Posts Tagged ‘tenmyouya hisashi’

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 don’t know if I will come back to write more about the teamlab & Tenmyouya Hisashi sections of the exhibition “Garden of Unearthly Delights” at Japan Society. But, I did have some thoughts about how the exhibit overall was organized.

Above: “United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World” by teamlab (2013), as installed at Japan Society in the “Garden of Unearthly Delights” exhibit. Below: Itô Jakuchû’s “Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants” (18th c.), on display at LACMA.

As I made my way through the exhibit, I knew I felt there was something missing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Now, as I write this, and think about it, I’ve realized what it was that was throwing me off: the exhibit represents these artists as individual geniuses, as individual artistes if you will, looking at their personal inspirations and ideas, rather than presenting it in any way as representative of current/contemporary trends in Japanese art. Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But it is a choice, and a difference. Part of what fascinates me about neo-Nihonga, and about much else that’s going on in Japanese art right now, is what it represents in terms of ideas about art, about Japanese identity, and so forth, and how it fits into a broader narrative of Japanese art history. To talk about individual artists with individual ideas and inspiration is one thing – these men are certainly extremely impressive and intriguing, their works inspired and beautiful – but, with the implication that they stand alone as individual geniuses separated from their contemporaries, or to put it another way, absent the implication that they are in any way representative of broader trends in style, attitude, or themes, for me, it feels like there is something lacking.

Tenmyouya Hisashi’s installation at Japan Society, including a rock garden meant to reference, or evoke, that at Ryôan-ji.

What I love the most about Tenmyôya’s “neo-Nihonga” is how it fits into a narrative, a tradition, recalling and reviving subjects, themes, stylistic elements of the Edo period and of pre-war & post-war Nihonga, representing not something divorced from tradition, something purely unique to Tenmyôya, or purely unique to contemporary art, lacking in precedent, but rather, representing the next step in the development of those forms (perhaps, arguably), as we pass into the 21st century. Taken together with Yamaguchi Akira, Yamamoto Tarô, and others, there is something to be said for the ways in which some/many 21st century Japanese artists are turning away from the acultural/pan-global stylistic & thematic trends of Modern art (see the work of Gutai, Mono-ha, and Hi Red Center, which look like they could have been made by anyone, by an American or a European, marking Japan as part of a global modernist art movement, divorced from and indeed explicitly rejecting the art of the past), and are instead turning back to producing art that is distinctively Japanese, that references and draws upon Japanese art history, and that says something about Japanese cultural identity today. Ikeda Manabu is not exactly neo-Nihonga like Tenmyôya is; he’s not really drawing upon traditional themes or styles. But, his work is still very distinctively Japanese, featuring Japanese elements such as torii gates, but also displaying an interest in the dense energy of metropolitan urbanity, and in brilliant nature (lush greenery, beautiful blue water) emerging out of, or coexisting alongside of, industrial ruin. His works feature crashed planes and rusting ocean liners surrounded by green and blue, by birds and people, countless dense details of a world that in some ways reminds me of the jumbled-up aesthetic of Howl’s Moving Castle, perhaps. In today’s post-3/11 world, Ikeda’s works take on new meanings, as even works done before 2011 come to exude feelings of the power of nature, the danger of thinking you can control or overtake it with industrial modernity, the ruin, indeed, of industrial modernity – the idea that we have moved, or that we need to move, past that, into a new, postmodern way of living that is either more in tune with nature, or that at least puts that particular 20th century mode of steel-and-concrete modernity behind us. His work Foretoken, along with his great wave, fit into a theme or narrative of what Japanese artists are doing, what they are thinking, post-3/11, as reflective too of what Japanese people are thinking and feeling post-3/11, that I find quite evocative, intriguing, and meaningful. This fits into a broader imagination of Japan, and of this moment in the narrative of Japanese art history, better than trying to understand Ikeda as an individual set-apart.

Yamamoto Tarô, “K-Pine tree Old man screen” (1999). Image from Imura Art.

