Hey, Ho, Let's Go: YOSHITOMO NARA at the Asia Societyby David St.-Lascaux
YOSHITOMO NARA: NOBODY’S FOOL
THE ASIA SOCIETY | SEPTEMBER 9, 2010 – JANUARY 12, 2011
Welcome to the Asia Society Museum.
We welcome your input on the exhibition you have just seen:
Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool
1. Rate the exhibition on the following factors from 1–5 with 1 being least effective and 5 being most effective.
Content of the Exhibition: 3
Yoshitomo Nara is pumped, and it shows. Ascending the wall-clinging stairs of the Asia Society with a billboard-sized, captioned “Nara Girl” above and to your side, you enter the Mall of Childhood Malaise, followed by the auto showroom, shiny Disney dog (“Don’t touch me!” chirps the sign on its posterior), and then the music room, with recent ceramics resembling Matryoshka nesting dolls with black babushkas, reverse Buddhist swastikas and Ramones lyrics. Welcome to Naraland.
Nara is a poku, a combination of Pop artist and otaku, or obsessive. Nara’s obsession with the theme of latchkey loneliness has persisted throughout his career and shows no sign of letting up, despite massive success and an adulating fan base. The stated themes of this show, “Isolation, Rebellion, and Music,” are channeled by young girls with XL eyes, knives (“Hyper Enough (to the City),” 1997), eye patches and guitars; dogs, which Nara says represent submissiveness; and bodysuit therianthropes—animals with the menacing faces of malevolent children.
Design of the Exhibition: 5
The flow of the show is superb, the experience intensifying and modulating as one proceeds, culminating in a funhouse of cubicle rooms and dollhouses, in which Nara makes us all the “lost little girl” (as Joey Ramone sang) “in [our] own little world.” Analogies to Henry Darger may not apply, but Lewis Carroll’s shade is present at the climax.
Indeed, Nara’s references ring out relentlessly. For example, the dogs, in addition to their cartoon provenance, also riff fellow bad boy Jeff Koons’s chrome balloon dog. The show itself is a mini-version of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)’s Tim Burton blockbuster; Nara’s sketches are Burtonesque. And the “White Ghost” on the Park Avenue median (a brilliant touch) echoes Tom Sachs’s “Hello Kitty” at Lever House and Ghostbusters’s Mr. Stay Puft, not to mention its associations with Japanese ghostology.
Overall Quality of the Exhibition: 3
Nara’s strong suit is color. His palette includes Zuni earth tones applied to appealing, simple compositions, pastels, and walls full of gumdrop-saturated chroma, pure retinal dopamine. His intellectual content is less satisfying, providing little protein. Nara’s career-length, monomaniacal focus on prepubescent females is wearing thin. And the “superflat” culture he embraces—envisioned by the controversial Takashi Murakami, in which there is no distinction between high and low, commercial and intellectual—isn’t aging well, either, a dog chasing its own tail. R. Mutt, in contrast, was original and, like his playful creator Duchamp, never repetitious. The metaphoric aptness of incorporating Amerika’s one-song belovèd punk poseurs in his recent work may or may not escape Nara, but.
Nara is also out of his depth when it comes to his omnipresent, English-language inscriptions. Regrettably, the captions on the bored-young-girl board paintings are nowhere near as humorous as Hairy Who precursors, nowhere near as acidic as those of Jenny Holzer, and nowhere near as accidentally whimsical as mistranslated instruction manuals.
And there’s the matter of imagery. Pop psychology notwithstanding, a subliminal interpretation of Nara’s girls inevitably exposes tawdry and sinister elements—black velvet junk art; Japanese schoolgirl enjo kosai (“compensated dating”) fetishism (and “inadvertent” condoning of the sexual objectification and trafficking of females); and the tedious conflation, by the hipster nulliparous, of children with burdens. In his defense, at least Nara doesn’t subject us to Murakami’s gratuitous, high-ticket, liquid drivel (“My Lonesome Cowboy,” $15.2 million, and “Hiropon”), or Chiho Aoshima’s repulsive “The Divine Gas,” permanently installed at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.
Enjoyment of the Exhibition: 3
Nobody’s Fool left me conflicted. Nara’s exuberance and energy, and the physical appeal of the works are undeniable. But when one begins to make comparisons, the scaffolding weakens. For example, Isamu Noguchi’s enchanting child myth “Momo Taro” (Peach Boy) sculpture at Storm King bespeaks the apotheosis of human creativity, eclipsing Nara’s work, and exposing it as, well, child’s play. Nara fares better with his prose, which is strikingly on par with Noguchi’s coruscating letter recounting the Momo Taro fable. Nara writes: “From the expanding wachtower [sic] of my frontal lobe / my thoughts race beyond the dream mountains of the wide-open wilderness / where a wafer moon gently melts in the midst of the milk-white fog / a dog spins around and around.” That’s poetic.
Before he died, Joey Ramone, his life dearer, explored new territory, singing “What a Wonderful World,” made famous by Louis Armstrong. Nara, now about Ramone’s age of demise, still has almost a half-century ahead if he makes one hundred. Let’s hope he gets out of the groove he’s stuck in and uses his considerable talent to enrapture us with something new.