Tokyo is not an easy place to get to grips with, especially for those of us who are used to the structure and scale of most European cities. Its multi-layered sprawl and labyrinthine underground transport network can make it feel like a never-ending maze. Like the city itself, Tokyo’s art scene can feel impenetrable to an outsider. The fluctuations of the art world make it difficult to keep up with the art landscape in any big city, but Tokyo more than most as the contemporary art market is not as developed and established as in the US or Europe. This doesn’t mean fewer galleries, but rather more of them and a constant ebb and flow of relocations, openings, and closures too. As a regular visitor to the city over the last decade, I still feel as if I have only seen the tip of the art scene iceberg. Galleries are often small, tiny even, and difficult to find, rarely at street level but tucked away in a basement or on the 4th floor of an anonymous building in a non-descript neighbourhood. Part of the charm if you’re gallery hopping, but if you actually have to get to a meeting, it can be a little more stressful. I often rely on Tokyo Art Beat, a kind of online art events guide (in both Japanese and English) including exhibition reviews that tells you what is on in Tokyo. A very useful tool, in its attempt to be comprehensive it also ends up being a little overwhelming and is probably more useful when you know what you are looking for.
Thankfully there is now another online English-language resource to turn to. Art Space Tokyo has existed as a physical book since 2008, but it has now been launched on digital platforms and as a website including three major sections: spaces, interviews and essays, as well as a timeline of some of the major art events in Tokyo over the last 60+ years. Rather than going for a comprehensive picture of the Tokyo art scene, Art Space Tokyo limits itself to a couple of handfuls of spaces and art world ‘players’, providing the essential info but also going into some depth and analysing current trends. The essays included also tackle interesting questions such as the nature of Japanese street art or the state of art journalism and criticism in Japan, making this much more than a guidebook to the Tokyo art world. The authors, Ashley Rawlings and Craig Mod, have also clearly given a lot of thought to translating all the content from a paper book to digital platforms (iPad, Kindle) and to a website. They have been generous too, putting up the entire contents of the book online for free, even holding on to Nobumasa Takahashi‘s great illustrations, rather than treating the site as a sneak preview promotional tool. This one is bound to come in handy on my next visit to Tokyo.