Art Market

8 Tastemaking Tokyo Galleries to Know

John Tran
Jul 23, 2021 9:43PM

Teppei Fujiwara, installation view of Street Garden Theater, 2021, at Pavilion Tokyo, 2021. Photo by ToLoLo studio. Courtesy of the artist and Pavilion Tokyo.

Getting to Tokyo to see Olympic events live will be no mean feat. If you have managed to get through the precautionary measures in place against COVID-19, or already happen to be in town and enjoying a slightly less crowded Tokyo, it may be impossible to get into an Olympic venue, but most commercial galleries plan to be open this summer.

Befitting a city where a sparkling new urban development can appear in the time it takes a London builder to have a cup of tea and a biscuit, clusters of galleries are spread around Tokyo with periodic shifts in the focus of the art scene. While the Roppongi district has, since 2008, aimed to be a global contemporary art hub, more recently the less centrally located Terrada Art Complex and the Kiyosumi-Shirakawa area around the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo are becoming key locations for seeing work by both emerging and established artists.

Terunobu Fujimori, installation view of Tea House “Go-an,2021 at Pavilion Tokyo, 2021. Photo by ToLoLo studio. Courtesy of the artist and Pavilion Tokyo.


There are a multitude of small and mid-size galleries in the Ginza and nearby Kyōbashi and Nihonbashi districts, ranging from the stellar to the questionable. Among the latter, there is a particularly high concentration of rental spaces that aren’t too fussy about curatorial direction. With a typical rate for six days being upwards of $2,000, the high cost of these galleries leads to a very fast turnaround; one- and two-week shows are common for rental spaces.

Though it continues to be a thriving area of luxury and culture, Ginza’s reputation as Tokyo’s go-to area for commercial art galleries—and its model of hopeful artists paying through the nose for short-run exhibitions to get gatekeeper attention—has been challenged by an increase in government support for art festivals and an incremental growth of artist-run and repurposed spaces. That said, if you are interested in the Japan-specific genres of Yōga (Western-style painting) or Nihonga (Japanese-style painting), a leisurely stroll around Ginza is de rigueur.

Novelty is a big thing in Japan, but that doesn’t necessarily help when it comes to the development of a sophisticated and sustainable art scene. For decades, gallerists have bemoaned the relative lack of interest in, and collectors of, contemporary art in Japan. However, at long last a tax system more favorable to art sales was introduced this year, so maybe it’s time to stump up for some eye candy. Below are eight contemporary art galleries that make a distinctive contribution to the Tokyo art scene, as their current exhibitions attest.

TARO NASU has been in operation since 1998 and its Tokyo venue currently shares the Piramide building in Roppongi with 11 other high-end galleries including Ota Fine Arts, Wako Works of Art, and the Tokyo branches of Perrotin and Phillips. TARO NASU’s roster of artists is an eclectic mixture, which can make the coherence of other galleries’ choices seem more like predictability. The current exhibition is Takashi Homma’s “New Mushrooms from the Forest,” running through August 7th, in which simple but gorgeous images of forest scenes and uprooted wild mushrooms, placed against a white background, are used to reflect on aberrance, nature, and folly.

The 2011 tsunami is a frequently recurring theme in contemporary Japanese art, connecting the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident to older concerns of radioactivity and the atomic bomb. While Fukushima and Chernobyl are a major part of Homma’s project, it is not only about these things; Homma appears to reference Ed Ruscha’s caustic 1972 photo series “Colored People,” and there are also mushrooms from Stony Point, New York, where composer John Cage spent his later years and pursued a serious interest in mycology. Among the many artistic responses to the March 11, 2011, disaster, Homma’s is one of the most visually and conceptually original.

TARO NASU’s recent exhibitions have included Carl Andre and Liam Gillick, as well as younger Japanese artists such as Koichi Enomoto—whose show “NEW LIFE!!” featured paintings of wide-eyed cartoon teenagers inhabiting a compressed and gaudy Tokyo—and installations by Michiko Tsuda, who complicates space with mirrors and strategically placed video cameras.

Nanzuka Underground started out literally underground in 2005 with a basement space close to Shibuya Crossing, a location frequently used in mass media as a visual shorthand for Tokyo as the ultra-modern metropolis. At a time when many galleries are struggling, Nanzuka has expanded, opening its new main gallery in Harajuku in June of this year. It maintains a presence in Shibuya with Nanzuka 2G in the Parco building, which opened in 2019; has a shared space with Aisho Miura Arts in Hong Kong; and last year opened 3110NZ, a combined gallery and sushi restaurant.

Nanzuka’s aesthetic is heavily Neo-Pop oriented; that is to say, there is a lot of vibrant color, fun, and casual despair, matched with agnosticism in regards to adulthood and high culture. The inaugural exhibition of the gallery’s new space is “I versus I” by Tokyo artist Haroshi, featuring large-scale mosaics of used skateboards and gūzō, or idols—small figurines made of laminated and carved skateboard deck material, some of which reuse plastic parts from action figures. While the mosaics present us with constellations of graphics, logos, and references to other Pop art iconography, Haroshi’s figurines plug into both non-Christian polytheism and the otaku urge to collect.

