Tenmyouya Hisashi is, along with Yamaguchi Akira, another big name in what might be termed “Neo-Nihonga.” Though he does not work in traditional media (sumi ink, mineral pigments on paper or silk), his subject matter and elements of his style are extremely evocative of conventions in traditional/historical Japanese art.
“Defeat at a Single Blow” (seen here), a triptych of tattooed yakuza/bosôzoku types on tiger, elephant, and crane mounts recalls the triptych schema & “mounts” iconography of Buddhist painting, which the bright colors, martial atmosphere, and gold background (in acrylics, not real gold) recall the kabukimono of the early 17th century, as seen in the Hikone Screen and numerous other paintings of that time. Traditionally, it is bodhisattvas and other Buddhist or Hindu-derived entities who sit on animal mounts – Monju, bodhisattva of wisdom, on his lion, and the bodhisattva Fugen on an elephant are two prominent examples. Yet here, Tenmyouya has moved from the peaceful and enlightened imagery of bodhisattvas to a more martial sensibility.
Ikeda Manabu’s works, like Yamaguchi’s, are fascinating and stunning in their level of detail, “History of Rise and Fall” (seen here) especially so, with its many castle-like roofs and gables, a giant sakura tree twisting around the buildings (or is it the other way around?). Hundreds of tiny samurai, in white silhouette, human-shaped negative spaces against a fully textured background, run and race, climb, battle, and even bicycle over a complicated, twisted landscape that conflates and juxtaposes periods from throughout Japanese (military) history.
The work is done in acrylic paints, mainly, applied not by brush but by pen. The work is massive, easily more than a square meter, but the details are as fine, if not finer, than the average pencil drawing.
I would love posters of this piece, too, though it would be difficult to produce any kind of reproduction that could do it justice without being full-size. The details are just that incredible.
Moving on to the 3D works (and a few more 2D works), Nawa Kohei’s deer is impressive and amusing if only for its absurdity. What nonsense, a taxidermied deer covered in glass spheres. And the pixelization process that Nawa talks about, simulating pixelization by affixing these glass bubbles onto the body of the deer, makes no sense whatsoever. But I will say that the way the room reflects in the spheres, and the way the spheres act as magnifying lenses allowing you to see the deer’s hair in great detail, is really something, and again something you won’t experience in the reproductions.
Nawa was originally going to show an elk, but since they couldn’t logistically get the elk into the gallery, the Society commissioned him to make a smaller version, with a deer. Not that that meant there wasn’t any difficulty.
Machida Kumi is likely the painter in the show whose works least resemble, and least draw upon, [pre-modern & early modern] Japanese art history, yet she is the only artist in the show who works in traditional materials – sumi ink and mineral pigments.
Her works are somewhat cute, but somewhat unsettling. Her figures seem like child robots, with empty glances, strings or wires extending outwards and tiny hands sticking out of the head of one figure. One of the two pieces is titled “Rocking Horse,” though the reasons why remain a complete mystery.
Kojin Haruka is, I believe, the youngest artist in the show. In her piece, “reflectwo“, she arranges silk flowers, hanging from the ceiling, in such a manner that they resemble their own reflection on a non-existent water surface.
Yoneda Tomoko presents us with very plain-looking photos of a place with deep connotative associations and a dark history. The National Military Defense Security Command, or Kimusa, in Seoul, was once a center for torture and interrogation. In Yoneda’s photos, it looks empty, simple and plain, all but totally devoid of any meaning, any aura of any particular use, let alone such a serious and dark use. Today, it is being transformed into an art space.
The catalog for “Bye Bye Kitty” received a strong recommendation from my friend Kathryn over at her “Contemporary Japanese Literature” blog, and I wholeheartedly intended to buy a copy. This is one of the first, and one of the most major, exhibits so far as I know to introduce American audiences to contemporary Japanese art beyond Murakami, particularly of the sort that I love so much, the sort of work done by Aida Makoto, Yamaguchi Akira, and Tenmyouya Hisashi, which draws upon Japanese historical artistic themes and styles, and is colorful and playful, without being really all that connected to the anime/manga/kawaii phenomenon. There is more to Japanese art than Murakami, than anime/manga/kawaii; there is more to Japanese art than the impenetrably abstract, dark, and obscure work of Gutai, Mono-ha, Yoko Ono, and Butoh. And now New York audiences are more aware of that. I had every intention of buying the catalog for this groundbreaking exhibit.
Especially for the essays. I don’t know David Elliott – guest curator, and first director of the Mori Museum – very well, don’t know his writing, and would like to get to know his writing, his ideas. But, for me, a catalog is really about taking home the pieces, the artworks, so that you can look at them again. Essays and artist bios are wonderful, and indeed some catalogs, such as the St Louis Museum’s Nihonga catalog are indeed fantastic resources on their own, easily one of the best books on Nihonga in English, despite being “just” a catalog. But that’s an exception…
For a softcover book that’s really not so thick (125 pages), $30 seems a bit much. I might gladly pay $25, but, even then, the catalog as it exists lacks the one key thing I would want most from it – full, complete copies of Yamaguchi’s “Narita Airport” and Ikeda’s “The History of Rise and Fall,” in large fold-outs, or even better fully separate fold-out posters, in which one can appreciate, over and over again at home, the full degree of detail of these works. For works such as these, just as much as with 3D pieces I would argue, an 8.5″ x 11″ reproduction is no substitute for the real piece – it might as well be a thumbnail for all it fails to reproduce for the viewer.
Perhaps Japan Society, Mori Museum, or someone else can present these pieces online, as some institutions have done, for example, for handscroll paintings, and as the Freer-Sackler intends to do at some point in the next year or two for a massive collection of woodblock printed books (more on that later), using a Flash-like interface to allow visitors to experience the whole piece, and to zoom in on any and every part that they want, rather than relying solely on the few choice details the curators chose to put into a print catalog. The technology certainly exists – I’ve seen it in interactives in galleries and museums (there’s a great one for handscrolls in the Sackler), and in private image manipulation software such as ViewNX, and, yes, on websites as well. I adore print catalogs, and definitely do feel there is something tangibly lacking from online-only materials (not to mention the fact that online materials, as of right now, inevitably feel less official, less authoritative than printed publications), but there are also things that one can do in online applications that we simply cannot do in print. If anyone knows where we can experience these two works in their full glory, online, I would be eager to hear about it.
And that is it for my haphazard, thrown-together, review of the “Bye Bye Kitty” exhibition at Japan Society.