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Issue 244

Four Galleries to Watch in Tokyo

A new wave of spaces has emerged to embrace the city’s pop sensibility and challenge the status quo

BY Andrew Maerkle, Azby Brown, Andrew Durbin AND Taro Nettleton in Roundtables | 05 JUN 24

Fig. | Chance encounters have shaped a gallery inspired by Tokyo’s past | Andrew Maerkle

When Takayuki Kubota, the artist who runs the alternative space Fig., tells me that he’s seeking to build an exhibition-making practice that stops short of professionalism, I check myself. He’s speaking to me on Zoom after a long day of work and the words are delivered a bit awkwardly, but my confusion also has to do with the nature of the Japanese language, which tends to unfold over a series of deferrals that invite an anxious listener to leap to conclusions before the speaker has completed their statement. Since I know Kubota studied at Hunter College in New York before returning to Japan in 2016, the word ‘professionalism’ triggers associations with the old trope of the artist who comes back from overseas with a mission to preach the international standard to everyone back home. That’s not what he’s talking about, is it? No, Kubota clarifies. He’s experimenting with the possibilities of a space that refuses expansion and institutionalization.

Karu Miyoshi, This place is connected to the basement, 2024
Karu Miyoshi, This place is connected to the basement, 2024. Photograph: Hanayo

Kubota’s stance is emblematic of a turn in recent Japanese thought towards ‘degrowth’, as championed by bestselling Marxist philosopher Kohei Saito in Capital in the Anthropocene (2020). Founded in 2017, Fig. is an intimate operation. Kubota does everything by himself, from installation to administration, while maintaining his own artist practice and teaching art at Temple University, Japan Campus, where he earned his undergraduate degree. Wary of the grant-writing treadmill, he funds Fig. mainly through sales of the artworks he exhibits, supplemented by his own modest income. Until recently, he also lived in the space, which occupies a glorified trunk room wedged between the commercial gallery Misako & Rosen and the family home of art dealer Taka Ishii in Tree-ness House, a multistorey complex in the Otsuka neighborhood.

Under these conditions, exhibitions at Fig. are necessarily sporadic, yet Kubota has quietly assembled an idiosyncratic program that stands out in the alternative scene. One of the first exhibitions he organized, in early 2018, was for Shizuka Okada. Okada made an installation of surrealistic ceramic sculptures, resembling deformed hands and petrified coils of rope, on a multistep wooden armature that snaked across the space, which is bisected by a high platform running down the length of one side. She was followed a year later by COBRA, a member of XYZ collective, who scattered the room with mousetraps baited with small paintings featuring cartoonish depictions of cheese. But Kubota has also presented international artists, such as Basel-based multimedia artist Hannah Weinberger and the German painter David Ostrowski.

Kabuki performance, Asakusa, 2024. Photograph: Hanayo

Kubota says his programme comes to him through chance encounters; literally so, in the case of Tyler Coburn. The New York-based artist happened to visit Fig. while in Tokyo on a residency at Tokyo Arts and Space in early 2023, and he and Kubota soon shared ideas about art. A few months later, Coburn returned for ‘Robots Building Robots’, a mini-survey of his decade-spanning investigation of the Japanese robotics company FANUC and its automated manufacturing. Coburn programmed one of the works, a robot called Taka (2023), to do studio work for Kubota while he was away at his day job.

I think of Fig. as a hole or pocket that allows certain things to fit in it. Takayuki Kubota

Among the precedents Kubota cites for his approach is Takemiya Gallery, active in Tokyo from 1951 to ’57. The unassuming gallery operated out of an art supply shop, with the avant-garde critic Shuzo Takiguchi serving as de facto curator, yet it helped launch the careers of some of Japan’s most iconic artists, including On Kawara and Yayoi Kusama. Kubota also points to the rental gallery system that predominated in postwar Japan as an inspiration. While the idea of an artist paying a gallery to use its space seems scandalous now, rental galleries facilitated the non-commercial experimentation of 1960s and ’70s movements, such as anti-art and mono-ha, and also gave a platform to non-mainstream artists. (In fact, Kubota held his first exhibition at a rental gallery when he was starting out.)

Matsuri in Oume, 2023, festival documentation. Photograph: Hanayo

Connecting that historical lineage to a contemporary, networked sensibility, Kubota embraces the flexibility of informal structures and self-sustainable practices. ‘I think of Fig. as a hole or pocket – and not a very big one – that allows certain things to fit in it,’ he says with characteristic humility. ‘That’s why I can do projects that other spaces generally wouldn’t think of doing in a place like Tokyo.’