Other notable Nanzuka artists include Hajime Sorayama—famous for his sexualized robots and designing Sony’s first-generation Aibo electronic pet—and revered American painter Peter Saul.

Nobuko Tsuchiya
Breve, 2020
SCAI The Bathhouse
He Xiangyu
Palate 20-1-18, 2020
SCAI The Bathhouse

Another gallery that has been able to expand this year is SCAI The Bathhouse, which now has three venues: the original converted Edo-period bathhouse in the Yanaka area; a white cube space in the Terrada Art Complex; and SCAI Piramide, which opened in April. Hirofumi Isoya’s upcoming exhibition at SCAI Piramide, “Go, go, go, said the bird: humankind cannot bear very much reality,” takes its title from a passage in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and reflects Isoya’s investigation of art’s potential to disrupt time as a linear experience. Isoya explores the conflation of beginnings and ends, for example, in the 2021 work Activation, in which a 5,000-year-old artifact is smashed, dissolved into mud, and then reformed into a sphere.

In “Just a world” by the art team mé (meaning “eye”) at SCAI’s bathhouse location, the neologism “scaper” is used to interrogate the concept of landscape. In the vein of W.J.T. Mitchell’s suggestion, in his 1994 book Landscape and Power, that “we should change ‘landscape’ from a noun to a verb,” mé considers the gaze upon a scene as an act that creates something between reality and fiction. They also throw in Schrödinger’s cat and quantum mechanics, which may be pushing things a bit. That said, on the evidence of the installation Contact (2019)—their extremely powerful and popular contribution to the 2019 edition of Roppongi Crossing (the Mori Museum’s annual survey of emerging talent)—mé’s first exhibition at SCAI is sure to be visually and emotionally affecting.


Yayoi Kusama, installation view of The Obliteration Room, 2002–present, at Pavilion Tokyo, 2021. © Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Keizo Kioku. Courtesy of the artist, OTA FINE ARTS, Queensland Art Gallery, and Pavilion Tokyo.

Tokyo has been hampered from creating a major Olympics-related art event in the vein of London’s Cultural Olympiad in 2012, but two art festivals are ostensibly open this summer: the Tokyo Biennale and the Tokyo Tokyo Festival. The gallery Watari-um, in conjunction with the Tokyo Metropolitan Arts Council, has also created “Pavilion Tokyo,” which spans nine separate sites, mostly in the vicinity of the national stadium. Installations include an obliteration room by Yayoi Kusama; a tea house partially covered by squares of turf by renowned critic-turned-architect Terunobu Fujimori; and a sinuous water feature in the Hama-rikyū gardens by Pritzker Prize winner Kazuyo Sejima, which is reminiscent of rivers as depicted in traditional Rinpa-style images. Iconoclast Makoto Aida has created two mock medieval castles, one covered with the blue plastic sheeting that is synonymous with makeshift homeless shelters in Japan, in an attempt to “pour cold water on enthusiasm” for the Olympics, as he told TOTO design in an interview in January.

Three wooden frame structures by Akihisa Hirata, Teppei Fujiwara, and Junya Ishigami are simultaneously substantial and porous, entangling themselves with their environment and allowing viewers to walk in and around them. The framework quality of these works is a little reminiscent of Anish Kapoor’s deconstruction of the monumental idea in his Olympic work, ArcelorMittal Orbit (2012), though with added relational aesthetics.

Makoto Aida, installation view of MONUMENT FOR NOTHING V ~ Japanese MATSURI, 2019, in “Heroes and People in the Japanese Contemporary Art” at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Mizuma Art Gallery.

Makoto Aida also gets to undermine nationalistic fervor at Mizuma Art Gallery in Shinjuku. In “I Can’t Stop the Patriotism,” multiple paintings of umeboshi (meaning “pickled plum”) surround a huge model of a skeletal soldier of the Japanese Imperial Army, his index finger resting accusingly on the National Diet building. The plum paintings refer to the popular practice of putting a red umeboshi in the center of white rice in lunchboxes, mimicking the Japanese flag. Aida also references the late 19th-century Realist-inflected painting Tofu by Yuichi Takahashi, who championed “Western-style” painting over traditional Japanese art. In doing so, Aida addresses a raft of issues including historical materialism and a long-standing complex related to Western culture, discussions of which have been muted since Japan’s world-class protests in the late 1960s.

Mizuma’s extensive roster of Japanese and Asian artists includes intricate, postmodern updates to Heian period (794–1185) painting by Akira Yamaguchi, agitprop tapestry work by Tokyoite Satoru Aoyama, and vibrant but forlorn lightbox images of found objects and assemblages by Indonesia-based artist Angki Purbandono.

Takuro Tamayama, installation view of “Anything will slip off / If cut diagonally” at ANOMALY, Tokyo, 2021. Photo by Kohei Omachi. Courtesy of the artist and ANOMALY.

