent string of record-breaking auction results is on trend with the demand for Rokkaku’s work on Artsy. Collector interest for works by the artist has steadily risen year over year since her work debuted on the platform in 2017. It saw its biggest spike in 2020, when the number of users inquiring on each available work by Rokkaku nearly tripled from the year prior. Thus far in 2021, that number is on pace to surpass last year’s peak.
According to both de Vocht and So, Rokkaku’s work is sought after by both established collectors looking to purchase works by up-and-coming contemporary artists as well as younger clients wanting to jump-start their collections. Her work’s reach is similarly boundless when it comes to geography. While her collectors as of now are primarily based in Asia, in recent months, a vast majority of her demand has been coming from international collectors. This comes with little surprise, said So, given Rokkaku’s Europe-based gallery representation.
As her works—which now consistently achieve prices in the six-figure range at auction—become more popular, de Vocht told us the challenge on the primary market will be to keep Rokkaku’s work accessible to as many people as possible while the demand far exceeds the supply. “It’s great to see so many art lovers embracing Rokkaku’s work, but for us as a gallery it is also our job to separate the art-loving collector from the flippers looking for a fast profit,” he said. “Our goal is to keep organizing worldwide exhibitions and placing works in public collections.” Currently, Rokkaku’s work is included in the collections of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa in Japan, the Sehwa Museum of Art in Korea, the Voorlinden Museum in the Netherlands, and the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum in Slovakia.
Adding onto the momentum of her secondary-market hot streak are two recent solo exhibitions in Tokyo and Berlin. Her Tokyo show, which closed on April 11th at Gallery Trax, exhibited Rokkaku’s painted pieces of cardboard and wooden vases. The work transported viewers to an idyllic dreamscape echoing that of a child’s imagination while also serving as an extension of the self-taught artist’s personality. Meanwhile, her whimsically titled exhibition “Born in the Fluffy Journey,” now on view at Berlin’s König Galerie, showcases 15 new works from the artist and highlights Rokkaku’s distinctive figures as they move freely across warm landscapes coalescing with scribbles that form into clouds or fauna.
This busy lineup of recently opened exhibitions only makes sense for the prolific artist, who once said she “wants to keep drawing for as long as possible,” and suggests a promising future for her market that is likely to continue to accelerate as her supply tries to keep pace with demand.