'If it doesn't exist, make it yourself.' That's the credos of Tokyo's thriving underground art scene, where all you need for a gallery is a one-room apartment – or, perhaps, a shipping container. Join us on a tour of the city's best alternative galleries and art spaces...
If you were to try and gather all the culture scattered around Koenji and condense it into a single, 6 tatami mat space, it might look something like Asoko. This tiny gallery is always filled with something: it also manages to serve as a club, bar and venue for live gigs. And is there anywhere else in the whole of Tokyo where you can check out art while munching on yakiniku? The bizarre character of the place might be what attracts the most attention, but it's also just a nice, welcoming spot to hang out.
Asoko official website
Since opening in Ebisu last October, Gallery Koko hasn't shown much interest in such tedious considerations as a regular exhibition schedule. It's run by the PR and editorial bods from fashion company Staff International Japan, who set out to create a space in the city centre where people could lounge in chairs and sofas and experience contemporary art at their own pace. The opening exhibition was a group show of work by artists represented by New York’s Team Gallery, including acclaimed photographer Ryan McGinley, and the likes of photographer Takashi Honma and musician Keiichiro Shibuya have exhibited there since.
Gallery Koko official website
Art Center Ongoing
This alternative art space in Kichijoji holds a couple of exhibitions a month, focusing mainly on young, up-and-coming artists. It’s not unusual for artists who are represented by commercial galleries to exhibit more experimental work at Ongoing, and you can rub shoulders with the creators themselves at seminars and live events that are held during exhibitions. The ¥400 entrance fee includes a complimentary cup of tea in the ground floor café; they also do some decent grub, including laksa noodle soup and a special 'Ongoing Burger'.
Art Center Ongoing official website
That's an acronym for 'Serendipity New Accidents Club', in case you hadn't already guessed. This Kiyoshumi-Shirakawa art space is the fruit of a collaboration between the folks behind Mujin-to Production – who do everything from artist management to producing books and official merchandise – and Azumabashi Dance Crossing, an ongoing performances arts project. It's housed in a converted izakaya (there's still a Japanese-style tatami room in the back, complete with kotatsu heated table) and the exhibitions are often supplemented by talks and special performances.
SNAC official website
Gallery Countach Kiyosumi/Einstein Studio
Located near the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, this hybrid space is part photographic studio, part gallery. When it's in gallery mode, the exhibitions tend to centre on work by artists represented by the original Gallery Countach in Nishi-Ochiai; when it's in studio mode, meanwhile, it provides a venue for day-to-day photographic work, and also holds a regular competition to discover talented young snappers.
Gallery Countach official website
Each year, Gallery αM invites a guest curator to organize a series of exhibitions based around an original theme. The key difference is that this space is run by Musashino Art University, and its non-profit status gives curators a rare opportunity to work free of commercial constraints, rather than worry about the sales that are the lifeblood of other galleries. αM actually started life in Kichijoji two decades ago, and moved into its new digs in Bakurocho in 2009. There are a number of other art spaces in the neighborhood, too – perfect for a lazy afternoon of gallery hopping.
Gallery αM official website
Ikejiri-based creative studio ANSWR opened Public/Image.3D in 2009 in the same building as their office, intending it to be a 'laboratory to produce experiments that creatively scratch-mix the elements of venue and media'. In practice, this has included not just conventional exhibitions, but also talks, live performances, and projects to develop and sell designer products.
Public/Image.3D official website
And you thought Ginza was all about expensive designer clothes stores... Located on the fourth floor of an aging office building, Vanilla Gallery specializes in work that flirts with the erotic, sadistic and fetishistic. The shows to date have included an exhibition of inflatable 'love dolls', another devoted to the tattoo designs of Horiyoshi III, and Kiyotaka Tsurisaki's ‘Deadly Speed,’ wherein the photographer depicted the bodies of people who had died in traffic accidents.
Vanilla Gallery official website
Aisho Miura Arts
Based in a remodelled house just off the main shopping street in Akebonobashi, Aisho Miura Arts has built up a roster of aggressively forward-thinking artists who buck current trends in the art world, including Yoshihiro Kikuchi, Kazuma Koike and Saya Kubota, as well as American Hollis Brown Thornton.
Aisho Miura Arts official website
In Mograg's world, any place with art works in it can be an art gallery – including this tiny space, created out of a refurbished garage. The gallery concentrates on artists from the 1980s, with a particular focus on illustrations, paintings and graphics. Also keep an eye out for their Mograg Magazine, a beefy, irregularly published periodical that recalls the glory days of 'zine culture.
Mograg Garage official website
Art spaces don't come much stranger than this. The Container is exactly what its name suggests: it's a shipping container, albeit one that's taken up residence in a trendy hair salon in Nakameguro. Japanese and foreign artists are invited to created site-specific exhibitions four times a year, and the shows so far have lived up to the oddness of the venue itself – and, yeah, that's saying something...
The Container official website
Translated by Virginia Okno