Understanding the opportunities and challenges in the progress of Japanese Contemporary art

By Lin Ding


Abstract

Review the short history of Japanese contemporary art during the Heisei era, there were opportunities internationally and domestically for the young artists to grow but there are also challenges of the education system and museum/gallery system that slowed down the process. By exploring the opportunities and challenges in the progress of Japanese contemporary art, people will understand the triangle relationship among the economy, culture, and politics, and how these three elements influence the whole art world. In this paper, the researcher introduced and discussed the choices made from three important Japanese contemporary artists, Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, and Makoto Aida, when facing the dilemma of opportunity and challenge. Overall, this research wishes to answer the question that how did the major opportunities and challenges affect the choices or career paths of Japanese contemporary artists, their styles and ideas, as well as the development of the Japanese contemporary art.


Coming to the 1990s, Japanese economy Bubble burst. The Bubble deflated quite slowly. First, it was like little holes being punched, with slow effects on various perspectives, such as cultural perspective, political perspective, and the perspective of Japanese contemporary of art. Then, the decline went on and it seemed that it would never reach the end. All sectors of the society were greatly influenced and changed by this economy depression. It was during this post-Bubble stagnation that several talented Japanese artists won world recognition with their high-bidding price artworks.

This was no miracle if people understood the social background behind the big names. For Japanese artists – like Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara and Makoto Aida- who were born in the baby boom of the 1950s and early 1960s, they grew up half in the best era of Japan when anything becomes possible before the great wealth and half struggling to find the future when the Bubble burst. They had witnessed economic efforts of the technological and financial advance, of the powerful Japan, gradually going to collapse. At that time, “everyone felt that it was time to express themselves: to go and break out”.[1] Liberated by the post-Bubble chaos, a golden generation of creativity appeared in Japan. This generation was luckily and creatively to invent the image of Cool Japan.

 

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A guide book of Japan found in Kinokuniya Bookstore in Seattle, WA. Photo credit to Lin Ding. 2017.

 

After pop culture and subculture came to the street of Tokyo, it took a while for bureaucrats and politicians to notice and value this new excitement of Japan. They saw the possibility of this new art form, a way to present a new creative and cool image of Japan to create a fascination, targeting the western world, a promising wonderland of Otaku, of manga and anime, and of all things that are kawaii and moe. This was based on the idea that culture and art can lead to economic development and they can be used to rebrand the city internationally.[2] There is a high commercial value of the world-recognized Japanese contemporary artworks that can help boost the country’s economy. For example, Takashi Murakami knows well how to apply his art entrepreneurship theory to his works and Yoshitomo Nara is a talented businessman. In fact, commercial value is designed in their works. This was due to the technology-driven globalization, especially the new trend found in the global art market.

These years, the global art business had repositioned itself culturally, and “it became a vehicle for cultural globalization and city place branding that has itself transformed museums, galleries and art festivals from staid repositories of national high culture, into front line tourist attractions for high end global consumption”.[3] Around the year 2000, when it came to the moment of the internet, when it came to a world dominated by digital and virtual images, and when new software applications made it convenient and easy to “steal and mass produce art or photography”, “artists’ names became brand names”.[4] It was a time that arts could be communicated and shared through virtual networks. Arts were connected to their fans and people can see them without going to galleries or auction sales. Both Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara were lucky to successfully embrace this global shift.

Although there were conveniences for the development of Japanese contemporary art, the young artists still had to face and deal with challenges and to break and change the old traditional art/museum system. Exploring the opportunities and challenges in the progress of Japanese contemporary art can help people understand Japanese art world and how the system works, as well as the triangle relationship among the economy, culture, and politics. This paper will discuss major opportunities and challenges that Japanese contemporary artists faced, especially during the Heisei era. The researcher mainly focused on three Japanese contemporary artists: Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, and Makoto Aida. By answering questions like what are they trying to express through their works, what are the options and how did they choose when facing the opportunity/challenge dilemma, what are their career paths, and how did they achieve the commercial success or what had blocked them away from gaining international reputation, a general view of Japanese contemporary art development will be revealed.