Lavender Opener Chair | Far from Tokyo’s centre, a cutting-edge gallery cooks you a meal | Azby Brown

On a chilly evening this past February, I emerged from Oku Station in Arakawa Ward, appreciably far from the city centre. Until recently, this northern neighbourhood wasn’t on anyone’s list of stops for contemporary art, but that night I was visiting Lavender Opener Chair, an artist-run gallery and cafe. A ten-minute walk from the station brought me to a quiet and weathered shōtengai shopping street, but the gallery was so unassuming from the outside that I managed to walk right past it twice.

Karu Miyoshi, rose dance, 2023. Photograph: Hanayo

The considerable effort required to get to Lavender Opener Chair only enhanced its appeal and, since it was founded in 2020, many gladly trek to see the art or to hang out at the seven-seat food counter in the back, the Tohmei Diner. Soon after I arrived, I was joined on my left by a young collector who brought a nice bottle of wine for us to share. A former art student of mine unexpectedly arrived and took the stool to my right. A pair of foreign artists, in town for the Tokyo Art Fair, also appeared; room had to be made for them at a small table usually reserved for catalogues and portfolios. The cafe was full, and the night became raucous. This was typical.

When the gallery’s co-founders, Tatsuhiko Togashi, Yoko Daihara and Yohei Watanabe, decided to open a space, they knew they wanted to foster community – and hoped it might help them survive in the city socially and financially. Watanabe and Togashi knew each other from Tokyo University of the Arts and connected with Daihara shortly afterwards. As Togashi – who spent two and a half years in the Netherlands before returning to Japan in 2019 – described it to me, the concept of a ‘shared studio with a kitchen’ they could all use evolved into ‘a gallery with a cafe’. The gallery’s name was inspired by strange lavender-coloured chairs, their backs shaped like bottle openers, which they saw at a cafe in Tokyo. Togashi, who had no prior restaurant experience, enjoyed cooking and became the cafe’s chef. When the space opened in 2020, it was the worst period of the pandemic; Japan was closed to international visitors, citizens were encouraged to stay at home and exhibitions had virtually ceased.

Shohei Inada portrait, 2024. Photograph: Hanayo

The founders have each shown their own work only once in the four years the space has been open, so Lavender Opener Chair has avoided becoming a vanity project – a not-uncommon fate for artist-run spaces. Rather, they show work they think deserves to be supported; sales are not the driving concern. Their programme is varied. When I visited, the gallery was showing Shohei Inada’s meticulous dot-pattern paintings. Sculptor-turned-painter Ryu Takeda has had two shows at the gallery: one featuring his ambiguously surreal, subtly collaged paintings and another of pastel drawings on paper and hand-sized ceramics. Last year, Vienna-based artist Kanako Tada exhibited embroidered works on fabric that feature coloured text and linear elements, along with paintings. The primary criteria, according to Togashi, is that all three co-directors must find the work intriguing and rigorous. They are less interested in artists with too much exposure. This has led the gallery to become known for introducing new and underappreciated artists.

In the absence of art criticism in Japan, opinions are more likely to emerge via this kind of freeform setting.

Lavender Opener Chair was created to address long-standing problems in the city’s contemporary art scene – a lack of artist-run spaces and an increasing commercialization, which leaves fewer and fewer venues where young artists feel welcome. It also seeks to demonstrate that art spaces can thrive in parts of Tokyo that haven’t historically supported them. The gallery also plays a role formerly served by Tokyo’s once-ubiquitous kashi-garo – tiny galleries that could be rented by artists for a modest fee. Commercial opportunities for Japanese contemporary artists were scarce for much of the post-war period, and most artists – including many who are now prominent – had their first exhibitions at these kinds of spaces, which functioned as informal salons, approachable and open to students and established artists alike. Kashi-garo tended to cluster smack in the city centre, but, in the past few decades, they have almost entirely disappeared. As a place where artists and others can freely hang out, Lavender Opener Chair fills this social void in a way well aligned with current needs and relaxed, cafe-culture sensibilities. And with the almost total absence of public art criticism in Japan, either in print or online, informed and unvarnished opinions are more likely to emerge in this kind of freeform setting, where conversation – as much as art – thrives over beer, wine and a shared meal.

