The cavernous halls of the Tokyo Big Sight exhibition center in Odaiba see plenty of activity throughout the year, but none display as much unfettered creativity as the biannual Design Festa (designfesta.com). The two-day art event, the largest of its kind in Asia, will attract some 60,000 visitors and 10,000 artists when it next bursts into life on May 12 and 13.
If previous versions of the now 18-year-old art frenzy are anything to go by, the only thing you can expect of Design Festa is the unexpected. "Not even we know what it will be like until it starts. People will turn up and surprise us," says Takeshi Araki, the event's director. "That's exactly what we want creative chaos."
If Design Festa merely whets your appetite for the Japanese capital's offerings of contemporary art, or if you're not able to make the weekend festivities, here are four great galleries that reveal the sheer diversity of the Tokyo scene
A Piece of Space
In a city where space comes at a premium, tiny art venues have become part of the fabric of Tokyo's contemporary-art scene, and this gallery near Ginza, measuring just 10 sq m, is one of the most striking micro galleries around.
Opened in 2004, the single, all-white room that makes up A Piece of Space focuses on local artists, with work ranging from abstract paintings to interactive installations. Just don't expect the room to be crammed to bursting point with pieces: solo-artist, single-piece exhibitions are the norm at this venue. As of writing, the gallery was exhibiting a lone, yet richly inviting canvas of yellow oil paint by abstract artist Fumie Hiratai. Check the website to find out what's next and to make sure the gallery is open, as exhibitions are held irregularly.
Tobin Ohashi Gallery
Co-owned and run by Japanese Hitoshi Ohashi and American Robert Tobin, the Tobin Ohashi Gallery in the Nihonbashi district is all about contemporary Asian art you can live with. "Art that engages you and enriches your home," as Ohashi puts it.
Tobin and Ohashi are known for representing artists that don't tend to get much of a look-in: recent exhibitions included minimalist paintings from Indonesian Nengah Sujena (his first solo showing in Japan). The work of Chinese painter and sculptor Zhu Wei has also been on display in one of the three spaces in this former kimono shop.
"Part of what we do, I hope, is break down stereotypes about what Japanese and Asian art is, because contemporary artists from Asia are too often ignored," Tobin says. "The Japanese artists we work with, for instance, show there is so much more to Japan than beautiful kimono designs and woodblock prints. There is an incredible array of contemporary talent here." For a vivid example of that, look no further than the captivating, near psychedelic skateboard painted by Saitama-born Mario Tauchi that currently hangs just inside the entrance.
If you visit, make sure to pick up one of Tobin and Ohashi's free Nihonbashi gallery maps, which will direct you to 20 cool art spaces in the area.
Scai the Bathhouse
An unlikely part of town and an even more unusual building aren't the only reasons why Scai the Bathhouse stands out from the crowd. Located five minutes from Nippori Station in the far-from-fashionable Yanaka area of eastern Tokyo an old-fashioned part of the city known for its quiet temples and shrines and down-to-earth locals Scai occupies a renovated public bath that, from its traditionally tiled roof and looming chimney, doesn't appear to have changed much since it first opened to bathers 200 years ago.
Inside, however, things are very different. Over the past 19 years, Scai has built a stellar reputation for showing the very best of the Japanese avant-garde. Among its impressive list of previous exhibitors are Lee Ufan, the minimalist painter and sculptor who was at the forefront of Japan's Mono-ha movement in the late 1960s and early '70s, and Tadanori Yokoo, a graphic designer and latterly fine artist whose early work saw him dubbed the Japanese Warhol.
Like many of Tokyo's galleries, Scai closes between exhibitions. It won't be open during Design Festa, but be sure to visit if you are in Tokyo in late June, when it will reopen for a solo show from Kaoru Hirano, known for her installations of delicate thread.
Mori Art Museum
Nothing represents the high-profile side of Japan's gallery scene better than the Mori Art Museum's (MAM) two exhibition spaces on the 53rd floor of the fashionable Roppongi Hills urban development. MAM's unusually spacious galleries (by Tokyo standards, at least) and its breathtaking views across the Japanese capital provide the perfect setting for some heavyweight international artists.
Running through May 27 is the first large-scale solo exhibition from Lee Bul, regarded by many to be Asia's finest female contemporary artist. The sculptures on display range from simple white forms to glittering futuristic cityscapes. Concurrent with that is Singaporean Ho Tzu Nyen's acclaimed video installation, The Cloud of Unknowing.