The gallery ANOMALY formed in 2018 with the merger of the Hashimoto Art Office, Urano, and Yamamoto Gendai galleries, creating a substantial roster of modern and contemporary artists. Its website has a declaration of independence from “the system of an ‘art gallery’ once brought from Europe and America,” and testily locates itself in “Tokyo, Japan, in the Far East” (more specifically, in the Terrada Art Complex) and aims to be more than a white cube. At its first foray into Art Basel in Hong Kong, in 2019, the gallery’s booth stood out with a notably militant and rebellious edge; a copse of black assault rifles by Enoki Chu and boxing paintings by erstwhile Japanese Neo-Dadaist Ushio Shinohara shared space with Super Rat (2006–present), the radioactive half-Pikachu, half-Shibuya rat created by Tokyo collective Chim↑Pom.

Among ANOMALY’s other artists are Takahiro Iwasaki, who represented Japan at the 2017 Venice Biennale with intricate wooden models of traditional Japanese architecture, and Tadasu Takamine, who has critiqued the U.S. over the invasion of Iraq, as well as the Japanese government in relation to the Fukushima disaster and the triteness of its “Cool Japan” soft power program.

ANOMALY’s current summer show is “Anything will slip off / If cut diagonally” by Takuro Tamayama, which is a provocation of the reliability of our senses and assumptions of reality. Using special lighting and objects that seem to exist in multiple planes, Tamayama’s installation aims to cause spatial and visual disorientation reminiscent of schlock horror movies and The Twilight Zone.

Yasuhiro Ishimoto
Chicago, c.1950s–60s, printed c.1980s

Taka Ishii Gallery Photography / Film Gallery and ShugoArts are important venues for seeing works by established and historically significant photographic artists like Nobuyoshi Araki, Ryuji Miyamoto, Yasumasa Morimura, and Shomei Tomatsu. But PGI (formerly Photo Gallery International) is worth a look for its collection of work by modern and contemporary artists, including Ansel Adams, Ikkō Narahara, Edward Weston, Michiko Kon, and Takashi Arai, who won the 41st Kimura Ihei Award for his notable work crafting modern daguerreotypes.

Through August 3rd, PGI is holding a centennial exhibition of Yasuhiro Ishimoto, who is particularly known for his photography of the 17th-century Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto. Katsura has a central place in Japanese and global architectural history owing to a visit by the Bauhaus’s Bruno Taut, who considered the building’s minimalism and rectilinearity as the height of grace and sophistication compared to the decorative and vividly colored Toshōgu Shrine at Nikko. This partiality was enthusiastically taken up by Japanese architects, thus giving rise to Japanese modernism and another dimension to discussions of “Japaneseness.’

Yasuhiro Ishimoto
Tea Room of the Shokintei Pavilion, Viewed from the North-East. Kneeling Entrance, 1981-1982

Having studied at the Chicago Institute of Design, Ishimoto’s 1953–54 monochrome images of Katsura reflect a view of the villa as an antecedent of modernism, and the photographs themselves epitomize the modernist values of straight photography. Other works in the PGI exhibition reveal Ishimoto’s eye for the absurd and comically grotesque, which is similar to but predates Diane Arbus, as well as his experimentation with multiple exposure and color.

Coming up after the Ishimoto exhibition is “Good News,” a show of works by Narumi Hiramoto in which close-up photography of newsprint is combined with digital editing. When considered in conjunction with previous shows such as Kikuji Kawada’s “Endless Map” and Daisuke Morishita’s “Dance with Blanks,” PGI can be seen to have a commitment not only to straight photography as a historical genre, but also to black-and-white photography as a unique and still challenging avant-garde medium.

Kazumi Nakamura, installation view of “Kazumi Nakamura,” Blum & Poe, Tokyo, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe.

There are only a handful of galleries in Japan owned by non-Japanese gallerists that deal in contemporary Japanese art. With spaces in Tokyo, Los Angeles, and New York, Blum & Poe is well positioned to address transnationalism and Japan within its own ecosystem and outside the context of international biennials and art fairs. Its current shows in L.A. and Tokyo are emblematic of this: The former brings together several of Yukinori Yanagi’s critiques of national identity and Japan’s historical issues with “otherness.” For example, World Flag Ant Farm 2020 (2020), an expansion of a work that was shown at the 1993 Venice Biennale, effectively summarizes the unnaturalness of nationality, as live ants tunnel through and eventually destroy 200 national flags made of colored sand.

The Kazumi Nakamura show at Blum & Poe in Tokyo features vibrantly colored Neo-Expressionist works with repeated motifs that can be appreciated for their abstract rhythm and energy, and for the variations in composition and hue. Compared to the overt social critique in Yanagi’s work, it might seem perverse to read issues of national identity into Nakamura’s paintings. However, as Blum & Poe notes for us, his works combine Asian motifs and reference flattened pictorial space as a traditional Japanese convention through the American modernism of Abstract Expressionism. “Nakamura,” as the exhibition text puts it, “counters the dominant discourse of Euro-American painting by localizing it in a Japanese vernacular.”

The repeated “Y” patterns in some of the paintings reference the Japanese mulberry used for raising silkworms. Other grid patterns echo the isometric perspective used in Japanese scroll paintings, while several pictures feature the semi-abstract outline of a phoenix as an icon of change and regeneration.

John Tran