A Busy Start to Tokyo Gendai’s Second Edition Suggests the Growing Importance of Japan’s Art Scene

The fair, which opened to VIPs and the press on July 4, could cement Japan's status on the global contemporary art world map.

View of Tokyo Gendai during the busy preview.
A view of Tokyo Gendai during the busy preview. Katsura Komiyama

Tokyo Gendai opened today to VIPs and the press and runs through July 7 at PACIFICO Yokohama exhibition center. Now in its second edition, the art fair is presenting work brought by sixty-nine galleries from eighteen countries but with Asian and local exhibitors dominating. The atmosphere in the aisles was filled with excitement, even though the audience was primarily local and quieter than those you might find at other art fairs worldwide. As the evening progressed, the scene became busier and louder with two DJ sets and performances, culminating in a VIP after-party at Yokohama Art Museum.

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At a cocktail reception the night before the opening, Magnus Renfrew, co-founder of the fair, told Observer that Tokyo Gendai is “playing a big role in Japan’s art scene, both to provide a more international platform to present the local talents and, more importantly, to introduce and educate the local audience to a more global art scene.”

Japan has lagged behind other arts destinations in Asia, but “all the necessary ingredients are there,” he said. More importantly, last year’s changes to tax policy are finally creating conditions that will allow more internationals to engage with the local scene, which is rich in tradition, great institutions and talent despite constituting just 1 percent of the global art market. One of the fair’s main goals is to expand the audience for art in Japan while growing the global audience for Japanese artists. 

From our conversation with Refrew, it’s clear that for now the focus of the fair is local, although after a few editions, it’s likely Tokyo Gendai and its satellite events will start attracting more international exhibitors and visitors. “Most people have Japan on their bucket list as a destination, or they want to get back,” he added.

Installation view of Taro Nasu's gallry booth with a painting by Simon Fujiwara inspired by Picasso and the vibrant abstraction and mysterious quarts sculptures by Mika Tajima
The Taro Nasu booth featuring Simon Fujiwara, Who’s a Nude Sea Creature?, 2023; Mika Tajima, Art d’Ameublement (Zapadni), 2024; and Mika Tajima, Pranayama (Figurine, 1, Rose Quartz), 2023. Katsura Komiyama

Tourism in Japan appears to be back at least to pre-pandemic levels, if not higher, and the fair is actively playing on this by organizing an entire itinerary for VIP guests around some of the country’s most beautiful places, including this unique world-class fair.  According to Renfrew, international visitors who attended last year were “impressed by the strength and depth of Japanese galleries.”

But Tokyo Gendai’s position in the calendar might not be the best for attracting new collectors, particularly from nearby countries and art hubs such as Hong Kong or Shanghai, who usually travel further in July to escape the mostly unbearable summertime weather. It was hot and humid even in Tokyo on the fair’s opening day. Renfrew countered that it’s difficult, at this point, to find a place in an increasingly crowded art event calendar and dates at the PACIFICO Yokohama, which is an in-demand venue. This is also a good time for Japanese art collectors and enthusiasts, who usually won’t go on vacation until August.

The art fair calendar is also just way too crowded, though that may not matter as much as one might assume. According to Renfrew, who is also behind ART SG in Singapore and the Taipei Dagdai, Asia is a big region with many markets to serve and untapped opportunities. His is an opinion worth listening to, as he has years of experience in the Asian region, serving as founding fair director for ART HK: Hong Kong International Art Fair (2007-2012) and then Art Basel in Hong Kong (2012-2014). “In Hong Kong, it took time, but the fairs helped to expand collectors’ taste to the global contemporary,” he said. In 2013, the World Economic Forum named Renfrew a Young Global Leader in recognition of his contribution to building the art scene in Asia.

After two years, Tokyo Gendai has been able to broadly engage and get the support of some of the significant art Japanese collectors, including the Mori family (behind the eponymous museum and the new complex of Azabudai Hills, hosting now the major Calder Tokyo show Pace organized to celebrate their new venue and expansion). As Renfrew explained, the VIP manager, Natsu Tanabe, has longtime close relations with the Mori family and, through them, with most of the collectors in the country. Some of them are also part of the fair’s Advisory Group: psychiatrist Ryutaro Takahashi; Miwa Taguchi, cofounder of Taguchi Art Collection; Yoshiko Mori; Hideaki Fukutake, chairman of the Fukutake Foundation and director of Benesse Holdings; Takeo Obayashiand Howard; Cindy Rachofsky; Shin Takeuchi; and Naoko Sasagawa.