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When it came to the Heisei era, both opportunities and challenges coexist for young Japanese contemporary artists. It was a time when globalization expanding to every field, including the art market. The global art market was seeking a variety of representations from different countries and cultures. It did encourage several Asian artists to share their works to western audiences, and some had successfully won world recognition in terms of international sales and consistent museum visibility, for instance, Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara. But it also tired some artists for the focus was on their multicultural backgrounds not on their works. This happened to Masato Nakamura when he was selected for Venice Biennial in 2001 (The two pictures below are his works at this art exhibition). He was an earliest partner and rival who remained highly active in Tokyo. It was reported that he came home disillusioned as “he realized with disgust that he was a token Asian face, and that his art in fact had no meaning in this context”.[5]

 

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Masato Nakamura, QSC+mV/V.V, 2001. Acrylic resin, fluorescent tube, steel frame, stainless steel, 440 x 542 x 40 cm (each), 1963 Odate, Akita Prefecture.

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Masato Nakamura, Crystal glass, fluorescent tube, 12 x 12 x 2,5 cm (each).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike Masato Nakamura, Takashi Murakami was pretty comfortable in selling himself and his ideas to the foreigners. According to curator Paul Schimmel, the most important contribution of Murakami in world art history was “his revolutionary practice of commercialization and branding”.[6] His idea of presenting and combining post-war otaku culture with American pop culture gave him an excellent selling point that can be easily understood by the western world. Furthermore, Murakami applied the Nihonga techniques he used to learn at school to his works because he knew that this would be appreciated by the critics and this could also work well in terms of self-branding. As analyzed in his book The Art Entrepreneurship Theory, he believed that telling a good story about the artwork will give it value and he talked about the significance of “knowing your own identity” as recognizing the Western gaze at Japan and play with it, mainly making use of it to attract western audiences and buyers.[7] That is why he branded himself “Japanese”, the associated exotic training, with unique things like great attention to details, of which helped him to find a space in the global art market. He is also a good organizer, knowing well of how to use all sorts of resources and talented people to achieve his contemporary art business. The group exhibition, which was famous for his “Superflat” theory, the one he curated in 2000 for the Museum of Contemporary Art (LA), was an example of him gathering close friends, well-known pop cultural figures, young unknown artists, and some of the best contemporary commercial designers. Takashi Murakami was unique and talented. There was no one else could have such a multidimensional synthesis of a view of the integration of traditional and contemporary Japanese cultures, an interesting art theory, a high production value, and superb techniques.

Yoshitomo Nara himself is also a talented businessman. It was said that he made his name “outside the white cube of the gallery, on the pages of books”.[8] He was very lucky to catch the independent book publishing boom of the late 1990s. The book publishing industry in Tokyo had a large small scale which enabled books to be produced and distributed quickly. Then Nara’s books could be widely spread within a short amount of time. What’s more, the tradition for Japanese to appreciate printed works, especially that with well-drawn pictures, also contributed to the popularity of Nara’s picture books.

 

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This is the second book of Yoshitomo Nara. Yoshitomo Nara: Slash With A Knife (Japanese Edition) (Japanese) – January 1, 1999.

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Various options for Nara’s picture books on the Amazon Website.

 

Apart from the successful book business, Nara succeeded in receiving reputation and economic benefits from his community. His art corporation was like an enormous fan club where exciting collaborations among himself, friends, and fans led to exhibitions and artworks, which were all in Nara’s name. This could due to the large amount of distribution of Nara’s work. People can buy anything with Nara’s little girl on that possibly everywhere, from gallery painting to notebooks, from museum shops to little souvenir stands. It is likely that the things you buy are not authorized by Nara, for there is a large market for fake production of Nara’s work and Nara himself just let it go and watched it being produced. Another reason behind this can be understood with the explanation of Midori Matsui. Matsui pointed out that the basic power related to Nara is how his work “had become a contemporary equivalent of folk art, representing and consoling people who feel alienated from modern art”.[9] The sense of being understood and belonging could be the driven force for fans working as volunteers to help Nara build the ideal world, which actually is the world only for Nara.

