Earlier this year Ms. Kristen Sollee of the Japan Society invited me to take a peek at the institution’s new exhibition of contemporary Japanese art, Bye Bye Kitty!!! She figured I might take a liking to the grotesque elements in the show; she had gotten a strong impression of my interests when she viewed the Anagnorisis group exhibition Another Roadside Attraction this past fall, 2010. I cannot express how right she was and how excited I am about Bye Bye Kitty!!! It is one of the best group exhibitions I’ve seen in a very long time. Almost every work on view is titillating, obsessively and expertly crafted, intelligently subversive, thought provoking and strange. (How’s that for an overly long list of descriptive terms?!) The artwork in this exhibition messed with my head in all the right ways.
Bye Bye Kitty!!! does just as its title suggests: it is an exploration of contemporary Japanese art that purposely excludes manga and anime, which has invaded our western pop culture and has obscured what other artworks and art styles are prevalent in Japanese society. In short, we’ve been missing out.
Elements of the grotesque were indeed quite happily prominent in the exhibition, yet the works did not solely rely upon that tool and thus punctuated its presence. A common element in these works was the use of old technique and form to express current ideas and concepts.
Yamaguchi Akira‘s interiors of airplanes and apartment buildings gave a nod to Hokusai sans the waves. The flattening of his picture plane, lack of shadow and warped perspective to indicate depth all told stories of modern-day folly. His works’ titles such as Postmodern Silly Battle: Headquarters of the Silly Forces inspire sardonic giggles, yet punctuate the serious weight of his ideas.
Kumi Machida‘s surrealistically masochistic characters were rendered using traditional brush techniques marrying expertly rendered brush strokes with contemporary madness.
Much of the work in Bye Bye Kitty!!! is unbearably obsessively created. Tomoko Shioyasu‘s Breathing Wall is a mind-boggingly detailed paper-cut piece hung in the middle of a room. A light set upon it adds shadow to its medium. Stunningly beautiful, lacy and graceful, Shioyasu cut out each bit by hand over a period of several months.
There was not enough time (nor room in the gallery for all the peering faces) to explore the myriad of narratives taking place in the paintings by Manabu Ikeda, which married Where’s Waldo illustrations with the luscious intricate style of the Rococo era. Speaking of Waldo, one could actually find him, as well as an image of Wall-E, in the 20 foot long painting Ash Color Mountains by Makoto Aida, which depicts seemingly endless piles of dead bodies.
I have not yet made mention of much of the work in the show. Haruka Kojin‘s kaleidoscopic reflectwo consisting of precisely hung delicate silk flower petals, Nawa Kohei‘s powerful PixCell-Elk #2, Chiharu Shiota‘s emotional installation Dialogue with Absence and Tomoko Kashikiâ€™s femininely warped figures are all stunning to view. And there is yet more!
Bye Bye Kitty!!! was curated by David Elliott who has curated and directed for the Moderna Museet (Museum of Modern Art) in Stockholm, The Istanbul Modern and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo amongst other international positions. The description on the exhibition website has this to say about Mr. Elliott and his exhibition:
Curated by David Elliott, founding Director of the Mori Art Museum, Bye Bye Kitty!!! is a radical departure from recent Japanese exhibitions. Moving far beyond the stereotypes of kawaii and otaku culture, Japan Societyâ€™s show features sixteen emerging and mid-career artists whose paintings, objects, photographs, videos, and installations meld traditional styles with challenging visions of Japanâ€™s troubled present and uncertain future. Each of the three sections, â€œCritical Memory,â€ â€œThreatened Nature,â€ and â€œUnquiet Dream,â€ not only offers a feast for the senses but also demolishes our preconceptions about contemporary Japan and its art.
Watch Ms. Sollee’s short video below on the exhibit (with some comments from yours truly) and check out her blog Shadowtime when you’ve got a moment (if you’re not at work, turn your volume up).