“Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art”

Any opportunity to experience the scope of Japanese contemporary art beyond plasticky kawaii imagery is a welcome one.

poster for

"Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art" Exhibition

at Japan Society Gallery
in the Midtown area
This event has ended - (2011-03-18 - 2011-06-12)

In Reviews by Brian Fee 2011-03-22 print

To say I’d been hotly anticipating “Bye Bye Kitty!!!” — the thrillingly thought-provoking new exhibition at Japan Society — would be an understatement. Any opportunity to experience the scope of Japanese contemporary art beyond plasticky kawaii imagery is a welcome one. Plus, I head to Tokyo in a few weeks to immerse myself in its art community, and considered this exhibition a teaser for my trip. Then came the devastating Tōhoku (northeastern Japan) earthquake and tsunami, one full week before “Bye Bye Kitty!!!”‘s public opening. It leveled anxiety on an already emotional show. That some of the artwork seem to envision the current crisis doubles an intense viewing experience, though this is a country lying on literal fault lines — the accompanying catalogue’s timeline begins with an image from 1995’s severe Kobe quake. It is a nation and culture close to my heart (I attend courses downstairs at the Toyota Language Center), and I’ve spent a long while sorting through my own complex feelings towards the exhibition.

I sense two broad topics at work here: systematic removal and genuine reemergence. That’s a lot vaguer than the exhibition’s subtitle of “Heaven” and “Hell” (or vice-versa, really), but I’m not sure an English term would ever appropriately convey these abstract expressions. In essence, the first gallery revisits traditional and contemporary Japanese culture: critiquing, remixing and/or demolishing it. The second gallery bears signs of recovery or rebirth. Berlin-based artist Chiharu Shiota’s painted wedding dress Dialogue with Absence (2010), hooked to tangles of tubes siphoning red-dyed water from peristaltic pumps, connects the two spaces in its mechanically-supported umbilical life.

Makoto Aida 'Harakiri School Girls' (2002). Print on transparency film, holographic film, acrylic, 46 3/4 × 33 3/8 in. (119 × 84.7 cm). Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Photo: Kei Miyajima. Watai Collection. Copyright © AIDA Makoto.Placing Makoto Aida’s shocking imagery at the front would insight a reaction anyway, but his mural-sized Ash Color Mountains (2009-11), which he completed in New York, resonates in context with the Tōhoku devastation. In Aida’s painting, great hills of supine salarymen emerge from a hazy landscape, punctuated here and there by fluttering ledgers and disemboweled computers. The composition focuses entirely on male suits — not anonymous victims of some unseen disaster — conveying the disposal of this corporate emblem, with its waning rays of lifetime employment, for good. His bracing Harakiri School Girls (2002) is shot-and-chaser to the mural’s bleakness, a neon-hued and holographic refashioning of his original ’99 painting. The hyper-violent homage to brutal 19th-century ukiyo-e, with trendy school-uniformed ko-gals straight from late-’90s Shibuya ecstatically committing ritual suicide, is splatterpunk daring you to call it “cute”. In his own words, from Brian Ashcroft and Shoko Ueda’s Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential, this was “an allegory for the distorted mentality of Japanese youths at the time and the atmosphere of Japanese society. After the bubble Economy collapsed, I felt that an air of pessimism was spreading through Japan like a virus.” By having the uniquely Japanese sub-cultural ko-gals kill themselves (in a manner drawn from bushido honor code), he gesturally decimates Japan’s most marketable youth. Or maybe Aida was seeking a cure, extracting a commercialized, fetishized trend from contemporary dialogue.

Manabu Ikeda’s diptych pen-and-acrylic-ink neo-Nihonga works embody worlds imbued with traditional, wildly unrealistic imagery, seemingly crumbling under their own paradoxes. The architectural marvel History of rise and fall (2006), composed of endless pagoda-roofed buildings, waterfalls, Buddha hands, cherry-blossom blooms (and somehow all four seasons), seems to mimic science-fiction. It’s no coincidence arcologies figure into dystopian fiction, like The Matrix and William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, considering these entirely self-sufficient structures protect their inhabitants from otherwise inhospitable worlds. However, bands of tiny human specters populate Ikeda’s environment, riding ants and miniaturized horses, carrying torches and engaging in all-out war (from jidaigeki samurai to WWII) with their brethren. The greater landscape below this splintered world unfurls as serene rice-paddies, not menaced by the streaks in the sky, harbingers of a nuclear attack. Ikeda encapsulates the social entropy coursing through this exhibition with this disarming piece, beautiful to look at but steeped in historical conflicts and verging on collapse.
Kumi Machida 'Relation' (2006). Sumi (blue), sumi (brown), mineral pigments, and other pigments on kumohada linen paper, 711/2 × 135 in. (181.5 × 343 cm). BIGI Co., Ltd.
It is in the next gallery, situated within the triumvirate of three women artists — Rinko Kawauchi, Tomoko Shioyasu and Kumi Machida — that the feeling of reemergence is most pronounced. For one, they’re far less visually overloading. In this serenity (or starkness, in Machida’s case), we can project what the uncertain future might mean. Kawauchi deals with human connections and a cyclical existence with nature in her sublime photography. Forty-six prints from her AILA series (“family” in Turkish) float across one wall, interweaving birth (chicks in a nest, a cradled newborn baby, tadpoles), life (a baby tooth wrapped in gauze, butterflies, sweat on skin) and death (plucked chickens on a butcher’s block, drooping flowers by a pond). On the opposite wall hangs one of Machida’s unadorned Nihonga-style paintings, Relation (2006), rendered entirely in mineral pigments and methodically layered sumi strokes. Off the included artists, Machida delves closest to the childlike essence of Hello Kitty and its blankly positive offspring, but the kids in her paintings seem aware of the tribulations facing them. The helmeted child in Relation grips a larger hand, while balling their other into a confident fist, as they set off together into a featureless landscape. The child’s headgear recurs throughout Machida’s work and could be construed as a hyperbaric device, perhaps a necessary tool in exploring a new unknown. Nonetheless, her avatars are moving forward.

Shioyasu’s dramatic cut-paper screen Vortex (2011) bisects this room, illuminated from above by a single spotlight and stretching shadows across the far wall. Her modus is investigating the essence and roots of life, channeling metamorphic water (and her own meticulous knife-work, mimicking the slow weathering process) and shadow in depicting nature’s awesome energy. Indeed such energy could conjure destructive powers, like the whirlpools that spun from March’s Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Yet whirlpools occur naturally, and consistently, in Naruto Strait near Tokushima — Hiroshige depicted its vortices in classic ukiyo-e. Seeing Shioyasu’s Vortex juxtaposed with Machida’s young figures equipped for travel and Kawauchi’s organic snapshots, I felt a strong sense of hope for this direction of mindful art, its creators and Japan as a nation. Faced with adversity and recent catastrophe, the only option is to plunge in, rebuilding and readapting, and emerge once more.

Brian Fee

Brian Fee. Brian Fee talks art by day, sees Brooklyn bands by night, and speaks Japanese during in-between hours. His alter ego is feeslist.blogspot.com, which includes a weekly rundown of only the dopest NY-based art/film/music events. » See other writings

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