I have had my eyes set on seeing “Garden of Unearthly Delights” at Japan Society for quite some time, and after Kathryn’s review of the catalog on her blog, I was all the more excited for it. Garden of Unearthly Delights is Japan Society’s latest show of contemporary Japanese art, featuring works by Ikeda Manabu and Tenmyouya Hisashi – two artists they also featured in their exhibit Bye Bye Kitty a few years ago, and who I’ve written about before – as well as works by a collective known as teamlab.
The show opens with a series of works by Ikeda. I had previously only seen his “History of Rise and Fall” and “Existence“, which were included in Bye Bye Kitty. To see these other works now gives a larger sample size, so to speak, and thus a better sense of what type of thing he does. This first gallery is painted a light blue, and there is a sense of calm, happy, uplifting beauty. His works feature flourishing nature – trees and grasses, and beautiful blue waters – as well as birds and people living vibrant lives amidst it. There are bits of ruins, giving the sense of a society building a brighter future atop the ruins of industrial steel-and-concrete modernity. There is a sense of hope, and of just beauty, in these astonishingly painstakingly rendered pen-and-ink pieces.
But then, as we enter the next room, there is great sadness and contemplation, too. A copy of Hokusai’s “Great Wave” (which seemed oddly boldly put out in bright lights, but then again Prussian blue isn’t so fugitive, so I guess maybe it’s okay?) echoes Ikeda’s “Foretoken”, his largest work yet. But before we get to looking at that any more closely, there is “Imprint,” done in 2011 while Ikeda was an artist-in-residence at a program in Vancouver. Much has been said since 3/11 about the beauty and yet destructive power of nature as a theme in Japanese art & literature, especially since 3/11; I’m not sure I have anything more eloquent or meaningful to add on that point.
Here we see brilliant blue water and white crests of foam, what would be a beautiful, entrancing, ocean scene, like the brilliant blue of the waters off a Hawaiian or Okinawan vacation beach… except for the red torii peeking out in the darkness beneath the waves. Though “Foretoken” was made in 2008, it eerily predicts (foretokens) the terrible tsunamis of March 11, 2011, which so ravaged not only much of the Tôhoku coast, but also had great impacts upon Japanese national identity and social/political/cultural discourse. I was not in Japan on 3/11, nor for several years afterwards. But I have heard professors speak who were there, especially anthropologists & sociologists who more so than us historians are keenly in touch with the contemporary, and it is evident that this has had a profound impact upon them, and in their eyes, upon Japan, in ways beyond what I myself might perceive or be aware of.
In large pieces like “Foretoken,” or like “History of Rise and Fall,” Ikeda says he thinks of new ideas as he works. Both of these pieces are giant jumbles of new and old, manmade and natural. A red-bottomed industrial-looking ship is beached, practically embedded in the rocky mountainside. Trees grow out of a giant crack in its side, and birds fly past, while only a few inches away (on the work), skiers slide down snowy slopes. In another section of the work, people stand on a ledge formed by what looks like the remnants of a passenger jet’s wing, before a torii embedded in ice, while nearby a fire burns deep in the mountain. I am told the crests of the wave that dominates the piece are meant to resemble the shapes of the Japanese islands. Ikeda produces this works one pen-stroke at a time, with a simple nibbed fountain pen, and as he goes, filling in the textures of one square inch at a time, he apparently improvises and creates new “hidden” details – the skiers, the torii, a twisting green slide, a flock of birds – as he goes. A video in the small middle gallery shows Ikeda at work – it’s really kind of incredible how slowly the process goes. Ikeda even jokes that his guests – the host of the TV show this segment is from – won’t be able to really see any big change, in the brief time they’re filming.
I continue to learn new ways of looking at and thinking about art – perhaps it is a result of my recent readings & discussions about performance theory, but I found myself thinking, asking, not about the “meaning” of elements of these works, but rather about their effects. What effect does it have that Ikeda so often represents people and animals in white silhouette? I feel like it actually enhances the feeling of energy and dynamism of their interaction with the environment; they are not simply a part of the static scene depicted on the canvas, but are separate from it and yet embedded in it, interacting with the slopes, spans, and surfaces. Beyond that, I don’t know. What do you think?
Though Ikeda does not use traditional materials or techniques, and does not reference traditional aesthetics, subjects, or iconography as directly as Tenmyouya, his work speaks to Japanese identity and Japanese history in a way that makes him very solidly a “postmodernist” artist in my mind, even if not necessarily a Neo-Nihonga (neo-neo-traditional Japanese painting) artist as Tenmyouya describes himself. This is a theme I’ll return to in my last post about the exhibit, and explain further what I mean by “postmodern.” But, one thing that is often cited about Ikeda that does connect him to Japanese tradition is the idea of mastery, of taking a long time to do something very precisely, very carefully. The word takumi (巧, meaning “skill,” or 匠 meaning “master craftsman”) is often used to describe him. I don’t want to get into it here, but this is a big deal; I don’t know about in Japan, but one often gets the sense – and this is not just me talking; I’ve heard MFA Studio Art students themselves talk about it – that (post)modern art in the United States, especially as taught within MFA programs, has become so much about the theory and the conceptual, and so little about the skill or the technique. That showing great attention to masterful technique alone – showing that one has mastered their craft, or mastered the art of painting, the art of sculpture, the art of … etc. – makes Ikeda stand out as different, and as evoking tradition, really says something about the state of art today, don’t you think?
In my next post, I’ll talk about the teamlab installation, and Tenmyouya Hisashi’s works in this exhibit. Thanks for reading!
A big shout-out to the Japan Society Gallery for putting together this fantastic exhibit, and for allowing photographs! I know it’s difficult with contemporary art especially, given the active copyrights and such, but you made it work, where so many of your exhibits in the past it wasn’t allowed. Thank you! (After all, as a friend pointed out, what am I going to do with the photos anyway? Sure they’re up online now, but the photos I took with my little point-and-shoot digicam are nowhere near publication quality. If I really wanted to do anything real with them, I’d still need proper permissions; so, might as well allow photos, I guess? Right?
Garden of Unearthly Delights is open at Japan Society (333 East 47th St, at 1st Ave, NYC) until Jan 11. Go see it now! And, if you happen to be in Madison, Wisconsin, Ikeda is currently artist-in-residence at the Univ. of Wisconsin Chazen Museum.