Three Directions

Three Directions

Title: Three Directions: teamLab, Tenmyouya Hisashi, Ikeda Manabu
Editor: Kirstin Pires
Publisher: Chazen Museum of Art and Japan Society Gallery
Publication Year: 2014
Pages: 83

Three Directions was published on the occasion of an exhibition of the work of Tenmyouya Hisashi and Ikeda Manabu at the Chazen Museum in Madison and the Garden of Unearthly Delights exhibition at the Japan Society Gallery in New York, which lasts until January 11, 2015.

The “three directions” of the book’s title refer to the artists’ interpretations of early modern and modern Japanese art, specifically the Nihonga “Japanese-style painting” of the Meiji period (1868-1912). In her short essay on the works of the artists featured in Three Directions, curator Laura J. Mueller provides insight into the influences they have received from medieval and Edo-period (1600-1868) Japanese paintings, prints, sculpture, and garden design. Mueller also explains how the themes of the older art, such as the theme of anxiety surrounding the relationship between humankind and the natural world, have been translated into the work of the contemporary artists. In the main body of the book, which is comprised of extended interviews, the artists discuss their own perceptions of their influences, which are far more temporally immediate.

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teamLab, whose work must be seen to be believed (check out the video above), is represented in Three Directions by its founder Inoko Toshiyuki, who talks about the power of participatory media in the twenty-first century. Although he references manga such as Dragon Ball and One Piece and the masume ga (mosaics) of the eighteenth-century painter Itō Jakuchū, his most interesting description of the philosophy behind teamLab’s video installation Life Survives by the Power of Life (Seimei wa seimei no chikara de ikite iru) is that Chinese characters function like summon spells from the Final Fantasy series of role-playing video games. Inoko’s emphasis on a range of interlocking influences is deliberate, as teamLab’s work is designed to illustrate the blurring of the boundaries that supposedly separate contemporary media as they collectively exist both as entertainment and as cognitive enhancements.

Tenmyouya Hisashi expresses a markedly different attitude concerning his relationship to contemporary and premodern artistic media. According to Tenmyouya, his “Neo Nihonga” reflect “the subculture of the ‘street samurai,'” which “represents a counter to the traditional values of wabi sabi, zen, and otaku,” aesthetics that are “far from the reality of contemporary Japan.” Instead, he sees himself as tapping into the energy that originally drove the artistic movements of the Sengoku period (1467-1600), an era of intermittent civil war. Tenmyouya envisions his work as being representative of an aesthetic he terms BASARA – the Sanskrit word for “diamond,” which seems to mean “rebellious” in the context of his art and ideology. As one of his primary influences, he cites the yakuza films of Kitano Takashi, especially the violence, chaos, and dynamism they portray.

Ikeda Manabu is less concerned with aesthetics than he is with process. Stating simply that the most dominant theme in his work is “the conflict and coexistence between man and nature,” Ikeda speaks of being influenced by news reports and the ephemera he encounters in his daily life. The rest is a matter of design, focus, and patience, with the result being that many of his ink paintings function almost like diaries.

Ikeda is currently in residence at the Chazen Museum – you can read his residency blog here – where he is putting together a large and richly detailed masterwork. Three Directions includes an eight-page section on Ikeda’s tools, methods, and progress, which are fascinating even from the perspective of a non-artist.

These interviews with the artists, combined with Laura Mueller’s short contextual essay and the many high-quality images on display, make Three Directions an incredible resource for anyone interested in contemporary Japanese art, aesthetics, and culture. A commonality between the artists is the 3.11 “triple disaster,” which each references and responds to either obliquely or quite directly, so the interviews in particular will be of interest to students and scholars curious about how recent events have impacted mainstream art in Japan. I can also imagine the catalog becoming a useful classroom text, as it’s full of discussion points and allusions to both Eastern and Western art history.

Unfortunately, the book is almost impossible to acquire without either physically visiting the Chazen Museum or Japan Society Gallery or writing to one of their curators, as it’s not available through the online shops of either institution or through other online retailers. If you’re on the East Coast and can make it out to the Japan Society, I highly recommend checking out both the Three Directions catalog and the exhibition itself, which is running until January 11, 2015.

Review copy provided the Japan Society Gallery.

Ikeda Manabu, Meltdown

Ikeda Manabu’s Meltdown, image courtesy of Spoon & Tamago.

Little Boy

Title: Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subcultures
Editor: Takashi Murakami
Publisher: Japan Society Gallery
Publication Year: 2005
Pages: 300

Little Boy is most definitely the contemporary Japanese art exhibition catalog to end all art exhibition catalogs. It quickly sold out when it was first released, and secondhand copies now sell for ridiculous amounts of money. The Japan Society of New York has finally released a softcover edition, which it sells in its headquarters in New York City. The new edition is just as gorgeous and well put together as the original hardcover version; so, if it’s at all possible for you to acquire one, go for it! Quickly! Do it now! Before you even start reading this review! Yes, it’s that good.