I think it’s wonderful that we have such great diversity in the arts today, that people like Ikeda and Tenmyôya are not simply operating within a school style, as (e.g) Kanô Tan’yû and Eitoku were. They’re each doing very distinctive, unique work, and as such we have a greater diversity of Japanese art than ever before in history. And it’s wonderful that we are able to speak with them, interview them, and find out about their personal individual thoughts, ideas, philosophies, something we can’t really get from the majority of historical artists. And, there’s nothing objectively wrong, inferior, or lesser, about approaching these artists as individuals. It’s a very standard way for contemporary/modern art experts, gallery owners, curators, to talk about these things. And it is perhaps reflective of the gallery director Miwako Tezuka’s identity as such an expert in the contemporary, rather than in the historical. There is absolutely something to get out of this approach, and for all I know, it may be a very intentional political position on her part, to represent them in this way. As Tezuka is Japanese herself, she may well wish to not display quote-unquote “Japan,” but rather to bring these artists as individuals into a similar place as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, whoever else, who are generally seen as individuals and not so much as simply representative examples of broader trends in American or English art. There is great validity in that argument, too. But, for me, I much prefer the idea of fitting these artists into broader narratives of Japanese modern, modernist, and then post-modern(ist) art, and into broader themes of Japanese identity, Japanese relationship to history & tradition, Japanese reactions to modernity & modernism, and Japanese feelings or attitudes post-3/11.

All photos & videos my own, except the Yamamoto Tarô image from Imura Arts. “Garden of Unearthly Delights” is open at Japan Society until Jan 11.

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It’s always nice to feel a bit still connected to goings-on at Japan Society in New York. Sadly, I won’t be in town to see most of this, but I thought I might share briefly about some stuff going on over there.

First, an upcoming film series they’re doing. Entitled The Dark Side of the Sun: John Zorn on Japanese Cinema, the series includes one film a month, from October to February, all chosen by “maverick avant-garde composer, musician and arranger John Zorn,” and representing a wide variety of genres and styles. None have been shown at Japan Society before, and so far as I am aware (but then again I’m not very knowledgeable about film) none are the typical standard ones you’re likely to have seen before.

Here’s the line-up, very briefly:

*Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands (荒野のダッチワイフ)(Saturday, October 18, 7 PM) – a 1967 film directed by Yamatoya Atsushi, described as “about a hitman (Yuichi Minato) who is hired by a rich real estate agent to find an abducted woman (Noriko Tatsumi). This simple setup gives way to a hip and chaotic worldview full of hard-boiled characters, sexy action, and hallucinatory imagery.”

*Crossroads (十字路)(Saturday, November 15, 7:30 PM) – a 1928 silent film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896-1982), and accompanied live on shamisen by experimental musician Yumiko Tanaka. I don’t know much about the film, or the director beyond having seen his film “Page of Madness” (狂った一頁), but, live shamisen? You can’t beat that.

*Top Stripper (丸本噂のストリッパー)(Thursday, December 11, 7 PM), a 1982 pink film directed by Yoshimitsu Morita, who we are told “was one of the handful of young, radical directors who were given the opportunity to explore the visual medium via the constraints of the pink genre.”

*Matango (aka Attack of the Mushroom People)(Friday, January 23, 7 PM), by none other than Ishiro Honda, director of the original Godzilla. Mushroom People. What more do we need to say?

*Finally, the first-ever official showing in the US of Ôshima Nagisa’s 1964 film It’s Me Here, Bellett (私のベレット), preceded by eight experimental shorts by the godfather of anime, Tezuka Osamu. Friday, February 20, 7 PM.

Here’s a blog post from Lucky Girl Media about the series that may fill you in further.

