What could possibly be cuter than a mouthless, anthropomorphic cat with an improbably giant head, donning a festive hair bow and wee overalls? Well, how about two of them, eternally guarding your cherished pet’s tomb in unblinking vigil? Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art, mines the odd tension between some of the rather “extreme” tropes so frequently associated with this proud culture—immutable cuteness, fervid geekiness, vivid gore, and stringent artistic practices. Curator David Elliot, former director of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, seeks to establish a broader view of contemporary Japanese art than what our Western eyes normally experience: Takashi Murakami-patterned Louis Vuitton purses, Yoshimoto Nara’s stylized, vaguely evil children smirking, and some generic amalgamation of shiny giant robots and hot manga girls with glittering saucer-eyes.

Yoshitomo Nara, “untitled,” 2008. C-print, 101/2 × 77/8˝. Courtesy Tomio Koyama Gallery. Copyright Yoshitomo Nara.
Yoshitomo Nara, “untitled,” 2008. C-print, 101/2 × 77/8˝. Courtesy Tomio Koyama Gallery. Copyright Yoshitomo Nara.

Makoto Aida’s “Harakiri School Girls” (2002), leap from the holographic frame in dynamic color, their bodies contorted in various moments of suicidal action. One’s Hokusai-esque arterial spray overlaps another’s gently rumpled school-issue sailor uniform in an orgy of swords, intestines, and camera-ready smiles. It’s as though Aida has made the essence of Sion Sono’s controversial 2001 film Suicide Club into a singular image, in which the “cool kids” find true conformity in some glamorous form of self-destruction—here, with swords, in their overly-fetishized school clothes. Aida’s “Ash Color Mountains” employs a similarly fatalist disposition, creating a subtle landscape of rolling hills from what is revealed, upon closer inspection, to be the bodies of thousands of dead, faceless, gray-suit-clad businessmen. This already grim spectacle seems even darker, if not prescient, in the wake of Japan’s recent catastrophes—a serene landscape festooned with quiet death.

Other featured artists focus less on popular figures associated with the Japanese identity (e.g. broken salarymen and glorious school girls), instead grappling with what Elliot calls “critical tradition,” subverting and manipulating traditional art methods and subject matter. Motohiko Odani’s “Malformed Noh-Mask Series” (2008), picks apart the symmetry typically sought in the form, tosses some hideous mutation into the mix, and the resultant masks transgress their function as discrete pieces to become parts of what seems like a greater comment on the beauty of the unexpected and unsettling. Hisashi Tenmyouya’s epic portraits, done in a style he calls “Neo-Nihonga” (“Nihonga” paintings are executed with traditional Japanese artistic conventions, techniques, and materials), depict those glorious moments of union between warrior and beast, perhaps in the instant before battle, like some strange Japanese version of a Kehinde Wiley portrait. Tenmyouya’s pointed removal of any sort of landscape or background imagery only serves to highlight the truly lavish materials and the artist’s mastery of this style (and its subversion)—the flat plane of color on which his triumphant figures rest forces the viewer’s eye to inspect every detail and note every almost imperceptible brushstroke.

The entire exhibition seems like an homage to absence: a tribute to something going or gone. Glorious depictions of archetypes and landscapes executed flawlessly ring almost achingly sepulchral, as though the artists are determined to mention death in every image, from Tomoko Yoneda’s stark, almost accusatory interior photos of an abandoned government site to Kohei Nawa’s “PixCell Deer #24” (2011), a “taxidermized deer” made shimmering fetish object through the precise application, to its body, of hundreds of transparent orbs of varying sizes.

The final piece, a logical conclusion, is Yoshimoto Nara’s untitled photograph of Hello Kitty tomb-guardians, a departure from his iconic cuddly-sharp solitary figures. Here the absurd cuteness of these strange stone-deities both mocks and mollifies the setting. This solemn resting place is embellished with cartoon characters: “Only in Japan,” right? But the monument itself is immaculate, with meticulously arranged flowers and a pristine surface, in spite of appearing to be located among the overgrowth along some forgotten roadside. And this is where the kawaii becomes the uncanny, and the viewer is asked to question the true intentions of this strange kitty, with her festive bow and cold, dead eyes.


Gail Quagliata


JUNE 2011

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