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Posts Tagged ‘Garden of Unearthly Delights’

Tenmyouya Hisashi’s “Rhyme.” Detail. I am sad to see that more of my photos from this exhibit did not come out better. This, sadly, is the best shot I got of the piece – and with the tiny screen on the camera, I guess I thought it was better than this.

Okay. I said I wasn’t sure if I would come back to write more about this exhibit, but, Odorunara’s fascinating insights on the Mr. show at the Seattle Art Museum right now inspired me to suddenly find myself thinking about this exhibit again, and put me into “writing mode,” to write out my thoughts on the second half of this exhibit, at Japan Society in NY only until Jan 11.

Tenmyouya Hisashi, like Yamaguchi Akira, Ikeda Manabu, and Yamamoto Tarô, is easily among the most prominent neo-Nihonga, or Nipponga, artists active today, each of them doing work that strongly draws upon the Japanese art history tradition in one way or another. Yet, while the mainstream of Nihonga art focuses on continuing a tradition of painting bijinga (pictures of beautiful women), ink landscapes, and other such works with the dominant aesthetic being one of subtle quiet beauty, Tenmyouya instead takes a rather different perspective on the Japanese artistic tradition. Think about contemporary 21st century imaginings and stereotypes of “traditional” “Japanese” art: Buddhist iconography and samurai war scenes don’t generally enter into it. Yet, these are the chief things Tenmyouya references. If you know something about Japanese art history, you know that he is drawing heavily upon styles and subjects of the Azuchi-Momoyama period, including Nanban-e (pictures of Europeans), kabukimono (street toughs with outré fashions), and the flashy, showy, bold aesthetic of basara, which emphasizes wealth, bold colors, lots of use of gold, and has been described as “the family of beauty that stands on the opposite end of the spectrum from wabi sabi and zen.”1

Tenmyouya’s “Baku.”

Thinking about it, considering his choice of referents, and his militant or violent alterations to those themes, I feel one possible way to read Tenmyouya’s works might be that he is seeking to tell an alternate narrative of Japanese (art) history, and identity. Pointing to serene Zen rock gardens, intellectual literati ink landscapes, and the boisterous & colorful but ultimately harmless atmosphere of ukiyo-e (or, the quiet, refined, restrained elegance, for that matter, of the geisha, courtesan arts, etc. depicted in the ukiyo-e), one typical and dominant narrative of Japanese art history and aesthetics is one of cultured, refined, intellectual pursuits, and of relatively peaceful aesthetics. After all, peasant uprisings aside, the Tokugawa period may be one of the longest and most peaceful periods of peace any part of the world has ever seen. But then Tenmyouya’s work – his Fudô Myôô holding a bayonetted rifle with a Rising Sun flag; his rock garden bathed in blood and covered in skulls; the war scene hung on the wall; and many of his other works outside this exhibit as well – reminds us of the role war and violence played in Japanese history, and in art, and asserts perhaps that the militarism of the 1930s-40s (and the decades leading up to that) is not an aberration to simply be forgotten about, but rather something more intrinsic to Japanese history and identity, that the Japanese as a people, as a nation, need to come to terms with.

Fudô is hardly a common subject among the mainstream of neo-traditional (Nihonga) painters – throughout the 20th century, those working in the most traditional/conservative mode have often stuck to pictures of beautiful women in kimono, to ink landscapes, and so forth. Yet, one the earliest, and most famous Nihonga works, when Nihonga was first born in the 1880s, was a painting of Fudô Myôô by Kanô Hôgai. And, further, it was painted with the idea in mind that this represented (one part of) truly Japanese national essence and tradition. Admittedly, Ernest Fenollosa’s personal obsession with Buddhist art, and his personal ideas about what does and does not represent Japanese national identity, skews this somewhat, as he’s just one individual perspective, and a foreigner to boot. But, even so, it shows that at that time, at the end of 250 years of peace, the strong and frightening figure of Fudô, demonic in appearance, wielding a sword and lariat, and surrounded by flame, could be seen as an essential part of Japanese tradition and national character. By showing Fudô and Kannon armed with modern weaponry, Tenmyouya reminds his Japanese audience, perhaps, that Japan has /always/ been a militarist country, that it was ruled by samurai – by a warrior government, essentially a military dictatorship, in modern terms – and that Buddhism, and Buddhist figures such as Fudô, and Kannon (bodhisattva of compassion), have long been used in support of violent people and violent acts.