Willingly or not, Nara became part of the local tourist industry. His work and his ideas, like which of Murakami, were important parts of Japanese “soft power” propaganda at that time. “Cool Japan”, this image was important to the Japanese government. It published tourist brochures and policies trying to keep this image after the Bubble burst for the government believed that the export of Japanese popular culture and contemporary aesthetics could help the country open global markets and work as a new cultural industry sharing the dominant role with the manufacturing and finance. Therefore, these lucky contemporary artists enjoyed certain convenience from the government. However, the different starting points between the artist and the policy-making side sometimes made it more difficult to achieve their goals, which contrast with the other in most of the times. A good example of this difference can be the story of Kanazawa’s 21st Century Museum. Kanazawa is a conservative historical town, famous for samurai and geisha houses, as well as beautiful traditional Japanese gardens. Originally, the museum was established to attract tourists with the essence of Japanese cultures while the curator seeking for international relevance for the museum. The famous curator, Yuko Hasegawa, decided to try her best to import the best international artists and to show their works to the public and media of Japan. The problem is that she did not focus on acquiring important Japanese artists. So the local residents would not visit it because they do not know or understand the works in their museum, and the few foreigners who came to the town want to see arts that are more Japan not western contemporary arts. The museum failed in achieving its original goal and it could not afford any major Japanese contemporary artists’ work for it had spent all the money buying the western arts. However, as time goes by, the museum instead “became a condescending lesson in teaching Western art norms to an ignorant Japanese public, as well as a lovely location for top Western artists to take a Japanese holiday”.[10]

Both Takashi Murakami’s and Yoshitomo Nara’s international success were in fact parts of the globalization in the art market. Constantly influenced by the commercialization of the western art market, works of Murakami and Nara “concentrated Japan into a simple digital code that was flat and easy to understand”, something that could be copied and liked by everyone.[11] This is a trend that believed to be an opportunity for young Japanese contemporary artists to be seen and accepted by a larger audience, as it had helped Murakami and Nara achieve their reputation.

Along with all the appealing opportunities, there were several challenges that the artists need to deal with. Like all new things, when they first emerge, the public needs time to understand and accept them and they have to fight for a space in the current system. Same story for the new-born Japanese contemporary art in the early Heisei era. Contemporary art was only a small part of arts. Traditional and classical art forms were more appreciated by the Japanese. When comparing Japanese arts with western arts, wealthy Japanese collectors always chose the former. Meanwhile, Japanese collectors and curators were not eager to find the new excitement nor nurture the next generation of big names.

The art schools were no ideal cradle for the new-born artists either. The traditional art education system in Japan gives more weight to technique practices rather than creativity. Students were relatively not encouraged nor inspired in the perspective of creativity. However, there was a group of curious students who had sensed the trend of contemporary art of the future. Disappointed, they found that there was no mention of this exciting pop culture influenced new art form in their textbooks. No museum had an exhibition of this kind. Then they gathered as a group to explore it by themselves. This is the story when Murakami was in Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in the late 1980s.

The status quo left a very tough situation for young Japanese contemporary artists to grow. They had to rely on themselves for no one will guide or support them. Once figured out this, they found the next move even tougher. Before the 1990s, there were “commercial gallery-like spaces in department stores” in Tokyo, the Ginza rental gallery system.[12] These commercial galleries were for rent by artists who wished to sell artworks, mostly in conservative styles targeting old-fashioned collectors.[13] But for these future contemporary artists, they could not afford the high rental price, unless they came from privileged families, which usually did not happen. There did exist very few private museums that began to showing contemporary works of pop culture and gallerists who showed certain willingness to help the new artists, like Tsutomu Ikeuchi. However, these space in nature are profit-driven and the owner will reconsider the sponsorship based on the balance of costs and incomes. The gallerist Atsuko Koyanagi has withdrawn support for Mariko Mori when the costs getting too high.[14]

