A traumatic experience bonds you with people—and the place


Alex Dodge is a New York-based artist with work in MoMA and the Whitney. His formative memory is visiting the World Trade Center a week before 9/11, the strangeness of which bound him to NYC,but still haunts him. 2 decades later, he’s uprooting his life to build a studio in Japan. He talks life, love and art without borders.

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Everything just seemed amazing. Then the bottom dropped out.

It was the first week of September 2001, and a friend and I found ourselves in lower Manhattan looking for jobs. We said—you know what, let's go to Windows on the World, the bar at the top of the World Trade Center. So we went up, had a martini, tried to play the Wall Street stereotype. We actually tried to walk down, got to floor 84 and were completely out of breath. It’s so strange to look back on that now.

A few days later everything changed. I could see the Trade Centers and the smoke from my apartment in Williamsburg. I thought it was an accident, so I went to work—I was working as an art handler for a gallery in Chelsea. We saw all the Metro buses being used as ambulances, that was when the gravity of the situation really started to sink in. When I got to the gallery to help with an installation for a Canadian artist named Rodney Graham, an amazing artist, he was panicking: “I've got to get back to Canada.” I said, “I don't think you're going back to Canada anytime soon.”

That's when I realized that New York is where I want to be. I grew up in Denver, Colorado, and I was really on the fence about whether or not I wanted to be in New York. They say that going through a traumatic experience bonds you with people—and with the place. A wonderful community developed after September 11th.

I was working in the gallery world, and you could feel that there was this great energy. And so much diversity, too. It helped us all grow and become better, not just as artists but as people. I was a daytime art dealer and in my studio in the evenings. My work got into MoMA and the Whitney collection. Everything just seemed amazing.

Then it got to the 2008 recession, and another transformation. The train really kind of came to a halt. A lot of people from hedge funds had been buying art as speculative investments, there was no long term sustainability in mind, the bottom dropped out and all of that support dropped out with it. It was really just the mega galleries left in Chelsea—Gagosian, Pace, Zwirner—who were able to devour all the scraps. It was that moment when I realized—you're either going to be a dealer or you're going to be an artist. For me, it's definitely more fun to be an artist.

After the tsunami, we said—“Let's get married today.” Everyone was doing the same thing.

Around that time, I went to Tokyo. At a friend’s jazz concert, I met my now-wife, Satoko. She came to New York, we hung out; I went back to Japan, we hung out some more. Things clicked and we started dating. But it ended up being two and a half years of long distance.

We got married right after the tsunami in 2011. I flew over there as soon as I could, and that was when I realized how bad it was. People were unsure about Fukushima. We’d been talking about possibly getting married, so we said—let's go to the Prefecture office and skip to marriage today. Then we went to the US embassy and everyone was doing the same thing. It was crazy. But she was able to get a green card and move to New York.

Now we’re moving to Japan. New York is great, but we both decided we want more time in Japan, and we were able to get a house outside Tokyo. We really don't know what this means, yet. It's exciting, but it's also daunting. I can't let go of New York just yet. I love being here, I have a community here. I lack that there. I have good friends in Japan but not so much in the art world.

When the reality of it comes down to it’s like—you have to set up internet, utilities, get a Japanese driver's license, all of these little details. I've been going there since 2003 so I'm familiar with it, to a degree, but not enough.

We’re setting up a studio just outside of Tokyo, which has always been a dream. I love the art scene there. I had my first show in Tokyo last March and it went really well. I was thrilled. Making a living from your art is such a remarkable thing to happen at all, let alone in Japan as a foreigner.

That’s where you then end up with this problem: How do I get the money back to the US? Thankfully my wife had used Wise for her handbag, brand HATORI, and she suggested the gallery in Japan pay me that way. It worked out great, everything was clear and transparent. We have a split life between New York and Japan, and Wise is essential.

My connection to Japan really started by mistake. When I was a freshman in high school, I had to pick a language class and I noticed Japanese. I wasn't a Japanophile, I took 1 year of Japanese lessons, and thought nothing of it. Later, while working at a gallery, I was working with Japanese artists, so I had to go over there and do studio visits. So there were more reasons to go there, and I just came more and more enamored with the culture and the place.

Tokyo is a global city like New York and London. There’s a reason art thrives in cities like that: diversity, tolerant people, and money, to drive those markets and cultural exchanges.

One of the most things that art does in society is to create noise between cultures. Noise is usually considered a bad thing in communication, but actually, there's a really beautiful part—in terms of misunderstandings or mis-perceiving one culture alongside another. For example, Japan heard western psychedelic music from the 1960s and 70s, but interpreted it differently and it became its own, unique thing. That’s what I’m hoping to see in my work—I’m excited to see how my art will be heard in Japan.

Wise is proud to help Alex get paid, and we're there to help you manage your money across borders more cheaply and easily too. Join our 6 million customers at Wise.com, or download our Android or iOS app.

As told to Chris Hockman, exclusively for Wise.

Photography by Stephanie Stoddard Cortés.

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