A tiny painted figure of a boy is gazing into a colorful cave where a young woman, his sister, is stabbing a fork into her knee and consuming her own blood. “The Japanese letters mean ‘Come back,’” says Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art chief curator Dr. Ilana Singer Blaine.
The 2007 painting by Mahomi Kunikata, The Useless Cave, is both entrancing and misleading.
The cave might be a cave of delights, as it has pizza slices and hamburgers floating at the direction of the girl who is lying with her eyes closed. The construction cones in the right-hand corner might mean danger. But as Singer Blaine points out, in Japan, such cones are also placed in front of vending machines to ensure people have privacy when they select a treat from the machine.
Caves are also ambiguous in their cultural meaning, from the cave of wonders in which Ali Baba finds the magical wish-granting lamp, to magical caves that lead to the underworld, as the Mayans believed.
Kunikata is among the artists selected by curator Midori Matusi for a group exhibition representing “Micropop,” a term she coined in 2007. The exhibition was shown at the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower in Tokyo, and was selected by the Japan Foundation to represent contemporary Japanese culture around the world. The exhibition now arrives in Israel in cooperation with the Japanese Embassy.
What is Micropop? Matusi developed the term while working closely with a group of Japanese artists who were beginning to make their mark in the late 1990s. She noticed that, in contrast to the earlier generation of artists like Takashi Murakami and Makoto Aida, those coming of age in the late ‘90s showed even more “reluctance in taking strong political stances” and instead adopted a “minor position, in the same manner as immigrants and children do – those people forced to function within the major culture without having sufficient tools to do so.”
If Murakami explored the implication of the atomic bomb being dropped on Japan, and Aida addressed the subject of pro-war propaganda paintings, Matusi thinks the new step in Japanese art is adopting “playful, comical and childlike presentations” as a means to express a highly personal worldview.
As Kunikata is represented by the international Kaikai Kiki Co., which Murakami created, the change seems that of progression and not confrontation, with younger artists developing themes started by their elders. Aida also worked with four of the six members of the art Chim-Pom collective, who are represented in the exhibition with a 2008 video titled “Feeling Like the Guys Make Me Hot,” in which they set fire in various patterns in an urban landscape.
Returning to Kunikata, Singer Blaine points out that her paintings correspond with the immensely popular 1970s manga comic The Rose of Versailles (published in Europe as Lady Oscar), by acclaimed writer-artist Riyoko Ikeda. Meticulously researched, the comic tells the tale of a young woman growing up at the historical epoch of the French Revolution who is torn between her culturally assigned gender role and her alter-ego, a charming male military officer she turns into.
The comic generated such a massive, and lasting, interest in French culture among Japanese readers that Ikeda was awarded the Legion of Honor in 2008. As Singer Blaine sees it, the comic is a very personal and painful exploration of gender roles and cultural norms, as while she is “male,” the heroine is able to love and accept love from other women. The comic eventually ends with her creating a romantic relationship, as a woman, with a man who is blind. “A clear indication,” says Singer Blaine, “that he does not see her fully.”
IN ANOTHER WORK, Taro Izumi attempts to draw by hand, using a marker on a television screen as the images rapidly change from the evening news to the latest game-show. As his hand is always slower than the electronic image, he is reduced to quick squiggling before erasing the screen and starting over. The short playful video can open the viewer’s mind to the impossible pace of electronic media, and how humans are unable to catch up, as the news is “on” every evening, and uploaded to the Internet every minute.
The comical activity is also relaxing, with the constant erasure and redrawing of lines a seemingly good-natured way of trying to be in the moment, while admitting that achieving such a mindset is getting more difficult all the time. The absurdity of the work also brought to mind the famous video by the late Boaz Arad, in which he played with Hitler’s mustache using a marker, turning it into a full, lush mustache, then a beard, then adding side-curls – all acts that make fun of one of the most hated historical icons of the 20th century, while at the same time exploring the relationship we carry in our minds between Hitler and his famous mustache.
In 2006’s Llama, Izumi presents us with stills of various animals while imitating the imaginary sounds he thinks they make. The work brings to mind a world without animals in which a lone human leafs through the pages of a large encyclopedia attempting to remember them and pretending he is not lonely. The piece acquired a tragic note after the death of the last known white rhinoceros in March 2018, and the extinction of the Australian Bramble Cay melomys in February
When an exhibition is selected by a major foundation to represent Japan to the world, and is presented in what serves as the de facto Japanese culture center in Israel, it is a little humbling to wonder what is the “Japanese-ness” of the assembled pieces. Walking past Samurai swords at the museum’s permanent display (Samurais are undoubtedly extremely Japanese), buying postcards with the reprinted works of Hasui Kawase and Katsukawa Shun’ei (prints are also most definitely Japanese), one wonders what makes Micropop Japanese. What special side of current Japanese culture is this exhibition bringing here?
“Turning the Lights On,” a 2007 video by Koki Tanaka, presents the possibility of an answer. The work is composed of a collection of moments in which light is turned on. A candle is lit, a music studio is illuminated, a kitchen light bulb begins to shine. The lights are not Shoji lamps, but plain, industrial light bulbs. The lamps illuminate Western-style rooms, painting studios and kitchens. They do not reveal scenes of cherry trees in bloom or the Tokyo skyline.
As the click of the light-switch is heard again and again, viewers have a chance to meet their own expectations – over and over. It is always the mundane that is being flooded with light. You’ve seen rooms such as these in other places. The ear begins to adjust to the sounds that accompany the appearance of light. Some clicks are soft, some loud, some metallic. As the video runs its course and restarts, the viewer is introduced to the moment – that fleeting thing which recedes when pointed to.
Winter Garden: The Exploration of the Micropop Imagination in Contemporary Japanese Art will run until June 23 at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, Hanassi Blvd 89, Haifa.
Su-Th & Sat: 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Fri: 10 a.m.-1 p.m.