Karu Miyoshi, rose dance, 2023. Photograph: Hanayo

Tenko Presents | A gallery with no fixed address tries to bridge generations | Andrew Durbin

I first met Tenko Nakajima Glenewinkel shortly after Japan lifted its COVID-19 restrictions and reopened for international visitors in November 2022. On my last night in town, she invited me to Tomhei Diner – a restaurant in the gallery Lavender Opener Chair. We were joined by the artist Marysia Paruzel, who had just opened her show ‘Human Bites’ in an unfinished construction site in the city centre, the first edition of Tenko’s new, eponymous roving project space. My early flight the next day meant I couldn’t see the show in person, but the install shots testified to the gallery’s aim to blur the distinctions between artwork, gallery and city; the photos are an impressionistic record rather than clinical documentation. An umbrella with balloons tied to its handle was installed on the gallery’s balcony; in another photo, the umbrella is stuffed in a telephone box on the street. The next show – by Raiki Yamamoto – would be staged in a bedroom.

Tenko was raised in Berlin and Tokyo, and educated at Central Saint Martins in London, where young artists often mount exhibitions in unconventional spaces – warehouses, squats, toilets, bars. Everyone shows up, even if it means trekking to the edge of town, and an opening can slip into an all-night party, with clean-up looking a lot like de-install. During the pandemic, she noticed an abundance of quasi-abandoned buildings in Tokyo that were perfect for ‘off-site’ shows. But this sort of thing is rare in Japan. Openings – usually in white cubes – are conservative, quiet and dry, wrapping up around 5pm. She started Tenko Presents to bring new energy to the art scene, while bridging international and local communities.

Tenko Presents, 2024. Photograph: Hanayo

‘I’ve never approached [an artist] without knowing them,’ she tells me. Some visiting artists have even stayed in her flat. But they’re not all close friends; this June she mounted a show by the British painter Alan Michael. She models her approach on Cologne in the 1980s, when the West German city’s tight-knit scene saw painters, sculptors and dealers working hip-to-hip. This ‘family style’ approach, as Tenko calls it, crosses generations; she’s especially eager not to be seen as catering exclusively to ‘jaded 25-year-olds’.

‘There is such a divide between generations here,’ she tells me. Still, she hopes to pitch Tenko Presents to more diverse audiences. This summer, the gallery will open a new show by Morag Keil, installed across multiple floors of Tenko’s apartment building – an old council estate, mostly occupied by pensioners. Riffing on the popularity of paintings of Scottish castles among the retired set, Keil will show her own versions of the subject on several floors of the building, which residents will see each time the elevator doors open.

When I ask what the gallery owes Tokyo, Tenko says she admires the city’s ‘pop’ openness to art in commercial spaces, cafes, fashion stores, even if its established galleries sometimes play it safe amid economic uncertainty. In this regard, the Japanese art world isn’t so different from its Western counterparts, which have seen their own urban art communities – including smaller and medium-sized galleries, artist-run spaces and non-profits – squeezed under brutal financial pressures. But despite Berlin, London and New York’s claims on artistic experimentation, those cities impose their strict limits on what counts as a ‘serious’, ‘professional’ venue that Tokyo seldom observes. Rule of thumb: you can’t serve someone a cup of coffee and sell a ‘real’ painting. Yet, younger Japanese dealers haven’t shied away from mixing art, food and fashion. After all, the restaurant where I first met Tenko is part-gallery.

4649 Gallery, 2024. Photograph: Hanayo

Exhibitions ‘don’t always have to be so exclusive,’ Tenko says. ‘I want everyone to see [them].’ Searching for new spaces can be exhausting. I ask whether she would consider a brick-and-mortar in Tokyo. She shakes her head no. For now, she likes fluidity and freedom. She can pack a suitcase and fly to Mexico – as she did recently – and throw something together with an artist. ‘I love building a bridge between places,’ she explains. Usually, that’s only possible if you keep your programme nimble, your needs light. But she doesn’t rule out settling down eventually. ‘Maybe in the long run,’ she says. Only that would mean business cards with an address, her name printed on the door. She isn’t ready for that yet.

