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This is Part 3 of my review of the recent contemporary art exhibition “Bye Bye Kitty” held at Japan Society in New York, March-June 2011. See Part 1 and Part 2 here.

*TENMYOUYA HISASHI

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

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.

*3D Works

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.

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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.

*AIDA MAKOTO

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 MIWA

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!

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The situation in Japan of course has not, and will not, go away overnight. It is still very much on my mind, especially after hearing directly (on skype video chat, rather than simply in text form via Facebook, Twitter, or email) from a friend who, though quite safe in Tokyo and quite far from the real center of the devastation, was even there in Tokyo terrified, and shaken, if you’ll pardon the pun, to the core.

I have been putting off posting about anything else for a few days, watching other bloggers put up post after post of serious, concerned, disaster-centric posts. People in Japan sharing their own photos and their own stories; people sharing images and information from the news, and lists of websites for finding and getting in touch with people, and for making donations to the relief efforts.

Here‘s just one of the many many stories being posted online right now. An op-ed piece published in the NY Timesa New Yorker reminisces about her time in Tôhoku, and how much has changed in the last few days, and writes about her relatives in Tôhoku, experiencing this tragedy firsthand. A beautiful, short, piece, entitled “Memories, Washed Away.”

Gary Leupp, history professor at Tufts University and Edo period culture/society specialist, meanwhile, shares his thoughts on the disaster, touching upon the history of the city of Sendai, its poetic beauty, and historical artifacts and sites damaged and lost, and those which have hopefully survived.

It is far too easy to simply move on and get on with our normal lives here in Hawaii… I just learned that my rabbi back home in NY asked after me, and made some kind of announcement to the whole congregation about my being okay. Given how completely out of danger I was, and how relatively normal the last few days have been, I cannot help but feel bad that anyone should be worried about me at a time like this.

But, what can I say? Of course, I cannot, I will not, “move on” completely. I will continue to think about what’s going on in Japan, to pay attention to the news, to be concerned; to keep in touch with friends over there, and to do what I can to be supportive for Japanese friends here. But in the meantime, some scattered news bits from other parts of the world:

*Neil Gaiman – the author of Neverwhere, American Gods, and the comicbook series Sandman, and easily one of my favorite writers – has been working for quite some time on a non-fiction book about The Journey to the West, the classic Chinese story from which The Monkey King is particularly famous. And now, it has been announced that Gaiman is working with others on a film of The Journey to the West. It has been done before, numerous times, in both Chinese and Japanese films and TV dramas, and I don’t want to say that I definitively predict that this one will blow those all away, I trust Gaiman with this kind of project. He’s exceptionally insightful and creative in understanding the internal logic of fantasy worlds, and amazingly skilled in bringing such worlds to life; he’s profoundly respectful of other cultures and their histories, while at the same time not as invested in the project as an expression of nationalism as a Chinese or Japanese creator might be. In short, I’m very much looking forward to it.

*UNESCO has decided not to recommend the reconstruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and the Afghan government has decided to go along with that recommendation. Now, admittedly, there are some pretty good reasons for them not to be reconstructed – chiefly, the argument that the millions of dollars it would cost might be better spent on alleviating poverty or any number of other humanitarian or development sort of purposes, and the argument that reconstructions would be fake. There isn’t enough material from the originals to reconstruct them properly from the original materials, and so, really, reconstructed versions would be fakes.

Still, my knee-jerk response is to say that of course they should be reconstructed. Their destruction was a heinous act of religious intolerance, and was the destruction of astonishing sites of cultural and historical value on a global scale. Monuments that, the argument goes, belong to all humanity, not just to the Afghan gov’t to do with it as it pleases.

But, then again, if indeed logistically it is not feasible to reconstruct them, if that is indeed the case, then that has to be the result, obviously.

*The Australian reports on continuing damage and threats to major tourist sites from hoards of tourists. This is, of course, nothing new, but it continues to go on, continues to be a problem, and sites continue to struggle to find solutions. As with artworks, so with sites, and so too I am sure with other cases which don’t immediately come to mind – a balance must be struck between access and conservation. Allowing people in to historical sites such as Angkor Wat, Borobudur, and the Great Wall seems only natural; denying access to these sites because they are so important, and beautiful, and impressive, essentially defeats the purpose of conserving them, just as keeping the Mona Lisa locked away in a dark storage vault to keep it safe from light and other conservation threats completely defeats the purpose. If we’re protecting something – whether it be artwork, or a site – we are presumably protecting it for people, but, the people (or display – exposure to light, air, moisture, etc.) are themselves the threat.

