Japan’s New Breed: Bye, Bye Kitty


“Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art,” which opened Mar. 18 at the Japan Society in New York, introduces a new generation of contemporary artists whose work moves past the legacy of Takashi Murakami, while also drawing from—and transforming—a number of venerable craft-oriented forms. “Traditional art still continues and there are very good people doing it,” says the show’s independent curator, David Elliott. “But the art that I’m talking about is much more reactive to the time in which it was made.” This particular selection of art fuses elements of Japan’s pictorial tradition with current sociopolitical concerns such as war, corporate exploitation and personal identity, suggesting that tradition alone is rather inadequate to the needs of the moment.

Featuring work by 17 artists”Bye Bye Kitty” reflects a decisive shift away from the cult of the cute, or kawaii, that appears in the art of Murakami. But the exact identity of this new style is difficult to pin down over all.

Kumi Machida offers three large, cartoonish sumi-on-paper works that depict mysterious, futuristic women and babies. But Machida tells A.i.A that the works-and art more generally-transcends social critique: “When I’m working, I’m not conscious of my surroundings.  In the same way, I don’t think about my position in the contemporary art world.”

Painter Makoto Aida takes a more sociological approach to new Japanese art:  “Japan is a country which has achieved a high degree of economic equality, so there are no superstar collectors like those in the West,” he says. “Artists and gallerists alike are all poor.” Japanese intellectuals, in his view, are hostile to “revolution” in the broad sense: “They are not drawn to Western contemporary art that makes such a suggestion. Believing that ‘It’s the weeds that survive in a barren waste that grow strongest,’ I’m doing my best in this difficult moment.”

Hiraki Sawa dicussed the sense of detachment in his video work. The artist, who now lives in London, grew up in Kanazawa, surrounded by its rich tradition of lacquer crafts, ceramic arts and Kaga-yuzen dyeing. He characterized the move as a rejection of local crafts. “Though I respect such traditional things, I left the city for London, because I thought they were not what I truly wanted to make.”

Local art histories endemic to Japan continue to inspire artists such as Hishashi Tenmouya, represented here by two paintings of fantastic beasts. He claims to spearhead a new artistic movement called Basara, named for one of the Twelve Heavenly Generals, but also signifying “diamond” in Sanskrit. In the artist’s view, his style captures extreme opposites, producing an extraordinary beauty that unifies luxury with the urge for destruction. This sense of decadence is also reflected in Manabu Ikeda’s large-scale pen-and-ink drawings, in which landscapes dangle on edge, and in Yamaguchi Akira’s representations of air travel as a densely crowded and uncomfortable tangle.

From the curatorial perspective, Elliott traces many aspects current art production in Japan to “several layers of disquiet” that have accumulated since the mid-20th century, beginning with the “silence of war” through the “economic miracle of the ’60s and ’70s, along with the arrogance that followed.”

A full report on “Bye Bye Kitty!!!” will appear in the April issue of A.i.A. and on this website.
Makoto Aida: Ash Color Mountains, 2009–10, acrylic on canvas, 9 7/8 by 23 feet. Taguchi Art Collection. Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo.