Tokyo's art scene is as vibrant as it is eclectic, with galleries and museums that boast of architectural grandeur as well as collections filled with masterpieces and bold statements of contemporary culture. In the last 30 years or so, a number of ambitious and unique galleries have sprung up across Tokyo, often in obscure spaces that reward the intrepid and dedicated art followers. So while you have heard of popular art institutions such as 21_21 Design Sight and The National Art Center, Tokyo, you might not be familiar with these independent contemporary art galleries that should make it onto your list, too.
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This gallery near Tokyo Tower doesn’t just promote established names; it also sees itself as an incubator of emerging artists. Back during its launch in 2008, the gallery inaugurated its walls with a show by then-emerging artist Misaki Kawai, who created ‘Kimagure Float’, a whimsical installation that featured drawings, free-standing sculptures and on-wall papier-mâché. The show was considered bold when it was organised during the hard-hitting 2008 recession as art was seen as an obscene excess in a time of great economic difficulty.
Over the years, Take Ninagawa has produced well-curated exhibitions such as the Japanese premiere of ‘Time Memory’ (2010~) by Shinro Ohtake, which featured a series of collages comprising letters, pamphlets and other packaging materials that the artist collected over the years. Don’t miss the ‘Optional Art Activity’ series when it’s on – instead of featuring artworks, the exhibition explores the artists’ identities through their belongings.
In the residential neighbourhood of Otsuka is one of Tokyo’s trendiest art spaces, which is home to some of the city’s most charismatic gallery owners. Founded in 2006, Misako & Rosen Gallery is located inside the striking Treeness House, a visionary building that looks like a concrete stack of potplants, designed by Japanese architect Akihisa Hirata.
The gallery was founded by Misako and Jeffrey Rosen, who previously worked for Taka Ishii and Tomio Koyama, both celebrated founders from the first generation of Tokyo galleries. Seeking out artworks that are either highly abstract or humourous, the gallery represents 28 contemporary artists from Japan and abroad.
A boon to commuters, this glass-fronted space exhibits art from the late 19th century to the present day by both Japanese and international artists. As well as being the oldest venue on this list, it is also the most atmospheric, having eschewed the standard white walls for the station’s iconic exposed brickwork. These walls have been graced by works from great masters in the past, including Picasso, Marc Chagall and Giorgio Morandi, alongside contemporary Japanese artists including Yoshimura Yoshio, whose elaborate, design-driven drawings have been featured widely in the media.
Established as part of DNP’s (DaiNippon Printing Co, Ltd) cultural activities in 1986, Ginza Graphic Gallery (GGG) is an acclaimed space specialising in graphic art and design. Compared to other art disciplines, graphic art and design has a shorter history, which allows the gallery to showcase artists from various eras and countries.
GGG has featured works by graphic designers and illustrators such as Paula Scher, to name just one, an influential figure in post modern design. Moreover, the gallery has an additional space, Graphic Archive Library, in the same building, where you can watch videos and browse GGG publications – it’s a great place to learn more about graphic design.
Nanzuka was formerly known as Nanzuka Underground (2005-2011) due to its basement location. Despite being just five to ten minutes away from the frenetic Shibuya Station, Nanzuka is surprisingly calm and quiet, perfect for a leisurely art-viewing experience.
This discreet yet charming gallery aims to help Tokyo rediscover postwar Japanese artists who have either been ignored or forgotten, such as pop artist Keiichi Tanaami, who created ‘No More War’, a psychedelic anti-war poster, and illustrator Hajime Sorayama, whose works often portray feminine robots in super-surreal and erotic styles.
The gallery also supports emerging Japanese artists by providing them with a stepping stone into the international art scene. Nanzuka is often involved in collaborations with creatives in other industries – such as fashion, design and music – which expands its influence beyond the borders of fine art.
Located in Roppongi’s Piramide Building, the namesake gallery first opened in Paris in 1990 by influential art dealer Emmanuel Perrotin, who’s credited with launching the careers of some of the art world’s biggest stars, namely Damien Hirst, Kaws and Takashi Murakami.
Perrotin met Murakami during the 1993 international art fair in Yokohama, which led to a fruitful partnership that quickly propelled Murakami into international stardom following his first solo exhibition in Paris. The gallery has expanded to six cities around the world, including Tokyo, which opened in 2017.
