Shows that Shaped Japan’s Year in Art

The pandemic slowed but couldn’t stop Japan’s creative scene in 2020

In Features by Jennifer Pastore 2020-12-24

Top Five

Galleries without Artworks
Setagaya Art Museum (7/4–8/27)
With the COVID-19 crisis making borrowing pieces for shows difficult, the Setagaya Art Museum struck upon the radical idea of holding an exhibition sans artworks. The result was a meditative display of the museum’s light-filled, cream-hued rooms that spoke poignantly to the moment and the presence of absence.

Setagaya Art Museum

Yokohama Triennale 2020: Afterglow
Yokohama Museum of Art, other sites (7/17–10/11)
Travel restrictions meant that Raqs Media Collective, the New Delhi-based directors of this year’s Yokohama Triennale, couldn’t make it to the seventh “Yokotori.” The show went on, however. It featured hundreds of works by 67 artists and groups at three sites including the Yokohama Museum of Art, and it was also streamed online. Drawing from concepts such as “the co-existence of care and toxicity,” the festival offered a multi-faceted look at what it means to create and engage with art in an imperfect world. The scale and diversity of this year’s Yokotori in the face of numerous difficulties made it a standout for the year.

See our photo report.

Zheng Bo, 'Pteridophilia I' (2016) at Yokohama Triennale 2020

The National Art Center, Tokyo (8/12–11/3)
While the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics put a damper on the city, this exhibition provided a spirited tribute to it. Based on a 2018 Paris version, MANGA⇔TOKYO surveyed manga, anime, video games, and tokusatsu special-effect films set in the city. Displays ranged from Sailor Moon to Shin-Godzilla, and a 22-meter, 1/1000 model of Tokyo welcomed visitors into a unique blend of fiction and reality. The show gave an inspired overview of this dynamic, ever-evolving metropolis that lives in people’s hearts and minds. It also served as a reminder that if anything proves the possibility of regeneration, it’s Tokyo.


Exonemo: Un-dead Link – Reconnecting with Internet Art
TOP Museum (8/18–10/11)
Exonemo has been at work since the mid-nineties, and the time was ripe for an in-depth look at their internet-obsessed art. Spanning the comic, surreal, and tragic, exonemo reveals intersections of technology and humanity in ways few other artists do. Staring at a bonfire of computer equipment – to me symbolic of deliberately sabotaged progress – felt like a bleakly 2020 moment.

An Ode to Tom
The Container (9/21–11/30)
An Ode to Tom brought a much-welcome infusion of joie de vivre to the year. Toasting Tom of Finland, celebrated artist of masculinized homoerotic art, this show came about thanks to the untiring efforts of curator Shai Ohayon. Displaying work by three Japanese artists inspired by Tom’s hunky muses, this show – along with a larger sister exhibition at Parco – marked a victory for taboo smashing and LGBTQ representation in Japan. A pretty remarkable accomplishment for a shipping container.

exonemo at TOP Museum'An Ode to Tom' at The Container

Honorable Mention

wall to wall Noriyuki Haraguchi
√K Contemporary (3/7–5/23)
While the Mono-ha master Noriyuki Haraguchi sadly passed away in 2020, this show at the chicly industrial gallery √K Contemporary turned out to be a fantastic finale for him. In addition to new work deconstructing the space around it, pieces from throughout his fifty-year career such as the seminal Oil Pool were presented. Haraguchi’s ongoing dialogues with materiality will be missed.

Noriyuki Haraguchi, 'Oil Pool' (2020) at √K Contemporary

Tenkukaikatsu – Meiji Jingu Forest: Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition
Meiji Jingu (3/20–12/13)
The Imperial shrine Meiji Jingu turned a century old in 2020, as did its hand-planted forest designed to reach its most verdant this year. The wooded area was the setting for an outdoor sculpture exhibition with works by major contemporary artists including Kohei Nawa and Atsuhiko Misawa. Nawa’s white deer posed majestically amid the greenery while Misawa’s tiger lurked with a touch of menace. Meaning “as open as the sky and sea,” “Tenkukaikatsu,” offered a way to see art while avoiding the dreaded mitsu crowded conditions.

Kohei Nawa's white deerAtsuhiko Misawa's white tiger

Thank You Memory: From Cidre to Contemporary Art
Hirosaki Museum of Contemporary Art (6/1–9/22)
Up north in Aomori Prefecture, a new museum graced the national scene. Hirosaki Museum of Contemporary Art opened after some pandemic-related delays with the exhibition “Thank You Memory: From Cidre to Contemporary Art,” a tribute to the city of Hirosaki and the former brewery where the museum resides. World-renowned contemporary artists including Yoshitomo Nara, Jean-Michel Othoniel, and Aki Sasamoto contributed works to this excellently curated show fit for the modernist beauty of architect Tsuyoshi Tane’s renovated building.

Hirosaki Museum of Contemporary Art, 'Thank You Memory: From Cidre to Contemporary Art'

New Photographic Objects
Museum of Modern Art, Saitama (6/2–9/6)
The Museum of Modern Art, Saitama had its finger on the pulse of Japanese photography with this show by artists making a decided shift away from the digital and toward the physical. Nerhol’s photo-sculptures and Daisuke Yokota’s room-spanning curtains of film were highlights in this boldly envisioned show.

Museum of Contemporary Art, SaitamaMuseum of Contemporary Art, Saitama

Ugo Festival 2020
Shinokubo Ugo (10/17–11/7)
New life in the Tokyo art world burst forth in the form of Shinokubo Ugo, a fresh and energetic space in Korea Town. This artist-run venue quickly became a hotspot for parties, culture, and party culture, with scores of people visiting despite the pandemic. The opening show “Ugo Festival” offered an eclectic mix of works like Karu Miyoshi’s larger-than-life feet sculpture and accompanying performance. Shinokubo Ugo’s advent wasn’t without struggle, however. As the organizers put it: “Our opening event in March had to be cancelled, and a whole bunch of other stuff happened. But we’ve learned and evolved…”

A fitting note for a chaotic year.

Shinokubo Ugo

Report on Shinokubo Ugo in Japanese

*Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Min Tanaka danced at the exhibition “wall to wall Noriyuki Haraguchi.” These performances were cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Jennifer Pastore

Jennifer Pastore. Jennifer Pastore is Tokyo Art Beat's editor. » See other writings


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