For some artists who have made their way to gain adequate supports with plenty budgets and space for their work, they still have to think really carefully about how to present their ideas through the work. This question, together with the question of what kind of message does the artist wish to present, lead to one core conceptual question of all Japanese contemporary artists: how to keep the Japanese identity in a contemporary context in a time of multicultural integration[15]? As a matter of fact, it is also the primary question for all countries under the current globalization circumstance, of how to keep the essence of local culture and not to lose it under the influence of out-coming cultures.

There is one Japanese contemporary artist whose works have touched upon this question, that is Makoto Aida. In the works of Makoto Aida, “he has deconstructed the history of modern art in Japan, including its many Western influences, and reassembled it as a critique of bourgeois heartlessness in a demotivated society”.[16] He is less well-known internationally if compared with Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, but highly recognized in Japan as one of the most important figures of Japanese contemporary artists. In his works, Aida uses both materials and conventions of Nihonga, Ukiyo-e, or Yoga, and materials of contemporary avant-garde.[17] This approach makes his style unique and his work easy to recognize.

 

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Eitoku Kano, Rakuchu-rakugai-zu, late 16th century (Azuchi-Momoyama period). Gold-leaf on paper. 160.5 x 364.5 cm. Designated National Treasure. In the collection of the Yonezawa City Uesugi Museum.

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A Picture of an Air Raid on New York CityWar Picture Returns), 1996. Six-panel folding screens / The Nikkei newspaper, black-and-white photocopy on hologram paper, charcoal pencil, watercolor, acrylic, marker pen, correction liquid, pencil on fusuma (sliding door), hinges, etc.169×378cm, CG of Zero fighters created by Matsuhashi Mutsuo. TAKAHASHI Collection, Tokyo. Courtesy: Mizuma Art Gallery

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Makoto Aida, ‘A Picture of an Air-Raid on New York City (War Picture Returns)’ (1996). Installation view. Photo: Nick West

“Aida Makoto: Monument for Nothing” Trailer 2. November 17, 2012 – March 31, 2013.

 

If compare Aida’s A Picture of an Air Raid on New York City (War Picture Returns) with Eitoku Kano’s Rakuchu-rakugai-zu, it is noticeable that Aida has taken a bird’s eye view, which is typical of traditional Japanese landscapes, as presented in Rakuchu-rakugai-zu, to criticize the period of WWII when many cities of Japan were destroyed. He also creates a gold-leaf effect for the background which is unique in traditional Japanese artworks. Makoto Aida considers the traditional concepts when he carefully expressing his ideas and uses the material appropriately for a sense of aesthetic enjoyment. In his another work The Giant Member Fuji versus King Gidora, he adapted a shunga work by Hokusai Katsushika, depicting sex acts of King Gidora, who appears in Japanese monster movies. The reason why he chose to connect shunga with animation is for he believes that the shunga depiction of sex acts is “the purest form of truthful and original visual expression in Japan”, and “shunga has a deep connection with contemporary anime and manga”.[18] It is his way of paying homage to the originals. However, Aida’s work can be difficult to understand if one knows little about traditional Japanese art styles or contemporary Japanese history. His work is not as flat as Murakami’s or Nara’s. This may be one of the reasons why he is less international successful compared with those two.

 

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Makoto Aida, The Giant Member Fuji versus King Gidora, 1993. Acrylic and eyelets on acetate film. 310 x 410 cm.

 

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Hokusai Katsushika, Taco To Ama (Octopus and Shell Diver), illustration for the novel Kinoenokomatu, about 1820 (Edo period). Uragami Sokyu-do, Tokyo.

