The Best Shows to See During Tokyo Gendai

From Nerhol’s impressionistic abstractions to Cai Guo-Qiang’s AI generated firework explosions

BY John L. Tran in Exhibition Reviews | 06 JUL 23


Dai-ichi Life Gallery × M5 Gallery

23 June – 14 July 

Nerhol, 'Affect', 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist 

Nerhol, a duo made up of Yoshihisa Tanaka and Ryuta Iida, take their name from a portmanteau of Japanese words neru – to knead – and holu – to carve. The wordplay references the way they create their mesmeric works, giving mass to the photographic picture plane by layering multiple images of the same subject and then cutting and scraping away at the composited stack of photos. In previous portrait works, thick blocks of prints are slashed through, giving faces and bodies a distorting cubist effect.

Their current exhibition spans two venues: M5 Gallery and the nearby Dai-ichi Seimei building. The latter is notably the site of American General MacArthur’s postwar headquarters, from which Japan’s current liberal democratic constitution was drafted. Drawing upon that history, the colour work The painting hanging on the wall (MacArthur Room) (2023) uses a marine scene by British artist F.J. Aldridge (1850–1933) as a source image. Cutting progressively through layered photos of the painting, Nerhol soften the realism of the photographic process by creating a diffused, impressionistic abstraction. At the same time, the tearing and scuffing of the photos, in combination with the reference to Japan’s postwar history, evoke national trauma and ambivalence towards the photograph as a documentary tool.

Ryutaro Takahashi Collection

WHAT Museum

28 April – 27 August 

Ryutaro Takahashi Collection, ‘ART de Cha Cha Cha − Exploring the DNA of Japanese Contemporary Art − from the Takahashi Ryutaro Collection', 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Takahashi Ryutaro Collection; photograph: Keizo KIOKU

‘ART de Cha Cha Cha − Exploring the DNA of Japanese Contemporary Art − from the Takahashi Ryutaro Collection’ at the WHAT Museum (whose name stands for Warehouse of Art Terrada), is based around the art collection of psychiatrist Ryutaro Takahashi. Takahashi began his collection in earnest in 1997, and the exhibition provides a striking insight into Japanese art around the time of its turn from high modernity to a subculture-inflected sensibility.

A room dedicated to artists of the 1960s Mono-Ha (School of Things) movement features meditative and minimalist works. Nobuo Sekine’s hanging sheet Elements of Myth (1989), made of traditional handmade paper covered with gold foil, evokes traditional Japanese arts and crafts – in which gold played a frequent role as a decorative background – yet the nonfigurative marks and shapes that pit and break the surface of the work are indicative of the Mono-ha interest in process and materials.

By contrast, Mikiko Kumazawa’s highly detailed 2009 pencil drawing Shinshoku takes the exhibition into subculture territory. With a title that is translatable as ‘encroachment’ or ‘erosion’, it shows a cornucopia of quotidian iconography, particularly street furniture, interspersed with up-skirt views of the artist as high-school girl.

Osamu Watanabe

Galerie Nichido

29 June – 11 July 

Osamu Watanabe, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers
Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Nichido

Osamu Watanabe has been offering audiences sweet indulgences for more than a decade, employing cake decoration techniques in his artistic practice. ‘Sweet and Funny Masterpiece Show’, at the Galerie Nichido, features his take on canonical works such as Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888), Munch’s The Scream (1893) and Picasso’s Weeping Woman (1937), recreated using coloured resin piped through an icing bag. Creating colourful kawaii (cute) ornamental objects made up of small swirls that usually decorate cakes, Watanabe’s previous series include ‘Life’, a collection of cute animals and plants. and ‘Oriental Dream’, which reproduces shapes from Japanese myth and religion. A zen rock garden, for example, becomes the surface of a sheet cake with lines of white fondant cream decoration flowing around glazed strawberries.

Constrained by dimension and cultural baggage, Watanabe’s re-workings of well-known paintings do not necessarily operate with the same confectionary cuteness as his 3D objects, which almost encourage the viewer to eat or physically play with them. Rather, the pictures on the wall in ‘Sweet and Funny Masterpiece Show’ prompt a perspective of greater ironic distance and reflection, a hinting at a new direction for this playful artist.