The film series – specifically the Nov 15 showing of Jûjiro – also intersects with a running theme of this year’s Performing Arts season schedule, “Shamisen Sessions,” a whole bunch of events I wish I could be there for, beginning with the rightfully sold out Sept 27 concert by Agatsuma Hiromitsu – easily one of the most famous Tsugaru players active today, after the Yoshida Brothers – and pop/jazz singer Yano Akiko, who has recorded with the Yellow Magic Orchestra in the past.

The Society’s performing arts programs are always great, but I think it is somewhat rare to have this many traditional (or traditional-related, given the experimental and exciting things some of these performers are doing with shamisen) events in one season. I don’t play shamisen myself, though I’d like to try/learn someday, and just listening is always wonderful. I would love, too, to hear any of these performers talk about their thoughts on tradition, on continuing/maintaining and experimenting with traditional instruments and songs, and on the place of traditional non-Western instruments in modern/contemporary music.

The season also includes shamisen performances, workshops on shamisen, Nihon Buyo, and Noh, and a concert with Okinawan sanshin player Yukito Ara (*dies*). In addition to the “Shamisen Sessions,” another series or theme this year is “Stories from the War,” which includes a series of performances of Noh plays new and old in May, and in January a performance written and directed by huge-big-name contemporary artist Miwa Yanagi. I don’t see anything on the website indicating whether Yanagi-san will be there for a Q&A or anything, but, wow it would really be something to meet her.


Of course, god forbid any of these performances should be shown during Christmas break, when many people, like myself, come home to New York and would love to get to see such things, but, at least the gallery will be open, and this fall/winter’s show, Garden of Unearthly Delights, which just opened earlier this week, and shows until January 11, looks to be an incredible one.

It features Ikeda Manabu and Tenmyouya Hisashi, two of the artists from the Bye Bye Kitty exhibition a few years ago, plus teamlab, with whom I’m not so familiar, and continues, as I suppose I should have expected gallery director Miwako Tezuka would, in the wonderful exciting trend of Japan Society introducing New York, and the United States, to brilliant, creative, inspiring Japanese contemporary artists who are not Murakami Takashi or Yayoi Kusama, and who draw upon traditional imagery, motifs, and styles, to create some really incredible, vibrant, new and very 21st century work. This isn’t the 1960s anymore, and MoMa can keep its ostrich head in the sands of the past, but Japan Society is pressing forward with some of the newest works by some artists who are really pushing the boundaries and doing wonderful exciting stuff.

The show includes Tenmyouya’s first ever installation piece, based on or inspired by Zen rock gardens, as well as some animated pieces by teamlab clearly based on the work of Itô Jakuchû. While I don’t like the idea of saying “if Jakuchû were alive today, he’d be this (or that) sort of artist, and he’d make this or that sort of thing,” there really is something about these animated pieces – at least what I’ve seen of them so far in promos for the exhibit – that strikes me as falling within a continuity of his work, as not being opposed to it or a break from it. It’s bird-and-flower painting for the 21st century, not a break with the past but a continuation of it, a continuation of engaging in the same themes, the same aesthetics, and just bringing it up to the present (or the future). Ikeda and Tenmyouya’s work, meanwhile, remix past and present, erasing the borders between the two, and helping us imagine the past as being perhaps not so unlike our own time, and vice versa.

I really cannot wait to see this show. In the meantime, maybe I’ll prepare by watching some interviews with the artists.

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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 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’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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Tenmyouya Hisashi (天明屋 尚) is another amazing up-and-coming Japanese contemporary artist who is unfairly overshadowed by Murakami Takashi. Much like Yamaguchi Akira, who I blogged about some time ago, Tenmyouya combines a futuristic, sci-fi, mechanical aesthetic with the forms and styles of traditional Japanese painting.

I leave it to you, dear reader, to explore Tenmyouya’s official homepage website, and to find works that grab you particularly. I shall select just a few to focus upon here.