His two screens show a rather violent battle, but with no blood, and with a rather clean aesthetic to it overall. Violence in Japanese arts has grown quite aestheticized over the years, as seen perhaps most evidently in kendô, iaidô, and other martial arts, which today are so much more about forms, about meditative or spiritual aspects, distancing these arts from their actual violent origins and meanings. In short, violence gets aestheticized in Japanese art, and in Japanese memory of its own history, but, could this piece, along with the blood red rock garden, be saying that we need to remember just how violent and bloody Japanese history really was?

That said, I also think it is all too easy, and all too tempting, to ascribe anti-war sentiments and intentions onto any Japanese artist. While I would very much hesitate to suggest that Tenmyouya might be rightwing, nationalist, militarist, is it not possible that a Japanese artist is doing something that’s meant to address themes other than the country’s militarist past? Maybe he simply enjoys the rough, bold, aesthetics of Basara, and the “cool,” “awesome,” tough, characters of the samurai, gods like Fudô, and so forth? Plenty of people think samurai are cool without being militarists. Yamaguchi Akira does a lot with warriors on horseback, often riding horses which are actually half-motorcycle, very similar content in a way to Tenmyouya’s kabukimono/bôsôzoku stuff, yet, I don’t think anyone would ever even begin to think that Yamaguchi is militarist… Maybe Tenmyouya has some other intentions with his work. Life is complex. The world is complex. To assume that all Japanese art is about their relationship to the war is, actually, essentializing. American art includes works about just about everything (and many works about nothing at all) – why can’t Japanese art be just as diverse?

I guess I really should say something, too, about Tenmyouya’s piece “Rhyme,” and the questions it evokes as to media. “Rhyme” consists of two works which are mirror-images of one another. One is painted in acrylics, and the other is a digital reproduction, mirror-flipped and printed using a high-end artist’s inkjet printer. The iconography and subject matter is clearly Japanese. The use of gold leaf is very much Japanese. The horizontal format, evoking a folding screen (byôbu) is evocative of traditional Japanese art. But, Nihonga originally a hundred years ago was defined, essentially, by its use of traditional media (e.g. ink and mineral pigments on silk or paper, etc.), regardless of the subject matter, or style of depiction. Takeuchi Seihô did some gorgeous depictions of the Grand Canal in Venice, in a rather realistic (read: European) style, in inks on paper. Now, we have artists like Tenmyouya, Yamaguchi, and Yamamoto making works that reference and evoke and draw upon traditional Japanese art just about as closely as you can while still being outside of those traditions, and they’re doing so in modern/Western, or let’s just say non-traditional, media. Is it still Nihonga, or neo-Nihonga, or Nipponga? Especially if we use one of the latter terms, absolutely yes. But, is there something more to be said here, to argue for or against how to conceptually categorize these artists, and the trend or (sub-)genre they seem to represent? … Nothing that really comes to mind at the moment, beyond that I think it’s wonderful. Beautiful, powerful, and intriguing. Holes are beginning to be poked through the concrete, and traditional, or rather neo-traditional, Japanese culture, is beginning to sprout and grow up through those holes. Artists are turning away from feeling they need to prove themselves, and their country, as “modern,” and are turning back towards exploring, expressing, investigating, inventing, being Japanese.

1) Patricia Graham, Japanese Design, Tuttle Publishing (2014), 37-39.

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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.

Ikeda Manabu, “Imprint” (2011). Pen and acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board. Detail.

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.

Above: Ikeda Manabu, “Foretoken” (2008). Pen and acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board. Below: Detail.

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.

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