Never mind the graffitti, the people climbing where they shouldn’t, those stealing bits of rock. Even those who are fully obeying the rules are causing damage, as the moisture in the air they breathe out – multiplied by multitudes of people times days, weeks, months, years – encourages the growth of mold in centuries-old cave paintings in Dunhuang. As the erosion caused by footsteps, just regular ordinary footsteps, again, multiplied by thousands or even millions of people, day after day, year after year, wears down the floors of the Great Wall, of, frankly any and every building that sees visitors. You touch the walls, and you think it’s nothing. But multiply that by however many people, touching it however many times – that’s why those bronze statues at your alma mater, you know the ones, the ones that people rub for luck on exams, are so shiny and polished only in those places. Even just the lightest touch of robes brushing up against the wall as people walk by, happening time and again, wore off the wall paintings, only below a certain height, a certain point on the wall, in a famous and majorly old and important Buddhist temple in Japan (I’m blanking on which one at the moment..), and that was a site where tourists have never been let in – the damage was done by courtiers hundreds of years ago, and other religious devotees, visiting the temple and worshipping by walking around the perimeter.

Is there a definitive answer? Perhaps. I don’t know. Perhaps not. Perhaps we just need to strike a balance, keep a close eye on the sites, or make difficult decisions. Some sites are closed off; others are replaced, essentially, by reconstructions built next door and opened to the tourists. It’s a problem that is not going away any time soon; and, hopefully, if everyone does their jobs, the sites themselves won’t be going anywhere either.

*Donny George, former director of the Iraqi National Museum, has died. He collapsed in Toronto airport, and was declared deceased shortly afterwards at the hospital; he had been in Toronto to give a lecture on Mesopotamian artifacts and efforts to combat the black market illegal trade in such objects.

Dr. George had been instrumental in recovering thousands of objects looted from the Baghdad museum in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq, and was a real force for good in the museum world. His loss will surely be felt deeply.

*The Japanese contemporary art show “Bye Bye Kitty” which I have been eagerly awaiting for quite some time opens later this week at Japan Society in New York. A brief article today accompanies a slide show of installation shots and of staff working to figure out how to get Nawa Kohei’s life-size deer sculpture in the doors.

I quite like Gallery Director Joe Earle’s comments on having the show despite recent/current events. The article states: “Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami will surely hang over the exhibit that opens March 18, but Joe Earle, vice president and director of the Japan Society, noted that much of the work itself had already contemplated such destruction. After all, he said, every Japanese child, from a very young age, is trained to prepare for such disasters.”

And while I don’t like to attribute too much to Murakami Takeshi, or to talk about him too much, he often speaks/writes about his own theory of the profound importance and fundamental role that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki played – and continue to play – in shaping the collective psyche of postwar Japan. Going along with Earle’s comments, I would say that the creators of these contemporary current artworks are fully embedded in the cultural and societal issues which face Japan, including not only a culture of overworking salarymen, and extraordinary pressure placed upon high schoolers, as seen quite directly in two works from the show, but also in a society that is constantly aware of the dangers of natural disasters, and takes preparations very seriously.

*One more link for now. The New York Times has a rather interesting article today about the collection of the White House and its curator, a position started 50 years ago by Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy.

One could probably write volumes about private collections, and could take all different sides of the issue, talking about how cool it is to think of all the wonderful things that a place like the White House must have, but then also the negative side of how many similar private collections throughout the country and the world must have so many awesome artworks and other objects hidden away from public view or access.

I’m not sure I have anything really to say about it all at the moment, without getting into a pages-long stream-of-thought ramble on the subject… I shall simply say that I think it a very interesting and intriguing job to have; fun and interesting to realize that there definitely are curatorial-type jobs outside of the major museums, and just nice, and fun, to get a brief glimpse into it through this article.

That’s all for now, I suppose. Stay safe, everyone. My thoughts and prayers to those throughout Japan continuing to struggle with this crisis, and to their friends and families overseas.

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