As I walked through the exhibit, I took notes about each piece, and on my thoughts on the exhibit as a whole, as I so often now do. Using those notes as a basis to write blog posts, they tend to get quite long, and so I feel the need to divide them up into multiple parts. So, here is the second part of my thoughts on the exhibition “Bye Bye Kitty” recently held at Japan Society in New York.
The second room of the exhibit begins with one more piece by Aida Makoto. “Beautiful Flag” is surely among the most blatantly political pieces in the show, and there is so much that it might evoke or allude to, so much it might speak to, that conversely I find I have very little to say. I am sure that much has already been said.
The piece is a diptych, depicting Japanese and (South) Korean schoolgirls carrying large flags of their respective countries, standing large atop a pile of rubble, the overall aesthetic and style somewhat rough and dark, as if the painting itself has been attacked with the ashes of the flames of war. It’s a very blatantly nationalistic piece, but for which country? My first impression was that it is a piece which seeks to acknowledge, recognize, and convey that Korean nationalism is just as valid (or just as invalid) as Japanese nationalism, placing the two countries on an even footing. Though, at the same time, the Korean girl seems to me more determined, standing in a stronger stance, while the Japanese girl seems somehow, well, less so. What do these figures represent? What did Aida intend?
It certainly did not occur to me on my own, but the major Japanese art magazine Brutus compares the composition of this piece to a very famous one by 17th century artist Sôtatsu, depicting Raijin & Fûjin (Gods of Thunder and Wind). What do you think? A valid comparison? Something Aida intended? Or coincidence?
What do these images say to you? What do you see in them?
The exhibition continues with Kashiki Tomoko, the one 2-D artist (i.e. painter) in the show with whom I was least familiar. Her pieces have a light, pastel, “girly”, child-like and innocent sort of style or aesthetic to them, a quality that reminds me of the work of Takano Aya.
Kashiki’s girls seem on first glance to be the extremely slight, willowy girls of other anime-influenced contemporary artists, especially Takano, with maybe just the slightest hint of a harkening back to the very slim and very young-looking girls of ukiyo-e print artist Suzuki Harunobu. Yet, on closer inspection, they seem, actually, quite grotesque.
The figure in “In a Box” is curled up in an unnatural way, and seems to be melting into the floor, while the feet of the girl in “Roof Garden” are too long for her legs, stretching out way in front of her like capital letter ‘L’s. She seems to be missing her nose, ner neck is too long, and her shoulders seem doughy and malformed. Granted, similar criticisms (or observations, to put it more neutrally) could be made of the figures of, for example, Utamaro, who is celebrated for his pictures of beautiful women (bijinga). Yet, even so, there is a grotesqueness here that I don’t sense in the works of Harunobu or Kiyonaga. I wonder what the artist’s intention is… Could we perhaps say something about girls’ critical perceptions of themselves and their own bodily flaws? Or something about an effort to inject a sense of malaise, or just plain old emotional complexity and reality, as a critical response to works which present a beautiful, innocent, totally positive and problem-free portrayal of the world of the cute young Japanese girl?
In “The Nine Aspects,” Yamaguchi Akira parodies a theme or mode often seen in historical handscroll paintings and woodblock printed books: that of the stages of decay of a body after death. Normally, it is a beautiful woman’s body that is portrayed in this way, as you can see in this historical painting, and in, for example, this more contemporary work by Matsui Fuyuko which references the subject. Yamaguchi, however, substitutes for the woman the half-horse / half-motorcycle which often appears in other of his works. Moving from right to left in the composition, we see the horse/cycle bucking and lively, then weak and sickly, then with people gathered around it as though it has just died, and finally, decaying and rusting, its parts taken away for scrap.
Sadly, I was not able to find an image of this work to share with you here. So you’ll have to use your imaginations.
The work is on canvas, but as in so many of Yamaguchi’s works, there are numerous elements which reflect an extensive knowledge and great expertise in the themes, modes, and styles of the traditional, from the way the clouds are depicted to the golden background, to the choice of title (九相図, kusôzu; the same title as the traditional “nine stages” paintings), to the placement of signature, date, and seal in the upper right corner. His use of the traditional pictorial narrative technique of iji dôzu, in which successive chronological scenes featuring the same characters are shown in different parts of what otherwise looks to be a single continuous space, is another major touch of the traditional used in this work.
In a further nod to the traditional, Yamaguchi Akira is the only artist in this show, and so far as I know, one of only a few prominent/major Japanese artists active today, who insists that his name be represented in Japanese name order. Why Japan Society would choose to give all the other artists’ names in Western order is beyond me, but I think this an interesting and important point. Yamaguchi may have international appeal – and I do hope that this show helps more people learn about him and about the many other artists in Japan doing exciting work; it’s not all just Murakami – but he is very much a Japanese artist, and I think that respecting the name order he uses in Japan, rather than Westernizing or “internationalizing” it, rather than bastardizing it, is important.
Of course, that said, for someone who references the traditional so very much in his work, I am surprised to realize that Yamaguchi works in pens and oils and watercolors, and not in traditional mineral pigments and sumi ink. The same goes for Tenmyouya Hisashi and several other artists in this show. I suppose we can still call their work “Neo-Nihonga” even though the traditional definition of “Nihonga” emphasizes the use of traditional media (Yamamoto Tarô, not featured in this show, actually himself uses the term “Nipponga” to refer to his work), as, regardless of media, artists such as Tenmyouya and Yamaguchi are indeed *the* top, leading artists so far as I know doing work like this which draws heavily upon the traditional to do something decidedly modern and contemporary. Looking at their work, the style in which it is done, and the truly extensive use of traditional compositional elements, etc., the question of which media they’re using seems almost irrelevant.
Image from the cover of a monograph catalog of Yamaguchi Akira’s work, featuring a detail from his “Post-Modern Silly Battle,” also on display in the “Bye Bye Kitty” exhibition.
In any case, these pieces were amazing to see in person, and the degree of detail, especially in Yamaguchi’s Narita Airport murals, is just wonderful. I have not been to Narita (Tokyo’s main int’l airport) in some time, but if I have the story right, large wall-sized murals by Yamaguchi now grace the walls of one of the terminals, and two pieces on display at Japan Society as part of this show were the originals, in pen and watercolor, from which the larger reproductions were made. As in many of Yamaguchi’s other pieces – depicting Osaka, or the Mitsukoshi Department Store, or Tokyo Tower – these two are birds-eye view landscape paintings in the rakuchû rakugai zu mode, which mix reality and historical fantasy in their depiction of the airport. It is a landscape scene from a fantasy version of Japan, in which elements from many different periods of history are thrown together into one scene. Heian era courtiers in tall eboshi and billowing robes brush elbows with t-shirt-clad foreign tourists, while other passengers enjoy a bathhouse or a game of pool onboard the planes; beautiful hipped gabled tiled roofs in the style of Japanese castles grace the control tower and terminal buildings, and the title of both pieces, “Narita Airport” (成田空港) is enclosed in an elaborate cartouche in the upper right corner of each of the two pieces.
I would very much love to own a poster of these Narita Airport paintings. The details are just incredible, as each and every person or other element within the picture adds to the complexity and diversity of the overall scene. I could sit in front of this piece for hours and never feel I had seen, and digested, all of it. I imagine that they might (if I’m lucky) sell such posters at Narita Airport, or at the Mori Museum in Roppongi, where I saw Yamaguchi’s work for the first time. But, alas, not at Japan Society.
In my next post, I shall discuss the works of Tenmyouya Hisashi and Manabu Ikeda, before moving on to the 3D (read: sculpture) parts of the exhibition. Cheers for now!