Anxiety on the Fault Line
By HOLLAND COTTER for the NY Times
“Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art,” a piquant exhibition of dark-minded work at Japan Society and a kickoff event for Asia Week, was conceived as a sharp counterweight to the cult of cuteness — kawaii — that has been Japan’s dominant aesthetic for decades.
No one, of course, could have known that the show’s images of material fragility and decay would end up being seen in the light of real-life disaster. But such is the case, and the mood of anxiety that pervades the work of the 16 artists — all but one well under 50, half of them women, all of them part of a new art generation — is more evident than it might have been otherwise.
Some people have long viewed the cuteness craze, exemplified in the “Hello Kitty” commercial logo — a blank-faced cartoon cat with a bow in her hair — and filtering into the work of art-stars like Takashi Murakami, as a symptom of cultural malaise, a stress reaction on the part of a nation living with chronic uncertainty.
As David Elliott, the independent curator who organized the show, writes in the catalog, “In a densely urbanized, highly stratified society situated in the heart of an earthquake zone, the fear that the worst could easily happen lies at the back of many minds.”
By that view, images associated with very early childhood, a stage of life traditionally free of pressures in Japan, feed into a desire for communal security. And feel-good art, of the kind produced by artists like Mr. Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara is yet another way to market that sensation.
Mr. Nara, born in 1959 and renowned for his paintings of malign-looking toddlers, adds enough irony to his work make him a model for artists heading in an un-Kitty direction. He has just one piece in the Japan Society show, but one with an appropriate hail-and-farewell ring. It’s a photograph of a conventional Japanese tombstone, but erected in a pet cemetery and with a pair of identical stone Hello Kitty figures standing like guardian deities on top.
Of the exhibition’s younger artists only one, Kumi Machida, refers directly, and without a jot of sentimentality, to childhood, in paintings of androgynous babies wearing helmetlike caps suggesting sensory-deprivation devices. In the catalog Ms. Machida reveals that when she was young, her parents told her flat out that they’d wanted a boy, not a “useless” girl. In her muted pictures she seems still to be processing that primal rejection.
Adolescence is taken up as a subject by Makoto Aida, who was born in 1965, grew up geeky (he was a bed wetter, he tells us, well into junior high school) and had an early fixation on art, teaching himself to work in several historical styles, a few of them evident in his images of uniformed teenage schoolgirls. In a pair of large, murky charcoal drawings done in a way-out-of-date Socialist Realist style, two young women face off on a smoking battlefield, one carrying a Japanese flag, the other a Korean flag, in a reference to the bitter shared history of the two countries.
Similar figures, but in bright Pop colors, crowd a print titled “Harakiri School Girls.” They’re smiling and winking, and only on looking closely do you see that they’re disemboweling themselves in ritual suicide, an act committed in 1970 by the writer Yukio Mishima after he attempted a right-wing coup.
Among other things, the picture sends out signals that some of the new art, unlike cute-cult stuff, might come with certain political messages. Exactly where Mr. Aida and members of his generation of artists might stand on an ideological spectrum is hard to say, though I get a sense they’re staking out some prickly and complicated places.
Speaking of politics, feminism seems to be force in new art, evident from the number of women in the show (eight), but also from the varied approach by women to the female figure. In a combination of drawing, painting and collage, Tomoko Kashiki depicts women as both insubstantial and endangered; one disappears into the woodwork of a room; another is about to be blown by a breeze from a rooftop.
By contrast, the women in Miwa Yanagi’s digitally manipulated photographic series called “My Grandmothers” are formidable presences, with glamorously youthful bodies and aged faces, a radical race of cougars.
Chiharu Shiota’s installation of a white wedding gown hooked up to catheters pumping red liquid no doubt has something to say about social traditions in need of new blood. But it is nowhere near as interesting as one she did at P.S. 1 in 2003, where she wrapped a gallery full of old metal hospital beds in miles of black yarn. That image derived from her long confinement to a hospital after a cancer diagnosis and was a persuasive example of the readiness of many young Japanese artists to use intimate events and feelings as a basis for work. Several in this show offer accounts of personal neuroses as explanatory data, not as confessions.
And in a society defined by placing unusually high value on group conformity, their forthright espousal of abnormality becomes a creative source.
A 21st-century instinct toward idiosyncracy can yield especially memorable results when coupled with a revival of historical styles and traditions. Yamaguchi Akira’s astonishingly detailed cutaway views of airplane interiors and of the buildings at Narita International Airport near Tokyo are modeled on a genre of travelogue paintings popular in the 17th century.
In those paintings the panoramic pictures of various scenes and episodes were divided up by banks of gold clouds; here, Mr. Yamaguchi — he is the one artist in the show to stick with the Japanese surname-first style — substitutes drifts of mustard-yellow smog through which we see an industrialized landscape far below.
Hisashi Tenmyouya’s paintings of fantastic beasts and tattooed warriors are an record-album-cover designer’s version of Buddhist and Shinto religious icons. Mr. Aida’s mural-size “Ash Color Mountains” is both a misted view of Mount Fuji and a scene of mass devastation: the mountain is composed of thousands of piled-up bodies of dead corporate office workers.
For obsessive detailing, though, nothing tops Manabu Ikeda’s miniaturist ink landscapes and cityscapes. In “Existence” he presents the world as a giant, decomposing tree. In “History of Rise and Fall,” it becomes a shifting, clattering architectural pileup: a million-roofed samurai castle garnished with cherry trees, fragmented Buddhist sculptures and ant-size hanged human figures.
Tomoko Yoneda’s photographs of empty rooms with peeling paint and stained floors could easily be in interiors in that wreck, though they have a source in reality: they’re vacated spaces in the former headquarters of Korea’s Defense Security Command in Seoul, once a scene of political detentions and interrogations under torture.
In a way utterly foreign to the plastic Hello Kitty universe, much of what’s in the Japan Society show is, for better and worse, about organic change. You see this in the scarred faces of Motohiko Odani’s wooden Noh masks, and in Kohei Nawa’s “PixCell-Elk No. 2,” a taxidermied specimen covered with translucent plastic globes that look luminous but also pathological, like growths from genetic experiments or excessive radiation.
A few images of change, and the sense of the ephemeral they bring, are guardedly positive. Such is the case in Rinko Kawauchi’s photographs of natural forms, living and dead; in Haruka Kojin’s suspended landscape made from artificial flowers; in Tomoko Shioyasu’s shadow-casting wall of cut paper, and in Hiraki Sawa’s animated video of domestic objects come to life. (Mr. Sawa also has a solo show at James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea through March 26.)
Not everything is wonderful; Ms. Kojin’s landscape and Mr. Sawa’s video are only blandly winsome. But a lot of what’s here carries a strain of critical fierceness and existential seriousness that has been absent from Japanese work for some time. And with the hellish natural and nuclear catastrophe Japan is now suffering, this is likely to be the way at least some new art will continue to go.
Bye Bye Kitty!!!
WHEN AND WHERE Through June 12; Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, Manhattan.
MORE INFO (212) 832-1155, japansociety.org.
WHERE TO EAT Aburiya Kinnosuke, 213 East 45th Street, (212) 867-5454, aburiyakinnosuke.com;
Sushi Yasuda, 204 East 43rd Street, (212) 972-1001, sushiyasuda.com.