The first one hundred or so pages of this catalog feature full color plates of various artworks, photographs, and screen stills. Through these plates, pop artist extraordinaire Murakami Takashi attempts to demonstrate in images the thesis of his introductory essay “Earth in my Window.” Murakami’s main argument can be summarized in two points. First, the Pacific War, especially the two atomic bombs that ended it, left an indelible scar on the Japanese psyche. Second, the experience of having been defeated in war and thereafter occupied by America has turned multiple generations of Japanese people into perpetual children. The first point is illustrated by plates demonstrating recurring nuclear imagery in films and television serials such as Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion and various tokusatsu (“special effects”) films released by Tōhō Studios, as well as in the artistic output of artists like Yanobe Kenji and Murakami himself. The second point is easily demonstrable by the overtly cartoonish and childlike work of artists such as Nara Yoshitomo, Ban Chinatsu, and Mr., as well as by the designs of popular and festishized kyara (“characters”) like Hello Kitty. Following these images and explanatory essay is a short manifesto penned by Murakami to support his superflat art movement, which is apparently based on the idea that contemporary Japan needs art that reflects its current cultural status of being awash in meaningless junk.

Next up is a transcription of a conversation between Okada Toshio and Morikawa Kaichirō (two self-proclaimed experts of “otakuology”) moderated by Murakami. Morikawa in particular states that otaku are characterized by an obsession with things that are dame (absolutely useless), whether it’s collecting antique model kits or falling in love with moe (young and innocent) characters. Okada seems to have a somewhat more optimistic view of otaku, who he thinks are simply resorting to childish things in order to escape a meaningless and unforgiving life. This conversation is superbly illustrated by images of the cultural paraphernalia the two men mention, and it also includes several dozen footnotes explaining their various obscure otaku references.

Following this conversation are two academic essays by Japanese scholars, Sawaragi Noi and Matsui Midori. Sawaragi discusses how the Pacific War has filtered through Japanese pop culture in movies like the Godzilla and Space Battleship Yamato series, and Matsui discusses the subculture of kawaii (“cute”) in postwar Japan, especially in terms of how it is connected to art depicting women and art by women artists like Takano Aya and Mizuno Junko. Following these two essays by Japanese authors are two essays by American authors, Alexandra Munroe and Tom Eccles. Munroe offers a history of otaku subculture from the perspective of a Western observer, and Eccles attempts to situate the superflat movement with the history of Western pop art. All of these essays (as well as everything else in the catalog) are presented in both English and Japanese, with a column of English text on the left and a column of Japanese text on the right. Finally, the “Further Readings” section at the end of the book is an invaluable six-page bibliography of related works in both English and Japanese.

In short, Little Boy is gorgeous, fun, and intelligent. The dual language presentation is unobtrusive for readers of one language but wonderful for readers of both. Murakami’s presentation of Japanese culture itself is both extremely interesting and highly controversial. This catalog is a work of art and an object of culture in and of itself. No matter what your field of interest is, I highly recommend picking up a copy before they’re all gone.

Warriors of Art

Title: Warriors of Art
Author: Yamaguchi Yumi (山口裕美)
Translator: Arthur Tanaka
Publication Year: 2007 (America)
Pages: 175

Warriors of Art is, simply put, a beautiful, interesting, and exceptionally well-edited introduction to contemporary Japanese artists. The forty artists presented by the book represent a wide range of styles, media, and themes. A large percentage of the artists are internationally renowned and probably somewhat familiar to many Americans, who should be able to identify their styles if not necessarily their names. The book is illustrated with works instantly accessible to the casual reader, and the image quality could not be better. Every image has been reproduced in full color (where applicable) against a white background. At $35 (and deeply discounted on Amazon), Warriors of Art is also available at an affordable price.

The five page general introduction to the collection is promptly followed by a parade of artists appearing in alphabetical order. Each artist has been allotted four pages, the first of which contains a half-page, two column introduction. I have to say that, even though I generally don’t find much use for the text in art books, I genuinely enjoyed reading each of the artist introductions. These introductions put the work of the artist into perspective with biographical details and offer a few extremely apt interpretive comments, referring only to the pieces reproduced within the book. An average of five works follow each artist’s textual introduction, although the number tends of vary from artist to artist.

As for the actual content of the book, I found it extremely disturbing. Sometimes I was mesmerized by a piece, my reaction being something like “!!!!!!!!!.” Sometimes I found myself quickly turning the page because I found myself deeply upset by a particular work. As Yamaguchi says in her introduction to the book, “A glance at the work of the forty artists introduced in the book reveals recurring images of the cute, the grotesque, the erotic, the violent.” I think her description of “recurring images of” might more accurately read “a constant and overwhelming deluge of” images of cuteness and terror, eroticism and subtle (and not so subtle) aggression. In fact, one of the first plates in the book, an anime-style picture by Aida Makoto called The Giant Member Fuji versus King Gidora, depicts a female character from the anime Ultraman crying as she is both disemboweled and sexually violated by a golden hydra of Godzilla fame. Things carry on in much the same vein from there.

Even though Warriors of Art is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart (or the underage), the images are colorful, eye-popping, and deeply engaging. Questions of national identity, sexual identity, and personal identity are tackled again and again by these artists, whose experiments with style, composition, and color yield shocking results. Even a brief look at the works in this book calls the duality of high art and popular culture into question. Certainly, even though the entirety of Warriors of Art can be read less than two hours, I found myself captivated with it for days, returning to it for fresh surprises and new insights.