Even as I took my first steps into the Japan Society Gallery in New York this weekend, I was stopped in my tracks as works by Aida Makoto and Yanagi Miwa came into view. I had been looking forward to seeing the exhibition “Bye Bye Kitty” for a long time, and am glad to have caught it before it closed (which it did on Sunday June 12; sorry I couldn’t get my review up earlier in the spring, to recommend the exhibit and such).
The core premise, theme, or message of the exhibit is the idea that Japanese contemporary art has gone beyond cuteness. That it is time to say goodbye to Hello Kitty. I don’t know what curator David Elliott (former director of the Mori Museum in Roppongi) was thinking, but frankly this seems rather off-base. Cuteness is everywhere in Japan; it still is. Even despite the gloom brought by the triple-disaster of March 11. Perhaps he means to say that we in the West, especially in the art world, need to move past cuteness and start appreciating and recognizing other aspects of contemporary art and culture. Now, that’s a possibility. It’s still a dumb name for an exhibition.
If I have one complaint about the exhibit, it’s that I really wish they’d left the artists’ names in traditional Japanese order. I can’t help but feel like puting them in Western order creates a feeling of inauthenticity and ignorance, a feeling of Americanization in a bad way, as bad as saying ‘gee-sha’ – as if the American/Western organizers not understanding even the basics of Japanese culture, though I know they do.
But, those things aside, the exhibit really was incredible. I had seen many of these pieces in reproductions – on computer screens, in PowerPoint projections on a wall, or in books, but to see them in real life, in person, was really a whole different experience.
“Ash Grey Mountains” by Aida Makoto was smaller, I feel, than I imagined it or remembered it. It seemed cut off. And yet, no less breathtaking and awesome in its excruciating detail. Step back, and it looks more or less like just what the title says – ash grey mountains, covering the length of the wall, and reaching a good ways up toward the ceiling. But these mountains aren’t made of stone; they’re made of salarymen, that is, businessmen, piled up.
Aida added to the original piece after its installation at Japan Society, painstakingly drawing in further and further details; that is, more and more salarymen in grey suits. And while the overall effect is certainly one of grey, there is actually a fair bit of color. Look closer, and every man is different, with different color neckties, and all kinds of other office objects (e.g. desks) thrown in there as well.
I cannot remember where I read it, but I remember reading recently an interview with Aida in which he said that he imagines the men falling from the sky and just gathering into these mounds. One after another after another. And he keeps adding more. It’s an ongoing piece, almost a performance piece in a way, though he doesn’t tend to have an audience while he paints. An obvious commentary on Japanese society, and office culture in particular.
His other piece in the show is titled “Harakiri School Girls” in English, and 切腹女子高生 (せっぷくぢょしかうせい, seppuku joshi kôsei) though what the artist intends by this use of the old, deprecated kana spellings I really don’t know. For whatever reason, I kept looking at each piece in this show and thinking about whether or not it could be appropriately or fully experienced in reproduction – whether the experience of engaging with the works in the exhibit was different from having seen pictures of them before, and whether the experience of having them in the catalog would be worthwhile in (re-)capturing the experience of seeing them in person. For the overwhelming majority of the works I felt that, indeed, one saw and experienced so much in the actual works, not only in size, but also in texture, and in the ability to examine details, that seeing them in person was really worth it, and that the catalog couldn’t effectively relate that same experience.
In any case, “Harakiri School Girls” is definitely one of the works that most definitely cannot be adequately represented in reproduction, though I think the reproduction does give a good indication of how and why. It is printed on a kind of holographic paper, like those cheesy superhero collectible cards we bought so many of back in the early ’90s, and borrows stylistically, or compositionally, from seals and stickers of that type. The depth of it is interesting and unexpected, with the images on a clear acrylic pane, and the holograms a half-inch or so beneath.
Yanagi’s pieces in the exhibition are from her “‘My Grandmothers” series, in which she uses costume, makeup, and the like, as well as post-production photo editing, to make young subjects look like the grandmothers they imagine themselves to be decades from now. One depicts a very self-assured-looking woman, who could be a successful businesswoman or lawyer – there’s something in her pose that suggests this – getting her hair done. Another is a happy, contented woman in winter hat and scarf lying down in grass and autumn leaves, gazing up at the sky. Another is a geisha, and another playing erhu at a Chinese restaurant. What does this say about young Japanese women today, their dreams, ambitions, and attitudes? As was pointed out to me, none of these women are surrounded by families, and all seem quite individually independent, following a life they choose.
It never ceases to amaze me how impressive, and how different, photos can be when they’re displayed large. They lack the texture of paintings, and unlike is the case with photos of paintings or prints, photo prints are essentially by definition identical to the originals. These *are* the original works. There is, in theory, nothing here that a reproduction, that is, a smaller version of the same photograph, should be unable to reproduce. And yet, it does fail to capture the same effect, if only for scale (i.e. size), and lighting conditions in the gallery. Perhaps it is the glossy surface of the prints (are they behind plexi? hard to tell), but the colors in these photos, and indeed in everything in the gallery, seem so incredibly vivid…
And that’s just the first room!