“Oh my God, is that blood?!” a young female visitor exclaimed when she entered the room. What she saw was plastic tubing pumping blood into (or out of?) a wedding dress hanging on the wall. She wasn’t witnessing a massacre; she was viewing art: Contemporary Japanese art at the Japan Society. While not all of the items on display evoke that kind of reaction, there are plenty of pieces that make one stop and think about what we expect from Japanese art.
Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art, the Japan Society’s exhibit of Japanese artists whose critical thinking led to eye-opening works of art, closes on Sunday, June 12. The works of sixteen artists – half of them women – critically examine elements of Japanese culture (the salaryman, the concept of kawaii), history (issues with South Korea, the role of the samurai), and nature (the preciousness of it and the minutiae within it).
The exhibit was curated by the British-born David Elliott, who was the first director of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. The exhibition’s title may seem to place Japanese contemporary art in a purgatory of sorts, but Elliott assured me that the title has more to do with the Japanese tendency to go to one extreme or the other, rather than where he sees the current state of Japanese art.
One example of going to extremes is Chiharu Shiota’s Dialogue of Absence, the installation that elicited the “OMG-is-that-blood” exclamation from the young woman. (And no, it’s not blood; it’s water dyed red.)
Through the exhibit Elliott points out that there are a number of thought-provoking young artists from Japan, like Shiota (born in 1972) and Haruka Kojin (born in 1983) of whom we in the West should be aware.
According to Elliott, Bye Bye Kitty!!! touches on three stages: Critical Memory, Threatened Nature, and Unquiet Dream. While the exhibit is not laid out in this manner, and some works overlap the categories, these “hub ideas” are represented in the works to show that the Japanese are capable of questioning their complex culture.
Within Critical Memory, artists such as Makoto Aida and Yamaguchi Akira look at the past of Japanese art styles and also Japanese history. They both use traditional Japanese screens, but the subject matter is an ironic commentary on Japan’s relationship with Korea and the salaryman-like methodology of war, respectively.
While Threatened Nature originally meant to focus on ecological issues, the despoliation of the environment, and urbanization at the expense of green spaces, I can’t help but think of how this ties in with the recent tragedy in Japan. (Bye Bye Kitty!!! opened on March 18, one week after the horrific forces of nature claimed landscape and lives in northeastern Japan.) I gasped when I first saw Vortex, paper intricately cut to resemble the detail of a whirling mass of water, which Tomoko Shioyasu created especially for this exhibit. Although a vortex differs greatly from a tsunami, seeing something resembling water sent a chill through me. The massive vortex is lit so that the shadows create two different works of art on both the floor and the wall, engulfing the visitor.
Makoto Aida’s Ash Color Mountains is technically categorized in Critical Memory, not Threatened Nature, but at first glance, it looks as if it could be a pile of debris in one of the unfortunate Japanese towns destroyed by the tsunami. But upon close inspection, one sees that the items that make up the mountains are corpses of salarymen and their desks finding a resting place in their paperwork. Oh, and Waldo and Wall-E make an appearance, too.
Unquiet Dream takes us inside the fantasies and nightmares of Japanese contemporary artists. Elliott says that the use of fantasy to spark creativity is valued in Japan, and the results, such as the paintings from Kumi Machida and the video from Hiraki Sawa, can be disorienting or disturbing.
I didn’t find anything in Bye Bye Kitty!! disturbing; rather I came away impressed by the amazing detail of many of the works included in this multimedia exhibit. Yes, some of the works poked fun at the kawaii (or cute) nature of Japanese culture that fascinates many non-Japanese, but I also recognized an appreciation for the history of Japan and Japanese art and the J-popness of Japanese society that the artists were criticizing.
To see what I mean, make your way to the Japan Society soon. Bye Bye Kitty!!! says “Sayonara” next Sunday.