The 5th Floor | A radical non-profit takes on projects that museums and galleries avoid | Taro Nettleton

Despite billing itself as a ‘playground’, The 5th Floor is, in fact, one of Tokyo’s most astutely programmed not-for-profit exhibition spaces. Spanning three humble rooms atop a former company dormitory, The 5th Floor is located in Nezu, an old residential neighbourhood dotted with small shops that make it a popular place to take a stroll. Current director and curator Tomoya Iwata, who has helmed the space since 2022, aims to enable curatorial projects that would be difficult to realize elsewhere and to provide an arena in which young curators can hone their skills. As a result, an experimental yet lyrical programme, organized by both in-house and guest curators, has flourished. The 5th Floor is not an anti-institutional space, Iwata explained to me, when I visited one day in early spring; rather, a parallel, alternative one.

The 5th Floor, 2024. Photograph: Hanayo

As the global demand for contemporary art continues to rise – compounded by an ever-increasing number of fairs, shows and biennials – many artists find themselves so focused on production that they are unable to take the time to reflect on their evolving practice. In a bid to counter this, The 5th Floor organized its ‘ANNUAL BRAKE’ exhibitions, which take the form of mini-retrospectives. The series consciously shifts away from capitalism’s emphasis on productivity and profit by asking artists to revisit their past works and, at times, to exhibit works that might otherwise struggle to find a home in a commercial gallery or an institution.

The 5th Floor aims to be simultaneously a runway and a landing strip.

For example, in the exhibition’s 2022 iteration, Osamu Matsuda, whose work addresses the representation of ‘slum culture’ in art, showed his early looped videos, Mario Dying as Many Lives as 9.11 (2003) and DV Chun-li Getting Socked (2004), made using footage from Super Mario (1985–ongoing) and Street Fighter (1987–ongoing). This was a chance for the artist to share works that, Iwata hinted, couldn’t be exhibited in a commercial gallery due to copyright issues. Ironically, another of Matsuda’s pieces, I’m sorry I was born (2018) – which used footage of Aum Shinrikyo cult leader, Shoko Asahara – had to be moved off-site to another space, let under the condition it remain unnamed, after The 5th Floor’s building owner expressed concerns about offending local residents.

Christopher Loden, ‘Lost in Asia’ at the27club, 2023. Photograph: Hanayo

Iwata hopes The 5th Floor will become a hub for pan-Asian connections between artists, curators and non-profits that share a similar vision. While comparable spaces exist across Asia, linguistic differences and funding shortages have reduced their visibility and impact beyond the regional. In response, Iwata is collaborating with fellow curators to create a network of Asian art archives to facilitate future research in the field. Ultimately, he plans to organize symposia and publications that will disseminate this archive even more broadly.

At the end of last year, Iwata published the first of a series of conversations on independent art spaces in Seoul with Jiwon Yu, a curator at Leeum Museum of Art and co-founder of the art writers’ collective Yellow Pen Club. That same year, Iwata participated in discussions at Yellow Pen Club, as well as at the Bangkok-based alternative art space, Speedy Grandma. Through these dialogues – as well as through The 5th Floor’s own curator-in-residence programme and collaborations with overseas artists, curators and institutions – Iwata aims to examine local art scenes while forging new connections across Asia and beyond.

Lavender Opener Chair/Tohmei Diner, 2024. Photograph: Hanayo

This February, The 5th Floor announced an ‘all-or-nothing’ crowd-funding initiative to maintain its autonomy and further develop its operations. Many artists and curators rallied behind the space, citing its challenging, experimental exhibition programme and its generous provision of care and opportunities as not only essential to the Tokyo art scene but influential to their individual practices – whether artistic or curatorial. Matsuda commented provocatively, ‘Unique in Tokyo, [The 5th Floor is] a curators’, not artists’ space […] They respect artists and are generous not only with words, but also payment [...]’. Tokyo-based artist Anais-karenin attested that she was supported by the space ‘in pursuing the crossover of ecology and post-colonialism, an uncommon theme in the Japanese art scene’. Above all, The 5th Floor is cherished both for generating momentum and for providing room for contemplation. As Iwata told me as we parted ways, The 5th Floor aims to be simultaneously a runway and a landing strip.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 244 with the headline ‘4 Galleries to Watch in Tokyo’

Main image: Fig., 2024. Photograph: Hanayo

Andrew Maerkle is a writer, editor and translator. He lives in Tokyo, Japan.

Azby Brown is lead researcher at Safecast, a citizen-science organization devoted to creating environmental data. He lives in Yokohama, Japan.

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

Taro Nettleton is associate professor of Art History at Temple University, Japan Campus.