BY Angel Lambo in Critic's Guides | 03 NOV 23

What to See During Art Week Tokyo

From Arisa Kumagai’s ecclesiastical symbolism to Rika Minamitani’s carnivalesque paintings, here are the shows to see in Japan’s capital

BY Angel Lambo in Critic's Guides | 03 NOV 23

Arisa Kumagai

Gallery Koyanagi

31 October 2023 – 13 January 2024

Arisa Kumagai, Say yes to me, 2023
Arisa Kumagai, Say yes to me, 2023, oil on panel, 97 × 195 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Gallery Koyanagi; photograph: Hikari Okawara

Imagine entering a crypt. Your eyes slowly adjust to the quiet darkness. The room reveals its secrets: at the centre, a funerary table, covered by a sheer cloth. So begins Gallery Koyanagi’s presentation of new paintings by Arisa Kumagai, with a collection of the artist’s poems on the table – an evolution in her practice.

Each letter-pressed sentence in the booklet mirrors the rhythm and drama of the eight obsidian black paintings encircling the table. In we’re (all works 2023), a bouquet of lilies emerges from the darkness, their tentacular green stems meandering across the canvas, discharging cascades of pink, fleshy petals. In others, haunted churchyard sculptures raise their heads in prayer (Say yes to me) or clasp hands in mourning (Who, do you think? Are you?). These motifs, blending chiaroscuro botany and religious stonemasonry, reflect Kumagai’s interest in Catholicism and the works of Diego Velázquez.

Her practice has been profoundly influenced by her personal history too, beginning with her upbringing in Osaka. Her family’s fashion boutique, serving both the mafia and sex workers in the city’s red light district, exposed her to power, love, violence and money. While her references are oblique, the vacillating ecclesiastical symbolism suggests Kumagai is interested neither in forgiving nor forgetting.  

Mao Ishikawa

Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery

13 October – 24 December

Mao Ishikawa, What can i do?
Mao Ishikawa, The Great Ryūkyū Photo Scroll, 2014–ongoing, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Tokyo Opera City Gallery; photograph: Kioku Keizou

‘I insist that I can love US soldiers individually while hating the US military as an institution,’ writes Mao Ishikawa in her 20-page handout for the exhibition ‘What Can I Do?’. This long-overdue retrospective transcends biography to offer a meticulous selection of images depicting the last 50 years of Okinawan history.

The opening images of Hot Day in Camp Hansen!! (1982) capture the complex relationships that blossomed between Okinawan women and Black American soldiers stationed on the US military-occupied island. Ishikawa’s lens spans the decades, from Port Town Elegy (1983–86), depicting unemployed men on society’s fringes, to My Family (2001–05), a poignant exploration of her body marked by cancer.

The final gallery rooms house The Great Photographic Scroll of the Ryūkyū (2014–ongoing), a sprawling installation with over 100 photos, both staged and candid, documenting political events that have defined the lives of Okinawa’s residents. An unmissable show.

Yoshio Kitayama


17 September – 19 November

Yoshio Kitayama, MEM
Yoshio Kitayama, 'History = Reason ( ) Emotion', 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: © Yoshio Kitayama and MEM, Tokyo

MEM Gallery presents the second instalment of an exhibition featuring recent works by Yoshio Kitayama, an artist who helped push the Japanese avant-garde beyond mono-ha’s minimalist legacy in the 1970s and ’80s. Winter Solstice: A Perspective Drawing from Earth’s Surface (2018) continues his ‘Universe’ series (1997–ongoing), exploring themes of birth, death and renewal. Over two metres tall, the work features meticulously hand-painted concentric circles, reminiscent of speckled clusters of stars emerging from the hydrogen fog of the early universe.

While Kitayama’s paintings seek to embody meaning in tangible form, his sculptures appear to be built according to another logic. There are nine 3D drawings, as the artist calls them, crafted from washi paper, tree branches, copper and acrylic, filling the third-floor gallery. Those familiar with his work might have been expecting the larger-scale structures for which he became known after representing Japan in the 1982 Venice Biennale. However, this intimate yet celestial exhibition proves that the artist’s impact transcends scale.

Saori Miyake


21 October – 19 November

Nowhere in Blue, Saori Miyake
Saori Miyake, Blue print, 2023, cyanotype on watercolour paper, 40 × 71 cm. Courtesy: ©︎ Saori Miyake and Waitingroom

Saori Miyake introduces audiences to a world where the tactility of the past converges with the exploratory possibilities of the digital age. Presenting a new series of cyanotypes, Miyake considers how global shifts – such as the Coronavirus pandemic and the proliferation of AI technology – can affect landscapes. This concern was born during one of the artist’s many walks through Kyoto’s traditional gardens during lockdown.

Miyake subtly weaves nature’s presence throughout the exhibition’s jewel-toned works. blue print (all works 2023), a cyanotype capturing the quivering reflection of a branch in a pool, rewards quiet contemplation. Conversely, a second blue print takes an innovative approach: Miyake initiated the work by making a digital copy of a landscape painting, zooming in on a delicate brushstroke until all that remained were pixels.

During the exhibition opening, I asked the artist why she chose contrasting technologies to capture various expressions of nature. ‘Whether I focus on a single grid in a digital image, or a tiny flower in a landscape painting’ she responded, ‘to me, they are the same.’ By Miyake’s reckoning, nature is an unalterable truth.

Rika Minamitani

Tomio Koyama Gallery

28 October – 18 November

Rika Minamitani, Untitled, 2023
Rika Minamitani, Untitled, 2023. Courtesy: the artist and Tomio Koyama Gallery

While this year’s exhibitions at Art Week Tokyo lean toward the post-war end of the contemporary art canon, Tomio Koyama Gallery seeks to balance the scales with a spirited gallery debut from recent MFA graduate Rika Minamitani. ‘Silent Play’, the English transliteration of the Japanese word for pantomime, Moku-geki, comprises a series of large, carnivalesque paintings featuring button-nosed characters.

The delight of the exhibition comes from the challenge of discerning whether Minamitani is serious about play or playfully toying with art. In Untitled (all works 2023), a cartoonish dog catapults across the frame. Perhaps its three heads are a nod to the modernist practice of depicting a single figure from various angles on a single canvas? In another Untitled work, a bare-chested young man reclines in a twisted pose that echoes Egon Schiele’s portraits. After all, as the artist describes in the accompanying exhibition text, painting is pantomime.

Main image: Mao Ishikawa, Living as biracial (mixed-roots) in Okinawa, from 'The Great Ryukyu Photo Scroll' Part 10, 2021–22. Courtesy: the artist and Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery; photograph: Kioku Keizou

Thumbnail: Mao Ishikawa, Hereʼs What the Japanese Flag Means to Me series, 2008. Courtesy: the artist and Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery

Angel Lambo is associate editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin.