Tokyo’s Art Scene Goes High-Tech
Japan’s digital dominance is now on vivid display in the capital’s museums and galleries. The trick is finding them
I WAS WADING through a white-walled gallery in Tokyo last winter, where 2,300 intricately mottled and bearded orchids dangled from the ceiling. Each living flower was kitted out with motion sensors so that strands of the hanging vines gently rose into the air as I approached, creating a flower-tunnel effect wherever I walked. The surreal delicacy of the experience was heightened by a tinkling, ethereal soundtrack piped into the room for an effect that was equal parts heaven and allergy commercial. It was also just plain cool.
The artists behind this work, “Floating Flower Garden," are teamLab, a Tokyo collective specializing in site-specific, digital installations. teamLab also designed the Japan pavilion at Expo Milano 2015 (through Oct 31) and have exhibited at Milan’s Salone de Mobile, Hong Kong’s Art Basel and several other events. Last year, teamLab was picked up by the New York-based Pace Gallery—which also represents blockbuster contemporary artists including Kiki Smith and Sol LeWitt, an unexpected crossover between the all-too-often cloistered worlds of art and technology. What wasn’t a surprise was that the high-tech work came from Tokyo, a city that has never shied away from electronics and artful digitization.
Tokyo’s contemporary art scene has long been overshadowed by Hong Kong and Beijing and dominated by Pop-movement artists like Yoshitomo Nara, Takashi Murakami and Yayoi Kusama. But in the last five years, a small group of contemporary Japanese artists including Tabaimo, Hiraki Sawa and teamLab have begun quietly embracing digital and other high-tech methods, often as a way to express modern interpretations of more traditional Japanese art forms—such as woodblock printing, ikebana (flower arrangement) and even anime, bringing the city to the global fore in the realm of digital art.
Since English is scarcely spoken in Tokyo and galleries are scattered widely around the 5,200-square-mile megalopolis of 38 million people, the best way to experience this new genre is to hire an art guide. I arranged mine through the Palace Hotel Tokyo, which recently joined with Blouin Artinfo, the media company behind art magazines including Art + Auction and Modern Painters, to offer customized tours of Tokyo’s art scene. Blouin offers eight-hour private art tours to non-hotel guests for about $415 a day; the Palace Hotel Tokyo’s three-night Transcendent Tokyo package costs $1,645 and includes breakfast, drinks, club-lounge access and a deluxe balcony room in addition to the private art tour. After a few email exchanges with my guide Darryl, a Harvard grad from Singapore who has lived in Tokyo for 8 years, we met up for lunch at a trendy soba noodle place in the popular Ebisu district to map out our tour.
Our first stop: NADiff A/P/A/R/T, an art book shop and complex of galleries housed in a discreetly marked glass and steel structure on an Ebisu back street that I never would have found on my own (Shibuya, 1-18-4, nadiff.com). NADiff is one of Tokyo’s best places to see the work of young, avant-garde artists. At the G/P Gallery, on the second floor, we viewed Takashi Kawashima’s high-definition black-and-white landscape photographs, which are beautiful in their own right but were overlaid with projected film clips—a still volcano puffed ghostly plumes of smoke, a quiet mountain is orbited by moving clouds (gptokyo.jp).
Next up, Darryl led me to the annual, late-winter Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Visions, which runs in February and March and showcases new-media technologies (1-13-2 Mita, Meugro-ku, yebizo.com). This year it included exhibits by Noriko Yamaguchi, whose “Keitai Girl" is a sexy she-bot made of cellphone keypads, and Fujiko Nakaya, who opened Japan’s first video art gallery in 1980 and specializes in “fog sculptures."
Darryl was a font of arty intel and had plenty of suggestions for where to go on my own after the tour was finished. These included a reservation at Tsuru Ni Tachibana, a “punk-rock kaiseki" restaurant (Asagayakita 2-4-7, Suginami-ku, falco.sakura.ne.jp/tsuru ) and Bar Zingaro, an artist-project/cafe hidden deep in a manga mall in the off-the-path neighborhood of Broadway Nakano (5 Chome-52-15, bar-zingaro.jp ).
Those who prefer to explore on their own should download Tokyo Art Beat, the exhaustively comprehensive iPhone app, ($2), which is hands down the best guide to the city’s art world and updated regularly with exhibits, events, parties and art fairs. It allows users to search for exhibits by genres that include video installation, digital and performance.
Clicking on its “digital" tab led me to the Tabaimo exhibit at Gallery Koyanagi hidden away on the eighth floor of an office tower in Ginza (Koyanagi Bldg. 8F, 1-7-5, gallerykoyanagi.com). I am a fan of Tabaimo’s work and had seen her at Art Basel and in shows at New York’s James Cohan Gallery. She lives in the Nagano Prefecture and uses a unique method of capturing the “color" of Edo-period woodblock prints by hand drawing them, then scanning the images into a computer to create animated shorts that often have a dark twist. Some of Tabaimo’s pieces are projected into the adjoining corners of the wall and ceiling with different panels playing out different dramas, others onto a wall with pieces of sofas and coffee tables protruding from it, blurring the lines between 2-D and 3-D.
“I don’t want to be thought of as a ‘digital artist,’ " Tabaimo told me when I met her at the gallery. “It’s not that I don’t use technology, but the term suggests something else and I’d hate to disappoint audiences expecting something more high-tech. For me, using the computer is just a tool to get my art to the world."
Annoyingly, what the Tokyo Art Beat app doesn’t let you do is search by artist, which I discovered after trying to find one of my favorites.
I first encountered Japanese artist Hiraki Sawa in London, where he now lives, but his work—an elegant layering of film and animation—is regularly on display at Tokyo’s OTA Fine Arts and is distinctly Japanese (6 Chome-6-9 Roppongi, Minato, otafinearts.com). His high-definition films of airplanes flying past bathroom sinks and lush waterfalls are often looped on minuscule flatscreens and sometimes hidden inside hand-carved wooden boxes, creating a sort of digital jewel box.
If you only have time for one stop in Tokyo, head to Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, which is equal parts EPCOT and Art Basel and located in Tokyo’s Odaiba district, about a 30-minute subway ride from Shinjuku Station (www.miraikan.jst.go.jp/en ).
It was here on a Saturday afternoon that I waited for an hour to see teamLab’s Floating Garden exhibit (which has since moved on). Fortunately, there’s no shortage of artwork in the 10-floor mega space; other teamLab exhibits include gigantic galleries lined with interactive screens, some with elaborate 3-D graphics, others with motion sensors that alter the image depending on audience interaction.