The Power of three: Tohoku Artists Create Installation at Japan Society

One room of Japan Society’s gallery is an organized mess. There are plastic figurines everywhere. Miniature representations of manga, anime, and pop culture icons, five hundred are from Japan, with a small but growing collection from the US. The action figures are waiting to be assembled, photographed, meticulously categorized, unapologetically dismembered, and melted into rectangular “bits.”

It’s all part of an elaborate art installation by the Tohoku-based collective known as three and the rebirth of Japan Society’s artist residency program.

action figures, figurines, three, Japan Society, NYC, artist residency, Fukushima, Tohoku, 3/11, 3-11, March 11, art, 3-D, anime, manga, Internet, pop culture

Anime and manga action figures

action figures, figurines, three, Japan Society, NYC, artist residency, Fukushima, Tohoku, 3/11, 3-11, March 11, art, 3-D, anime, manga, Internet, pop culture

Assembled action figures

The three 27-year-old men who make up three have been friends since childhood, growing up together in Fukushima. After one of the members went away to art school, they reconnected in the spring of 2009 and created their first work as three, having their first exhibition in the fall of that year. Individually, they prefer to remain anonymous, stressing the importance of working together as three and simplifying things by eliminating excess emphasis on each person. Plus, the focus of their work is on creating 3-D art that encompasses three major facets of pop culture today: Manga, anime, and the Internet.

The collective was “discovered” by Miwako Tezuka, director of Japan Society Gallery. Seeking to find out more about the art scene in Fukushima – “I wasn’t sure if Fukushima had an art scene,” says Tezuka – she turned to a professor of art at Fukushima University, who recommended three. Tezuka was immediately captivated.

“I knew the minute I walked into the studio that I wanted them to come to New York,” Tezuka says.

Since succeeding Joe Earle as director of the Gallery last year, Tezuka has worked toward resurrecting the Gallery’s support of artists from Japan in long-term projects. Decades ago, Japan Society helped influence and nurture the career development of renowned printmaker Munakata Shiko and the multi-disciplinary sensation Yayoi Kusama. Bringing three into the fold kicks off an annual trend of inviting emerging artists from Japan to create works in New York.

“It’s an amazing thing that they did,” Tezuka says of Japan Society’s program from the 1950s and ‘60s. “Yayoi Kusama was already here (in New York), but we supported her to survive. She was a completely starving artist back then. That legacy should be recognized.” (To learn more about the original program, please read Japan Society’s blog.)

Accompanying Tezuka on her trip to Fukushima last spring was Stephen Globus, sponsor of Japan Society’s annual Globus Film Festival and proprietor of Globus Washitsu, an authentically detailed Japanese teahouse and ryokan. With the goal of supporting young artists from Tohoku, Globus arranged for three to reside in his ryokan while they are creating their installations at Japan Society.

Living in at Globus’s ryokan is “more comfortable than staying in our own homes in Japan,” says three. “Very traditional . . . After working all day at Japan Society, it’s very calming to go back to Steve-san’s place.”

The artists had never been outside of Japan to work – they all needed to have passports made before coming to New York – but they became immediately acclimated to the city. Soon after their arrival on June 27, three started sourcing American figures to go along with the five hundred they brought with them. While searching for the pop culture icons of the US, they were pleased to find elements from Japan in New York.

action figures, figurines, three, Japan Society, NYC, artist residency, Fukushima, Tohoku, 3/11, 3-11, March 11, art, 3-D, anime, manga, Internet, pop culture

American pop culture figurines

“We are amazed and happy to see Japanese things like soy sauce becoming very common here,” says three. “But going to those toy stores and finding familiar Japanese characters being accepted and loved the same way that we love them was really amazing.”

For the first time in three’s works, the action figures from Star Trek, Jason from Halloween, and Abbey Chase of the Danger Girl comic book series will be assembled and melted before joining their Japanese counterparts in a large-scale sculpture. The process that three has developed to achieve this is time-consuming. First the characters are removed from their packaging, assembled, and photographed against a white backdrop. The photos are uploaded into a laptop where a database is created, categorizing the names of the characters, their manga or anime, the specific episodes in which they appear, as well as the colors of their hair, eyes, and costumes.

Wanting to bring each character to its basic elements, three then cuts up the figures and melts them. The resulting “bits” as they call them that are created from this process are the same width, but not necessarily the same height, depending upon how large the figurine is. (The artists seemed surprised that the American characters are much larger than the ones from Japan.)

Although melted, the figures retain a great deal of their character, and viewers will find many to be recognizable. (I instantly spotted Homer Simpson, but Shrek looked like a soldier in fatigues.) The goal of three is to create a kind of interactivity between the sculpture and the viewers to see which characters stand out and to capture the reactions.

action figures, figurines, three, Japan Society, NYC, artist residency, Fukushima, Tohoku, 3/11, 3-11, March 11, art, 3-D, anime, manga, Internet, pop culture

70bit by three. Photo courtesy of the artists.

But their art isn’t simply about cartoons and cute characters. Being from Fukushima, three can’t avoid the topic of the 3/11 disaster, and they inserted a bit of politics into one of their latest works, Tokyo Electric, which marked the second anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown of March 11, 2011. Matching the scale of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, the sculpture contains 151,503 fish-shaped soy sauce containers, the number of people displaced by the catastrophe. (Read more about the work in this Spoon and Tamago article.)

The artists of three admit that before the disaster, they weren’t involved in the Fukushima art scene, exhibiting mainly in Tokyo and other cities. However, in their post-3/11 world, it never occurred to them to leave their hometown, and they’ve become more conscious of the local situation. To help in the recovery process, three established a studio where local artists and residents converge and create relationships through art.

“Sometimes artists create works to create hope,” says three. “Our goal is to create a kind of movement that is a self-critical way to find the deep, core issues in Japan . . . It shouldn’t be ‘social noise’ but a movement. Saying ‘Let’s hope for the best’ – that’s not enough.”

In that sense, three uses their art to capture people’s interest and then eventually makes them aware of what’s happening in Tohoku.

Tezuka maintains that the reason three is re-establishing Japan Society Gallery’s artist residency is not because they hail from Fukushima.

“The core of their work is really interesting, and what they try to bring out after 3/11 is interesting, too,” says Tezuka. “But despite the fact that they’re from Fukushima, and despite the fact that 3/11 happened, I would’ve already been interested in their work anyway.”

If you’re interested in the work of three, the installations they are currently creating will be on display at Japan Society from August 27 until October 13.