Do gangs in Japan (or whoever it may be that perpetrates what little graffiti is seen in Japan) use kanji in their tags? I don’t know. But here, Tenmyouya creates graffiti tags in kanji, using phrases of a particularly Japanese bent – Yamato damashii ippiki ookami (大和魂一匹狼, “Lone Wolf of the Japanese Spirit”), recalling for me at least the “Lone Wolf and Cub” manga and movies, representative of the essence of romanticized samurai honor and skill; and Ichigeki hissatsu tokkoutai (一撃必殺特攻隊, Kill With a Single Blow, Special Attack Party), the word tokkoutai being the one used to refer to kamikaze (suicide) squads during WWII and I think likely having had a special meaning as well during the Bakumatsu/Meiji periods (mid-19th century). He paints them on wood scraps from a 100-year old house, further adding to the idea of it being modern-style graffiti in an older context; as if this were the kind of thing graffiti artists of the Meiji period would have actually done, were they to have some small degree of stylistic influence from the present. Pushing it even further, Tenmyouya uses maple leaves and irises, on a gold background, patterned after extremely famous works by Ôgata Kôrin, founder of the Rinpa school of Edo period art, today regarded as a huge major giant in Japanese art history.

Many (most?) modern artists celebrated in Western art do radically new things, intentionally breaking with the past to be experimental and radical. But what Tenmyouya and his ilk do – being radical in their use of the past; being radical while also referencing the past – is so much more powerful, more meaningful, more beautiful to my mind. How much emotion, or cultural or spiritual power, is there in a Jackson Pollock? In a white canvas with a red dot, or a canvas covered completely in green? It references nothing. It looks like nothing. It means nothing. How do you get anything out of that?

The “Neo Colorful World of Living Beings” (ネオ動植綵絵, Neo doushoku sai e) is another fun series by Tenmyouya. Though the overly realistic style doesn’t really grab me, the basic idea of it, being based on the very famous “Colorful World of Living Beings” (動植綵絵, Doushoku sai e) by Edo period artist Itô Jakuchû, allows it to serve as another fantastic example of doing something very new and modern while referencing the past. Jakuchû sought to represent plants and animals as realistically as he could, given the tools available to him (inks and a paintbrush), and Tenmyouya does basically the same, using the tools available to him (computer rendering software and such), printing the works on traditional Japanese paper.

One of Tenmyouya’s exhibitions, and the resulting book/catalog, is entitled “Kabuki-mono”, referring not to the kabuki theater which I think a great many people have at least heard of, but rather to a somewhat earlier phenomenon of the 17th century, out of which the theatre tradition grew. The original “kabuki-mono” (kabuki, 傾奇, meaning “to lean strangely” or “bent towards the unconventional”, only later became 歌舞伎, meaning “song, dance, skill”) were, as Tenmyouya astutely points out, essentially the Edo period equivalent of today’s Speed Tribes (暴走族, bousouzoku), motorcycle-riding street gangs, or perhaps more like the relatively harmless, non-violent punks, goths, and others who represent not only strange fashions, but clique niche communities unto themselves.

Tenmyouya pokes fun at the absurdity of the idea that what was once marginal and anti-establishment becomes the orthodox; kabuki actors today, experts in a tradition that was originally completely a commoner art, one of the cornerstones of Edo period “low art” or “low culture” as contrasted with the older, more refined, aristocrat-patronized Noh theatre, is now seen as a repository of tradition; kabuki is “culture” in the way that art museums, ballet, and opera are “culture”, that is to say, “high culture”.

I hear rumor that the Japan Society (NY) is attempting to put together an exhibit of works by Yamaguchi Akira, Tenmyouya Hisashi, and a few others of a similar persuasion, to be exhibited in 2010 or 2011. That is, if they can pull it together at all, considering how expensive such an exhibit will be. But how wonderful that would be. I’m very much hoping it should come together; I’m excited to see it, and hoping that it should manage to make at least enough of a splash to get some of these names out there, so that these artists should become known not only among specialists (who are already familiar with these artists as rising stars) but also more widely, among the Japan-loving segments of the American/Western population.

Tenmyouya Hisashi Official Site.

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