Since its establishment in 1998, Taro Nasu has always been one of the leading galleries in Tokyo. Its eponymous owner and director Taro Nasu first opened his gallery in the Shokuryo Building, which, together with neighbouring establishments, ushered in the first wave of galleries back when Japanese contemporary art has yet to receive much recognition in its homeland. The gallery has moved around a bit over the years before settling down in Roppongi in 2019, where a new space was designed by the Japanese studio Mount Fuji Architects.
Artists represented by the gallery are a mix of emerging and seasoned names, such as French mixed-media artist Pierre Huyghe, who created ‘The Host and the Cloud’ (2009-2010) – a film about a social experiment set in a former ethnographic museum – and British artist Liam Gillick, who’s known for his relational aesthetics, realised in large-scale works such as ‘Local Discussion Screen’ (2001-2002), which features red panels attached to metallic frames.
The gallery also represents a roster of Japanese artists including photographer Maiko Haruki, who experiments with analogue film to create novel variations on black and white portraits, and Koichi Enomoto, who reimagines his reality through manga-like figures set in a surrealistic dystopia.
Ota Fine Arts is one of the best galleries in Tokyo for contemporary art. Established in 1993 in Ebisu, the gallery is widely regarded as a pioneer in exhibiting Japanese contemporary work. In promoting superstar artist Yayoi Kusama, it shot to prominence, accompanying her rise to international fame. The gallery strives to provide opportunities for new talents too, and is particularly strong when it comes to showing up-and-coming Japanese artists.
In recent years, Ota Fine Arts has brought more variety to its roster, broadening its focus beyond Japanese art to regional works from Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Middle East, as well as opening locations in Singapore and Shanghai.
Ginza is well known for its luxury boutiques and high-end restaurants, but tucked away from the main concentration of gleaming high-rise offices and designer stores is a treasure trove of art spots – and among them is Gallery Koyanagi. This space is often overlooked, in part due to its location in a nondescript office building. Take the elevator up to the eight floor, and as the elevator door opens, you’ll be greeted by a discreetly lit white hall with contrasting concrete columns.
Gallery Koyanagi was founded in 1995 by art dealer Atsuko Koyanagi, who began by exhibiting ceramics before switching to photography and more conceptual art. Here you will find some of the best works by artists including French conceptual and installation artist Sophie Calle, Japanese contemporary video installation artist Tabaimo, as well as photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who uses his medium of choice as a sort of time capsule.
Hidden away on a residential backstreet in Roppongi, Taka Ishii Gallery has since 1994 played a vital role in the country’s contemporary art scene by introducing up-and-coming Japanese artists to the public. Its impressive roster includes Ei Arakawa, who often combines performance art with other mediums like sculpture and installation, and German photographer Thomas Demand, who’s known for reconstructing scenes of political and historical events through large-scale works, such as 2011’s ‘Control Room’, which depicts a control centre at Fukushima’s power plant.
The gallery is part of Complex665, which houses two other prominent galleries, ShugoArts and Tomio Koyama. The logo on the three-storey building’s façade was designed by Japanese artist Yoshihisa Tanaka.
Established in Shinjuku in 1992 before moving to Roppongi’s Piramide building in 2011, Wako Works of Art focuses on Western contemporary artists such as the hugely influential German painter Gerhard Richter, and American postmodern visionary James Welling, whose revolutionary early works such as the ‘Los Angeles Architecture & Portraits’ (1976-78) and ‘Diary/Landscape’ (1977-86) experimented with photographic technologies and processes, pushing the limits on how objects are perceived.
Over the years, the gallery has not only been active in exhibiting works by important artists but also made room for up-and-coming artists who have yet to break into the local scene.
Located inside a container-like building in Ichigaya, Mizuma Art Gallery was established in 1994 to promote singular and eccentric artists. The gallery has since accumulated an enviable list of names including Indonesian artist Albert Yonathan Setyawan, known for his intricate and maze-like large-scale ceramic installations, and preeminent Japanese contemporary artist Aida Makoto, best known for creating ‘Blender’ (2001), a provocative painting which depicts a giant blender filled with naked girls. Mizuma is a must-visit for those keen on expanding their art horizons.
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