Woman standing contemplating a painting with a flower and the writing " I really wish you were here"
Sophie Barber, Wolfgang and i wish you were here, 2024, Oil on canvas, presented by Alison Jacques in “Hana ‘Flower.” Courtesy of Alison Jacques

Many new galleries have booths at the second edition of the fair, confirming a growing interest in the region. Those include Pace as well as Galerie EIGEN + ART (Leipzig, Berlin), Gallery EXIT (Hong Kong) and Kwai Fung Hin Art (Hong Kong), alongside returning names such as Almine Rech (Paris, Brussels, London, New York, Shanghai, Monaco), BLUM (Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo), Perrotin (Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, New York, Seoul, Shanghai, Los Angeles), Sadie Coles HQ (London), Taka Ishii Gallery (Tokyo, Kyoto, Maebashi) and SCAI THE BATHHOUSE (Tokyo).

In line with Japan’s sense of aesthetics and space, the fair is well organized, with airy booths and aisles that make it easy to navigate and avoid overexposing the audience to too many things at once. Amid the curated sections, “Hana” (meaning flower) allows possible discoveries, featuring solo or duo presentations of emerging or mid-career artists. Among those, Misako & Rosen (Tokyo) and The Green Gallery (Wisconsin) are sharing a booth featuring Trevor Shimizu’s intimate paintings, while Alison Jacques is presenting emerging artist Sophie Barber with her often irreverent or surreal manmade painterly surfaces spontaneously commenting on contemporary idols and societal dynamics. Another section, “Eda” (Branch), features solo or multiple artist presentations of established or historically significant figures in Asia. One highlight here is the presentation of the work of Filipino artist Manuel Ocampo brought by VETA by Fer Francés (Madrid): intersecting baroque paintings with secular political narratives, reflecting the hybridization of the Pinoy culture through the country’s colonial history and American heavily influenced modernization.

Tokyo Gendai also has its own “Untitled” section, here called “Sato Meadow,” featuring site-specific large-scale works and installations by major Japanese artists known on the international stage, such as the colorful installation by Kishio Suga brought by Tomio Koyama Gallery and Yoshitomo Nara works brought by BLUM.

Yoshitomo Nara, Puff Marshie, 2006, Urethane on FRP, courtesy of BLUM in the “Sato ‘Meadow” section. BLUM and

We spotted work by several artists the international audience will be more familiar with, such as some vibrant and intricated abstractions by Josè Parla at Kotaro Nucaka (priced at $65,000-100,000) and some beautiful Vivian Springford abstractions presented by Almine Rech (similarly priced) following a solo presentation organized in 2021 by the gallery at DnA Shenzhen, the art fair in Shenzhen, China. Another booth featuring world-class artists with museum-quality works was Taro Nasu Gallery, which is presenting the work of internationally known Japanese artists such as Simon Fujihara and Mika Tajima along with an entire curated section of the booth staging a conversation between Cy Twombly’s graphic signs, the conceptual work of artist Marcel Broodthathers and a wall-piece designed by Lawrence Weiner.

Despite a slow art market around the world, most of the exhibitors decided to prioritize the quality of their presentations. One of the most ambitious installations we spotted at the fair was by Tang Contemporary Art (Hong Kong, Beijing, Seoul, Bangkok), which presented iconic zodiac animals made out of Lego bricks by renowned Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei. One of the best-curated booths was a solo showing featuring existential reflections on human destiny in material and ephemeral world vs. nature by a young but resourceful Chinese artist and recent RCA graduate Meng Zhou, presented by Nan Ke Galley (Shanghai). Another excellent solo booth was the one brought by EIGEN + ART from Berlin, which brought artist Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) who will also do a major performance on Friday. 

Meng Zhuo solo presentaion with gallery Nan Ke (Shanghai) atTokyo Gendai, 2024 featuring sculptures and works on paper and canvas framed with solid wood
Meng Zhuo solo presentation with gallery Nan Ke (Shanghai). Katsura Komiyama

Fair visitors appeared very committed and interested during the preview day, confidently asking about prices. Various sales at different levels were closed during the preview, including several medium-sized otherworldly and specially glazed ceramics forms by artist Tomonari Hasmimoto at PARCEL Gallery. During the aforementioned museum afterparty, we asked some exhibitors for first impressions. Most were satisfied and optimistic, appreciating the level of serious attendance and interest they experienced on that first day and the overall organization of the fair.

Observer will have more reporting from the fair and on Tokyo’s rich art week in the next few days. Tokyo Gendai runs through Sunday, July 7, at PACIFICO Yokohama, Tokyo.

A Busy Start to Tokyo Gendai’s Second Edition Suggests the Growing Importance of Japan’s Art Scene