 

Review the short history of Japanese contemporary art during the Heisei era, there were opportunities internationally and domestically for the young artists to grow but there were also challenges of the education system and museum/gallery system that slowed down the process. When facing the dilemma between opportunity and challenge, some artists successfully gained an international reputation while others remain less famous in the home country, even unknown. The difference lies in the different approaches to the new art form, different choices made when introducing artworks to foreigners, and talents in doing business and self-branding, as well as unique personal styles. As for the future development, there can be one way for Japan to stand out among other Asian countries, that is to highlight its cultural uniqueness in terms of its tradition and appropriately combine the traditional materials with out-coming cultures.


Footnotes

[1] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 83.

[2] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 156.

[3] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 67.

[4] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 63-64.

[5] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 110.

[6] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 49.

[7] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 51.

[8] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 59.

[9] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 61.

[10] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 171.

[11] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 64.

[12] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 102.

[13] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 86.

[14] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 103.

[15] Vartanian Ivan and Kyoko Wada, See/Saw: Connections Between Japanese Art Then and Now (California: Chronicle Books LLC, 2011), 12.

[16] Elliott David and Ozaki Tetsuya, Bye Bye Kitty: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art (CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 9.

[17] Elliott David and Ozaki Tetsuya, Bye Bye Kitty: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art (CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 9.

[18] Elliott David and Ozaki Tetsuya, Bye Bye Kitty: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art (CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 137.


Works Cited

Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited).

Vartanian Ivan and Kyoko Wada, See/Saw: Connections Between Japanese Art Then and Now (California: Chronicle Books LLC, 2011).

Elliott David and Ozaki Tetsuya, Bye Bye Kitty: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art (CT: Yale University Press, 2011).

“Biography: Emperor Hirohito,” last modified January 12, 2017,

http://www.ducksters.com/history/world_war_ii/hirohito.php

“Hesei Emperor Greets New Years Well Wishers,” last modified January 2, 2016, http://lasamurai.blogspot.com/2016/01/heisei-emperor-greets-new-years-well.html

“Masato Nakamura,” last modified 2017,

http://universes-in-universe.de/car/venezia/bien49/jpn/e-nakamura.htm

“Yoshitomo Nara: Slash With A Knife (Japanese Edition),” last modified 2017, https://www.amazon.com/Yoshitomo-Nara-Slash-Knife-Japanese/dp/4902943085

Eitoku Kano, Rakuchu-rakugai-zu, late 16th century (Azuchi-Momoyama period). Gold-leaf on paper. 160.5 x 364.5 cm. Designated National Treasure. In the collection of the Yonezawa City Uesugi Museum. http://www.wikiwand.com/de/Kanō_Eitoku

A Picture of an Air Raid on New York CityWar Picture Returns), 1996. Six-panel folding screens / The Nikkei newspaper, black-and-white photocopy on hologram paper, charcoal pencil, watercolor, acrylic, marker pen, correction liquid, pencil on fusuma (sliding door), hinges, etc.169×378cm, CG of Zero fighters created by Matsuhashi Mutsuo. TAKAHASHI Collection, Tokyo. Courtesy: Mizuma Art Gallery. http://www.mori.art.museum/english/contents/aidamakoto_main/artist/02.html

Makoto Aida, ‘A Picture of an Air-Raid on New York City (War Picture Returns)’ (1996). Installation view. Photo: Nick West.

http://www.gensojapan.org/the-view-from-the-couch/

Makoto Aida, The Giant Member Fuji versus King Gidora, 1993. Acrylic and eyelets on acetate film. 310 x 410 cm.

http://www.contemporaryartcurator.com/aida-makoto/

Hokusai Katsushika, Taco To Ama (Octopus and Shell Diver), illustration for the novel Kinoenokomatu, about 1820 (Edo period). Uragami Sokyu-do, Tokyo.

http://www.nihon-noir.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/banner1.jpg

“Aida Makoto: Monument for Nothing” Trailer 2. November 17, 2012 – March 31, 2013.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRgsZG6ytdo