Minoru Nomata

Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery

6 July – 24 September 

Minoru Nomata, Nowhere-2, 1993.
Minoru Nomata, Nowhere-2, 1993. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: © Miho Kokuma

Among the influences for Minoru Nomata’s architectonic visions of futuristic ruins and fantasy structures are the science fiction of Philip K. Dick, the engravings of Piranesi, the melancholy of De Chirico and the impossible geometry of Escher. Painting with acrylics, Nomata’s imagery is precise to the point of being diagrammatic, but also suggests an undercurrent of ambivalence towards human aspiration.

‘Continuum’, at the Tokyo Opera City Gallery, features, but is not limited to, work from the collection of Kotaro Terada, who was a devoted collector of Nomata’s work, and a partner in the construction of the Tokyo Opera City Complex, one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo. Viewing Nomata’s depictions of reimagined towers of Babel, follies and post-apocalyptic urban landscapes in the expansive white cube environment of the Tokyo Opera City Gallery therefore presents a potentially reflexive experience. Nomata depicts his structures with obsessive care and attention but the fact that they only exist as representations evokes a strong feeling of unfulfilled longing.

Kishio Suga

Tomio Koyama Gallery

24 June  22 July 

Kishio Suga, Passage Among Edges and Pillars, 2022, wood, acrylic, 1.8 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: © Kishio Suga and Tomio Koyama Gallery; photograph: Kenji Takahashi

Kishio Suga’s solo exhibition ‘Neither Things Nor Sites’, at the Tomio Koyama Gallery in Roppongi, explores the notion that, as the artist puts it, ‘the existence of “things” is grounded upon the presence of a world and circumstances that bear connections to them.’ Suga’s body of work over 50 years – since the inception of the Mono-Ha movement – can be characterized by a wariness of the art object as conclusive statement in favour of expressions of process and interaction, resulting in assemblages that appear on the point of collapse or transformation.

The Shinto non-distinction between inanimate objects and living beings, and the Buddhist notion of dependent co-arising, which proposes the connectedness of all things, seem implicit to ‘Neither Things Nor Sites’. In Passage among Edges and Pillars (2022), for example, stubs of sawn wood are connected to each other by vibrantly coloured turquoise strips of acrylic. The composition, which hangs on the wall, appears robust and coherent from head on, but approaching the piece from different angles reveals infinitely changing negative spaces between the blocks and the connecting strips, which are as important to the work as the solid parts.

Cai Guo-Qiang

National Art Center

29 June  21 August 

Cai Guo-Qiang, The Annunciation of cAI™, 2023, gunpowder on glass and mirror, 2 × 5.8 m. Courtesy: Cai Studio; photograph: Mengjia Zhao

Cai Guo-Qiang’s ‘Ramble in the Cosmos – From Primeval Fireball Onward’, at the National Arts Center Tokyo, references a 1991 exhibition which featured the artist’s now-familiar surfaces scorched by exploded fireworks. In the original show, large panels that resembled traditional folding screens decorated with sumi-e (ink painting) were arranged in a sun ray shape, echoing the burn patterns on the panels themselves.

Now, with more space, greater resources and a wider range of artistic processes, the current exhibition is presented as a shockwave or reverberation emanating from Cai’s previous Tokyo show.

Whereas earlier work was limited to browns and black, the gunpowder screen painting The Annunciation of cAI™ (2023) features blues, purples and coppery greens. The image was created in collaboration with the AI program ChatGPT, which generated images in response to input from the artist, as well as providing commentary on the firework explosions that Cai subsequently designed around the AI images.

Main image: Cai Guo-Qiang, Fetus Movement II: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 9, 1991, gunpowder and ink on paper, mounted on wood, 2 × 6.4 m. Courtesy: Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo

John L Tran writes on the Tokyo art scene and teaches photography and visual studies. He is based in Tsukuba, Japan.