Can Tokyo Gendai’s Sophomore Edition Build on Japan’s Art World Momentum?

Can Tokyo Gendai’s Sophomore Edition Build on Japan’s Art World Momentum?

Art Market

Erik Augustin Palm

Interior view of Tokyo Gendai, 2023. Courtesy of Tokyo Gendai.

As its VIP preview wraps up today, hopes are high for Tokyo Gendai’s sophomore edition. The fair, which runs through July 7th at PACIFICO Yokohama, aims to build on the momentum established by a strong first outing last year, which arrived after some five years in the making. This year’s fair features 70 galleries (compared to 73 last year) from 20 countries—including the U.S., South Korea, France, Germany, Spain, and the U.K., besides Japan—alongside an expanded public program with talks, satellite events, and youth workshops.

Tokyo Gendai—dubbed the first truly international contemporary art fair in Japan—was co-founded by founding director of Art Basel Hong Kong and its predecessor ART HK Magnus Renfrew, under the umbrella art organization, The Art Assembly, which also runs other fairs ART SG in Singapore and Taipei Dangdai in Taiwan. More than demonstrating a comprehensive discourse between Japan and other parts of Asia, and beyond, the Gendai aims to reinstate Tokyo as a leading global art hub, while naturally reigniting and interconnecting the local Tokyo gallery scene.

Both effects are exemplified by the September opening of Pace Gallery’s three-story, 5,500-square-foot Tokyo branch, which is, in a sense, being soft-launched with the mega-gallery’s booth at Tokyo Gendai. “Tokyo is obviously one of the great cultural capitals of the world and, in the ’80s and ’90s, was the center of activity of the art market,” Samanthe Rubell, the galley’s president, told Artsy. “Tokyo Gendai is a symbol of how the contemporary art scene has reemerged in Japan today. The fact that an art fair of an international scale has been established in Tokyo signals that there is now a lively arts ecosystem in place and that Tokyo is ready to take its place again as a major art world destination for artists and collectors. You can feel the energy when you’re here, with visitors from all over the world once again jockeying for the best hotel and best reservation from Roppongi to the slopes of Hokkaido.”

Installation View of “Group Presentation,” Pace Gallery Tokyo, 2024. Photo by Nacasa & Partners. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.

Inside this year’s Tokyo Gendai

This year’s Tokyo Gendai is organized into three thematic sectors. The Galleries sector presents an array of compelling exhibitions from top-tier Japanese galleries like Kaikai Kiki Gallery, as well as international galleries such as Almine Rech. It also includes Pace’s showcase of American artist, photographer, and filmmaker Robert Longo, known for his deep and textured charcoal drawings. The sector aims to illustrate a broad and dynamic view of contemporary art, with works that provoke thought, evoke emotion, and intend to absorb.

In the Hana (or Flower) sector, Tokyo Gendai focuses on 24 galleries that present solo or dual exhibitions of emerging and mid-career artists. Highlights include London gallery Alison Jacques’s presentation of British artist Sophie Barber, whose work engages with symbols integral to Japanese culture. And at Tokyo’s ANOMALY, works by Yusuke Asai and Keisuke Tanaka explore the intricate relationship between life and nature.

Elsewhere, the Eda (or Branch) sector is dedicated to solo and group exhibitions of artists who are pivotal figures in Asian art, featuring nine galleries. Notable among these is PYO Gallery from Seoul, which is presenting the late Kim Tschang-Yeul’s renowned water droplet paintings, and Madrid’s VETA by Fer Francés’s showcase of compelling works by Filipino artist Manuel Ocampo.

Exterior view of SCAI the Bathouse, 2024. Photo by Norihiro Ueno. Courtesy of SCAI the Bathhouse.

An international moment for the Tokyo art scene

With its emphasis on engendering a collaborative atmosphere, Tokyo Gendai has significantly contributed to uniting Tokyo’s gallery scene and enhancing pan-Asian interconnectedness.

“The fact that The Art Assembly’s art fairs are held in relatively geographically close Asian cities transcends the framework of a stand-alone fair and develops exchanges among the collectors, curators, critics, and galleries in these cities. Tokyo Gendai is already becoming a platform for that,” said Fumiko Nagayoshi, director of Tokyo tastemaker SCAI The Bathhouse, which is participating in this year’s fair.

Sueo Mizuma, executive director of fellow Tokyo-based exhibitor Mizuma Art Gallery, also highlighted the fair’s role in expanding the reach of Japanese art among collectors from parts of Asia that usually are less prevalent at Japanese art fairs. The fair has “contributed to collectors from Indonesia and other Asian countries coming to Tokyo Gendai and buying works by Japanese artists,” he said. This not only holds the potential to boost sales, but also increases the visibility of local artists and galleries.

Tokyo Gendai also has the benefit of being in a city that boasts a significant international draw alongside its thriving art scene. “The fair is also a great opportunity for gallerists and collectors from abroad to visit Japan and engage with its historical architecture, unique cuisine, and diverse cultural customs in person,” said Masahiko Maki of MAKI Gallery. Indeed, international visitors are currently flocking to Japan, as the yen continues to weaken. According to the Japanese National Tourism Organization, tourist numbers increased by 9.6% in May.

Interior view of Tokyo Gendai, 2023. Courtesy of Tokyo Gendai.

An optimistic outlook

This year, the Tokyo Gendai hopes to continue Renfrew’s stated aim of building “a fair of global importance.” Last year’s edition offered a hopeful first step. “We hadn’t seen an art fair in Japan focused on contemporary art with a space as big as this to enjoy the works,” said Junko Shimada from Tokyo’s Gallery Side 2, also at the fair. “For the local audience, the interactions with the international galleries are exciting. Tokyo Gendai has put a lot of work into inviting international collectors, curators, and galleries. It has provided Tokyo with a forum which wasn’t possible before.”

As the fair continues to develop, it is already playing an important role in shaping Tokyo’s standing as a global art hub, Shimada added, describing the fair as “a local fair but open to global market and audience.”

The impact of Tokyo Gendai extends beyond its immediate geographical confines, fostering a deep, engaging dialogue about the future of contemporary art in Japan. Mizuma points out the distinctive nature of Tokyo Gendai compared to other Japanese art fairs: ”With such a long list of famous European and American galleries…participating at Tokyo Gendai, wall-to-wall with so many Japanese galleries, this is the first truly international fair of its kind in Japan.”

And it’s taking place at a timely moment for Japanese art internationally, noted Pace Gallery’s Samanthe Rubell. “Contemporary and modern art from Japan is appearing more prominently on the international scene too—we’re looking ahead to our first Jiro Takamatsu exhibition at our New York gallery this fall—and meanwhile our international artists are expressing serious excitement to show here and to be connected with Japan’s rich and thoughtful culture, collectors, and curators,” she said.

Through its carefully curated blend of domestic and international galleries, diverse activities, and educational programs, along with the strong cultivation of intercontinental relationships, Tokyo Gendai looks set to establish itself as a vital force in the global art community. As the fair continues to unfold, many will be watching to see if the enthusiasm is tangible.

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