A Critic’s Guide to Art Week Tokyo

frieze editor-in-chief Andrew Durbin chooses the best shows to see in the Japanese capital right now

BY Andrew Durbin in Critic's Guides , Exhibition Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 04 NOV 22

Gozo Yoshimasu, 'Voix'

Take Ninegawa

29 October – 17 December

Gozo Yoshimasu, 'Voix', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: © Gozo Yoshimasu and Take Ninagawa, Tokyo

The great literary experimentalist Gozo Yoshimasu presents here a series of delicate, hand-written pages from an ongoing poem that documents his daily life as well as his deconstructive investigations into the Japanese language. (All works in this tightly curated, exceptional exhibition are from 2019 and titled Voix except Voix 1, 2019–21). The pages of Gozo’s manuscript are presented upright, behind glass. Stamped with a date between August and September 2019, they feature the artist’s calligraphic scripts amidst the occasional swath of colour or disruptive tear in the paper. For many years, this great poet has written from a room at the Hotel New Sakai in Ishinomaki – which he presents as a work of art, room (2021–ongoing) – and these pages partly record his contemplations of the hotel’s mountain view, his literary reflections and passages from correspondence with friends. Voix is both dense and playful, largely illegible – even to a Japanese speaker – and yet engrossing in its inquiries into language and experience.

Ryohei Usui, 'Still Life on the Street'

Mujin-To Production

29 October – 20 November

Ryohei Usui, 'Still life on the street', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and MUJIN-TO Production, Tokyo

Plastic water bottles made of glass are strewn about the gallery’s handsome wooden space, not far from the Onagi River. One bottle rests on a pillow (Water (with bottle), all works 2022); another lies atop a covered vehicle (Car); still another has seemingly fallen over, onto a makeshift wooden cart (Plywood). The artist compares his work, which is inspired by his walks around Tokyo, to the paintings of Giorgio Morandi, who was equally attentive to everyday repetition and simplicity in his treatment of bottles, bowls and cups. Here, Ryohei transfers the flimsy water bottle – found everywhere from city streets to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench – to hard glass. Cold glass, as you learn when you touch the work, which the artist encourages you to do. Touch is key here. Only then do you recognize how strangely unlike the everyday art can be, even when it assumes its most obvious forms.

Mitsuko Miwa, 'Full House'

SCAI The Bathhouse

1 November – 10 December

Mitsuko Miwa, 'Full House', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: ©Mitsuko Miwa and SCAI The Bathhouse, Tokyo; photograph: Nobutada Omote  

After a five-year hiatus from artmaking, Mitsuko Miwa returns with a two-floor retrospective of works ranging from the early 1990s to 2022. Central to this show is the large installation House (2022): a chessboard of black and white tiles, swallowing up most of the gallery’s ground floor, is flush to the outline of the titular house painted on a two-storey wall. Along with photo collages of teapots (all titled Self-Montage, various years), small black dog-doors painted near the entrance to the gallery (Entrances and Exits, 2022), a series of photos of mirrors (‘Fractal Portraits’, all 2022) and several paintings, House amplifies a worrying mood that hangs over many of these distinctive works. For an early catalogue, Miwa included a short story by Edgar Allan Poe – an apt choice for this saturnine artist, who, like Poe, twines the rhythms and spectral images of dreams to waking life to create an artful and evocative melancholy atmosphere.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, 'Opera House'

Gallery Koyanagi

3 September – 6 November

Hiroshi Sugimoto, 'Opera House', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: © Hiroshi Sugimoto and Gallery Koyanagi; photograph: Sugimoto Studio

Sugimoto is best known for his long-exposure, black and white photographs of movies playing in empty theatres. In these supremely elegant works, which were all shot in 2014 and 2015 (except Palais Garnier, Paris, 2019), scenes or stills from the films themselves are never shown. Instead, Sugimoto’s process renders each movie a stark white screen installed in the middle of some of the great, pallidly illuminated theatres of France and Italy. An opaque argument lies behind this gorgeous exhibition. The designs of many of the theatres, Sugimoto notes in an accompanying text, were copied for US cinemas built during the rise of Hollywood; the European originals lack the screens that now dominate their chintzy American imitations. As compelling as the Villa Mazzacorrati, Bologna (photographed twice in 2015) or Teatro Comunale Masini, Faeza (2015) might be, I found myself curious about their upstart imitators and wondering why an exhibition supposedly concerned with forgery focused exclusively on the original. Sometimes, a little inelegance is necessary for us to recognize the appeal of style and grace.

Naho Kawabe & Hanae Utamura, Strata


15 October – 13 November

Naho Kawabe & Hanae Utamura Strata installation view
Naho Kawabe & Hanae Utamura, 'Strata', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: ©︎Naho Kawabe, Hanae Utamura, and Waitingroom, Tokyo; photograph: Shintaro Yamanaka (Qsyum!)

In this two-person exhibition, housed in an old post office not far from the Imperial Palace, Hanae Utamura contends with the dashed hopes and dreadful future that the 20th century ensured us all. Among photographs and wall-based sculpture, the strongest work is Utamura’s 16-minute film Spring Water, Fault, Body (2021), which draws on a memoir written by the artist’s father, a former nuclear engineer. Against images of landscape, rituals involving tapering streamers and found footage of historic events – the Sputnik launch in 1957, the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics and the celebrations for the country’s first bullet train, both in 1964 – a disembodied voice narrates melancholy recollections of scientific progress. This theme is teased out, somewhat more lightly, in the sculpture of Naho Kawabe, an artist who predominantly works with charcoal. Several sooty, surprisingly delicate-looking pieces hang or are displayed throughout the space. Most convincing, though, is a series of small, surreal dioramas on a shelf: a tarantula carries an apple on its back, a small palm sprouting from its surface (Tarantula, 2022); palms also sprout from a book (On the Social Contract, 2022); a T-Rex angles toward a sheep and a reclining person (On the Social Contract (Dinosaur, Sheep, Human), 2022) – a comic reminder of the lost world and the fossil fuel deposits that gave rise to this one.

Ryoji Ikeda, data.gram

Taro Nasu

14 October – 12 November

Ryoji Ikeda,'data.gram', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: ©︎Ryoji Ikeda and Taro Nasu; photograph: Keizo Kioku

At Taro Nasu, artist Ryoji Ikeda delves into the visual language of data mapping, from the atomic (data.gram 07 [molecular structure of a protein], all works 2022) to the cosmic (data.gram 39 [the large-scale structure of the universe]). These looped, 48-second films transform the typical imagery of graphs, 3D modelling and information collation – which is meant to deepen and clarify our understanding of biology, urban planning and astronomy – into curiously arresting abstractions. Yet, despite their subject matter, these diagrammatic films repeatedly steer forensic science into the near-nonsensical. In data.gram 22 [cities], for instance, maps of urban settings continuously merge until the differences between, say, Paris and New York become impossible to tell. Similarly, the movement of global airlines in data.gram 24 [flight traffics] eliminates the typical information found on websites like flightaware.com and, instead, grants a picture of the globe swathed in a spider’s web of constricting lines, destinations unknown. Each film is a canny reminder of how incomplete our knowledge of the world can be, even when we are certain we have the right information.

Main image: Ryoji Ikeda,'data.gram', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: ©︎Ryoji Ikeda and Taro Nasu; photograph: Keizo Kioku

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. His book The Wonderful World That Almost Was is forthcoming from FSG in 2025.