Museums

Japan Society’s Goodbye to Hello Kitty

Curator Dave Elliott speaks to the press about “Bye Bye Kitty!!!” (all photos by author)

Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Japanese Art at Japan Society presents an alternative view of Japanese contemporary art, one separate from that obsession we seem to have with “kawaii” (cute) Japanese art, embodied by the pop culture icon of Hello Kitty, and exemplified in the Superflat work of Takashi Murakami. The artists on display here engage with a different side of Japanese culture, a side more invested in history, medium and prolonged looking. The exhibition is also a rousing, energetic call to action — rethink Japanese contemporary art!

Curated by the Asiatic-focused David Elliott, the show itself is a riot of artistic color, ranging through photography, installation, sculpture and video, plus that standard painting and drawing. Artists engage with traditional Japanese forms such as ink-wash painting, ukiyo-e and paper cut, but take the traditions into the present in a way that comments on both history and aesthetics. Presenting 16 artists, half male and half female, the exhibition gathers together voices we’ve heard from before (Rinko Kawauchi, Yoshitomo Nara) and youngsters we haven’t; a handful of artists are even under 30 years old. Of course, some stand out more than others, a fact which will become more apparent in the photo essay below.

What makes this exhibition even more impressive is that it’s also part of an effort to raise money for Japanese earthquake relief. As of today, Japan Society has raised over $720,000, and 50% of all proceeds from ticket sales to Japan Society programming, including this exhibition, will also be donated. All the more reason to go and check it out. But for now, see the photo essay below for a preview.

Makoto Aida’s “Ash Color Mountains” (2009-10) presents piles of dead Japanese salary men. How’s that for counter culture? The beautiful painting also hides a Where’s Waldo game, as a little bird told us.

/ kc

At left, Makoto Aida’s ecstatically gory “Harakiri School Girls” (2002), which uses holographic film for a commercial sheen. At right, Miwa Yanagi’s “My Grandmothers” series, which sees young women project where they’ll be in 50 years.

/ kc

28 year old painter Tomoko Kashiki’s paintings were a huge highlight for me. Wispy and delicate yet with intricately constructed, these figures mingle traditional Japanese painting with a new aesthetic vocabulary, young, fresh and full of conflicted life.

/ kc

At right, Yamaguchi Akira’s “Naruto International Airport” dipytch (2005) turned the airport into a surreal daydream, full of dreamy details like steam-bathing salarymen.

/ kc

Chiharu Shiota’s “Dialogue With Absence” (2010) is a total creep fest, with blood (dyed red water) pumping through a medical apparatus and a network of tubing. The slurping sound of the pumps was maybe the most stomach-turning part of the piece.

/ kc

At front, Kohei Nawa’s “PixCell Deer” (2011) is a sculpture deconstructed into spheres. At back, Motohiko Odani’s “Malformed Noh-Mask” series (2008), masks dissolving into human musculature.

/ kc

Tomoko Shioyasu’s “Vortex” (2011) is made up of a sheet of hand-cut paper, intricately carved into swirling designs. The projection it casts on the back wall is pretty striking. At left, photos by Rinko Kawauchi (see below).

/ kc

Photos from Rinko Kawauchi’s “AILA” series. I love the photographer’s photos for her unerring instinct for beauty in odd corners, cast into soft focus like a baby wandering around a small world.

/ kc

This photo doesn’t do Kumi Machida’s “Relation” (2006) justice. The delicate sumi ink on paper drawing has already become iconic for its strange sense of distancing, a drifting away that characterizes much of the work, and the curatorial thought, behind this show.

/ kc

Haruka Kojin’s “Reflectwo” (2011) was inspired by a dream, “an image of trees and bushes on the still surface of the water,” reflected into something grotesque and frightening. This sculpture grabs on to that feeling, an eery visual doubling creates the sensation of a reflection on water.

/ kc

Tomoko Yoneda’s series “National Military Defense Security Command” series (2009) explore the compound in Seoul, exposing the drab, anonymous places as the sites of past horrors and trauma.

/ kc

The last gallery of the exhibition is filled with two video works by Hiraki Sawa. “Within” (2010) is an epic piece that manages to be intimate and monumental at the same time, the waking dream of a small child, an animated storybook of rocking horses, patchwork quilts and tiny trees. This one is worth sitting down for.

/ kc

Hiraki Sawa’s “elsewhere” was installed in a small wooden box fixed on the wall, a tiny animation in which every day appliances grew legs and walked away. Soothing, surreal and escapist all at the same time. Now that is what I like.

/ kc

The poetic end of the exhibition was a photograph by veteran Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, somewhat of an outsider, like the rest of these artists, to the Superflat movement. The photograph is of a small shrine, topped by two Hello Kitty dolls. Elegaic, it bids a farewell to the innocence of pop icon worship and iconography.

/ kc

Bye Bye Kitty!!! is on view at Japan Society (333 East 47th Street) from Friday March 18 through Sunday June 12.

comments (0)