I recently had the pleasure of going to the Seattle Asian Art Museum, along with LM of Odorunara.com, and seeing an exhibition of Chiho Aoshima’s work. I can’t remember where I learned of Aoshima previously, but she’s definitely one of the bigger-name contemporary artists out of Japan today, and it was great to get to see this exhibit of her work, including three rooms of digital prints, sketchbook pages, and a large video installation entitled Takaamanohara (the High Plains of Heaven).
In many of the works I took photos of, the land itself is anthromoporphized, contemplating itself, contemplating the beauty of nature. We are perhaps witnessing regrowth, and perhaps witnessing a contemplation on the fate or future of natural beauty amidst continued urbanization and industrialization. In other works, skyscrapers are portrayed with happy cartoon faces, and we are made to feel for them when the city is inundated by a tsunami in the video piece. So I don’t think Aoshima is speaking against urbanization, but perhaps questioning how we can protect our way of life, our society, our country – both its urban environments (modern, advanced, society) and natural beauty – against natural and other disasters.
I find an interesting dichotomy in many of these pieces, as they do deal with death and destruction, with volcanoes and tsunami, but they deal with them in such a lively, colorful, cartoon fashion that it seems like no actual harm, injury, or even death is possible. Anthropomorphized airplanes play under blue skies and tell us to “RELAX!” (in big English letters). A naked figure plays atop a volcano and farts clouds into the wind in a piece entitled “Onara-chan igyô wo nasu” (roughly, “Lil’ Farty effects a great enterprise”). In a digital print at the beginning of the show, a girl admires a tree, with doves and rainbows in the background behind her, and it is not a tree, but two different cityscapes, urban skylines, which are reflected in her eyes. In another digital print, happy cartoon-faced skyscrapers hang out, as a phoenix flies past.
I suppose the theme becomes obvious – it is hard to fight it when we see such things as the contemplation of nature, and visions of cities reflected in that; when we see a cityscape honored by the presence of a phoenix – the ultimate symbol of rebirth, at least in Western mythologies – flying by.
And yet, there is plenty of death and destruction here, too. A long digital print which extends nearly from wall-to-wall of the first gallery features blood-red rain and an utterly desolated middle portion of the scene, with the vast majority of the figures in the image holding hands and dancing among the clouds, presumably the spirits of the dead. In the center, a scraggly greyish structure which one might have taken to be a warped post-apocalyptic skyscraper turns out to be a pile of gravestones, atop the large head of a cartoon figure. The immediate surroundings are littered with human skeletons and dead trees. In a small painting later in the show, we see a tree holding a bucket & cleaning a gravestone, and in another, an anthropomorphized gravestone dancing with two trees.
In the video piece, Takaamanohara, a set of cartoon-faced skyscrapers play happily on the far left, while across a small body of water, on the far right, a far greener scene plays out, also happily, with birds and rainbows and so forth. Then things get dark. A volcano at the far right, also cartoon-faced, innocent and cute, blows its top, pouring out lava and spewing dark clouds into the sky. The whole video turns from whites and blues and greens to blacks and reds. A tsunami siren sounds, and waves inundate the immobile skyscrapers, who cry out in anguish. Some go up in flames, and some topple. But then some are rebuilt, and the world eventually returns to blue skies, lush greenery, and birds and rainbows.
A piece entitled “Sensô nante yaritakunaindayo ~hontô” (“Don’t Wanna Wage War… Honestly”) seems at first an outlier, but in a sense it fits in with the theme, too, as Aoshima points towards a desire for a peaceful, beautiful, future, for Japan and for the world. While her anime style, use of Japanese language, and other elements very much point her out as a Japanese artist, Aoshima also includes a number of works that point to a more international outlook. In one, we see a girl busking with a guitar, under a sign which says Union Square clearly in English, and she sings, in Spanish, “Dicen que soy muy borracho” (“They say I am very drunk”). Is she commenting on 3/11 and particularly Japanese concerns, or is she speaking to broader concerns, for all mankind, the world over?
Given the title, “Rebirth of the World,” and the content, including tsunami in the video installation, it would be very easy to jump to the conclusion that Aoshima is yet another artist talking about, thinking about, reflecting on, 3/11 and life in a post-3/11 Japan. This has most certainly been the dominant theme in the last few years in commentary on contemporary art, and contemporary culture more broadly, and I do understand that for those who were in Japan at the time, and those more closely in touch with contemporary culture (e.g. anthropologists), this is a huge thing. But, is that necessarily what’s going on here?
Many of these pieces were made in 2010 or earlier. They take on new meanings for us now, in the wake of those terrible events. The earth-girl gazing at an islet in Rock might be taken to be crying, for Matsushima, or for any and every coastal site ravaged by the tsunami on that terrible day. But this piece was made in 2010, and the bits of blue just under her eyes might just be the seawater in which her face and arms are resting. What might Aoshima have meant by the work at that time, before the disasters?
I struggle with this installation for bizarre reasons. It’s not that I don’t know what’s going on. The theme is so obvious: Rebirth of the World. And yet, because it is so obvious, it makes me wonder what else is going on, what other themes, what deeper messages. And I cannot seem to quite find them. I’m not saying Aoshima’s work is shallow; or even if it is, that that’s a problem. These are beautiful and powerful pieces. I’m just not really sure what more to say, or think, about them…
It is a beautiful installation, though; they have repainted the walls to make it a decidedly, distinctly, Aoshima space, and a number of works are on display that, we are told, have never been shown before. If you have the chance, go check it out.
All photos my own. Chiho Aoshima: Rebirth of the World is on display at the Seattle Asian Art Museum at Volunteer Park until October 4.