Japan is utterly strange, if we are to follow in the footsteps of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) as visitors to a country for whose culture and language have (nor do they want to have) absolutely no affinity. Yet their acute sense of dislocation and turmoil in which we are caught up simply play out at the fringes of a site of metaphorical impenetrability that is Japan, like storms in teacups that fleetingly detract from an unimaginably large and unknowable entity. As the film unfolds in an exterior, immense site of unfamiliarity where space is dizzying extended vertically and horizontally, there is an incredible abundance of sights (billboards, people, temples, shrines, bright neon lights) that the panopticon of Tokyo affords as the landscape stretches out for Johansson’s character and the audience. But like her, we the audience, look at images and concepts associated with all things “Japanese,” but can’t understand the sum total of their meanings.
Transcool Tokyo feels like a snapshot of Coppola’s Japan, where the range of exhibited works is diverse enough to constitute a multitude of signs that are likely, directions for us to form personal but also contradictory conclusions of what is meant by contemporary Japanese art. Transcool Tokyo is an open invitation to appreciate the mundane to the point of ridicule (such as the oft-ignored effects of everyday sounds), the obsession with saccharine uber-cuteness, the impressiveness of Japanese technological progress, and the oblique pride in ancient Japanese craft traditions that are paid tribute to, in the exhibited artists’ oeuvres.
But at times, it’s just about sheer entertainment and incredulous laughter. Michihiro Shimabuku, on the other hand, shaves off an eyebrow on a tour to Europe and brings an octopus on a tour of Japan in a creative exploration of the meaning of community and social norms. In Criticism and the Lover A, B, C (1990), Yasumasa Morimura grafts his faces into the surfaces of Cezanne’s Apples and Oranges (c. 1899), a narcissistic and Freudian interruption to a cultural paradigm that is western art.
At other times, the works exhibit a preoccupation with the limits of human perception, the destabilisation of traditional conventions and the profound relativism that ensues – themes that typically recur in contemporary art. For instance, Ryoji Ikeda’s reductively precise video installation Data.matrix [n°1–10] (2006/9) reinforces the paradox that the infinite and indescribable universe can be summarised with mathematical data. Using 2-dimensional sequences of patterns derived from hard drive errors and studies of software code, the imagery transforms into 3-dimensional rotating views of the universe that eventually open up into infinity. Plastered on ten screens, we walk into a sublime, mesmerising project that explores the potential to perceive the vastness of the universe in the multitude of interplanetary constellations and as well as the daily sounds of traffic – brought under the precise but accessible realm of mathematical figures, all in a small space.
Strangeness however, is never more apparent in the singularly unique Japanese fixation on the cult of cuteness (or “kawaii” in Japanese). Neutered and sweetly naïve, the curious case of cuteness in contemporary Japanese culture finds its roots in the defeat and subsequent disarmament of the country after World War II, in which symbols of capitulation, escapism and renewed innocence were codified into populist media images and contemporary artistic practices. The reconstruction of a post-war, non-violent collective identity based on conventional Western representations of stereotypical ideals of pre-pubescence and innocence, yet hybridized with traditional Japanese drawings, contributed soon enough to the rise of a particular pop culture iconography more commonly associated with anime or manga. Within the cult of cuteness, the trend of miniaturization – this peculiar emotional attachment to small objects reminiscent of childhood and playtime – is layered and gendered, an expression of masked innocence beneath which lies the opposite.
To Takashi Murakami, arguably the Japanese art world’s most famous export, the kawaii aesthetic is merely a part of “Superflat” Japan, a theory postulated by Murakami himself to emphasize the flatness of a particular drawing aesthetic derived from popular culture but valorized in galleries and museums, thereby erasing the distinction between “high” and “low” art. In Murakami’s Flowers (2006), grinning flower-heads explode outward from the canvas in a visual amalgam of colors, packed tightly and superimposed against each other as the epitome of flatness and Japanese quirkiness. Trailing the route of pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to appropriate commercial imagery to hang in art galleries, Murakami’s alter ego and eventual house brand Mr. DOB in DOB Jump (1999) satirically insists on the arbitrariness of originality and the acceptability of appropriation.
Colorful, flat and at times contextually rootless, the images of the popular subculture of kawaii extend to behavioral attributes of childlikeness, docility, without the capacity for detestation. But cuteness is also uncanny and menacing, when doll-likeness stamped onto the gauzy-surfaced canvas hint at all that that is not playfulness and innocence. The simple shapes that form Yoshimoto Nara’s fey, two-dimensional cast of cartoonish children in White Night (1998) and Sayon (2006) are incongruent with the apparent incorruptibility of childhood, refusing the infantile and insouciance of adolescence by their defiant posture and suspicious gazes. Nara’s rejection of physical resemblance undermines the claim of portraiture’s alleged truthfulness. The unreliability of the portrait’s exterior consequently forces us to register instead the opposite: the interiority of portraiture and its implicit connotations. Situated – or suspended – in the middle of the canvas’s bare space, they raise a tangle of questions about childhood and cynicism, kitsch and realism. Resembling mulishly silent anime characters that stand isolated and estranged, Nara’s cartoonish children reveal more in that which is not said.
Transcool Tokyo is a collaborative effort between the Singapore Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo and will run at SAM at 8Q until 13 February 2011. The exhibition features established artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, Kiichiro Adachi and Haruka Kojin. Working across all mediums, from painting and sculpture, to performance, photography and video, the artists have created work in response to the onset of the information age and the greater freedoms and uncertainties that are available in contemporary society.